Doctor Who Deep Breath
Review by Paul Bowler
In Victorian London, a dinosaur suddenly appears outside the Houses of Parliament. The Paternoster Gang, investigating trio extraordinaire, Silurian Warrior Madame Vastra (Neve Mclntosh), her human wife/maid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), and the Sontaran Nurse/Butler Strax (Dan Starkey), arrive to help Inspector Gregson (Paul Hickey) just as the T-Rex spits the TARDIS out onto the banks of the Thames. After taking charge the Paternoster Gang soon encounter a newly regenerated Doctor (Peter Capaldi) when he emerges from the TARDIS along with travelling companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).
On their return to the Paternoster Gang’s residence Clara struggles to accept the Doctor’s transformation and new personality. When the Doctor witnesses the dinosaur bursting into flames from the rooftops, he sets off to investigate, and soon the connection with the recent outbreak of spontaneous combustion in the capitol becomes apparent. A newspaper advertisement for the Impossible Girl catches Clara’s eye. Believing it’s a message from the Doctor, she goes to meet the Time Lord in a restaurant, where the patrons turn out to be clockwork robots from the 51st century, controlled by the sinister Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando), who has been ghoulishly harvesting human body parts to rebuild himself.
Trapped inside the robots buried spaceship, the Doctor manages to escape, seemingly abandoning Clara in his confused state. Clara holds her breath to try and evade the robots, she’s captured, but the Doctor uses a robot disguise to reach her as the Paternoster Gang join the battle. The Doctor and his companions must end the terrifying menace of the Half-Face Man before he can escape, but exactly who is this new incarnation of the Doctor, is he a good man, and will the Time Lord’s friendship with Clara survive?
The eighth series of Doctor Who launched in a blaze of publicity with Deep Breath, a special feature-length episode, staring Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, and written by show runner Steven Moffat, and Directed by Brian Minchin. Deep Breath certainly gets the 12th Doctor’s era off to a great start as Peter Capaldi, actor, Oscar-winning film-maker, writer, artist, and life-long fan of the show, known for playing darker roles, especially the notoriously potty-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from BBC’s cult political comedy The Thick of It, brings a much darker, edgier side to his incarnation of the Time Lord. With his piercing gaze, wild eyebrows, spiky attitude, and unpredictable nature, the 12th Doctor is instantly captivating, very impatient, abrasive, and even a little intimidating at times. Peter Capaldi’s superb performance energises virtually every scene and quickly establishes the mercurial idiosyncrasies of the new Doctor’s personality.
Post-regenerative high jinks aside, in between forgetting everyone’s name, his insistence that Clara is a control freak, running across rooftops in his nightshirt, or charging off into the night on horseback, the Doctor actually spends a lot of his time in Deep Breath telling people, and even a dinosaur, to shut up! There is a great scene were the bewildered Doctor meets a tramp, Barney, played by Brian Miller (the widower of Elisabeth Sladen), where the ensuing discussion about the Time Lord’s new face, the fact he’s Scottish now, and has “attack eyebrows” provide some really fun moments. Midway through the episode we being to get a real sense of what Peter Capaldi’s new Doctor is about: he’s a real livewire, he wont necessarily care what you think about him, and he certainly wont stand around waiting for your to keep up with him either – if anything, his erratic behaviour and unruly nature makes him seem even more alien and mysterious.
Jenna Coleman is excellent in this episode as Clara. Its clear from the start that Clara is struggling to cope with this radically different, older, and greyer version of the Time Lord, who she had, until now at least, developed a close friendship with. Now she’s not even really sure who he is anymore. The Impossible Girl proves as resourceful as ever though, especially after she’s reunited with the Doctor in the restaurant, their banter is terrific, and the flashback when she becomes the Half-Faced Man’s prisoner gives us further insight into her character. Jenna Coleman really gets a chance to shine in this episode, she makes Clara seem bolder, more confident, and as a consequence the new dynamic that’s established towards the end of the episode between Clara and the 12th Doctor also feels all the stronger and refreshingly different as a result.
Fan favourites, The Paternoster Gang, also make welcome return in Deep Breath. Neve McIntosh is magnificent as the Silurian warrior Madame Vastra, she is accompanied by Catrin Stewart who plays Vastra’s human wife Jenny Flint, and Dan Starkey is also back as the hilarious Sontaran Nurse/Butler, Strax. This episode is a great showcase for their characters individual strengths: Vastra’s and Jenny’s relationship is beautifully portrayed, Vastra also provides some very timely advice for Clara about the Doctor, and Strax gets some brilliant comedic moments too.
Deep Breath also heralds a significant change in the pace and tone of storytelling from Steven Moffat as well, there are longer, more developed scenes, and the extended running time is an added bonus that really allows the plot and characters a chance to develop naturally. Deep Breath is Directed by filmmaker Brian Minchin (Kill List and Sightseers), who brings his own distinct style of horror and suspense to this episode, and as a result, the sombre atmosphere, Victorian streets, and sinister Clockwork robots are elevated to a whole new level that really underlines the darker tone of this of this new series. There are references to a number of past Doctor Who adventures as well in Deep Breath: perhaps most notably with Vastra’s initial observation about the 12th Doctor, which is reminiscent of the Brigadier’s line: “Here we go again,” from the Planet of the Spiders (1974), when Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, there is also mention of the 4th Doctor’s long scarf, and when Clara first sees the changes inside the TARDIS she says: “You’ve redecorated, I don’t like it,” echoing Patrick Troughton’s classic line from the Three Doctors (1974/74). During her debate with Vastra, Clara also mentions Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who she quoted in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor (2013) while teaching in a lesson at Coal Hill School.
The Clockwork robots are also very effective, it’s clever how the episodes title forms the basis of how they attack, and their clunky, jerky movement are quite unsettling. The Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinado), driven by his quest to reach the Promised Land, with his creepy mechanical features, unnervingly brought to life with some incredible special effects, also makes a perfect foil for the 12th Doctor. I thought the scene where Clara held her breath to try and evade the robots was really tense, and the way the Doctor then disguised himself as a robot provided an unexpected twist. The Doctor’s confrontation with the Half-Face Man in the restaurant after it takes off using a hot air balloon made of human skin, also reveals the Clockwork robots link to the 10th Doctor story The Girl in the Fireplace (2006), when the Doctor discovers this ship is the SS Marie Antoinette, sister ship to the SS Madame De Pompadour. The parallels between the Doctor and the Half-Face Man are actually quite striking in this story, both are attempting to rebuild themselves in some way, and the resolution of their conflict is chillingly effective.
When the Doctor and the TARDIS vanishes, leaving Clara stranded in Victorian London, Vastra assures Clara that the Doctor will return for her, which he soon does. However, Clara is unsure if she wants to continue travelling with him but when the TARDIS lands in Glasgow she gets a call from the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) on her mobile, imploring her from Trenzalore to stay and help his new incarnation. The 12th Doctor remembers this conversation, he asks Clara if she will help him, and she agrees as they leave to go for a coffee. It is this scene that really stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Matt Smith’s cameo as the 11th Doctor provides a great link into the events of The Time of the Doctor (2013), Jenna Coleman handles this scene perfectly, and when Capaldi’s Doctor steps from the TARDIS and asks Clara to help him it become a heartrending moment of clarity that effectively re-defines the Time Lord’s friendship with his companion and reboots the series in an instant.
In the final scene the Half-Face Man wakes in a garden, where he is greeted by a strange woman called Missy (Michelle Gomez), who seems to know the Doctor and refers to him as her boyfriend, as she welcomes the Half-Face Man to Heaven. Michele Gomez’s unexpected appearance in Deep Breath as Missy, having already been officially announced as playing the Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere, hints that this bizarre Mary Poppins like character will play a key role in series eight. Could she be the woman in the shop, the one who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number in The Bells of St John (2013), the same person who apparently put the advert in the newspaper so Clara and the Doctor would meet at the restaurant in Deep Breath? For now she remains a mystery, whoever she is she certainly knows the Doctor, and seems to delight in telling the Half-Face Man that he has finally reached the Promised Land.
Deep Breath features a brand new title sequence, a glorious steam punk mix of whirling cogs, punctuated midway with Capaldi’s steely gaze, all set against the swirling backdrop of the time vortex as the title logo is revealed. The special effects in Deep Breath are uniformly excellent, and the attention to period detail is exquisite. There’s a new theme tune as well, which initially took me by surprise, but it‘s really beginning to grow on me now. The TARDIS also gets something of a makeover, bookshelves now line the upper gantry of the console room, and a vivid orange glow emanates from the time rotor – swathing the entire TARDIS set in deep shadows.
While events in Deep Breath are resolved relatively straight forwardly, above all else it is Peter Capaldi’s terrific performance as the new Doctor that really impresses. Jenna Coleman also excels, and return of the Paternoster Gang was most welcome. Deep Breath, while not the most complex of stories, still offers an excellent introduction to Peter Capaldi’s new Doctor, and provides an enjoyable start to the new series.