Finally! The long-anticipated eighth season of Doctor Who is upon us with “Deep Breath.” Ever since watching the 11th Doctor’s (Matt Smith) touching goodbye in last year’s Christmas special, fans eagerly (and somewhat impatiently) have awaited the arrival of the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi, The Thick Of It, World War Z). Up till now, we’ve 0nly glimpsed him in the holiday special, and, even more briefly, last fall’s 50th anniversary tribute. Now, we get to meet him in all his glory as he takes over the legendary role.
The opening of “Deep Breath,” is terrific. Whether it makes sense or not, a dinosaur walking about Victorian London makes for a cool visual, and so much more. The beast and its relationship with The Doctor, and its eventual tragic death (which tugs at the heartstrings) plays well, and in unexpected ways. We can always count on Doctor Who to deliver both wonderment and pathos, and this opening does that. But, I would like to know how the TARDIS ended up inside the dinosaur’s throat!
In his first appearance as The Doctor, Capaldi gets an A. We still don’t know exactly what kind of Doctor he will make, acting crazy for most of the installment, but he plays the eccentricities so well, it’s clear his more settled version will be good, too. Capaldi’s antics in “Deep Breath” echo past Doctors, in particular Matt Smith and Tom Baker, letting us know the character audiences have been watching for half a century is still in there. His comments about needing more “round things” in his TARDIS will surely please those who are fans of the original series runs. Capaldi is a fan himself from way back, and apparently has internalized those past Doctors, which resonates in his performance.
There are hints of what we might expect of this new Doctor, especially when he is calm enough to stand still for a second. This new version intrigues me, but also makes me wish for Smith’s return. Every time there is a new Doctor, there’s a certain adjustment period for fans, and it’s not easy to jump right back in with someone else. That’s why the first episode of the new series frequently takes time for the character to ‘adjust,’ and “Deep Breath” does that even more so than past versions. It’s very transitional, and that can be unsettling, but as I trust Steven Moffat, the show runner, because of his past track record with Doctor Who, I’m confident in saying this one will likely be good, too.
Because The Doctor is crazy, “Deep Breath” has to rely more on his companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), to drive the episode. Other companions, even brand new ones, have done a good job of this (Rose Tyler, Amy Pond), but Clara, who had already appeared in several episodes with the previous Doctor, doesn’t. I find her annoying and grating, assuming many of the worst things about her that Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) does this week. Unlike the lizard lady, though, I am not sold by the end. I’m not sure what it is about Clara that bugs me, but there’s something there that doesn’t feel as nice and sweet as the other main characters of the past, and I look forward to her departure.
That being said, The Doctor clearly does value her. The surprise scene near the end of “Deep Breath,” in which The Doctor (Smith’s version) calls her as he is dying to ask her to help out with the new guy is touching. We see the bond between Clara and the 11th Doctor, what they mean to each other. Only the 11th could convince her to stay with the 12th. The way the 12th Doctor plays this scene, also helps carry that relationship into the new series, as we see Smith and Capaldi as the same person here. In an hour-plus where The Doctor is so unrecognizable, it’s good Moffat chose to ultimately smooth the transition.
Despite my objections to Clara, I don’t accuse her of everything Vastra does, specifically that she is upset by the new Doctor’s appearance because he’s older and less attractive to her. I believe Clara when she is genuinely worried the grey hair is a sign of something deeper being wrong inside, and I think she’s onto something. The Doctor also asks why this face has been chosen, and it remains a mystery. I hope it’s tied into one of Capaldi’s past Who-verse characters, perhaps his part in the Torchwood: Children of Earth, since it was such a notable role. Even if it doesn’t, I do think we’ll find out in time why The Doctor looks old now. There is definitely something to this.
I mentioned Vastra before, and she isn’t the only returning favorite to Doctor Who. Often, when a new Doctor begins his tenure, past connections and relationships are forgotten. None of the 10th’s old companions play into the 11th Docotor’s run (except in the 50th anniversary special). However, Vastra, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), like UNIT before them, don’t really ‘belong’ to one Doctor. They are their own group, The Paternoster Gang, one that deserves a spin-off, or, at the very least, repeat appearances for years to come, no matter who is in the title role.
Strax is my favorite of this trio, hilarious as ever. Whether hitting Clara in the face or trying to take her clothes (since she’s not wearing a coat), his naivety is a major selling point. When he slips and says something about pouring acid on The Doctor, it isn’t malicious. And when he fails to enter a room as gracefully as his companions, well, at least he tries. He’s a cartoonish personality, but one with a sweetness and authenticity to him that just makes him grab attention every time he’s on screen.
Vastra and Jenny are good, too, though, and “Deep Breath” takes their development a step further. Their relationship has been firmly established in the past, but every time we spend some time with them, we see another facet. The scene in which Vastra is working and Jenny is posing, wrongly thinking Vastra is painting her, is excellent. Even better, when it seems Vastra and Clara are flirting and Clara gets in a good dig, Jenny whoops triumphantly. Their partnership does not always seem to be one of equals, Jenny posing as Vastra’s maid in private as well as public, and when Jenny gets a leg up and feels superior for even a second, it makes them seem more realistic as a couple. The dynamic works for them, and it’s one rich enough to play around with.
Now, Doctor Who is sort of a procedural, even though it has strong serial elements, and “Deep Breath” is no exception to that. There is a case-of-the-week in the clockwork robots, similar enough that they are probably the same breed as the ones in the fan-favorite episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which are harvesting people’s organs. I don’t particularly care for these guys because they’re not malicious and they have nothing against The Doctor personally. Even if they discovered he knew of their schemes, I’m not sure they’d go after him. Instead, they are machines doing what they are programmed to do, which to me is less scary than other foes.
There is one frightening moment in “Deep Breath.” The Doctor and Clara are down in their lair, and The Doctor abandons Clara, saying there’s no sense in both of them dying. As much as I want to be rid of Clara, having The Doctor complicit in her death wouldn’t work because of the effect it would have on him when he comes to his senses. I didn’t really think The Doctor would abandon her, but since he isn’t himself here, one never quite knows. The terror comes in the potential cost for The Doctor, not in any death itself.
Much better than this one-shot is the mystery at the end of “Deep Breath.” We are introduced to Missy (Michelle Gomez, Bad Education), who claims to run the promised land, as she escorts the main clockwork guy (Peter Ferdinando, Snow White and the Hunstman), last seen impaled and dead, into her garden. She’s creepy, refers to The Doctor as her ‘boyfriend,’ and is definitely demented. Why does she want Clara and The Doctor together if she loves The Doctor? Why does she send them both into danger? Who is she and what does she mean for this eighth season?
Popular theories popping up online have her as the TARDIS, which has called The Doctor its boyfriend in the past, or a regeneration of River Song or The Master, both of whom have been crazy and bent on killing The Doctor at one time or another. I love River Song dearly, though, and Alex Kingston, who plays her. I can’t imagine the show would ruin her, and besides, her quest of murder has already been done. The Master seems the most likely of these three theories based on the personality Missy exhibits alone, but I predict she’s something else entirely, quite likely someone we’ve never seen before.
There are a couple of clues that could point to an answer, or may just be red herrings. There is character named Missy in the Cybermen-fueled episode of season seven, “Nightmare in Silver,” who is seemingly killed by them. Moffat has started the season eight is building to a huge two-part Cybermen showdown. Coincidence? Missy also calls her home ‘heaven’ and The Doctor has just died. Might she be trying to escort him into the ‘afterlife’?
Overall, “Deep Breath,” while somewhat dragged down by being too Clara-heavy and containing a mediocre monster, has enough gems hidden within to entice one to tune in for the rest of the series. I doubt it will rank among my favorite episodes, which is a shame, but it doesn’t totally fail, either. I’m almost as anxious as I was a week ago to find out what kind of Doctor Capaldi will be, and I guess that compulsion to watch again is the goal of any television series.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00LWWB0L8][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IT3KQMC][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B003NQG5PC]