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Coffee or Chips? Doctor Who: “Deep Breath”

Doctor Who is finally back and Capaldi is here! Keep a tight hold on the reigns because “Deep Breath” is not pulling any punches. Let’s talk about it below! Spoilers abound!

Note: I am not keen on the reordering of Doctors. At all. So I will refer to Capaldi as Twelve, just in case people are wondering/confused.

Summary

A T-Rex arrives in the Thames and coughs up the TARDIS while Madame Vastra and Jenny look on. They arrive at the blue box’s door to find the new Doctor… and he’s having a very hard time remembering who he or anyone else is. Clara doesn’t know how to calm him and or deal with him. She’s entirely off-put by the new regeneration, which upset Madame Vastra. She puts Clara to an interview test to prove that she’s still companion material.

The Doctor wakes up in Vastra’s house and climbs on the roof to vow that he will return the dinosaur to her home, but she suddenly spontaneously combusts. He goes to Thames to get a better look, all the while degrading the human race for ogling the sight (Vastra, Strax, Jenny and Clara show up as he’s doing this). Then he jumps into the Thames. Strax has the TARDIS brought back to Vastra’s, under the logic that the Doctor will have have to come to them if he wants his beloved machine back.

The Doctor emerges the next day in an alleyway where he accosts a vagrant, demanding answers to his questions and generally bemoaning the current state of himself. He knows he’s seen his face before, and wonders why he picked it.

Clara changes into some more era-appropriate clothes, and finds a clue—an ad in a newspaper that reads “Impossible Girl: Lunch on the other side?” She knows the Doctor doesn’t do puzzles so she goes literal and flips the page over to a restaurant advertisement. She heads there, the Doctor shows up, and it turns out that neither one of them placed the ad. The Doctor notices that no one in the restaurant is breathing. Clara asks what to do and he asks how long she can hold her breath. They try to leave and are captured, taken underground. It seems as though the restaurant is an old spaceship that’s been there for a very long time. It’s filled with cyborgs who have been grafting human parts onto themselves (also dinosaurs parts, which is why poor Rexie had to go). The Doctor and Clara free themselves from their confinement and come across the control node cyborg. He wakes up and they try to flee, but the Doctor pauses in the room, trying to figure it all out. Clara comes back to get him, and as a result gets trapped in the room when the sonic screwdriver closes the door. The Doctor makes the choice to leave her behind.

Doctor Who, Deep Breath

Clara remembers the Doctor’s advice about not breathing to blend in, but can’t hold her breath long enough to escape. She is interrogated by the control node, who wants to know where the Doctor is. But Clara, terrified, keeps her wits about her, and insists that they can’t kill her if they want to know where the Doctor is, and they can’t harm her because she can put up with a lot of pain. She gets the controlling cyborg to give up a lot of information; his ship has been there since the age of the dinosaurs, they’re looking for “the Promised Land.” He decides to kill her, but Clara knows that the Doctor always has her back. Sure enough, he’s been there the whole time, disguised as another cyborg. He gets Clara to call Jenny, Madame Vastra, and Strax down (they’ve already made quick work of the cyborgs upstairs), and a fight breaks out. The control node makes to escape in the ship’s pod, and the Doctor follows him, saying he’ll kill the guy.

The control node asks how the Doctor would kill him, but the Doctor won’t answer—he’s more concerned with explaining to the cyborg that his mission is already a failure. The ship (the Marie Antoinette, sister ship to the Madame de Pompadour) will never reached the Promised Land, it’s doesn’t exist. The cyborg has replaced so many parts of himself that he’s no longer what he used to be anyhow. And when the controller claims he’ll kill the Doctor rather than be killed, that the Doctor won’t murder him, the Time Lord tells him that he’s protected the people of Earth for far too long to stop now. The cyborg ends up impaled on top of Big Ben and his fellows power down.

When Vastra, Jenny, Strax and Clara get back home, they find that the TARDIS has gone. Clara figures the Doctor has forgotten her. She goes to ask Vastra for a job, but Vastra points out that the Doctor is likely coming for her—Clara has already changed back into her clothes, and she knows the Doctor better than anyone in the world. Sure enough, the TARDIS materializes a moment later.  She gets in and finds a redecoration (nothing too serious this time), and the Doctor tells Clara that he’s different, but he still wants her along for the ride. Also that whoever put that ad in the newspaper is clearly keen on keeping them together. Clara tells him no. She’s not sure she’s knows who he is anymore. Then she gets the phone call and takes it outside.

It’s the Doctor. Her Doctor, the Eleventh. He’s calling from Trenzalore, knows he’s about to regenerate. And he wants her to know that, though she may be scared, he is scared, too. And he needs her. And he asks her to stay for him. The Twelfth Doctor exits the TARDIS, knowing who’s on the line. Eleven berates himself for getting old again, then bids Clara goodbye. The Twelfth Doctor knows Clara can’t see that he’s truly the Doctor and begs her to really look at him. She does, and thanks him for calling. She gives him a hug—somewhat against his will, as he’s not quite so cuddly anymore. Then they wander off to get coffee.

The control node wakes up somewhere beautiful and a woman is there. She apologizes for what her “boyfriend” has done, but claims that she does like the guy’s new Scottish accent. The cyborg asks where he is, and she tells him it’s the Promised Land. Heaven.


Commentary

There’s so much great in here accompanied by some real ugly spots. I’m going to dive in at the start—

Vastra and Jenny have a Lestrade it seems, though he looks more like a canonical Watson. I wonder if they’re suggesting that there was further mix-up in the Sherlock Holmes tales, and not only were Holmes and Watson women in the Whoniverse (and one of them an alien), but Watson’s appearance was taken from Lestrade for the books? Anyhow…. I’m waiting for people to start griping about how London could be filled with all this crazy alternate history again. That was a big deal in RTD’s era, everyone complaining about how so much had occurred in London, there was no way people could refuse to believe in aliens and monsters, etc. Having a T-Rex pop up in the Thames is not something a population would be quick to forget.

But never mind that. We’re here for the Doctor. The new-new Doctor.

Capaldi is a real force of nature, through and through. He’s not bubbly or charming or sweet, but he’s compelling. There’s no other word for it. And frankly, despite what are sure to be many unlikeable qualities (some already displayed in this episode) he’s still intensely likable. Every single scene that gives him focus is mesmerizing, thoughtful, and considered. He doesn’t dash about and flap his arms, he’s grounded and calculating. And with all that, there’s a real vulnerability—and that’s where we can connect with him. He’s not a child’s best friend, but he has a real softness there underneath that even he can’t always access. It’s going to be so much fun to watch as the season unfolds.

There are some super smart moves in this episode, and one of them is dealing with Twelve’s post-regeneration amnesia. Every Doctor usually has this problem to some extent, certain incarnations worse than others. (Five was a fainting wreck who had to be confined to the Zero Room, and Six promptly tried to kill his companion when he woke up.) But it’s never been written with quite the level of gravity it deserves. The way it’s played in this episode reads a lot like dementia, and it’s more frightening for it. The Doctor doesn’t know who he is, what anything is for, why he’s being hushed and handled, why no one says anything that makes sense. They keep having to tell him to calm down, and he’s not having it. The scene where they’re trying to put him to bed seemed more like something you’d see in a hospital than on Doctor Who. Very real and very unsettling.

It’s a handy way of making clear something that isn’t often articulated on the show; becoming someone else is frightening. Not just for the companions, but for the Doctor. His deconstruction of himself in the alley in front of that tramp—going on about his angry eyebrows and his worry over that face—it reminds the audience that suddenly waking up as an entirely new person would be beyond disorienting. It would be awful, at the start.

Doctor Who, Deep Breath

There are lots of touches in the script that make aspects of regeneration more explicit. Vastra says it outright to Clara—the Doctor was young before because he wanted to be likable. This goes along with my personal regeneration theory (*does a little dance*), that subconscious elements effect how the Doctor turns out. The Eleventh Doctor is dismayed to find himself old-looking again, but he’s not surprised that he’s rough around the edges and difficult for Clara to latch onto; something in him knew to expect that. He knows how he is feeling now, and how that will inform the next incarnation.

In addition, the accent adoption comes up again. Though it was never implicitly stated in the show, Russell T. Davies said that the Tenth Doctor adopted his particular accent because of the imprint Rose made on him. He changed to sound like her. Here we see the Twelfth Doctor do something heartbreaking; Amy always made him feel safe, and so he suddenly adopts her accent when he’s frightened, then keeps it. We know he’s still specifically missing her because he name checks her to Clara (while talking about how much more useful Amy would be in their current situation) when he can barely remember a thing. So that echo of Amy will always be there, with this Doctor. He kept a little piece of her to comfort himself.

Oof. Sorry, too many emotions. Must disconnect….

There are hints about his face, too. Whovians know that Capaldi has already been on the show (in “Fires of Pompeii”) and on Torchwood (“Children of Earth”), playing different parts. Davies apparently had a reason in mind for why this man’s face would show up more than once, and Moffat adopted that idea for Capaldi’s first season. Here, we see that the Doctor knows his new face is familiar, but can’t yet place it. He’s annoyed with himself for trying to hint at something with this regeneration without saying it outright. Where is this going to lead? It’s a fun mystery to play at, and subtly hinted, which is nice for a change.

For shoutouts, we’ve got a harkening back to “The Girl in the Fireplace,” as the antagonists come from the Madame de Pompadour’s sister ship. It didn’t really bother me that Moffat was reusing the idea—he does that a lot, but it felt less grasping this time around, just another look that didn’t change what the former episode had done. Hopefully we won’t see too much more of that, though.

Also, can we stop this new trend of putting meaningless flashbacks before important galvanizing character development? That recall to Clara’s classroom, where she’s completely lost control of the kids was just plain weird. And all just so she could take a page from one of her student’s books and talk back to the robots. It makes her look like a bad teacher, and is completely out of left field. She could have come up with that line on her own. Or the single flashback could have been multiple ones that were better situated in the narrative. (Also, the Doctor says you have to stop breathing to hide among the cyborgs, but all he does is put on one of their faces? How does that follow?)

And what of Clara? I honestly haven’t been her biggest fan through her run; not because I have a problem with Jenna Coleman, but because it seemed to me that her character was barely written as a person. We knew next to nothing about her, only that she was quippy, cutely dressed, and sort of had a crush on the Doctor. In this episode, however, she was given some real meat to work with, and handled it gorgeously. Her scene opposite the head cyborg was just excellent, a real moulding moment for a Doctor’s companion. She is frightened, but she uses the fear rather than being overcome by it. That’s a real tell for the character, and gives her more depth than practically all her episode previous.

On the other hand… we’ve got some messiness with how Moffat handled her crush on the Doctor. When she shows faltering confidence in the man, Vastra shuts down like a lead gate. Suddenly Clara has to “prove” herself, show that she’s not just in it for the Doctor’s formerly pretty face. The hell? And Vastra’s dismissiveness of Clara finding him attractive indicates that anyone who finds the Doctor attractive is an idiot. It literally boils down to “You foolish girl, he’s two millennia old and you actually thought that a little flirting from him could mean anything? How small your mind must be.” To which Clara then has to go off at Vastra about only ever having a poster of Marcus Aurelius in her room (Moffat apparently really loves it when young women have a thing for Roman conquerers, and it’s getting creepy now), therefore not being into pretty boys. She then accuses Vastra of thinking badly of her because the Silurian thinks she’s attractive, and also now assumes she’s nothing more than a pretty airhead? Or something? Which ends with Jenny applauding and Vastra saying the Victorian equivalent of “You’re so cute when you’re angry.” And then everything’s settled.

Here’s my issue(s): if Clara honestly likes the Doctor in part for his looks? THAT’S OKAY. SHE IS ALLOWED TO. It doesn’t make her vapid or unworthy, it means that she’s human. And her head can be turned by a pretty face. Particularly when that pretty face is being real flirty. And it’s completely understandable that this man, who used to come off as an odd 20-something, would now be off-putting to her as suddenly middle-aged and very unstable. It should not be a put down. Not in any situation, with a 2000-year-old alien or otherwise. Really, how is this a conversation the story needs to have? Unless Moffat really wants to make sure that all the lady fans out there realize that having a crush on his big important main man character is daffy of them. Which would just be plain rude.

In addition, Vastra is misjudging Clara because she has now filed her away under the “pretty and frivolous” category? She thinks it’s her place to put Clara to the test? She’s specifically getting cold with her because she thinks Clara is hot, but no longer has substance? All of this is basically terrible. As is her potshot about men, after getting the Doctor to fall asleep: “Humans are apes—men are monkeys.” Ugh. Is this tired gendered humor still funny to anyone? Because I’m super done with it. And Jenny joins in on the Clara-bashing, too: when Clara asks Jenny if she’d still like Vastra if she’d changed into something different, Jenny points out that she’s doesn’t “like” Vastra, she loves her, and that the woman is a lizard. Which is funny and affirming of their same-sex relationship at face value, but again dismissive of Clara’s feelings. You only “like” him, that’s not a deep enough emotion to be truly hurt, and if you more than “liked” him it wouldn’t even be a question. Silly.

And if there’s one more “haha, Clara is naked due to this future technology!” joke, I might be physically ill. Also not funny. Just grossly distressing.

The only thing that really makes up for any of this is toward the end of the episode, when the Doctor tells Clara he’s not her boyfriend. When she indicates that she never thought so, he counters with, “I never said it was your mistake.” Here is the Doctor admitting that he’d wanted to think of Clara on those terms before, that the relationship has fundamentally changed and it’s on him. He’s taking responsibility for what’s lost between them, not indicating that she’s the problem, with her “fixation” on pretty faces.

The end of the episode is honestly perfect. The call from the Eleventh Doctor (what a beautiful surprise to all the fans having such a hard time letting him go) was an excellent send off, a great nod between generations. That the Doctor knows it’s him, that they echo each other, that it’s exactly what Clara needs to hear… And then Twelve’s request that Clara look and see him. The Doctor has tried so many different methods to get companions on board for the transition of regeneration. Ten was determined to prove himself through action and swagger, Five was helpless, Seven made pratfalls. But never before has a Doctor made that plea (and it’s always a plea, in its way) so simple and genuine. Here I am. It’s really me. Please don’t go.

In a parallel to “Rose,” the Ninth Doctor’s first episode, Twelve and Clara are left standing on a street corner, wondering where to go. The Doctor suggests they get coffee or chips. Clara opts for coffee, setting herself apart from Rose (who, of course, went for chips). They also argue about who will pay for it, but this time, it seems as though Clara will get the Doctor to pick up the tab.

The tone of the show has definitely shifted, and that can only be a good thing at this point in time. It will be quite the ride, seeing where the Doctor takes us. Less light in the darkness, a little more pure terror. There’s a hint of the Fourth Doctor’s more gothic adventures about it, and that departure could bring a certain roughness to Who that it’s never had before. Next week, please.

Also… what’s the deal with Dark River Song? (I think it’s pretty clear that she’s not actually River, of course.) Here’s hoping there’s more to this character than dark suits, arched eyebrows, and calling the Doctor “my boyfriend” all the time. Just, no.


Emily Asher-Perrin does not want Dark River Song. Ever. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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