The final half of Matt Smith’s tenure as The Doctor was kind of on life support. It suffered from over packed narratives and shoddy scripts in favour of slick, Hollywood style effects. There was also the addition of Clara as a regular traveller in the TARDIS, whose only consistent character trait seems to be that she can talk really, really fast. The show needed new blood, a new energy and, as devastating as the departure of Matt Smith was, it was what was best for the show. “Deep Breath” proves that breath of fresh air, even if the pacing problems seem to have come along for the ride. A new man at the console was just what show runner Steven Moffat needed.
The episode itself suffers from the opposite problems that plagued the previous series: too little story and too much time. There’s a slow burn, and then there is just slow. This is the latter. Tightened up to a standard 45 minute story or even an extended 60 minutes, “Deep Breath” probably would have worked much better. At the very least it would have meant editing out the dozen or so references to Clara’s boyfriend–which become very annoying very fast–and reducing the amount of awkward flirting. (The new Doctor doesn’t flirt, so everyone else seems to have overcompensated.) Clara also continues to suffer from a lack of distinct personality, although has managed to pick up the specific traits of control freak and ego maniac in the off-season, so maybe she’ll become an actual person this season. It is amazing how Steven Moffat has taken an actress as likeable as Jenna Coleman and created such an annoying character. But I digress. No one really cares about the companion when there’s a new Doctor to be introduced and, fortunately, the premiere delivers on that front.
While the other actors took awhile to ease into their role as The Doctor, Peter Capaldi is The Doctor without even trying. The moment he sticks his head out of the TARDIS door after being expelled from the throat of a dinosaur in Victorian England, there is no doubt. Capaldi has been a fan of the show longer than anyone else currently involved with the production and it shows. There is no definitive “I Am The Doctor” moment; Capaldi’s first “shush” seals the deal. Which is good, because Clara is no help in easing the transition.
As the companion who has had experience with all his previous incarnations, she should be one who is the most accepting of the regeneration. Instead she is a nervous wreck, insisting that his regeneration “has gone wrong.” She truly is The Impossible Girl, as no one could ever cover the vast range of personalities that she has exhibited since becoming a regular on the show. Fortunately, we have the Paternoster gang to provide some much needed continuity. (Although why we need to be constantly reminded that Madame Vastra and Jenny are married is anyone’s guess. We get it, they’re lesbians, move on.)
There are also lovely little references to the past eight years scattered throughout the episode to be found. The fact that Capaldi has appeared on Doctor Who before in “The Fires of Pompeii” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” with the clockwork droids and Madame de Pompadour are two of the most noticeable. Delivering on the promise to make this season darker than the last few, the clockwork cyborgs are spectacularly creepy. Trying to repair themselves so that they can travel to the promised land, they have taken to removing the important “components” from the inhabitants of London and then burning their remains. (Why is anyone’s guess. The pacing lets the show down here as there is a bit too much time to think about it.)
Once they are introduced the story really takes off. When Clara and The Doctor are trapped by the androids to serve as new parts, The Doctor abandons Clara. This is defiantly a new kind of Doctor, one that is not interested in keeping his companions safe at any cost. He saves himself and leaves Clara behind, refusing to even leave her the sonic screwdriver to save herself because he “might need it.” It’s devastating to see The Doctor so self-involved, especially thinking back to “The Waters of Mars” when he tried to play God to ease his own conscious. It did not go well then, and it’s unlikely to now.
This give Clara a chance to become an actual human being. Terrified and alone, she stares down the cyborg threatening to torture her for information about The Doctor’s whereabouts. She keeps faith that The Doctor “will have her back” as she reaches out her hand. If there was any doubt that Capaldi is The Doctor, this is when it disappears. The Doctor always takes his companion’s hand to pull them out of harms way. It is what solidifies their relationship as Doctor and Companion, and, whatever my issues with Clara, she is the companion in the TARDIS and it is she that The Doctor needs to accept.
This is followed by a great comparison between The Doctor and the androids, constantly replacing and rebuilding themselves until they can no longer be sure if their original self still remains. It’s a great piece of writing and wonderfully performed by Capaldi–it really should have ended there. Unfortunately, Moffat has to let Matt Smith have one last hurrah, which undercuts Capadi’s debut. It was best summed up in the 11th Doctor’s regeneration speech: “You gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” Moffat should have heeded his own advice and left us with 11’s final moments with Amy. Instead he drags him out unnecessarily, dwelling on the past when the future is right in front of him.
Welcome Mr. Capaldi. I look forward to getting to know you.