Doctor Who "Deep Breath" Review: No More Waiting (to Exhale)

Kaitlin Thomas

Doctor Who S08E01: "Deep Breath"

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It's probably not wrong to say that Doctor Who is at the height of its popularity right now. Although it isn't and never will be as well-known in the U.S. as it is in the U.K., BBC America's smart move to air the series concurrently with BBC One in the U.K. has definitely given it a boost. But the writers of Doctor Who have taken a lot of flak since Russell T. Davies gave the long-running sci-fi series a facelift in 2005. I'm not even referring to the claims that the show has relied too heavily on increasingly confusing and convoluted storylines that can only be fixed by Moffat Logic, though that's a completely legitimate complaint (and one I fully plan on addressing in a bit); rather, I'm talking about the implied infatuation that several recent companions have had with the time-traveling Doctor.

And, look, I get it. He's a madman with a (time-traveling) box. He's clever and he's witty, and he's always rushing in to save the goddamn day with a freaking SCREWDRIVER. He's a hero whether he realizes it or not, and that makes him attractive. I would totally be swept away if a man showed up at my door and offered to show me all of time and space, everywhere and anywhere, every star that ever was. I mean, I'd also assume he was on acid, but part of me would be like, "Damn, that's cool."

Of course, I also acknowledge that part of the Doctor's recent ladykilling prowess are the result of the fact that as the Doctor was getting older, the actors portraying him were getting younger.

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When Clara told Vastra—who returned in "Deep Breath" alongside fan-favorites Jenny and Strax—that the Doctor didn't look renewed, that he looked older, Vastra replied, "He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend, your lover even." She then continued, "He looked young, who do you think that was for?" And while it's hard to say what goes into casting the Doctor each time a new actor joins the show, I don't think it's wrong to question whether or not the actors were getting progressively younger in an attempt to bring in a larger, younger, and possibly more female audience. I haven't done any extensive research on the subject, but it's something to think about, at least.

In the U.K., according to preliminary numbers, Peter Capaldi's debut as Twelve drew 6.8 million viewers, which is up from Season 7's average viewership but actually the least-watched new-Doctor transition of the four that've occurred since 2005. David Tennant (9.4 million viewers in his debut) was 34 when he took over the role of the Doctor from 41-year-old Christopher Eccleston (9.9 million) in 2005, and Matt Smith (8.0 million) was just 26 when he replaced Tennant in 2010. Fans were simultaneously shocked and worried when news of Smith's casting broke, because historically, the Doctor was an older man traveling with a younger companion. Some fans enjoyed the love story that blossomed between Ten and Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, myself included, and it proved that the Doctor could be a romantic hero, but does he have to be? To be certain, the potential for romance on TV often makes for successful storylines, but it's not the only way to do so, and with the exception of Catherine Tate's Donna, each companion since Rose has, at one time or another, seemed to harbor a little crush on the titular Time Lord. Which is why I've been wondering what form the series would take since we learned that Capaldi would be succeed Smith in the role.

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We know that New Who is capable of romance, and we know that it's capable of deep platonic friendship, but is this newly reinvigorated series capable of returning to the mentor/mentee relationship of years past? Clara has been the subject of much outcry since her introduction in the middle of Season 7, but I maintain what I said after watching Matt Smith's swan song: Clara's biggest issue last season wasn't poor writing, but the fact that she was playing a companion to Eleven who wasn't Amy Pond. With Capaldi in the lead role, she now has a chance to start anew and finally step out from Amy Pond's shadow (although the callback to the Doctor missing Amy was a nice touch, and helped to reinforce the fact that although his appearance has changed, he's still the same man).

The feature-length "Deep Breath" might not have been the best indicator of what we have to look forward to this season in terms of the Doctor/companion relationship, but I'd argue that's commonplace for most post-regeneration episodes. They always start out the same way: The Doctor doesn't know who he is and spends half of the episode attempting to sort himself out while generally acting like a crazy person. It's rather difficult to get to know someone who doesn't quite know himself. We saw Rose struggle to reconcile Tennant's Doctor with the man she'd run away with in Season 1, and now Clara's facing the same daunting task (Amy got off easy on that account).

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But Clara isn't the only person who's coming to terms with some pretty big changes. The theme of regeneration and reinvention was present in the premiere's story of the week, when droids similar to those we last saw in Season 2's "The Girl in the Fireplace" attempted to become human by stealing human body parts. They wanted to live long enough to find the Promised Land, a place the Doctor said doesn't exist, and they were murdering men and women as a means of obtaining spare limbs and organs. While the tie-in was nicely done and led to the Doctor finally remembering where he'd seen his own face before (Capaldi starred in Season 4's "The Fires of Pompeii—which, strangely enough, was the same episode that also starred a pre-companion Karen Gillan), the story itself felt a bit silly at times, especially when you factor in the dinosaur in the Thames. But I can't be too harsh on Doctor Who for being silly, because as with the Doctor himself, it's part of the show's charm.

If there's one part of "Deep Breath" that has me worried, though, it's the same part that always has me worried: the Moffat of it all. Once Steven Moffat took over as showrunner from Davies in 2010, Doctor Who developed a habit of telling supremely complicated overarching stories involving the companions, and while I don't fault the series for taking on more serialized mysteries, Moffat's plots tend to be more convoluted than anything else. They often place the Doctor in seemingly impossible situations, only to reveal that the solutions are quite simple and work because of wibbly-wobbly time-travel.

Amy was the Girl Who Waited, and the crack in the universe was a fun jumping-off point for her story, but eventually I (and many others) started to feel like Moffat was in a battle to constantly one-up in himself. Clara was introduced as the Impossible Girl, and the resolution to that storyline wasn't necessarily the best. And now, as of "Deep Breath," we're looking at another ongoing arc involving who placed the Impossible Girl ad in the paper, with the ad connected to the woman in the shop who gave Clara the TARDIS's phone number back in Clara's own debut, "The Bells of Saint John." I don't mind that Doctor Who has reintroduced this new chapter of the Clara/Doctor mystery, but if I've learned anything from the Moffat era, it's to proceed with caution.

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No matter how many regenerations we've been though, it's always jarring in the beginning when a new actor takes over the role of the Doctor, and Clara acted as the audience stand-in this week as she struggled to accept that this was the same man she'd known, and on some level—even if it wasn't romantic—loved. She told Vastra that she didn't know who he was anymore, but just like we knew he would, he eventually proved to be the same quirky, trustworthy man who'd always have her back (and ours). It just took some time to gather himself together.

I think Peter Capaldi's going to make a fine doctor, and not just because he went on a long rant about his eyebrows. His appearance finally matches the man inside, the one who's over a thousand years old. He's acknowledging his own darkness while at the same time admitting his part in the recent sexification (it's a thing) of his character. He told Clara he wasn't her boyfriend, and when she told him she never thought he was, he responded, "I never said it was your mistake." Whether it was the Doctor confessing that he loved playing the hero to young companions who fancy him, or whether he was referencing the image we've projected onto him, there's no doubt that the Doctor has changed. I look forward to Capaldi proving that both Doctor Who and the character can grow beyond that to become something more.


– While I will never turn down appearances by former Doctors, and even though I eventually grew to absolutely LOVE Matt Smith as Eleven, did the episode really need his phone call at the end? It helped sell to Clara that the Doctor was still the Doctor, but don't you think his appearance was a little contradictory? Here we were trying to get to know Twelve, trying to rally behind this new but old character, and then Smith's lovely face showed up and reminded us of what used to be. I know some fans probably loved it, but I also know that some fans probably hated it, too. What was your take?

– I'll be referring to Capaldi's Doctor as Twelve in these reviews, even though he's the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor. I know this, you know this, so let's skip past all the "HE'S THIRTEEEN" comments, okay? He's Twelve in the the non-linear wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey ball-of-stuff way.

– Who is Missy? Why did she refer to the Doctor as her boyfriend? And what is this supposed Heaven? Are we headed for another overarching storyline in Season 8?

– What did you think of the new credit sequence? I like the look of it, but the new theme was a bit too shrill for my liking. Am I just being nitpicky again, or did it possibly hit notes that only a dog can hear? (It's based on the fan-made opening credits below.)

– The writers gave Clara the Doctor's famous, "You've redecorated. I don't like it" line. I'm not sure I like that.

– "Trick of the light, you still look terrible."

– "I hate being wrong in public. Everybody forget that happened."

– "Nothing is more important than my egomania!"

– "Please tell me I didn't get old. Anything but old!"

– "I don't think I'm a hugging person now."