The TARDIS crash lands in Victorian London where the time travelers are reunited with the Paternoster Gang (Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax… I cannot believe I once said I wished to see more of these overused characters). A dinosaur is loose in the streets and people are being harvested for parts by cyborgs… and no one seems to care. Throughout this cobbled together story, the Doctor’s companion Clara struggles to accept this new Doctor and the Doctor himself has a difficult time adapting as well.
Since William Hartnell departed the program only to be replaced by Patrick Troughton, regeneration stories (as they later became known) have been tricky things. Viewers need to be sold on an all-new iteration of their favorite hero, the production team has to find a way to convey something new while retaining the legacy of the program and most importantly a new actor must find his way into the longest running and most revered role on TV.
As a fan, I’ve seen this occur a few times and it’s never pleasant. The transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison was a weird one. Davison was younger and the entire tone of the series shifted around him from light-hearted comedy to a more serious and intelligent sci-fi. To make things easier on fans, Davison’s first story was interwoven into a trilogy of stories starting with The Keeper of Traken. The Master, a classic villain revived for a new audience was included. Plus, a trio of young companions who had been seen with his predecessor were along for the ride. 1982’s Castrovalva is not a total success, but a lot can be learned from it. It remains a touchstone for Whovians of my generation.
Deep Breath shares some qualities with Castrovalva as it not only includes a known companion but three recurring guest stars and a surprise appearance at the end by Capaldi’s predecessor, Matt Smith. It shows the self-consciousness of Moffat and company, which is for good reason as Capaldi is the first real deviation from the romantic madcap hero introduced in 2005 (several traits are shared between Eccleston, Tennant and Smith). However, it detracts from the story and weakens Capaldi’s performance rather than bolstering it. An extra-long episode of 76 minutes, this story was screened in cinemas over the world and received great acclaim.
Pity it’s such a disappointment.
The script is a cobbled mess. Not only does no one seem to care about a massive dinosaur roaming about, but a half-faced killer cyborg stalks the streets in broad daylight with no reaction from a soul. I kept waiting for a big reveal as to why the general populace was so dim, but if it was mentioned I missed it. The dialog is awful, with the usual Moffat exposition spewing forth from every character and Madam Vastra reminding us that she is a lesbian lizard woman married to Jenny almost every time she is on screen and Strax hammering home the same tired jokes he has had for years. The new Doctor’s dialog is terrible, reverting to the usual ‘tell don’t show’ variety as we hear how old he looks several times over.
The Doctor and Clara have a very negative chemistry, neither one treating the other with much kindness as the Doctor sees Clara (previously viewed as the Impossible Girl) as a self-involved annoyance. This is bold indeed and hearkens back to the days of the 6th incarnation who was crotchety and irritable. This new Doctor is shrewd and appears colder than his predecessors. He tackles problems head on in a fearless and often cruel manner. Whereas Smith’s Doctor was a magical and whimsical character whom Clara doted on, this man is a stranger.
Quibbles- Why is Clara so incapable of accepting a new Doctor after she had traveled through his entire timeline and saw all of his previous faces? She even met Ten and the War Doctor!
Also, why did the cyborgs need a dinosaur? Or was it just fortuitous that the TARDIS brought it along? And why were they named after Marie Antoinette? Wasn’t the gimmick of the SS Madame de Pompadour in Girl in the Fireplace tied to the harvesting of her parts for the ship? Plus the Doctor didn’t see the name of the ship, only the viewers did so he’s not going to make any sense of it.
I had expected more from Ben Wheatley (a director I enjoyed from Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England) but this was a very uneven episode. Additionally, the effects were incredibly poor. Plus, for a family program, isn’t the notion of hot air balloons made from human skin and the Doctor hiding in a cadaver disguise… rather obscene? Not to be a prude, but if this is meant to be watched by kids they really need to steer away from such gruesome stuff.
The only real highlight of this disaster is Capaldi himself. He has a dire script to work with more centered on the background characters and a monster who uses a cafe to destroy the human race, but manages to squeeze one excellent scene in. The final confrontation between this new Doctor and ‘Half Face’ is chilling and fascinating. It takes an initial firm step in paving the way forward for this series in its 51st year.
As I have been through several transitional episodes, from the great 11th Hour to the dire Time and the Rani, so I was ready for an awkward ride. However, this was handled so poorly that not only was the character of this new Doctor (Moffat seems reluctant to label his number) ill-defined, it also failed to establish a new tone or an excitement to keep watching.
I realize that I am in the minority, based on the positive viewing figures that eclipsed that of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Hour debut. I do wish the program success and feel that, given the right material, Capaldi could be the finest of Doctors, bringing something new to the part. He is certainly the highest profile actor to play the Doctor since Chris Eccleston and has loads of potential and interest. All he needs is better scripts and less material like this.
The 2014 ratings so far (via DrWhoTV):
Deep Breath 6.8m (overnight) 9.17m (final) AI 82
Next week: Into the Dalek