Review: Doctor Who S8 E1 – Deep Breath

Context: I wrote this review for my student newspaper back in 2014 shortly after broadcast. It was never published, despite being asked to write it, because someone on the editing team decided to write their own instead – I was quietly dropped. You can read the review that got published on page 19 here. So here it is, my thoughts on Deep Breath from five years ago, fresh out of the local cinema. I hope you enjoy it.

“Is this the one with the dinosaur?” queried my younger sister as we sat down in the local cinema. This is from someone who doesn’t like Doctor Who as much as me, though to be fair I am the President of the Exeter University Doctor Who Society, this is true for most people. She also had thought the new Doctor was “a bit too old for the part” – Well I knew her love for Matt Smith was superficial all along!

“Yes, it is.” I reply, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“I don’t like dinosaurs. They’re a bit scary.”

“Isn’t that what Doctor Who is supposed to do?”

“I guess so.”

I mention this conversation because I think it’s important to point out that Doctor Who should be a show for everyone to enjoy, the well-informed fanatic, the more casual viewer, the newcomer, the old, the young and all those in between. That is what the show strives for and has succeeded to varying degrees over the last fifty years. But in recent years there have been criticisms of ‘over-complicated story-telling’ and episodes having a ‘too fast-moving pace’. Whilst I instinctively defend certain aspects of Doctor Who, even I witnessed my dad unable to follow what happened in last year’s Christmas Special (2013’s The Time of the Doctor). So does the latest episode do something to respond to these critiques? Well, yes actually.

The feature-length episode kicks off with a T-rex stomping through the Thames in Victorian London. It then coughs up a time machine shaped like a blue police box, naturally. Out of the police box arrives an older-looking Time Lord called the Doctor suffering from post-regeneration madness, who thinks he’s just escaped a T-rex, and a rather disgruntled companion called Clara. Subsequently the dinosaur is set alight, the latest in a series of remarkably similar murders, and the Doctor and Clara set out to uncover the truth whilst coming to terms with the Doctor’s new appearance and rebuilding their relationship.

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Look at the size of that thing: When sat in the cinema looking up at the screen, this dinosaur looked massive, and it felt massive.

The most anticipated aspect of this episode is Peter Capaldi’s first full appearance as the Doctor. A life-long fan of the show and accomplished actor, Capaldi revels in the comedy provided in this rather funny script penned by head writer Steven Moffat, particularly in an alleyway scene where he discovers his Scottish accent (“I am Scottish. I can really complain about things now”) and rather angry face, complete with ‘attack eyebrows’. But as the situation becomes more serious, we start to see a more unpredictable figure, rather akin to Tom Baker’s popular incarnation, appear beneath the witty exterior. Capaldi’s Doctor is more like a well-aged Scotch then, more mature, enjoyed more slowly and will knock you silly if not treated with respect. Quite a contrast to Matt Smith’s hyperactive portrayal, which is more like a large glass of fizzy cola with a colourful bendy straw, consumed far more quickly.

Speaking of slowly, the pacing has been brought down a notch for this new series opener, with longer scenes and more conversation happening in them. It seems Moffat wants to address some of the aforementioned criticisms, possibly taking a leaf out of his wildly successful Sherlock series, writing longer, dialogue-filled scenes that develop the characters further, but favours a simpler plot, which sees the return of the clockwork droids, last appearing in his 2006 story, The Girl in The Fireplace, which was in fact his first script for David Tennant’s Doctor. This story provides generous helpings of humour with some action, dramatic conflicts and subtle references to the show’s illustrious past. I should also note Ben Wheatley’s wonderful directing that gave the episode a cinematic feel but also amplified the darker elements of the story, like Half-Faced Man, outstandingly portrayed by Peter Ferdinando, who grabs an innocent bystander to steal his eyes for himself.

The extra breathing space (*groan*) allows for some much needed insight and character development for Clara, the incumbent companion played by Jenna Coleman, who was rather overlooked after her introduction last year with the focus on the fiftieth anniversary and then Matt Smith’s departure, but this is arguably her best performance to-date. The highlights for me were when she reunites with the Doctor in a restaurant and argues with his less friendly personality in a battle of the egos, and then later her having to hold her breath in a particularly tense moment where she must avoid detection from the ‘dumb’ clockwork robots and escape. This is a gripping scene where the room is quiet except for robots ticking and Clara’s heart beating as her face turns blue and her eyes water in distress, before eventually passing out and being caught by the mechanical droids themselves. I admit even I truly felt a bit scared sat in the cold, spacious cinema, which I hadn’t felt since Blink seven years ago.

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Impossible Lungs: The atmosphere in the cinema felt absolutely suffocating as we all watched Clara hold her breath for what seemed like an eternity.

But perhaps the absolute highlight was the final confrontation between Half-Faced Man and the Doctor as they fly over London in the restaurant attached to a balloon made of human skin. Capaldi absolutely owns this scene with the most fantastic line – “Question: if you take a broom and replace the handle, and then later replace the brush – and you do it over and over again – is it still the same broom?” The answer is a resounding no. Both the hero and the villain have lived so long and changed so many times that they are no longer who they were when they started – a robot who now has mostly human parts and an alien who is no longer the dashing young professor we knew and loved. So when we see Half-Faced face his demise, impaled on a spire, the audience are left to decide whether the Doctor murdered him or not. He is now questionable and unpredictable and that’s what excites me to tune in next week.

“So did you like it?” I asked my younger sister when the credits started rolling.

“Yeah, I kinda like Peter Capaldi now.” She replied,

Although I could see she had a tear in her eye over Matt Smith’s surprise cameo at the end, but I felt his reassurance helped my sister with the transition of actors on screen.

“Cool, and did you also think it was a bit funny but also a bit scary?”

“Yeah, I thought the clockwork robots were pretty creepy.”

“Me too. So would you want to watch the new episode next week?”

“Totally.”

I then tried to remember the last time both my sister and I really enjoyed the same episode of Doctor Who. The answer appeared to be some time ago. But I’m glad to know the show I love appears to have found a new stretch of life. A breath of fresh air, you might say.