Doctor Who is back! And with it comes the wonderful prospect of a new Doctor. In this case, we are finally able to witness Peter Capaldi’s take on the famed Timelord. And while the beefed up, 75-minute episode may not be the most mind-blowing of head writer Steven Moffat’s Who scripts, it’s pedestrian nature does manage to squeeze some memorable moments from its formulaic structure.
In true Who fashion, the first shot opens with a wonderfully bizarre juxtaposition— a T-Rex in the middle of Victorian-era London. The creature is soon quickly contained by the Paternoter Gang (Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax), but not before spitting up a very familiar blue police box. Inside, we find a disheveled Clara and the new Doctor, still reeling from the effects of his regeneration.
As The Doctor’s new personality is still settling, he finds himself hearing and understanding the anguished cries of the confused dinosaur. Before our favorite Time Lord is able to do anything, however, the creature suddenly bursts into flames. According to the Vastra, death by spontaneous combustion has been shockingly common as of late. The Doctor goes off on his own while Clara and the team look for clues. Suddenly, Clara’s eye is caught by an ad in the paper addressed to one “Impossible Girl,” the previous Doctor’s nickname for her. Believing it’s a message, she eventually finds herself at a restaurant where the Doctor meets her. It turns out, he didn’t send the message either.
The two quickly discover that the restaurant is far more malevolent than they predicted. The patrons are all robots with Ed-Gein-esque skin faces (given the implications, I’m fairly shocked the show can be so light about this macabre development). What’s more, The Doctor and Clara quickly find themselves in the bottom of the restaurant, which turns out to be a spaceship. The robot leader is a man who looks mostly human, save for the Two-Face chunk of his face that reveals the metallic mechanisms beneath.
At first glance, when the lead robot is seen abducting a man from his eye from an earlier scene, I suspected him of being some kind of relative to the robot antagonist from last year’s “A Town Called Panic.” As evidenced by the clock-like whirring sounds that accompanied the robot’s movements, however, any diehard Whovian could no doubt quickly make a connection to similar robots from the much-celebrated second season entry “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which served as one of Steven Moffat’s earlier, fan-favorite entries to the series. This time around, Moffat has given his creations a kind of reverse Cybermen motivations. Rather than trying to convert humans into robots, the lead robot is instead trying to turn robots into humans, by using body parts and skin from all the Londoners who “died” of spontaneous combustion (including, the dinosaur).
The Paternoster Gang arrive just in time to save The Doctor and Clara from having their bodies stripped for parts, but they seem woefully outnumbered by the battle-ready androids. As the team fights, The Doctor has a more intimate face-to-face confrontation with the leader who has the ship below the restaurant rise above the city. Perhaps due to him now being more human than robot, the leader has developed a kind of religious faith. He believes that soon he will be able to enter a kind of Heaven (or “Promised Land”) in the sky. The Doctor points down to the city below, and gives the robot an ultimatum—either he destroys himself, or The Doctor will be forced to murder him to protect the human race. Just as Clara and the others appear to be losing the fight, we see the robot fall from the sky, ending up impaled on the top of Big Ben. In a bit that’s unfortunately reminiscent of the climaxes of Phantom Menace and The Avengers, all of the robots are quickly de-powered.
Shortly after, The Doctor and Clara take off back to modern times in the TARDIS. At first, Clara seems hesitant about continuing on with The Doctor. A surprise phone call from Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, however, puts her at ease, and she lovingly accompanies the new Doctor down the streets of Glasgow. Given his newfound Scottish accent, he should feel right at home.
In the tradition of episodes that have introduced a new Doctor (at least, since the series was rebooted in 2005), the premise of this episode seems to be fairly straightforward—to leave space for The Doctor do formula, and then reveal his new persona. Unlike “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour,” however, “Deep Breath” lacks the “race against time” elements that defined those previous entries. This lack of immediacy makes for an episode that, while entertaining, seems a bit meandering at times.
Moreover, this new iteration of Doctor Who has much more in common with “Christmas Invasion” than “The Eleventh Hour,” in that it’s not a hard reboot of the show in the way that “The Eleventh Hour,” (which boasted a new Doctor, companion and creative team) was designed to be. Like “Invasion,” which also found the companion (in this case, Rose Tyler) dealing with The Doctor’s regeneration, “Deep Breath” serves as a massive continuation of the Moffat work. It’s meant less as a way for new viewers to jump on it, than a way of rewarding loyal viewers by showing how familiar characters react to this change.
And, to the show’s credit, it does not minimize the fact that the Doctor—after seven years of being dashing, if unconventionally attractive young men—has now chosen the face of much older man. In a moment that almost seems like Moffat is shaming the Who fangirls, Vastra chastises Clara for being distressed that her Doctor is no longer his young, flirtatious incarnation. Clara then spits back that she had a Marcus Aurelius poster as a young girl, and if anyone were to fall in love with an older man, it would be her. It’s a ham-fisted scene, but Jenna Coleman’s anger and fire certainly helps sell it. Indeed, Vastra then reveals that The Doctor chose these young faces as a means of “being accepted.” He’d spent years upon years running from his past as the elder War Doctor, and these boyish personalities were a means of disguising this part of his life.
But speaking of The Doctor. The question lingers—how does Peter Capaldi hold up as number Twelve (or Thirteen if you’re counting John Hurt’s War Doctor)? In the end, it’s hard to say. Capaldi represents the first Doctor of the new series who already had an iconic character under his belt—that of foul-mouthed, government worker Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, and the feature film In the Loop. At times, it’s hard to divorce some of the man’s delivery from that of Tucker’s brutal (yet hilarious) rants. Still, there are just as many times when Capaldi’s sheer magnetism shines through, and he effortlessly adopts The Doctor’s kind, benevolent nature, like when he’s speaking to the dinosaur and hearing of the creature’s loneliness.
As evidenced by the trailers, there’s also a darkness to him. At one point, in a move that seems straight out of the Colin Baker/Sixth Doctor school of dickishness, The Doctor leaves Clara behind to deal with a gang of robots. Granted, he does come to rescue her soon after, but it’s still an alarming move in the wake of The Doctors we’ve had before.
What’s more, this also leads to the show’s most impactful scene, and the highlight of the whole episode. Clara must effectively pretend to be a robot—a task that means holding her breath, and not blinking as the robots roam around her. It’s a tense, white-knuckle kind of a set piece that seems to heavily reference Moffat’s Weeping Angel/Don’t Blink scenarios, but in the best possible way. While Ben Wheatley (director of such intense horror movies like The Kill List) may seem like an odd choice for the goofier Who world, it’s moments like this where his experience with horror really comes in handy.
Then, there’s the late-in-episode Matt Smith cameo, making a phone call to Jenna shortly before his death (time travel!) and assuring her that he’s the same man, and needs her help. I’m conflicted about this one. On one hand, it seems like a cheap way of trying to tell the audience “hey, it’s okay—this is still the same guy!” One the other hand, it also allows Clara to bid a proper farewell to her Doctor, as he spent a good chunk of his actual regeneration saying goodbye to an illusion of Amy Pond.
Altogether, “Deep Breath” is a bit disappointing in how standard it seems. Yet, like the best Who episodes, it has moments of sheer sci-fi delight that are enough to placate me for the next episode. I may not have totally warmed to Capaldi as much as I thought I would, but there’s definite room here for his character to develop. I’m just glad to have who back in my life. Allons-y and Geronimo!
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.