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DVD Review

DVD cover

Doctor Who
Deep Breath


Starring: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman
Distributor: BBC DVD
RRP: £12.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 15 September 2014

When a dinosaur materialises alongside the Houses of Parliament in Victorian London, the Doctor’s old friends the Paternoster Gang are relieved when he arrives, seemingly to deal with the creature. However, they soon realise that the Time Lord is the one in need of help. Newly regenerated, extremely volatile and questioning his self-worth, this is a very different man from the one they last saw. The only person who may be able to help him is Clara, but she is still grappling with losing the Doctor she knew and loved. Can Clara accept this new version of the Doctor, and will they be able to defeat the sinister body-snatching cyborgs that are stalking the London streets, led by a frightening man with half a face…?

In common with much of the season that follows it, Deep Breath – Peter Capaldi’s first full episode as the Doctor – is a curious combination of styles. In many ways, it marks a return to mature storytelling and other elements that should appeal to fans of the classic series, while also retaining characteristics of more recent years. A mixture of old and new, then – rather like the Twelfth Doctor himself – though the irony is that some of the old will seem new and different to younger viewers. Is it a successful combination, though, or it is as frightful a composite as the terrifying Half-Face Man?

Before presenting the disoriented new Doctor to us, the episode’s opening teaser brings us the crowd-pleasing elements of a giant Tyrannosaurus and the welcome return of the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Strax (Dan Starkey). The presence of the latter group recalls a tactic from a classic series story, Spearhead From Space, in which the strangeness and initial inactivity of the newly regenerated Third Doctor was offset by the familiarity of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his UNIT team. When Vastra realises what has happened to the Time Lord, her response recalls that of the Brigadier from the opposite end of the Third Doctor’s era: “Well, then, here we go again.”

Unfortunately, one aspect from the old series that is less welcome here is the pacing of the opening teaser. Often I wish that the new Who would slow down a bit and spend more time with story and character development, rather than rushing off into the next scene as though it were suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder, but in this instance I think the sequence lingers just a little too long. Director Ben Wheatley could have cut to the exciting new opening titles immediately after Vastra’s line.

As often happens in post-regeneration stories – but in stark contrast to the previous one, The Eleventh Hour – the Doctor is mostly either infirm or absent during the first half-hour of Deep Breath. During this time, the action and investigation is dominated by Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the Paternoster Gang.

Writer Steven Moffat addresses the fears of certain audience members when he has Vastra criticise Clara for wanting the Doctor to look young: “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend… But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold, he has seen stars fall to dust.” Of course, Clara denies that she is so shallow, as the viewer is similarly prompted to do (though in spite of this denial, Strax later detects thoughts of muscular young men in the girl’s subconscious). The Doctor reiterates this point towards the end of the episode: “I’m the Doctor. I’ve lived for over two thousand years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time that I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.” Again, Clara denies that this was ever the way in which she saw him, at which point the Doctor tries to reassure her, and thus the viewer, that any shallowness was on his (and thus the programme-makers’) part: “I never said it was your mistake.”

In contrast to the Eleventh Doctor’s childish dislike of alcoholic beverages, this incarnation can handle his liquor. “I thought you might appreciate a drink first,” he says to the Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando) before their final confrontation, “I know I would.”

Other more mature elements of the story include the violent demise of the dinosaur by spontaneous combustion. This is seen in the distance, but it is still shocking. I did worry how the kiddies in the audience might feel about this event, but then many series (such as Buffy and Harry Potter) get darker over time, as their viewers grow up with them. Bigger scares are provided by the clockwork cyborgs, led by the Half-Face Man. It’s not just his appearance (a brilliant combination of prosthetics, animatronics and CGI) but also his voice (and that of Graham Duff as the Waiter, as he reels of his list of useful body parts: “Liver… Spleen… Brain stem… Eyes…”) and his sudden movements (which genuinely made me jump a couple of times).

Arguably more disconcerting, though, is the Twelfth Doctor’s overt ruthlessness and even selfishness. This is initially evident when he demands a tramp’s coat: “I’m cold. There’s no point in us both being cold.” This might be attributed to post-regenerative instability, but since it happens during one of Capaldi’s first major scenes in the role (in which his Doctor sees his face in a mirror for the first time) there is a danger of it putting the audience off him. The tramp (Brian Miller) finds him scary, and so do I at this point. Even more shockingly, he later uses the “no point” argument on Clara, when he leaves her trapped behind a door at the mercy of the cyborgs: “Sorry, too slow. There’s no point in them catching us both.” He refuses to even pass his sonic screwdriver to her. “I might need it.” Even though he does eventually come to Clara’s aid, and claims that he knew she could take care of herself – “You’re brilliant on adrenaline” – this still seems extremely callous. The Doctor is supposed to be never cruel or cowardly, but here he seems both. For me, the ‘did he / didn’t he kill the villain’ question is far less controversial, in that it has already been confronted in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and anyway it looks to me as though the Half-Face Man had already lost the will to carry on (he switches off his flamethrower).

Steven Moffat has a habit of reiterating and remixing old ideas, especially his own. When Moffat is writing, the monsters often seem to be variations on other monsters: the Weeping Angels take on a Vashta Nerada style spokesman; you mustn’t take your eyes off a Weeping Angel or it will get you, whereas you mustn’t take your eyes off a Silent or you will forget that it was ever there; like the Cybermen, the Daleks now convert human beings, but only when they’re dead; and as if in response to this, in the most recently televised story, the Cybermen convert the deceased. The clockwork cyborgs in Deep Breath are a development of the clockwork droids in The Girl in the Fireplace. Commendably, though, this time the writer makes the connection an overt one: the SS Marie Antoinette is revealed to be the sister ship of the Madame de Pompadour. It’s a subtle connection, in that the Doctor fails to remember the previous encounter (well, it was over a thousand years ago for him) and therefore it doesn’t matter if the viewer cannot recall the episode either.

Amid all this, there is still plenty of the tomfoolery that one associates with Capaldi’s immediate predecessors. Like the Eleventh Doctor, the Twelfth can speak horse – and dinosaur. It is easy to imagine Matt Smith delivering the line, “Hello, hello, rubbish robots from the dawn of time… This is your power source, and feeble though it is, I can use it to blow this whole room if I see one thing that I don’t like. And that includes karaoke and mime, so take no chances.” In common with both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, the Twelfth has a habit of starting sentences he soon regrets, such as: “Destroy us if you will. They’re still going to close your restaurant. That was going to sound better.” Unfortunately, this Doctor also retains his predecessors’ propensity to deliver lines that are either too gabbled or too muffled by the sound mix for me to decipher without recourse to the subtitles.

In the immediate aftermath of his regeneration, the Twelfth Doctor struggles to recognise people, even mistaking Clara’s gender – something that is usually the purview of Strax. The Sontaran still gets plenty of great moments, though, including mistaking Clara’s hair for a hat, lobbing a newspaper at her, and failing to shake off his old habit of wanting to melt his quarry with acid.

Despite the Doctor’s assertion that he is not boyfriend material, Missy (Michelle Gomez) describes him as being just that towards the end of this episode, claiming that he loves her. This eccentric character comes across somewhat like River Song here, though of course later episodes have proven that not to be the case…

When I first saw Deep Breath, I thought it was rather lacking in terms of story structure. Now I see that the episode comprises three distinct phases. The first 32 minutes or so concern the dinosaur and the reactions of the Doctor’s friends to his new incarnation. The next 32 minutes or so revolve around the clockwork cyborgs and their restaurant of fear. This section is more like a regular episode, with the Doctor and Clara reunited, the Paternoster Gang largely absent, and the relevance of the title coming into play. The final ten minutes or so comprise epilogue scenes.

Like the story, the Doctor goes through stages, not unlike the metamorphosis of an insect. This idea is reinforced by Inspector Gregson (Paul Hickey) managing to mistake the TARDIS for an egg. From this emerges the ‘larval’ Doctor, whose subsequent ‘pupal’ stages are reflected by his changes of costume from the Eleventh Doctor’s clothes to a nightshirt; the tramp’s coat (perhaps a reference to the Second Doctor); a cyborg’s outfit, complete with wing collar (like that of the First Doctor); and finally the Twelfth Doctor’s own choice of attire (which in many ways recalls the Third Doctor). This is the winged ‘imago’ state, if you like. It’s not quite the seven ages of man, but it’s pretty close.

The Doctor’s changeability is also likened to Disney’s seven dwarfs. Some of his first words in the episode seem to be in reference to Strax, but they might just as well be applied to the Time Lord himself: “Sleepy? … Bashful? Sneezy? Dopey? Grumpy!” He is certainly sleepy for a while. He’s not exactly bashful, but he does play down the idea of sexual relationships. He’s not sneezy, but he does suffer ill effects from his regeneration, a kind of synaesthesia that scrambles his senses. He is dopey when he fails to connect to clockwork creatures to those he had encountered before. And he is most definitely grumpy, with “attack eyebrows” that are “independently cross.” In the final analysis, of course, he is Doc, and that makes me Happy.

The episode is accompanied by Deep Breath Intro (6 minutes), a field report by Strax, which originally preceded cinema screenings of Deep Breath during August 2014. The Sontaran describes the Doctor’s former selves in a hilariously rude manner, mocking the Ninth Doctor’s ears and the Eleventh Doctor’s chin, and claiming that the Fifth Doctor “showed some grasp of the military virtue of camouflage, by having no distinguishing features whatsoever.” Strax takes great delight in pointing out that the “half man, half granny” Third Doctor “was forced to regenerate because he was frightened by a big spider!”

There’s also Behind the Scenes (11 minutes), a ‘making of’ featurette previously presented on the Red Button channel and online.

Finally we have Doctor Who Live – The Next Doctor (31 minutes), which originally unveiled the casting of Peter Capaldi on 04 August 2013. As a half-hour show built around the anticipation of an announcement that could have been made in under a minute, there’s not a lot of substance here – but then that never stopped The National Lottery Draws! The programme has inevitably lost the immediacy of its initial broadcast, but there are some interesting talking heads, including Peter Davison and Bernard Cribbins. It is touching to see Matt Smith looking awkward and sad to be leaving, and fascinating to observe Capaldi under the spotlight immediately after his casting went public. Compare this with the actor finally being able to get on with the job in Behind the Scenes.

Here’s to a long reign for the Twelfth Doctor – half Scotsman, half grandpa!


Richard McGinlay

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