The Doctor Who Series Eight opener has the right name. A deep breath is definitely required heading into one of the slowest burning openers of the new era. Sinking its anchor into a reservoir of expanded cast and plot points, played out on well worn cobble streets, it’s a story that chooses safety to risk something new.
The result is a tale obsessed with psychology, ambiguity, destiny and the mystery of a star Time Lord in the making who will take some time to unravel who he really is. Can we beat him to it… Is there enough oxygen to burn?
AFTER A SET-PIECE OPENING IN THE HEART OF LONDON, FEATURING THE MOST REALISTIC DINOSAUR TO WALK THOSE STREETS IN THE SHOW’S HISTORY (ALONGSIDE SOME OF THE USUAL REGENERATIVE JIGGERY-POKERY), NEW TITLES AND A REWORKED THEME PERFORM THE ONE JOB IN TV MORE POINTLESS THAN A BRUCE FORSYTH RETIREMENT PARTY: TELL US THAT DOCTOR WHO HAS CHANGED!
The clock and time obsessed title sequence is new in the show canon – well, to those who haven’t seen some compelling fan efforts over the past couple of years. When bolted on to the show it’s a bit too quick, a bit too gratuitous in its temporality, but also it’s a fitting precursor to a feature length episode obsessed with age. From the lined face, the grey hairs, the hands pulling at a teasingly familiar strained visage… Deep Breath takes its extra-time to confront almost every issue of the Doctor’s newest regeneration clock-face first.
“Bed time, companion confusion and wardrobe sifting”
Regeneration stories always need to be bigger to accommodate the act, or the post-act, itself. The concept of whether a “regeneration show” is the build up or the aftermath can get muddled, but the first episode of a Doctor has been often proved a poor match to the death of the last. Not least because there’s generally a fair amount of bed time, companion confusion and wardrobe sifting.
The same is mostly true of the almost double-length Deep Breath, well the first two anyway. Even Clara, the one companion who should know all about regeneration, needs a stern talking to as the puzzle is rather effectively reduced to her losing her younger boyfriend. But it’s not just the lack of a costume choosing scene that marks Deep Breath out; Moffat finds a new way to tackle the ramifications of the process like never before.
“Genuine attempts to disturb while the audience is off balance“
The Twelfth Doctor’s debut not only comes hot on the heels of The Eleventh’s Christmas demise, and the anniversary special – but naturally it sequentially follows the Eleventh’s debut: the best regeneration story yet told, The Eleventh Hour.
Like that 2010 classic, a lot falls to the Doctor, but here there is more than a manic chase through fairytale and dreamy middle England. The immediately confused and manic Doctor may not come as a surprise after the final scene of Time of the Doctor and every fan is familiar with post-regeneration amnesia. But this show makes genuine attempts to disturb while the audience is off balance. This isn’t the same as any previous regeneration, and the age shift is the key draw to explore a number of new threads. It’s clear we have a wilfully different Time Fish here.
“Lots of planets have a Scotland ”
Emerging from the TARDIS after the Doctor’s comical entrance (exit), Clara looks vulnerable, fragile and even abused. That casts back to the Doctor’s last traumatic regeneration in The Twin Dilemma, a regenerative experiment built on arrogance that so back-fired it led to hiatus and a reputation slip that the classic series never recovered from. In a brave new world we can reasonably expect things to be treated better and indeed they are. Another benefit of the modern show runner is to smooth such difficulties down, even if, as the writer, he’s flipped expectations round, Moffat can make them a strength and tell us something new in the process.
At first glance Moffat’s second regeneration tale is fun, but veers a little too much into the extra-diegetic. The play on the Scottish accents doesn’t so much confront the fact with a “Lots of planets have a Scotland ” barb, as sit outside the show, winking and pointing a caber of self-awareness at it. That could misfire in less capable hands, but fortunately here a tour-de-force from Peter Capaldi keeps us captive. He has some help of course, but also some handicaps.
“More subdued in a story that tellingly lets character breathe”
The Paternoster Gang prove as mildly irritating as ever, even if they’re more subdued in a story that tellingly lets character breathe. As much as Vastra serves a purpose in this new chapter of Clara and the Doctor’s story, comedy and action set-pieces have been this gang’s stock in trade since Demon’s Run. There’s the gratuitous kiss at the end, extraordinarily held in a shot that may as well be made of neon after so many better reminders that Vastra and Jenny are married. And to match, the obligatory stupid Strax moments. Although the edit sometimes lets Dan Starkey down – see the parlour/medical scene – he’s not as glaringly prone to rampaging off-tone as he was in The Name of the Doctor. Still, despite the odd smile and shock – see how quickly he looks to commit suicide when the climactic fight turns against him – he’s still enough to make me wince whenever Sontaran creator Robert Holmes’ name appears in the credits.
Still on the flip-side are the evocative surroundings that come with the Paternoster Gang bring, especially for a Doctor made for much of the adventure of half shadows and suggestion.
“A wisp, a Scrooge chasing Christmas Past or a Spring-heeled Jack”
While the Doctor’s recuperating, the dinosaur’s death is haunting and confusing; far more effective than the typical human dispatch earlier in the story. That sad lonely demise – for so little benefit as we later learn – carries the Doctor back into the world as we watch him scuttle over roofs like a wisp, a Scrooge chasing Christmas past or a Spring-heeled Jack. Or perhaps even a ripper. This is a Doctor who’ll drop from bridges; unpredictable and almost undead. As the story unravels, two of the Doctor’s sit ambiguously. We’re not sure how dark this Doctor is, how he got the coat, how the villain of the piece met his end, but there’s no doubt that we will find out.
That darkness is well met by a villain that not only throws back to one of Moffat’s triumphs, albeit one that can’t be classed as recurring.
Black canvas to sketch out the deep futility that befits a sequel to Girl
I coincidentally watched Series Two’s The Girl in the Fireplace the night before I saw Deep Breath. That dip into Moffat’s second story carried some deserved mournfulness at the time. A stunning story blending the best hard sci-fi with horror and a keenly witty script sometimes feels a long way away from the work of today’s complex arc writer. True, the Tenth Doctor intrudes too much on that tale, but it makes an interesting prequel to Deep Breath. Or perhaps encouragingly, it’s the follow-up to that unpredictable story that’s of more interest. It’s hardly a sequel, stealing the same trick as Series Five’s Hungry Earth and effectively staging a parallel remake. Deep Breath is more a thematic sequel, so much so that references to Girl seem unnecessarily blatant. Whereas the Clockwork Droids of Girl were striking icons of tension and dread, here a far more assembled droid, far more human, is made the most of thanks to Peter Ferdinando’s fantastic performance and long, lingering profile shots on the whirring remainder of the droid’s mechanics. Match it with the Doctor’s dark method of surprise and rampant lack of ‘humanity’ and you’ve got a black canvas to sketch out the deep futility that befits a sequel to Girl.
In Deep Breath that futility culminates in one of the deliberately less octane trips across London, on one of the most ghoulish crafts. And somehow it fits, although I was clamouring for a link to the droids left inactive in France a few century’s before. In a two-way stand-off, the Doctor’s no Bond aboard an airship over the Golden Gate Bridge. While the Eleventh had to worry about his newest parts as he zoomed across the capital, here it’s a balloon, literally built of humans, floats above a thousand year city built on the bones of them.
Steal from the Best
“A flipside to The Crimson Horror”
Deep Breath is an episode that steals well from Who-lore and general pop-culture. Before the unmissable set-piece nod to A View to a Kill, there’s the Live and Let Die-style restaurant kidnapping – sci-fi and restaurants retain their strong bond. Nicked from the canonicity is the dinosaur in London of course; the patch-work hands of The Doctor’s Wife and less recently The Brain of Morbius, not quite as well handled as either. It’s unavoidable that this tale walks some of the same paths as Holmes’ sublime The Talons of Weng Chiang.
Perhaps most interestingly, Deep Breath provides a flipside to one of last series’ highlights The Crimson Horror. Again the Paternoster, the waxworks, the Victorian setting (that’s never looked so good) and the most definitely Frankenstein are explored, but from a different, far more sombre perspective.
“That’s not the question…”
While his predecessors finale shutting many plots down, the Twelfth Doctor’s debut stokes flames. There’s the impenetrable darkness of the Doctor’s acts of course, the well trailed pondering over the face that seems to be a message. And at the end, the cameo from the so-called Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere that prods at these questions, quite possibly the one who keeps Clara and the Doctor together – or is it that simple? The vocalising of that mystery is possibly the story’s only mis-step, coming the wrong-side of the surprise cameo, too early to impress on Clara’s thoughts. That’s a rare, but deliberate mis-step. For the most part Moffat takes the opportunity to subvert and elongate some of his classic tropes. The newspaper message mis-direction brings out the best of his scripting. The breath holding not only makes for a number of metaphors about the regeneration, but is of course another spin on Blink. That Deep Breath‘s points of tension don’t feel slavish to the incredible debut of the Weeping Angels highlights the inherent strength of its script. It seems likely that the droids will make a return… Here’s hoping they don’t fall foul of the same over-extension that soon befell the Angels.
Any small blemishes are easily obscured by the show’s strengths. Capaldi, perhaps the most-hyped, the most known quantity to take the TARDIS keys, has to be the subject of the piece and not only owns it with frantic and ambiguous darts but leaves his role obscure. On the way, he coins at least two catchphrases: his oft-repeated “shut-up!” recalling Tom Baker’s Fourth, and one we are likely to hear more and more, “That’s not the question…”.
Jenna Coleman similarly and reliably rises to the challenge, despite the random non-sequitur of the sometime/maybe Time Lady (Doctor-Clara meta-crisis notwithstanding).
While The Eleventh Hour saw great change for change’s sake, here it’s far more subtle and far more effective. Aside from the talent onscreen, it’s mostly Ben Wheatley and Murray Gold who change the game. Wheatley’s direction adds a visual discord with hanging and odd shots elevating the direction from previous form. To dismiss it as more ‘film-like’ is unkind – but it certainly elevates the show and Gold matches it. This is a totally different proposition, especially on the big screen. The prospect of the second episode and Wheatlety taking on the Dalek on a Phil Ford script promises much.
“Highlighting how lucky we are…”
The main talking point will fall to a key scene near the end that couldn’t be more Moffat, that surprise cameo. After Capaldi crashed the anniversary special, it’s only fair that Smith gets one back. It works, adding an extra depth in the form of self-recommendation. Perhaps proof of its effectiveness is highlighting just how lucky we are to have Capaldi following Smith.
By the end of the show, for that recommendation, we’re back on a modern British street, talking about chips. For all the change, four Doctors on, the show is still the same one as made such a triumphant return in 2005.
Change for a time leads to time for a change after all.