• 28th August 2014 • Review by Alex Newsome •
“Well wasn’t that just awful. All that running around, those inane stars and all fronted by someone so bland they make vanilla yawn. It’s dead in the water. Cancel it now. Shoot those responsible. Is this really what Saturday night entertainment has come to on BBC 1? Blimey. And we all thought ‘Don’t Scare the Hare’ was bad.”
“But wait, what’s that you say? You didn’t want a review of Tumble? You wanted more reviews of Doctor Who, much in the style we had previously been doing them? But I thought you said you wanted something different? A new revamped review affair that moved into completely new areas. After all that, it turns out you basically just want us to carry on as before?”
“In hindsight, perhaps we shouldn’t have gotten 500 t-shirts printed with the slogan ‘It’s about time (to Tumble)’…”
In the run up to “Deep Breath”, the publicity machine seemed to be at great pains to talk about the show’s new direction. It would be darker, it would be more ponderous, and fundamentally, it would see the Doctor being far more aloof and possibly even unlikable. In reality, however, the show proves to be a lengthly exercise in reassuring the audience that what they are watching really is the same show they have been enjoying previously. The reuse of the Paternoster gang along with a returning villain, albeit one that hasn’t appeared for 8 years, are footholds in the show for any of the audience that may be unsure of it in the same way that UNIT provided a base of familiarity back in “Robot”.
All of which makes “Deep Breath” something of an oddity. Without an entirely changing cast and production team, it isn’t the bold statement of intent that “The Eleventh Hour” was. Yet it laces hints and suggestions of future tone throughout in with what must be one of the most joke-laden scripts that Moffat has produced in some time. The Observer’s review rather cynically questioned if children still watched the show, and if they did, what were they supposed to make of such ‘existential hand-wringing while they were waiting for the fighting to start.’ Such obliviousness to writing intentions and how the humour can appeal to children as much as adults is staggering, and fails to spot where the episode works best.
The episode’s mix of the comedic and the serious actually manages to provide a bit of something for everyone, and while it would not be unfair to say that it could have benefited from having its runtime reduced, the logic behind it and the balancing of all these elements is sound enough. Many reviewers will therefore find their like or dislike of the episode will fall to how much comedy they like in the show, and how they feel towards the returning characters of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. For this reviewer however, they have been a welcome element in every episode in which they have appeared, and frankly those who bemoan the occasional use of slapstick in the show should be melted.
Aside from the returning gang of Victorian investigators, a large amount of the run time is turned over to Jenna Coleman and Clara’s reaction to the Doctor’s regeneration. While this is perhaps nothing too surprising given past episodes such as “Rose”, Clara’s continued uncertainty over the new Doctor seems to have confused many, especially given the events of the previous three episodes. This is easy enough to explain away, especially given that while she had met previous Doctors, it would be something altogether different to deal with ‘her Doctor’ changing to someone so different.
This is true for the audience too, and it is indicative of the way Clara is used as the audience’s eyes in this episode in a way that was far more common during RTD’s tenure as Executive Producer. For some, this is a step too far, with The Doctor Who Podcast huffily complaining that this is patronising and that Matt Smith’s appearance was ‘totally unacceptable.’ All of which is to forget both the casual audience and viewers who have only known Smith as the Doctor. The careful and measured handover in this episode is a piece of very clever writing on Moffat’s part, and Coleman helps to sell it with a performance that sees her being a little more stretched than she was in 7b.
With Clara stepping to the fore for arguably the first real time, we get more development of her character to the extent that it would be easy to argue that it could almost be another character entirely. Fortunately, the bringing in of ideas like the ‘control freak’ element can build upon things set up in “The Bells of St John”, and never feels totally jarring, especially as we have a new leading man with a different way of looking at things. Ultimately, if it gives the character more to do now that the Impossible Girl has been proved possible, it can only be to the benefit of the show and to the dynamic that will build between her and the new Doctor.
With all of these elements at play, it’s perhaps little surprise that like all three of the post regeneration stories since 2005, the plot and its alien menace take second place to the character interactions. The episode never greatly plays on the mystery of the situation, and instead Moffat provides the audience with the basic tenets upfront, meaning that the threat of the clockwork droids appears more as a background which the rest of the characters can react to. There is little question that they were marginally more effective in their original use, but such could be said of many villains, and there is a sense that as the series continues their use will help to set up the far greater narrative involving Missy and Heaven. Either way, they still manage to generate some suitable body horror thanks to a combination of an intricate animatronic head and a great bit of direction from Ben Wheatley. Few could argue that the restaurant scene fails to achieve the level of tension and discomfort that both the writer and director aimed for, and that the droids’ reappearance thus does indeed have some merit over other terrors that could have been chosen.
But in all honesty, few will be coming to this episode with the villains being their most pressing concern. The joy of a new Doctor’s first episode is seeing for the first time where they intend to take the role, and as such it’s no surprise that the episode shines most brightly when he is on screen. Capaldi is of course every bit as marvellous as one may have hoped from the moment his casting was announced. It seems trite to analyse his performance down to a hand gesture that was like a Hartnell or a look like a Baker, and in reality this is an actor portraying the role in his own way. The much lauded dark elements are indeed somewhat present, but instead of being a result of what we see the Doctor do, they are a result of what we believe him to be capable of. It is to the credit of both the writer and the performer that for a moment we as an audience could believe that the Doctor was leaving Clara to fend for herself in the bowels of the ship, or that we can debate the pushed-or-fell ending.
Of course, in a family show these elements should never be pushed too far, and “Deep Breath” suggests that Capaldi is a Doctor with shades of grey in more than just his hair. Yet this has always been an element of the character in one form or another, and once again we are reminded why this episode seems so similar to what we’ve seen before. Is it an episode that you are likely to watch repeatedly as you did with “The Eleventh Hour”? Put simply, no, but then it serves a different function. Quibbles about the run time aside, this opener is a solid episode with a great run of gags that would normally make a mid-series episode kindly looked upon. Never forget that 2013 saw a big year for the show and big ratings with it, and occasionally when there appears to be a bit of a change of tone in store, a reminder that the show is still the same is no bad thing.
It’s only from here on in that we can truly get a sense of just what direction the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure will take, but taken in isolation, “Deep Breath” is a reasonably light and fun episode that is satisfying even if not the most memorable of affairs. It certainly does nothing to break the run of good episodes that Moffat has written since “The Name of The Doctor”, and when many were unhappy with the direction 7b took, this has to be seen as a promising start. From “Deep Breath” we can reasonably assume that whatever course the series takes, it’ll at least be an exciting ride.
Alex has co-created the new comedy podcast We’re Always Watching, which debuted last week with a Doctor Who Special which you might want to check out if you like that sort of thing.