Doctor Who: Deep Breath, identity, and furious mirrors

In between all the dinosaur and robot action, the Doctor Who series 8 opener was packed with emotional insights...

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who 8.1 Deep Breath.

“The Doctor is as he has always been and he is also totally different” Peter Capaldi told us in June, just one of the string of riddles he’s been speaking in for the past year. “I know that’s no use to you whatsoever” he laughed, “but it’s true”.

Few will understand that better than Doctor Who fans. Paradox is welded thickly into the show’s machinery: he’s young and old, her future created her past, it’s bigger on the inside… From unearthly children to impossible girls, paradox pervades Doctor Who. And since 2005 at least, so does psychological truth.

Under Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has probed the Doctor’s human psychology further than ever. Yes, they’ve shown him as a two-hearted alien, a lonely angel, a vengeful god, even a deathless vampire outliving his human companions (was it intentional that Ten tasted the A Positive on his first day?), but the writing and performances since 2005 have consistently and insightfully explored what kind of man the Doctor is.

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Deep Breath, underneath all its horse-riding, droid-fighting, dinosaur-vomiting boisterousness, continues that introspective thread. Thanks to Peter Capaldi’s mastery of, and relish in, the role (and the visible fearlessness he’s inspired in Jenna Coleman’s performance), along with the odd moment of poetry from Moffat’s script, the episode’s psychological study of the Doctor is arguably its biggest success.

Beneath the bluster, Deep Breath is a contemplative story about loneliness and identity. Its ‘monsters’ – the dinosaur and the clockwork droids – are more in service of those themes than they are of the episode’s plot (which is perhaps what makes them slightly unsatisfying story elements). The chief role of both is to be a corollary for the Doctor’s situation. The dinosaur is alone, bereft of home, familiarity and kinship, and out-of-time on a geological scale. The node-droid – trying to get home the long way round – has “replaced every piece of [itself], mechanical and organic, time and time again”. “You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from”, the Doctor tells it, cementing the parallels between them. Deep Breath’s monsters are mirrors held up to reflect the Doctor. And they’re not the only ones.

Capaldi’s finest scenes in Deep Breath all involve mirrors of some sort. There’s the one in Vastra’s “whole room for not being awake in”, which has been turned towards the wall. “Don’t look in the mirror, it’s absolutely furious!”, the frenzied Doctor tells the gang. It’s a great joke, and a solid punch-line to the ongoing one about the actor – and his eyebrows’ – aptitude for rage, but it’s also the start of the episode’s surprisingly intense portrayal of mental anguish.

The previous two era-Regenerations (Nine to Ten, and Ten to Eleven) were manic yet chipper; Ten and Eleven reacted to their new faces with gags, vanity and enthusiasm, but not real angst. Both cracked wise, but unlike Twelve, neither actually cracked.

Eleven may have coined the phrase “mad man with a box”, but post-Deep Breath, it seems prematurely applied. Twelve’s Regeneration saw him genuinely unhinged; it shattered the Doctor’s image of himself. Unlike Ten appraising himself in the mirror, giving a satisfied nod, and going off to pull a cracker at the Tylers’ Christmas table, Twelve doesn’t even recognise the person he’s looking at. (Mentioning Lacan or Alzheimer’s here would justifiably send me straight to Pseud’s Corner, so we’ll move quickly on.)

After his nightgown-escape, the next mirror the Doctor comes upon in the episode is the broken one over which he delivers the poetic “who frowned me this face?” speech to tramp Barney (played, incidentally, by Lis Sladen’s husband, Brian Miller), a monologue likely to have most of us carefully re-watching The Fires Of Pompeii and Children Of Earth for an answer to: “Why this one? Why did I choose this face? It’s like I’m trying to tell myself something, like I’m trying to make a point. But what is so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking?”.

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Those words from The Doctor acknowledge the division between his conscious and unconscious mind, an idea of self that both is and isn’t ‘him’. Doctor Who repeatedly plays out that psychological division through the concept of Regeneration, about which the show tells us multiple contradictory things: Ten was both “a completely new man” yet “absolutely the same man” in The Christmas Invasion. He told Harriet Jones that he’s “literally him. Same man, new face, same everything” before telling the leader of the Sycorax, “Literally I just do not know who I am” (and, brilliantly, quoting The Lion King). If you listen to Freud and a few modern neurological wizards, then our identities all exist inside a similar paradox.

Humans have a much more banal equivalent to the Doctor’s whole me/not me thing: ageing. When you look at a photo of yourself taken decades ago, are you seeing you? At the end of his debut episode, Ten wanted to go and visit “all those planets and creatures and horizons” he thinks he’s never seen because he hasn’t seen them “with these eyes”. Ageing ensures figuratively that none of us looks out from the same eyes as we once did, so have ‘we’ really experienced everything – read all the books and seen all the films – we did umpteen years ago? Or not, because we didn’t do it with these eyes?

And there Time Lords were, thinking they had the monopoly on Regeneration.

Down whichever path the ‘why this face?’ plot point skips, the power of Deep Breath’s alleyway scene is the pathos of Capaldi’s performance as a bewildered man, lost, as Vastra poetically says, “in the ruin of himself”. By the time the Doctor next encounters his reflection – in the back of the silver tray he holds up to the node-droid’s face – he has a slightly stronger grip on things (like the sleeping Ten hearing Rose’s whisper for help, Clara needing the Doctor to have her back seems to ‘wake’ him up).

It’s here that the Doctor, in the guise of interrogating the node-droid, announces that he’s suffering from an existential crisis in the best way anyone’s ever announced they’re suffering from an existential crisis: by paraphrasing Trigger from Only Fools And Horses. (Okay, the ‘broom’ thing existed before the much-missed Roger Lloyd Pack brought it to life here. Back then it was a ship, or an axe, a carriage, a knife, a river, or a sock, but the idea’s stayed essentially the same). If the Doctor, like the Droid, has replaced his constituent parts so many times – “new kidneys”, “new teeth” – then how much of the original ‘him’ is left?

Continuing the thread, after so many years living alongside human companions, how much of the Doctor is still alien? Talking to the droid/mirror, the Doctor accuses him of picking up the superstition of the promised land “from all the humanity [it’s] stuffed inside [itself]”. It’s developed the non-droid concept of beauty, he suggests, because it’s now more human than machine. Like the node-droid, the alien Doctor has also been gradually stuffed with humanity, not via harvested organs, but via his companions.

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Which brings us to the final furious mirror the Doctor faces in Deep Breath – Clara.

Since 2005, the companion hasn’t just been an audience avatar, but a mirror reflecting the Doctor’s image back to himself. Without them reminding him who he is, he tends to get lost. Travelling alone in The Waters Of Mars, the Doctor becomes the egomaniacal Time Lord Victorious, in The Runaway Bride, he’s a stranger who scares Donna to death. In Donna’s words, the Doctor needs someone to stop him. He needs someone to be his outsourced conscience and compassion, and to show him himself at his most terrible. In addition to being Time Vortex-absorbing Gods and temps from Chiswick, the Doctor’s companions are also his mirrors.  

So when Clara doesn’t recognise the Doctor in Deep Breath, it shakes his foundations. That’s the other spot-on moment of emotional truth in the episode – in real life, when the person who knows us best in the world goes away, along with grief comes panic. We only understood who we were through them and so without them, we’re left spinning. If our identities only exist in relation to other people’s conceptions of us, then we need to be recognised to know who we are. At his most confused and vulnerable, the Doctor needs that from Clara, desperately. Thanks to Capaldi’s performance, when he tells her “You look at me and you can’t see me. Have you any idea how that feels?” and begs her to “please just see [him]”, it’s not just affecting, but genuinely poignant.

Arguably then, Deep Breath is most successful not just as a series opener, or a romp, or a “Clara, I’m not your boyfriend” restatement of purpose, but as a series of insightful yet desolate observations about human identity. Granted, that might not have looked quite as inviting a description in the Saturday teatime TV listings, hence all the dinosaur and robots stuff.

Next week – exploding Daleks! Or so we’ve been told…

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