Doctor Who series 8: Deep Breath review

A dinosaur, robots, and a new Doctor. What did Simon make of Peter Capaldi's series 8 debut, Deep Breath?

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.1 Deep Breath

Well, Peter Capaldi is really rather great. It seems logical to start there, as he’s top of the list of big, beaming positives in Deep Breath, the starting point for Doctor Who series 8. From the moment he utters the word “shush” to a typically militaristic Strax, there’s little doubt that the newly redesigned TARDIS – now with books and dinosaur slobber – is in safe hands.

It’s too early to call definitely, of course, but on the evidence of the (surprisingly) limited screen time he’s given in Deep Breath, Capaldi is the Doctor we wanted him to be. Steeped in the tradition of the older Doctors, from his costume to his demeanour – noting himself that he’s not got a very long scarf – he’s a slower, slightly grumpier, and far less romantic Doctor. As a consequence, he feels a less predictable one. When he says to Clara at the end “I’m not your boyfriend”, that noise you heard was a bunch of hardened Who fans clapping their hands.

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“I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore”

Deep Breath, though, is as much (if not more) an episode about Clara finding out who he is as a straight introduction to 12 (as we think we can get away with calling him). It harks back to the stories of the past that have seen the Doctor clearly affected by, and exploring, his regeneration. Castrovalva springs to mind, but also David Tennant’s relatively passive introduction in The Christmas Invasion. There’s a vulnerability that comes with his regeneration, and a cantankerous tone at times. But also, there’s a growing sense that this is a man in need of help.

And as it happens, a little bit of Capaldi goes a long way. Steven Moffat’s script also hints that the actor’s previous appearances in Who (and possibly Torchwood) are no coincidence. It’s a trait of current Who, like it or not, to weave the immediate narrative into the history of the show. But there’s a hint at least that we may be due a trip back to the events of The Fires Of Pompeii or Children Of Earth.

A further trait is the red herring monster. Given the heavy analysis that goes into any released Doctor Who promo, you can understand the obfuscating of villains. We’ve seen it before with Cybermen and Daleks teased for stories that they have little involvement in. The same applied for the very expensive dinosaur that stomps through the opening shots here. Appreciating it’s a nice entry to have a new Doctor choked up by a creature, said dinosaur seems to exist just to be killed – within 20 minutes – and appear in a few background shots. Impressive, certainly, but there’s a feeling that the first part of Deep Breath is not as sharp out of the gate as usual.

But it does settle, and in comes the influence of debut Who director, Ben Wheatley. Comfortably the most family-friendly production that Wheatley has released for public consumption, his Who is still notably darker, and notably moodier. He holds his shots a little longer, his camera angles are less obvious, and his tone is just a little less comfortable. He’s not particularly overt about it, but there’s a sense that a strong movie director is behind the camera here. It’ll be fascinating to see what he does when he gets some Daleks to play with next week.

Foe-wise, there’s a suggestion – hinted at by a reference back to Madame de Pompadour – that the clockwork creatures have a familiar feel. Certainly if you were drawing a Venn diagram, there’d be an intersect with a previous Steven Moffat adventure, The Girl In The Fireplace. Might he have in store for us a return for Sophia Myles later in the series? She’d be very welcome.

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As it stands, the creatures here don’t work quite as effectively as they did in that particular story, although somewhat inevitably, they’re not the main attraction here. Think Eric Bana’s Nero having to sit in the background of the 2009 Star Trek reboot, while a new team was put together in the foreground, and you’ve a rough idea where this new bunch of clockwork creatures fit in.

The ‘hold your breath’ idea isn’t far removed from ‘don’t blink’ (“first a thing where you can’t blink, now one where you can’t breathe?”, questioned the 10-year old we watched Deep Breath with), and the moment where the Doctor and Clara find themselves surrounded in a restaurant doesn’t really build the tension you’d hope. On the plus side of the well-realised creatures, it’s a nice turnaround to have a robot edging more human than a human edging more robot. But it does at the moment feel that they don’t bring much new to Who.

“These are attack eyebrows”

It’s in the foreground where Deep Breath really scores though, and it’s Jenna Coleman’s Clara who comes out of it extremely well. Clara is a more settled character in some senses this time around, with some of her mysteries dissolved (she doesn’t feel quite so impossible anymore at least). But she faces a different kind of challenge here, as she attempts to reconnect with the man she jumped into a box and travelled the universe with.

As Capaldi’s Doctor jumps across the rooftops of London in Ebenezer Scrooge’s cast-off nightgown, she’s trying to rationalise what’s happened with the help of Madame Vastra and her incredible disappearing veil. There are, we should note, some lovely moments between Jenny and Vastra, too.

But Clara only really comes around with the help of a glorious surprise cameo, which sadly had been a little too strongly hinted at in some quarters. Nonetheless, when Matt Smith pops up, pre-regeneration, via the miracle of TARDIS-phone, it’s a really lovely touch. We’ll go further. If you were shielded from the surprise, it’s a really moving one. It makes logical sense too that it’d take Eleven to convince Clara to stick with Twelve, and it shifts the mechanic to one where Clara has to help the Doctor for a bit. We suspect that’s a theme that Doctor Who will continue with for the next few weeks.

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We’ll also, presumably, get some more meat on the stinger at the end. What is Missy up to? Who is she? What is this take on Heaven she’s brought a dead foe to? Is that what this year’s finale is going to build to? We’ve not done speculation like this for a while, and we like it. In fact, it feels like a long time since we’ve had a run of so many Doctor Who episodes in one go, and it also feels like the standalone movie idea of last series has been retired. As such, the crumbs of a series-long story arc are laid. That should be enough for the internet to chew on for a bit.

Further things to ponder: who is the woman who has been bringing the Doctor and Clara together all this time? Is that Missy? Has the Doctor been watching Only Fools And Horses repeats on Dave? And why are there not more round things on the TARDIS wall?

Clara, incidentally, gets the best line near the end of Deep Breath, getting to repeat David Tennant’s “you’ve redecorated? I don’t like it” moment from Day Of The Doctor. Capaldi gets the most moving, when he says to her “you look at me and you can’t see me. Have you any idea what that’s like?” If you had any doubt of his suitability for Who, and we’re assuming you didn’t, then the haunting delivery of that line surely seals his place.

There are lots of other nice things here. The Paternoster gang are good value, and Steven Moffat clearly has lots of fun writing for Strax in particular. Moffat’s heritage is in comedy, and he injects a few good, hearty guffaws in here as well. Some of the physical humour is particularly strong.

“Help him. And don’t be afraid”

Deep Breath, as an episode, doesn’t come off so well when sat next to something like The Eleventh Hour, but then it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s doing different work. Sure, there’s a new Doctor, new title sequence and reworked music, but unlike The Eleventh Hour, some of the key ingredients are already in place when the late dino coughs up the TARDIS. With The Eleventh Hour, Moffat, in many respects, was starting closer to scratch, and in slightly different confines as a consequence.

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As such, Deep Breath is a little bit quieter, certainly less frenetic an introduction than we’ve been used to. In that sense in particular, it feels like older Who than new. It certainly makes use of its 76-minute running time too, taking its time, making space to allow people to talk and to comfortably fit the story. It’s just that the episode-specific story is probably the least interesting thing about this one.

Because in most other regards, Deep Breath is a success, one that feels like all concerned have real confidence in what they’re up to. Peter Capaldi is clearly the trump card here, but full credit to Jenna Coleman for her excellent performance as Clara, carrying the weight of the episode. She and Capaldi are the standout highlights of a good return for Doctor Who, that suggests the tone of the show may just be shifting a little.

Next week? The Daleks return to Doctor Who, as does writer Phil Ford for the first time since the excellent The Waters Of Mars. Let’s see how the universe’s most defeatable pepperpots cope with Capaldi’s eyebrows of war…

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