Doctor Who, S8 Ep 1 — Deep Breath

After months of anticipation, a World Tour, and a nearly endless marathon of Doctor Who episodes, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor debut, “Deep Breath,” has finally been broadcast to fans around the world.

dws8e1dinoIt was a big deal. Unfortunately, big, landmark Doctor Who episodes have a tendency to be a bit overwrought, and, as “Deep Breath” began, it looked like this one might take the cake, as the TARDIS delivered a Tyrannosaurus Rex to Victorian England (it was stuck in the beast’s windpipe, see). The T-Rex was a gimmick that only tangentially connected to the real story, and not one that was particularly needed — we were, after all, there to see Capaldi, not how far the dinosaur budget has come since “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”

The transition from Matt Smith to Capaldi is possibly the biggest leap yet — certainly the biggest leap since the series rebooted in 2004. Current showrunner Steven Moffat had never done it before; David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, introduced in Russell T. Davies’ second series after the departure of Christopher Eccleston’s 9, had an arc that completed, with farewells to all of his companions and friends, as Davies handed the torch to Moffatt. After the 10-to-11 regeneration, Moffat started fresh, with brand new companions and a whole new take on the series. With 12, he doesn’t get off so easy. While 11 got a full arc, adding over 1,000 years to the Timelord’s age and a minimally traumatic “natural” death by old age (Moffat’s death of choice for his most beloved characters, save River Song, who didn’t really die), the show isn’t restarting again. Clara is still his companion. And, like many Doctor Who fans, especially younger fans who got into the show during the Smith era, she is jarred and confused about this older man taking the place of her young, whimsical Doctor.

d2s8e1mmevastraThis acknowledgment that it’s a big transition is where “Deep Breath” shines. Rose Tyler had an adjustment to make back in Series 2, but the young, dashing Tennant was tailor-made for his young female companion (and legions of fangirls). Capaldi is dashing, too, to be sure, but even at 27, Clara is a bit young to see it. No matter, 12 and Clara is not about romance. 12 is more of a an oldschool, Classic-type Doctor who is not especially concerned with human coupling, but who needs good, strong, clever people around him.

In addition to Clara, 12 finds himself back with the Madame Vastra (a sort of female-lizard-alien Sherlock Holmes), her wife Jenny, who poses publicly as her maid, and the Sontaran Strax, who is there mainly for comic relief. This trio has been a recurring one since Clara joined the 11th Doctor, and they haven’t particularly worked a lot of the time. But, while Strax has become almost unnecessary at this point, Vastra and Jenny have finally come into their own. With The Doctor unconscious and Strax otherwise occupied, the first third of the episode is surprisingly woman-centered. In one of the best scenes, Vastra veils herself as she does in public and explains that she does so, not because she fears judgement for her green skin and alien features, but in judgement of those who wouldn’t see past her appearance. This was all to explain to Clara, in a not-too-unjudgemental way, that her hesitation to see the newly-regenerated Doctor as The Doctor was misguided.

dws8e1cyborgsThe main story revolved around a race of clockwork cyborgs who had been harvesting human parts for millenia and had opened up a sort of reverse-restaurant human slaughterhouse in Victorian London (conveniently, they destroyed the T-Rex for one of its parts, getting that out of the way). The Doctor and Clara, barely on speaking terms, are tricked into meeting at the restaurant. After a few minutes of Clara/12 banter that solidifies the pair’s chemistry, they are sent to the underground cyborg lair, where Clara finds herself trapped with a bunch of killer machines — and the only way she can keep from being recognized as a non-cyborg and attacked is by holding her breath (classic Moffat). The Doctor, of course, saves her, but it’s Vastra and Jenny who save the day. Clara, still afraid that she can’t accept the new Doctor, leaves the TARDIS, but is convinced to stay by 11 (an unexpected cameo by Matt Smith), who calls her phone shortly before his regeneration to ask her to not to leave him.

Other notable details:

  • The Doctor is sure he’s seen his new face before, a probable reference to Capaldi’s role in “The Fires of Pompeii” during the Tennant era
  • Though he has the face of an ancient Italian man he saved once, 12’s accent, like Capaldi’s, is Scottish
  • Impressive clockwork-cyborg effects
  • The first onscreen Vastra/Jenny kiss (though it was really Vastra sharing the air in her lungs with Jenny)
  • A woman meets our antagonist in “heaven,” and refers to The Doctor as her “boyfriend.” Is she a regenerated River Song? An old girlfriend from Gallifrey? A crazy afterworld stalker?

Overall, “Deep Breath” is a good, solid episode that introduces and showcases 12 well, while not making it all about The Doctor. Capaldi, as expected, didn’t disappoint — but I can’t wait for the regular, non-landmark episodes to kick in, so we can really watch him develop.