One year on Tony Fyler breathes again.
As we impatiently tick and tock our way towards the start of Series 9, it’s worth re-assessing Series 8 with the benefits of hindsight and without the need to immediately rank and judge that comes with being a Who fan. So let’s go back to the beginning of the Capaldi era and take another deep breath.
I loved everything about Deep Breath when it aired.
Wellll, almost everything. Was the dinosaur necessary? It was made necessary within the script, certainly, but really, we all knew it was basically Steven Moffat showing off and launching Series 8 with a big effects shot – A dinosaur by Big Ben! Fantastic, opening delivered, now on we go.
A year on, it still feels like a gratuitous shot, and now it’s much more disappointing, a note of slight embarrassment in a story that for the most part still holds up. There is a good reason for setting the story with the Paternoster Gang – they form a backdrop against which Clara can take a degree of centre-stage, in terms of her reaction to the change from the ‘young’ Doctor to the ‘old’ Doctor. Overall though, the need for Clara to have this reaction at all is highly questionable, speaking more to the wailing of the Matt Smith fangirls than it does to the character of Clara Oswald herself. In Time of the Doctor, we saw her interact with an older version of the Eleventh Doctor with sweetness and compassion, and apart from anything else, she was written as the girl who was ‘born to save the Doctor,’ who knew him in all his (at least original) forms, older, younger, crotchety or calm. When Vastra essentially accuses Clara of judging ‘a mountain’ by its prettiness, it’s an accusation against all those who think the Doctor can only be the Doctor if he’s a particular kind of eye-candy. Clara’s reaction is that of a true companion, which is an enormous relief – but it belies all of the uncertainty she’s forced to have before that moment and leaves her journey in this episode feeling muddy in retrospect.
Hmm. Troughton and Pertwee are so far the only Doctors whose regeneration stories have especially effective villains (Davison has Ainley’s Master of course, but he has him in Castrovalva, which sucks the joy not only out of Ainley but also out of life itself. See also Time and the Rani). That said, the clockwork robots are surprisingly effective – this iteration of Moffat’s clockwork killers have come on, adding flesh to their mechanical elements in an attempt to organically evolve. They remain an object lesson in blinkered thinking, but this lot have been contaminated with religious ideals, and are looking for The Promised Land. It’s an elegant satirical construct, and in Deep Breath, Moffat makes them embody the dangers in blinkered thinking that can’t be answered with any reality that stands outside its worldview, proving, as Robert Holmes proved with the Sontarans, that an idea can be both very funny and effectively frightening at the same time.
The Paternoster Gang gain some depth here as we see them more in their domestic day-to-day life than ever before – Jenny and Vastra have an added spark of banter and Strax delivers effective comedy (be fair, the scene where he knocks Clara out with a rolled up newspaper is still funny), without diminishing his effectiveness in the final battle against the clockwork robots.
The central premise – Don’t Breathe – worked on broadcast, but seen with the benefit of hindsight, you do start to ask all those niggling logical questions that Moffat scripts often depend on you not asking: the robots are stupid enough to be fooled by not breathing, but presumably can’t see a pulse in the neck, a dilation in the pupils, or sweat on the forehead? With hindsight, we understand why this was made a thing – they have to have a weakness, after all – but it feels a little too simplistic to really satisfy long-term. After all, these robots have been adding flesh components to themselves for hundreds if not thousands of years – in all that time, none of them have worked out how to use lungs?
But all of this is window-dressing. It’s a new Doctor’s first story – you and I both know the story succeeds or fails on the strength of the new Doctor themselves.
Here’s where I’m not the best judge of the impact of hindsight, probably. I loved the Capaldi Doctor from word 1 – from “Shush” all the way through this episode. Capaldi barnstorms his way through, defining his Doctor not so much in opposition to the Doctor that’s just gone – in some respects, the odd elastic tangents at which this Doctor comes at things are similar to the Eleventh – but almost in opposition to everything that’s come before it in 21st century Who. He’s argumentative, insulting, demanding and very, very Scottish. He sees things with a staggering, laser-beam clarity, laced with selfishness – “There’s no sense in both of us being cold, give me your coat.” He shuns the boring, preferring the window to the door as a way out of the weird room that’s just for sleeping in, and has an apparent disdain for pudding-brains. In the space of one episode, where Tennant spent most of the time asleep, woke up, set his mouth to overdrive, had a swordfight, won the planet and brought down a government, and Smith wound up and up and up to a crescendo of slight smugness against increasing odds and basically told the aliens to just go away, Capaldi wakes up like Tigger and winds his way progressively down from that, down through the scene with the tramp and the attack eyebrows and the existential angst, down through the fantastically acid scene in the restaurant, down through leaving Clara to her fate and then rescuing her from the robots, and down, and down, and down to the ending. When the Doctor faces Half-Face Man in Mancini’s alone and pours him a drink, there’s a terrible, adamantine stillness to him. ‘I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you,’ he says, and it’s not a declaration, not a victory, not a boast. It’s the statement of a man who’s tried to reason with the unreasonable one too many times in his life, a man who knows he’s alive when he probably shouldn’t be. Capaldi has defined his Doctor with almost every line of the episode – shouty, disdainful, enthusiastic, sharp, with a unique take on the universe and a way of being the cleverest life form in the room that harks back to Tom Baker. But there at the end, he defines the series arc for us very succinctly. ‘Am I a good man?’ will be a question that haunts this Doctor in his first series and whichever way you look at it, he either pushes the villain out of a steampunk skin balloon, or he talks the villain into throwing himself out of a steampunk skin balloon. Either way, that’s a Doctor for whom ‘Am I a good man?’ is the right question for the length of one series. He shows us so many sides of his Doctor in this single episode, but the legend of the Dark Doctor is born in that incredible scene where he defeats the bad guy, one way or the other.
The phone call from the past is sentimental, but it has a point. With a Doctor now uncertain about his own goodness, he needs to see that reflected in the eyes of his friend, and it takes a reminder of the man that he has been to let her see it in him.
And then, out of nowhere, tacked on at the end, is the introduction of Missy and the Promised Land. Right from the first moments, she’s disconcerting - snarling, polite and barking. In retrospect, this scene has to be here of course, despite the fact that we never do find out whether Half-Face Man jumped or whether he was pushed. But the tonal shift is so enormous, it would have actually been better to roll the credits and then have it as a complete adjunct to the episode, an extra, outside the main storytelling flow. As it is, it runs the risk of becoming a little too Lord of the Rings, a fourth ending to a single episode, after the Victorian Ending, the Tardis ending, and the phone call ending.
Deep Breath is a solid regeneration story, with a companion-journey built-in to mimic that of some of the show’s more hysterical fans, a good deal of CGI frippery and one ending too many. But along the way it defines a brand new Doctor, more Classic than 21st century, and it shows him in a wide range of moods and scenes, ending with him defined for now by the series arc that will ask whether the Doctor is really a good man after all.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk