Doctor Who season premiere recap: Deep Breath
A new Doctor contends with a series of strange murders, his companions, and himself.
Finally, after a months-long news-filled hiatus, Doctor Who is back on the air. And, with it, the 12th (though technically 13th as we are quickly reminded) incarnation of one of television’s oldest sci-fi characters, the Doctor. As always when such a time is upon us, the fan base teeters on the edge of their seats to see how the new Doctor will be. Even people who have heard of the show in passing have their curiosity piqued and keep an eye on how the new Doctor does. It’s like the more frequent Halley’s Comet of science-fiction: a rare event that comes by once every few years and captures everyone’s attention.
There have been volumes said about Twelve and his upcoming tenure since the announcement of veteran actor Peter Capaldi as Matt Smith’s successor, all before we even had a chance to really see him in action. “He’ll be darker” they said. “Edgier.” “Gonna be like the old Doctors and not because just because he’s old!” Well, time to see what all the fuss is about: For the most part it holds true. The new intro and theme song to the show are clearly rooted in the classic series. It’s no longer the big booming bass-heavy intro of the modern Doctors but instead a warbling high-treble affair, with Victorian-era-clock-based designs and even a clear homage to the Fourth Doctor era intro with a flash of Twelve’s face.
But the big question is how Capaldi is as the new Doctor. As expected, he’s great. He’s far from the disconnectedly dark, brooding, and mean figure that the media has been hyping him up to be. In fact, it’s starting to seem more likely all the hype about that Doctor was actually describing the DC Animated Universe Batman. Capaldi’s Doctor continues the comedically manic thought process that Ten and Eleven displayed but the lighthearted aspect of it is undercut with a more pensive and impatient edge where he demands the answers to the questions he constantly asks. What results is a Doctor who is short, to the point of coming off rude and demanding, but, underneath, the caring figure that he has always been.
The episode begins with the always-comedic Strax, the idiot Sontaran, as he recaps the history of the Doctor’s incarnations from William Hartnell’s original portrayal up until the most recent Matt Smith model with his usual ignorantly sharp tongue, all while the ship he’s vlogging from is in the process of blowing up. This segment is decidedly lighthearted and comedic, which only serves to make Strax’s uncharacteristically concerned introduction to the Twelfth Doctor undercut the tone even more and introduce the overall sentiment of the episode. It’s definitely not going to be lighthearted.
And that’s when we see a dinosaur in the middle of 19th-century London. Yes, really.
The natural question of “How the hell did this happen?” has its answer coughed up by the dinosaur, quite literally, as it reveals the TARDIS. And with that comes the full reveal of the Twelfth Doctor as an incoherently babbling madman whose mind is like mush moving at the speed of sound, alternating between trying to remember the names of his companions and flirting with the dinosaur until he passes out from the exhaustion that follows a regeneration.
The Doctor’s continued insanity and inability to recognize things like bedrooms or accents causes the companions worry but affects Clara significantly. As someone who had no knowledge that the Doctor could regenerate, she reacts as would be expected when a man suddenly changes before your very eyes and turns insane: She gets quite unnerved. “How do we fix him? How do we change him back?” she asks Vastra and Jenny, wondering how the Doctor could even be in this state. And then the first of many references to the origins of the Doctor’s face in the episode come into question: “Where did he get that face? Why does he have lines on it? It’s brand new.”
NEXT: The game becomes afoot
At this point, the plot and general themes start pouring out. Here, we get the first reveal of the villain au jour, the Half-Faced Man: a robotic-like Jack the Ripper type with a hint of Jeepers Creepers as he takes the eyes of his victim. Vastra berates Clara for judging the Doctor by his face, accusing her of being too shallow to look past appearances and recognize that he is the same man inside. Clara, understandably, takes offense to this and fires right back to Vastra that that’s simply not her and that Vastra herself has misjudged Clara’s own face. The Doctor, meanwhile, recovers for the most part and attempts to reconnect with his dinosaur lover (remember, he’s not quite all there yet). That is, he tries to until the beast goes up in flames. Again, literally. Yes, really.
The immolation causes the Doctor and his companions to rush to the scene where the Doctor’s drive to help the innocent kicks into gear. He quickly deduces that there are a series of murders at play and promptly disappears after the case. The companions are left to return home and try to figure out what to do next, which is accompanied with some amusing sequences where Clara bonds with the others over newspapers and subconscious readings.
The most important scene of the episode is when the Doctor spends a long time agonizing over his new self until he finally comes to grips. Much of his consternation has to do with his face: “It’s covered in lines. I didn’t do the frowning. Who frowned me this face?” The Doctor recognizes that the face itself is a point that he has made to himself—but a point he can’t remember at all. In his mania, we get many glimpses of the goofiness that Eleven and Ten captured so well but with a more cantankerous and sharper edge. He retains the erratic machine-gun-like thought process that Eleven expertly rattled off, but it’s no longer whimsical and confident—it is sharp and worried. He is no longer the self-assured Doctor like the past few incarnations but, instead, one that is about as unsure as the Ninth Doctor. If Nine was the PTSD Doctor, Ten was the Lovelorn Romantic, and Eleven was the Grandfatherly Goof, then Twelve is the Uncertain Doctor. Everything out of his mouth so far is a question with no easy answers. Why that face? What’s the point of a room just for a bed? Why don’t people of similar heights just use labels?
NEXT: The plot must go on
The plot has to start back up again, though, since we can’t have the Doctor introspective for too long. (What fun would there be in seeing how he reacts to things in future episodes if he makes himself predictable now?) Clara spots an ad in the newspaper asking for the Impossible Girl to go to a restaurant where she meets with the Doctor. Some banter later they realize that they have been set up and they all get dragged into the belly of an ancient spaceship under London. By my count, this is the fifth or sixth ancient spaceship stuck underneath London in the new series alone—maybe the Tube’s winding layout is the result of being built around these things.
Here we discover what the villain du jour really is: an ancient robot that has been replacing itself with biological body parts since the prehistoric era so that it can wait to enter the Promised Land. So, for the first time in what feels like ages, a Doctor Who landmark episode does not involve a plot to save the entire world from crisis. And it feels so damn refreshing. Instead of getting another grandiose tale where the world is saved through the power of love (again) or sci-fi words pulled out of a hat (again), we get a more personal story of a being who is trying to find happiness against a being trying to find himself.
Clara herself is given her time to shine as she is thrust into an impossible situation and is forced to face almost certain death. For the first time in her run, we see Clara facing a hardship relying solely on her own wits and mettle. And does she ever hold up. As feisty as Amy and Donna were, and as capable as Martha was, Clara has them all beat in terms of sheer braveness without needing the stiff upper lip that people usually mistake for it. Through fear powerful enough to bring her to tears she stands her ground and breaks down the situation so well that even a logical robot is brought into her terms of engagement. This is the second time in the episode that Clara has to prove herself and she wastes no time doing it. Her ability to hold out is rewarded with a surprise entrance by the Doctor and the rest of the companions to save the day and fight off the army of robots.
What follows is perhaps the single most captivating scene of the episode and what will likely be one of the most amazing moments of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure. When he confronts the villain alone, he has none of the debonaire showmanship of the previous Doctors. No big speech, no flourish, no secret weapon, and no magic answers. The Doctor simply pours two glasses of scotch and insists the Half-Faced Man join him because “it’s the human thing to do.” That’s it. A character we watched mindlessly run around London for an hour struggling to find out who and what he is sits down and calmly takes hold of the situation with all the confident air of a man who is sure of himself and everything around him. If anyone were searching the episode for a trait unique to only Twelve, here it is. No other Doctor would have been able to channel James Bond’s smoothest moments so effectively.
NEXT: A battle shakes, not stirs
While the companions battle with an army of robots, the Doctor’s battle with the Half-Faced Man is one of simple argument, a staple to the series. Rarely is anything solved with violence—the Doctor always tries reason first. This is no exception. That said, the confrontation the Doctor has with the Half-Faced Man is one that is far more reflective than he realizes. Nothing of the original Half-Faced Man is left, the Doctor argues, and he is something else entirely that is almost entirely devoid of his original purpose and intent. “You have replaced every piece of yourself… time and time again. There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from!” he states while holding up a polished silver tray to show the Half-Faced Man the reflection of his half face. But, as the camera angle shows us, the Doctor sees himself on the back of the tray. His face drops as he realizes he’s not only talking about the Half-Faced Man but also himself and his own unknown face and character.
“There’s only one way out of this” the Doctor says as he throws open the door of the restaurant as it now flies high in the skies of London. The Half-Faced Man says that it is not in his basic programming to commit suicide and the Doctor says that it is not in his basic programming to murder. But, the Doctor then says, one of them is lying. The very next thing we see of either of them is the Half-Faced Man impaled upon the cross of a building as the Doctor looks on. And we don’t know which one of them was lying.
The conclusion to the episode brings as many questions as it gives closure. Clara, still bewildered by the change in the Doctor, is increasingly unsure in him and her trust in him until she gets a phone call from Eleven from the time during the events of the Christmas special (since, you know, a show about time travel has to have some time travel in it). Matt Smith’s powerful hold of the character comes back one final time as catharsis for both Clara and the audience after his shockingly sudden change into Capaldi’s Twelve. He reassures Clara that what he will be is still him and that he will be scared, confused, and dependent on Clara’s companionship. Twelve, for his part, reassures Clara that he was Eleven and knows that he placed that call to her. In a moment that will assuage as much of the Doctor Who fan base as it will enrage, the Doctor also tells Clara that he was wrong for acting like her boyfriend and that it will not happen again.
Considering that the show could very well be Chekov’s Forgotten Armory given how often it highlights important details and events and then promptly forgets about them until seasons later, the most recent episode does nothing to change that. “Who gave you that number?” the Doctor asks, referring to how Clara got the Doctor’s number in the first place from a shop lady—something which the show had never bothered to pay attention to until this moment. Furthering the mystery, we see the Half-Faced Man in a garden with a mysterious woman named Missy who refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend, commenting on how she likes his new accent. But not even she knows if the Doctor pushed the Half-Faced Man out of the restaurant. And where is this place that she is meeting the Half-Faced Man? “Welcome to heaven.”
Well, then. This will be interesting.