Review: ‘Deep Breath’ (Doctor Who)

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I’m afraid to say that ‘Deep Breath’, the opener for Doctor Who series 8  and the first story with Peter Capaldi’s ominous Timelord, is less of a family’s Saturday night television programme and more an inconsistent, egotistical mess. Don’t worry though: there are some positives to the episode (written by Steven Moffat), but not enough for my liking. Let’s begin.

When the episode opens with a gorgeous shot of a Tyrannosaurus rex casually strolling past Parliament, we can be forgiven for feeling excited for what’s to come. We are immediately grabbed by this evocative image: the anachronism of the prehistoric beast amid the skyline of a Victorian London. We are also grabbed by the mystery surrounding the dinosaur – how did it get there? And why does it appear to be choking? Then it splutters out a blue box – the TARDIS no less! Out falls a babbling madman and we see some delightful interchanges between this hazy post-regeneration Doctor and his bewildered companions. The new Doctor suddenly reveals he can speak “Dinosaur” and translates the distant cries of the T-Rex into woeful laments for her home – okay, hang on… okay, ignore that. Because Madame Vastra, the lesbian Silurian, is having a go at Clara about faces and veils and – oh… wait, no, move on, because look! The Doctor! He is writing all this random crazy science stuff on the floor and walls with a piece of chalk that… that… okay, he just found some chalk, but come on! Look! He’s a genius with loads of equations in his head! Then he climbs out the window and talks to the Dinosaur! It’s pretty funny! Then suddenly the poor creature is set on fire (or something, I don’t know) and dies! And it’s, like, terrible! Why did this happen? What does it have to do with the plot?

As it turns out, the Tyrannosaurus rex was just there for an interesting opening to the episode. She then dies, her suspicious death being explained in a throwaway fashion towards the climax of the episode – totally unimportant if we discount the pretty lame revelation which follows. So, if the T-rex wasn’t the centre of the episode, what was the plot? Well on first watch, this reviewer found that hard to determine and it’s not been totally cleared up on multiple viewings for the writing of this review. Basically there are Clockwork Droids (related to those from the 2006 episode ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, also written by Moffat) and one of them is assimilating human body parts to become more human. I think it’s only him who is trying to do that, but all the other Droids have a similar appearance. One literally has an enlarged candle flame behind its skin mask – you get the feeling the BBC has been doing some budget cuts on this series. Oh, and the Clockwork Droid who is definitely becoming human is also seeking ‘paradise’. That seems to be important to the arc of the series, considering the last scene of the episode, but is pretty unimportant here. Along with that, the Doctor goes a little crazy before saving the day in ridiculously unlikely circumstances, leaving the whole point of the crashed ship, its Clockwork Droid inhabitants and the general plot of the story’s antagonists rather up to the viewer – because no solid answers are provided here, trust me. It’s a Steven Moffat script.

As for the characters, my biggest problem lies with the dreadful Paternoster gang, the most unlikeable trio in the Who-universe. Madame Vastra is an egomaniac, Jenny a two-dimensional and underdeveloped character and Strax… well, actually, Strax is very good. Sontarans are a classic monster in Doctor Who history that have been reinvented here by Moffat. I must say that, due primarily to the enthusiasm of actor Dan Starkey, this actually works. There are moments of genuinely hilarious brilliance with Strax that really brighten up the 70 minute run time. The same cannot be said, however, for the female two thirds of the team, and it is at this point I reference the growing consensus that Steven Moffat is incredibly sexist in his writing of female characters in Doctor Who.

There is a moment early on in the episode where the Doctor is sedated by Vastra through the use of a psychic link. Vastra then goes on to say how funny “monkeys” are, which incites Jenny to call her out, chiding her for referring to humans as such. Vastra then retorts that people are “apes”, and men are in fact the “monkeys”. Jenny and Vastra then share a knowing smile, and I raise an eyebrow: does this mean, Mr Moffat, that strong women are such because they can insult the commonly superior males that surround them? Of course, I do not concur with this notion. I prefer to see both males and females as human beings collectively and not pitted against each other for the sake of some ridiculous sense of superiority. I would also like to address the sexuality of the couple: a female lizard and a female human are married in Victoria era London. To promote this as the crux to their presence in the episode, with Jenny seeming unable to function without saying she loves Vastra every few minutes, I find disagreeable. Here’s why: ignorance.

Gay marriage is a huge issue for the LGTBQ community, providing another step towards the acceptance of sexualities beyond the heterosexual. Moffat has written two characters here that I am sure are meant to celebrate all sexualities, yet to me he seems oblivious to the fact he is achieving the opposite. The Paternoster Gang aren’t accepted, this image personified verbally by Jenny and physically by Madame Vastra: According to Jenny they are outcasts because no one can accept their love, but according to egomaniac Vastra no one will accept her because of her appearance. Now what is Moffat actually promoting here? Is it the tragedy of homophobia? Or the wrongfulness of racism? Or both? The metaphor of the veil used in the episode is both a desperate attempt for the script to be deemed clever and reflection of Clara’s attitude towards the Doctor’s regeneration, so I would assume that homophobia is the main target. Yet here I come to my two main problems with the relationship between Jenny and Vastra: why are they married and why aren’t they both human?

The fact Vastra is a Silurian completely nullifies any actual relation the viewer may have with the couple’s relationship. If they were both human, the fact it is deemed freakish and in need of secrecy would be more poignant to the audience as it would be prejudice against people like them – it would be more affecting that this loving pair were deemed “unnatural”. This would also mean that it could be in no way likened to (when taken at face value) bestiality. Done this way, it would be seen as less unconventional and more of an acceptable way of life, creating a positive lifestyle image.  Moffat’s choice of having the characters married – an impossibility in the time period of the episode – is a wasted opportunity. If the audience can feel sympathetic towards the characters’ situation they could question why they are not allowed to marry. It could be shrugged off by characters in the episode as a fact that people’s attitude towards them will sadly never change. The audience would react against this injustice; it would make us glad that society today is moving beyond an ignorance that threatened a person for their inescapable sexual identity. It would remind us of the extent homosexuality was despised by society and how terrible it would be to return to such an ignorant culture.

Considering the majority of the audience for Doctor Who are children, I would ask you to consider what message this episode displayed to them: two women in a loving relationship – as weird as a human and a lizard shacking up? Or, perhaps, same-sex couples should be viewed as ‘different’? You could also ask yourself what the point is of having a relationship of any variety taking centre stage in a family television show – especially if the writing is unable to portray a perfectly acceptable relationship without highlighting that it is, for some reason, bizarre.

Unfortunately, Steven Moffat seems to have decided that he can write what he wants and disregard not only his own plot and characters but also the continuity of the universe his writing inhabits. This will matter less to any casual viewers, but as a self-proclaimed fan of the show (something Moffat claims applies to him too) continuity is a small thing to ask for. Even with the show having recently celebrated its 50 year anniversary, to acknowledge basic lore previously established in the show is not too tall an order. The example I will use from this episode uses lore first introduced in the 2005 episode ‘The End of the World’ which states that, upon travelling in the TARDIS just once, it will translate all languages for you and allow you to unknowingly respond in the same tongue, even if it is extra-terrestrial to you.  Why, then, can the Doctor understand the Tyrannosaurus Rex at the start of this episode and neither Clara or the Paternoster Gang (having all travelled in the TARDIS at least once) have a clue its unintelligible roars are… well… intelligible? Okay, it’s a bit of a nitpick on my part, but as someone who has loved Doctor Who since the age of five, I care about these things.  So, as I show my utter dislike for this story, continuing the fetid decline of the once fantastic Moffat’s writing, I have to say that I really, really, really want to like this story. I really want it to be good, but it just isn’t. The Moffat era stories should be good and they have been good, but right now they aren’t, and (with the possible exception of ‘The Day of the Doctor’, the 50th Anniversary Special) they haven’t been for quite a while now.

There were, of course, some good things about this episode – in fact, there were some things I really liked. Let’s have a look at the positives, starting with the obvious: Capaldi. Our twelfth doctor was very intriguing. There were some interesting points of development for this new incarnation and it seems like there will be a surprising amount of Malcolm Tucker still showing through in Capaldi’s acting for a few more episodes at least. It seems we are yet to be made fully aware of the Doctor’s new characteristics as they will stand for the rest of Capaldi’s tenure, and that is pretty exciting. I can sum up all my thoughts about Jenna Coleman’s cocksure companion to this belligerent new Timelord in one word: finally. Clara has been dubbed by Moffat as “The Impossible Girl” which basically seemed to be all we were getting in terms of characterisation for the confident female who challenges the Doctor not quite on an intellectual level but is certainly feisty enough to keep him on his toes – sound familiar? Well it should, because that’s every Moffat companion ever. Jenna Coleman really shone in ‘Deep Breath’, reeling from the loss of Matt Smith’s Doctor and dealing with the trauma of having him become such an antithetical character so suddenly with Capaldi’s entrance. Luckily she did not take Vastra’s nonsense with Moffat’s stupid veil metaphor and displayed her individuality as, dare I say it, a believable female character, and ultimately won my approval. She is much better than Amelia Pond ever was, who more reminded me of Madame Vastra than anything else. So, good job Moffat, you are not totally naff.

Ben Wheatley’s direction really livened up what I imagine would have been a fairly lacklustre script by taking little moments in the episode and making them truly memorable. For instance, Capaldi’s first scene stepping out of the TARDIS was muddled and confused so Wheatley electing to slow down at random moments brilliantly showed the confusion inside the Doctor’s head. Wheatley also managed to turn humorous moments into ominous ones, such as the Doctor mistaking Strax for Clara, sidelining the comic nuances of the moment to focus on Capaldi’s face as he retreats from his friends, his eyes darkened with fear. The Half-Face Man, an otherwise bland villain, was made menacing at times by shadows swallowing him in gloom, or the camera’s focus drawn to the gears clicking away inside the largely hollow skull. The lighting of the episode was used to great effect and the raging fires of the T-rex’s burning carcass were a particular highlight for me: the effect illuminated the scene on the bridge with great believability, and the ash particles which danced around the new Doctor fitted well with his blazing with anger at the dinosaur’s untimely demise. It is a beautifully shot scene – just don’t mention the carriage door locking like a car. Just… don’t.

You can probably tell that Moffat’s series 8 opener did not satisfy this long time Whovian – I found it tedious and messy. As for casual viewers, I imagine that if further episodes have to spend time tying up its loose ends and explaining what happened at the beginning, they are not likely to remain hooked. It is a statistical fact that the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who has suffered a definite slump in viewing figures, despite gaining further popularity in the USA. Not counting event episodes (such as the 50th Anniversary), Matt Smith’s era greatly suffered in terms of its viewership which I would wager is due to the shoddy writing. Though Peter Capaldi’s debut brought the show’s viewing figures out of its slump (the show pulled in viewing figures of 7 million) it still does not compare to the viewership of David Tennant’s debut in 2005 (9.4 million). We will have to see if it sustains this viewership over the coming weeks to confirm whether or not the novelty of a new Doctor’s debut episode was the main appeal to large viewing numbers. Despite these statistics and how I personally feel about him, Steven Moffat has introduced a rather beautiful – yes, beautiful – metaphor into the Whoniverse, whether it be a conscious one or not, that I feel is worth mentioning as we reach a conclusion.

In ‘The Time of the Doctor’, Matt Smith’s final episode as the eleventh Doctor broadcast last Christmas, the regenerating protagonist gave a heart-rending final speech to round off an otherwise unimpressive episode. In it he began by saying the following: “It just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment like breath on a mirror.” It was a touching metaphor that obviously reflected the regret of forced change, such as regeneration for a Timelord. It was surprising, I felt, when this metaphor was expanded upon through the title of the series 8 premiere this review has focused on: ‘Deep Breath’. The idea that the start of Capaldi’s reign begins with a “deep breath” reflects perfectly the image of “breath on a mirror” – that breathing out is inevitable, no matter how long you hang on. The twelfth Doctor understands that he could exhale at any point and breathe in as a different man, ready to take his next gulp of air. It is not a focus of the episode, but the continuation of this image is concerned by the surprising inclusion of Matt Smith at the end of the episode in his phone call through time to Clara. I felt that it gave a gentle gravitas never seen before in terms of the Doctor’s regenerations, and is much more profound than David Tennant’s regeneration in 2009, which was portrayed more as a death than a rebirth. For the casual viewer I would understand that the previous guy randomly popping up at the end of the next guy’s first episode is bizarre, but I still like it. It is a deep, well written scene that finished the metaphor started in the previous episode subtly and wonderfully. Still, it doesn’t make me forget about the rest of the messy affair.

As far as I am concerned, it is Steven Moffat’s lungs who need to be refilled: Doctor Who is now in need of more of a regeneration than just the re-casting of its lead actor. Moffat, I’m afraid that your era is ending, and it’s not a moment too soon.

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Chris Irvine

Scottish.

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