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Taking in Doctor Who's "Deep Breath"

Taking in <em>Doctor Who's</em>

By Ryan Britt

BBC

Back when Doctor Who’s titular leading man was played by David Tennant, he romantically rode a horse into Versailles, and flippantly told the King of France “I’m the Lord of Time.”  Today, the Doctor is no longer dashing-dorky David Tennant, nor is he flappy-armed one-liner machine Matt Smith. With its season premier, Doctor Who is back with a new Doctor—Peter Capaldi— and might not be “the kind that hugs.” This Doctor is less cuddly, un-flirty, and totally down-to-world-saving-business. But is he still the same heroic person, basically?

“Deep Breath,” asked those questions, set up whole new ones, and solved the murder of a dinosaur. But what does it all mean for the future of Doctor Who? Full spoiler review of the 8th season Doctor Who ahead!

Fiction isn't like a stable relationship because (as with novels or films) it often ends, or (with TV shows) it teases you with the promise of stability. Doctor Who then, is doubly bad news, since the idea of HUGE alterations—the fact that lead actor is allowed to change— is built into the narrative structure of the show itself. If the Doctor were your real boyfriend or buddy, he’d have a history of disappointing you, leaving you, and literally changing his identify.

In the show, the metaphor of the Doctor as an unreliable partner/spouse/parent/friend/boyfriend has shown up over and over again. The 9th Doctor accidentally brought Rose Tyler home a whole year late. The 10th Doctor left some of the world-saving business to Martha Jones while breaking her heart more conventionally. And we all know how much the 11th Doctor jacked around Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and his own wife, River Song. Last year’s new “secret” Doctor even blew up his whole home planet. The Doctor’s friends aren't into him because he’s reliable—like at all— but instead, because he’s really charming. The show itself is exactly the same. As Doctor Who fans, we’re constantly let down by dead-end plots, changing companions, big in-between season breaks, and occasionally, new Doctors. But if it’s really Doctor Who, then it will always charm us. “Deep Breath,” is aware of this, and is in a lot of ways the most meta-Doctor Who episode yet; a piece of television where the main character of the show is really talking to himself about what the show is (or might be) about.

Peter Capaldi's Doctor is still emerging as a character, but Peter Capaldi as an actor is owning this part. The Doctor is still funny, he’s still heroic, but this time out, he’s also got a little bit of Sherlockian arrogance. Early in the episode, after falling out of the TARDIS and unable to remember the difference between Clara and an old deceased Cyberman, the Doctor eventually starts getting into the cool stuff. He rides a horse in his bedclothes in an effort to save a random T-Rex that has been hanging out in Victorian London. It seems this dinosaur accidentally swallowed the TARDIS and was pulled through time as a result. Having a show about Time Travel feature a dinosaur burp-up a time machine is pretty meta already, but then having the layered metaphor of comparing the Doctor himself to a lonely dinosaur gets pretty aww-shucks. This character is centuries old, and perpetually a loner, so when he starts translating what the dinosaur is saying (“I’m so alone” etc.) it could very well be him speaking. Tragically, this dinosaur is randomly killed, leading the Doctor to solve the mystery as to why.

Soon, Clara and our new Doctor are doing a comedy routine in restaurant populated by clockwork robots, who we’re later lead to believe are the very same group of robots from the famous 10th Doctor adventure “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Back then, these robots were collecting “parts” in the form of human organs to help repair their spaceship. A similar premise if floated here, with the lead robot trying to reconstruct himself as human in order to reach what he thinks is “the promise land.” If you want to go unnoticed by these robots, you have to hold your breath, so they think you’re one of them. So, the episode’s title is about taking a deep breath to get through a rough situation, literally. The Doctor and Clara eventually get the clockwork robots exactly where they want them, and in true Doctor Who fashion, the Doctor fights with one of the clockwork robots in a steampunk balloon while declaring that murder is “against his basic programming.” The clockwork robot-thing has to die, but will he self-destruct, or will the Doctor have to kill him?

With this struggle, this season of Doctor Who sets up our first major mystery: is this Doctor capable of murder? True, the Doctor has indirectly killed tons of people before, but in “Deep Breath,” we’re specifically not told whether the clockwork robot kills itself or if the Doctor pushes him. The second major new plot point that’s introduced right after this, is a strange seemingly evil Mary Poppins character, who may or may not be living in some sort bad-guy afterlife. While twirling an umbrella, she offers cryptic hints about how she knows the Doctor and that no one is sure if he killed this particular robot/cyborg. Is she the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number ages ago? Why would she have such at thing? As if to not-answer both questions, Peter Capaldi glances up to the camera just to let us know that his poker face is on.

But what about this Doctor’s face? A lot of the conversation in this episode outright acknowledges that he’s got an older face now, and that he’s gone gray. Matt Smith even makes cameo by calling Clara on her cellphone right before he regenerates and asks her if he looks old. The reptilian ally of the Doctor, Madame Vastra, makes perhaps the most compelling points to Clara about the Doctor by reminding her that he only “looked young,” before and that he has now “removed the veil.” It’s powerful stuff, too, because, in many ways, you get the impression that this is what the Doctor would really look like if he were real and had been around this long. While conversing with his own reflection the Doctor asks “who frowned me this face?” in a wonderfully contemplative moment. When people get older, they often can’t believe they used to look a little bit different, and wonder how they grew up so fast. The Doctor is pushing 2,000 years old at this point, meaning he’s been in denial about how old he looks for awhile. Now, by his own assertion, he seems to be acting more like a grown-up than ever before.

It doesn't mean he won’t need friends though. And when he almost tearfully asks Clara to look at him and really see him, it breaks your heart, and charms you all over again. Yep, Doctor Who is back.

What did you think of “Deep Breath?” Will it ever be explained by Peter Capaldi’s face has REALLY been in Doctor Who before? Did you like the new title sequence? Ready for more 12th Doctor????

Tags: tv, doctor who, reviews, bbc, matt smith, peter capaldi, bbc america

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About the Author
Ryan Britt

Ryan Britt's writing has appeared with The New York Times, Omni Reboot, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Story Magazine, The MindHut and elsewhere. He's performed stories on stage with The Moth, The Liar Show, and is the curator of two reading series; Lust for Genre and The HiFi Reading Series. He teaches at The Gotham Writers' Workshop and lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ryancbritt.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.