“I’m not your boyfriend.”
With that much-welcome line from Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor to Clara, we officially leave Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor era behind for good. Well, almost. I’ll get to that in a bit.
**BE WARNED, SPOILERS FOLLOW!**
Introducing Capaldi as the Doctor, “Deep Breath” is, for the most part, marvelous. The writing and especially the direction by Ben Wheatley (yes, that Ben Wheatley!) were leagues ahead of last season’s, and as if in response to the better material, the acting excels in a way we haven’t seen in a long while either. The plot begins with some madcappery involving a dinosaur loose in England, brought there accidentally by the Doctor in his post-regeneration confusion, and then settles into a completely different and more seriously handled story of androids harvesting human body parts, a sequel of sorts to the 10th Doctor episode “The Girl in the Fireplace.” I saw no real need for Steven Moffat, show runner and writer of “Deep Breath,” to link the two stories — “Deep Breath” would have worked just as well without being a semi-sequel — except perhaps as a thematic link between this Doctor and his previous selves: the 12th Doctor, after all, is a semi-sequel of himself.
But the plot of a “new Doctor” episode is rarely as important as how the new actor fares in the role. So how was Capaldi? In my opinion, he nailed it right out of the gate. I was instantly impressed. Capaldi has gravity, he holds the camera on him and owns every scene he’s in without resorting to spinning in circles and flapping his arms for attention. The scene where he offers the Half-Face Man a scotch before their final battle of wills was the most Bond-like — indeed, the most Jon Pertwee-like — we’ve seen the Doctor in a long time. And the Doctor just sits at the table and talks. No running around pressing buttons while quickly reciting technobabble, no time travel tricks to reset the timeline, no awkward sex jokes. Just sitting and talking, and it’s more riveting than anything we saw the Doctor do over the last three seasons. From this one episode, I can already tell I’m going to like the 12th Doctor very much. He’s like a mix of Pertwee and Christopher Eccleston, with a dash of Tom Baker’s sarcasm.
As for Clara, longtime readers know I’ve found her to be a lackluster companion from the get-go. However, she is much more fun and interesting with the 12th Doctor than she ever was with the 11th. Finally free of all the “impossible girl” nonsense she labored under last season, Clara can finally just be herself. As a result, she shines. Her scenes with the 12th Doctor have the ring of a well-timed comedy duo, half bickering and half in complete sync, instead of the awkward flirty bullshit from before. It makes a great change, and Clara benefits from it enormously. I finally like her.
Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are in the episode, too. In fact, Vastra’s line when Clara mentions the Doctor has regenerated — “Well, here we go again” — is the same line the Brigadier says when the 3rd Doctor regenerates into the 4th. But it’s an early scene between Vastra and Clara that really caught my attention. Again, it’s a quiet scene, not one filled with explosions and bombast, just two people talking. Essentially, Vastra has to break down Clara’s resistance to — and fear of — the Doctor’s regeneration, and their interchange is the first time either of them has shown that much character development since they were first introduced. (Clara has seen the Doctor’s other faces before, of course, but actually witnessing a regeneration has got to be quite a different experience, certainly a more disorienting one, from just knowing theoretically that the Doctor changes from time to time.)
Also of interest, there is a new and visually arresting opening titles sequence. Unfortunately, it is accompanied by a not-very-good new rendition of the theme music. It’s too high-pitched and squealy, too reminiscent of the electro-pop version of the theme used at the end of the classic series’ run in the late 1980s, during the 7th Doctor’s era. I miss the dramatic string arrangement of the new series’ first couple of seasons. It sounded epic. This just sounds like a video game title screen.
And now, alas, we must discuss the episode’s two epilogues, where the episode completely falls apart. In the first, a regenerating 11th Doctor calls Clara from Trenzalore, just as she’s about to take her leave of the TARDIS forever, to tell her how much the 12th Doctor will need her. Leaving aside the absurdity of the Doctor making a phone call in the middle of regenerating, the scene itself is utterly unnecessary. Clara has already come to accept that this is the Doctor through the course of the episode (he proves himself to her in an earlier scene where she says if he’s really the Doctor he’ll have her back, which he does). In fact, the narrative potential of Clara deciding over the course of the next few episodes whether or not she still wants him in her life could have made for some great drama. Instead, Moffat negates that potential entirely with this nonsensical phone call from the past. It’s almost as if he did it just so he could have one more scene with Matt Smith. Let it go, Moffat. Move on. (Besides, dozens of previous companions have made the leap from Doctor to Doctor without needing a fucking phone call to do so.)
And then there’s the second epilogue, which introduces Missy, the woman who will likely be the season’s Big Bad. She greets the presumably dead Half-Face Man by saying he’s in Heaven now, which looks remarkably like an English manor garden, while she prances around spinning her umbrella like Mary Poppins and talking about how the Doctor is her boyfriend and he loves her. Sigh. Big-ass motherfucking sigh. Here we go again with female characters being defined by their romantic infatuation with the Doctor. I thought we were leaving that behind, especially after all that bullshit with Tasha Lem in “The Time of the Doctor” (not to mention an entire season’s worth of bullshit with River Song, or Clara admitting under the truth field that she secretly fancies him, or Amy trying to seduce him for no reason the night before her wedding, or or or…), but it seems Moffat just can’t resist returning to this same wheelhouse over and over again.
I was really liking this episode until the two epilogues. The phone call could possibly be forgiven because maybe the really young fans need the visual reassurance that this new Doctor really is the same man with a new face. But Missy? Her scene left me with such a sour taste in my mouth that my high hopes for this season felt suddenly dashed.