Doctor Who episode 817: Deep Breath (23/8/2014)
‘I don’t think I know who you are any more.’ Peter Capaldi arrives in an episode that’s as long as The Day of the Doctor, sequelises The Girl in the Fireplace, and includes a cameo from the 11th Doctor during The Time of the Doctor. I guess for the growing BBC America audience, this might have been the first regeneration – which explains the heavy reliance on the familiar surroundings for the new Doctor, and the oddly tentative nature of much of this.
There are a lot of big moments – a giant dinosaur in Westminster; a chase through the streets of Victorian London; the showdown on a massive balloon – which make this feel like an event. There are new opening credits, which I find a bit literal (and the music sounds like a bottled wasp), and Ben Wheatley’s direction adds a truly filmic style. On the surface, it sounds like a great launch for Capaldi.
But at the time, and now, despite all this gloss there’s an austerity to the story that makes it feel like a bigger break with the recent past than The Eleventh Hour. Notably (apart from a flashback to Clara’s horrendous first day at school) there are no children here – a huge contrast to the Smith episodes. And there’s a chilliness at the heart of the story as Clara has blown cold on the “replacement” for her Doctor. This leads to tension between her and Vastra, who perceives the previous Doctor’s apparent youth as a flirty façade that has turned Clara’s pretty little head – her advice, ‘you might as well flirt with a mountain range’, will recur in The Husbands of River Song.
Clara does not come off very well in this, but the decision to forefront her sulky control freakery feels odd: she is, after all, our viewpoint regular, and while previous companions haven’t always reacted wholeheartedly to regenerations (Ben, Sarah Jane and Rose, for example), by the end of the first story their doubts have invariably been overcome and they can’t wait to jump back on board the TARDIS. Here, Clara remains prickly towards the Doctor, and it’s only a phone call from “her” Doctor telling her to learn to accept his new self that convinces her to give him a chance.
I wonder if this reflects a nervousness on the producers’ part about how the audience would react to a much older Doctor. If so, it could have been addressed by making him warm, likeable and engaging – ‘The old guy’s too nasty. He should be cuter. Funnier’ as Sydney Newman says in An Adventure in Space and Time. The twinkle isn’t there, just ‘attack eyebrows’ in a furious face. I can see what this is going for (putting Capaldi in Tom Baker’s Robot nightshirt makes it obvious), but the abrasiveness is overplayed for my liking and the lengthy finale (from the Doctor seemingly abandoning Clara in the lair of the Half-Faced Man, to the unanswered mystery of “did he fall or was he pushed?”) lacks heroism. There’s no punch-the-air moment of triumph, just an homage to the 1968 Hammer Horror Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (impaled on a giant gold cross) and a teasing introduction for Missy. I wonder what the kids made of it.
So, I don’t think this works, and I don’t think the extra half hour does the episode any favours because the last act drags, however nicely directed the battle between the Paternosters and the clockwork zombies. There’s probably a really strong hour long special in here, making the most of the script’s jokes and physical comedy (mostly between Strax and Clara), and the creeps of the restaurant of clockwork people and Clara’s lung-bursting escape through the catacombs. It’s the launch of a new, adult-oriented show focused more on body horror than anything since Season 22, but I don’t know that’s the show the audience really wanted.
Next Time: Into the Dalek