Last August’s announcement of Peter Capaldi’s casting as Doctor Who’s new leading man was met with almost universal approval. The highly respected actor’s long list of film and TV roles includes two previous appearances in the Doctor Who universe, as Caecilius alongside David Tennant’s Doctor in 2008’s “The Fires of Pompeii,” and his powerful performance as the doomed civil servant John Frobisher at the center of the Torchwood miniseries “Children of Earth.” In the whimsical early scenes of “Deep Breath,” with the TARDIS being vomited onto the banks of the Thames in Victorian London by a time-displaced dinosaur that had accidentally swallowed it, Capaldi gets to have fun with the Doctor’s traditional post-regeneration wackiness—and some of his funny moments resonate strongly with those in Tom Baker’s first episode nearly 40 years ago.
As the Doctor comes to his senses, he uncovers a bizarre plot involving a group of robots stranded on Earth that are harvesting skin and organs to both disguise themselves and repair their ship so they can return to their “promised land,” and camouflaging the murders as cases of “spontaneous combustion.” Showrunner Steven Moffat reuses the single-minded clockwork droids he invented for his memorable 2006 episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” acknowledging the debt by having the Doctor several times almost manage to remember that he’s encountered a situation like this before. The effects for the chief robot—with half of his face an open mesh of metal, revealing the clockwork within—are excellent and nicely creepy, complementing the actor’s jerky, mechanistic movements. In fact, the whole visual realization of the episode (with the exception of a couple of obviously green-screened shots of the Doctor on horseback) is beautifully achieved by director Ben Wheatley.
Being in the Victorian period, the episode naturally brings back the semi-regular characters of Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), who provide shelter for the Doctor and his companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), while he recovers. The presence of the lizard woman, her ninja-skilled maid/wife, and their dim Sontaran butler does mean that realism takes a back seat to heightened, steampunk storytelling, but that’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, most of the padding in the 75-minute episode involves these three; the scene with Strax using a lorgnette-like device to examine Clara goes nowhere, as does Vastra having Jenny pose for her like an artist’s model. Their playful relationship is enjoyable to watch, but the unnecessary way in which the script contrives an excuse to show them kissing was annoyingly coy—the writer winking at the audience for no good reason.
The new Doctor’s character comes into focus in a long scene with Clara in the restaurant that conceals the robots’ base. Having enjoyed a relationship with a youthful Doctor that consisted largely of playful bantering, Clara now finds herself confronted with a much older, more remote man who seems to be a lot less concerned about the feelings of others. Her uncertainty toward him is only worsened when, in the underground base, he makes no attempt to save her from being captured by the robots. After an earlier scene where it appeared that the Doctor might be about to attack a tramp in order to obtain his coat, it’s quite a shocking moment. Later, Capaldi brings a definite menace to the Doctor’s confrontation with the chief robot, and we’re not shown whether he finally defeats it by talking it into committing suicide—as earlier Doctors would probably have done—or whether he actively killed it. At this point, the boundaries of this new Doctor still remain to be found. His abandonment of Clara turns out to be just a ruse, in order to gain information from the robots, but she’s left in no doubt that this isn’t the same Doctor she knew.
In the end, Clara is only convinced to continue traveling with the Doctor thanks to a phone call from his past self. Matt Smith makes a lovely, bittersweet cameo as Moffat ingeniously ties up the moment at the end of “The Time of the Doctor” when Clara found the TARDIS phone hanging off its hook, just before she witnessed the regeneration. She’s reassured that, however changed, the Doctor still needs her, and they walk off just like the Doctor and Rose in 2005’s “The End of the World,” having achieved an understanding.
But instead of leaving everything resolved, Moffat ends with an unexpected revelation. In an unexplained final scene, the half-faced chief robot somehow arrives in his “promised land” after all, as he wakes up in a strange garden and a woman calling herself Missy (Michelle Gomez) welcomes him to “Heaven.” A connection is also made with an unresolved plot thread from last year’s “The Bells of Saint John,” where we never found out the identity of the woman who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number, resulting in their initial meeting. As the Doctor says, “There’s a woman out there who’s very keen that we stay together.”
Next Week: The Doctor and Clara go “Into the Dalek.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The classic series attempted a similar transition from a youthful Doctor to an older, spikier personality with 1984’s “The Twin Dilemma,” which introduced the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Also starring is Nicola Bryant as Peri, who has even more trouble with her new Doctor than Clara does in “Deep Breath.” It’s not as bad as its reputation (in favorite story polls it routinely ends up at the very bottom of the list), but it’s weak enough in both script and production that it can really only be recommended as an example of how not to go about changing your leading man.
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