TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Deep Breath

After changing his face from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi in the Christmas special, the Doctor finds himself out of sorts in Victorian London and it is up to Clara and the Paternoster Gang to bring him back in line as well as facing a mysterious threat.


Unlike Smith's appointment, Capaldi's tenure as the Doctor was greeted largely with enthusiasm and with the promise of a darker, calmer Gallifreyan, the opening episode has been highly anticipated. It also has the added promise of having been directed by Ben Wheatley, he of Kill List and Sightseers fame. There's a new TARDIS and new opening credits, slightly more discordant and unsettling than before, in keeping with the new, more fractious Doctor. The cogs and whirling clock faces suggest something more mechanical, something perhaps more timey-wimey waiting to be broken and fractured. It's an interesting development and whilst I'm not as immediately keen on these new credits as I was for the Matt Smith era, but it's a suitably intriguing introduction.

The atmosphere then for Deep Breath is also suitably menacing, a slow burn of tension undercut with some great examples of humour for Capaldi to get his teeth and independent eyebrows stuck into. The foe, a cyborg that keeps cannibalising parts from both machinery and humans to keep existing, provides an interesting parallel to the Doctor and his regeneration as well as starkly reminding us that the cyborg has forgotten his identity over the course of his transformations whilst the Doctor remembers. The design of the cyborg, with his half face and gentleman's attire, offers a suitably creepy figures whilst the physical performances of his puppets were ridiculously creepy.

Heroes are always more interesting when faced with a villain who forms some kind of mirror image and it once again proves here. Forced to assert his own identity in the face of someone cannibalising theirs, the Doctor gets a chance to find his confidence, his purpose and most of all, coming to terms with who he now is. In that sense, Deep Breath is an extraordinarily layered piece of work for a first episode; the mirrors that occupy the walls of various sets, Madame Vestra's veil and the constant references to new and old faces all build towards an intriguing exploration of the Doctor's identity.

It's Capaldi that immediately proves to be the standout, as expected, bringing an underlying grim quality to the Doctor that comes across as a mish-mash of earlier doctors like Hartnell with the occasional glimpse of impish humour that Tennant or Smith tapped into. His Doctor is broken and disorientated, lacking in identity and incapable of remembering anything from his surroundings. That trauma is brought out throughout Capaldi's performance, occasional flashes of pain in his expressions as well as the steely determination to work out what is wrong.

His performance brings out something particularly brilliant in Jenna Coleman as returning companion Clara, fiercely going toe-to-toe with Capaldi in every scene together. Like the Doctor, Clara undergoes something of her own identity crisis, no longer defined as the Impossible Girl living to serve the Doctor. She finds herself the necessary link back to the Doctor's self, but she's not just working to bring him back, but herself as well. The episode is the poorer for keeping them separate and in the opening half lacks the same zip of its later scenes, precisely because Clara and the Doctor are kept apart. However, once they find themselves thrown together, the episode picks up a brilliant sense of pace building to a wonderfully tense final showdown between the mechanicals and our heroes.

With the longer runtime, the episode is given much more of a chance to spread out the story and despite suffering from a couple of earlier pacing issues, it's refreshing to feel like the episode is moving a little too slowly rather than whizzing by in manically delivered exposition. The final cameo from Matt Smith offered a sense of closure that his regeneration didn't which felt a little too quick at the time. I also don't particularly mind spending time with the Paternoster Gang, unlike others, and any episode that features Strax attempting to aerial silk acrobatics is going to get an upvote from me.

Deep Breath may not be a perfect episode, but it's certainly an excellent one to kick off a new era for Doctor Who and teases some interesting developments for both the Doctor and Clara. I'm already sold on Capaldi and Clara proves to have some life in her yet.

- Becky

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