It’s been eight months since the last dose of Doctor Who and last night BBC’s science fiction behemoth finally returned to our screens. The long wait has made fans anxious for new episodes but the opportunity to see Peter Capaldi in his first full length feature as The Doctor has even the most patient fans salivating. There really is nothing like Doctor Who. While there may be plenty of other sci-fi television shows available to watch, download or stream across the world, none of them feel quite as assured or adventurous as Doctor Who always is. Even the weakest episodes tend to be mad expeditions into the unknown.
If I’m being honest, this premiere felt like one of the weaker episodes from recent memory. It wasn’t awful. The story was fine, with just enough twists to keep it from becoming predictable, and the acting was good, though it’s unlikely to win any awards. The failing in this episode was the character writing. It’s hard to say that Capaldi’s Doctor was badly written because this is his first real appearance but Clara? If you told me that someone who had never watched an episode of Clara’s time with the Doctor had written this episode, I would completely and utterly believe you.
First of all, I take issue with the idea that Clara got what she wanted or that the Doctor gave her what she wanted because she was pretty. The Doctor chased after Clara back in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ when she was just a voice in his head. He pursued her because her very existence was a mystery to him. And it’s not like the writers couldn’t have known this because they used the ‘impossible girl’ as part of a puzzle in the episode. Sure, Jenna-Louise Coleman is easy on the eyes but Clara was more than that to the Doctor. I don’t think that the Doctor has ever selected a person to be a trophy companion. Not even Rose Tyler got that treatment. ‘Deep Breath’, however, attempts to rewrite the Eleventh Doctor’s entire motivations regarding Clara.
Quite possibly the worst line in the entire episode is when the Twelfth Doctor states to Clara that ‘he is not her boyfriend’. Clara rightly assures him that she never thought he was but the Doctor says it wasn’t her mistake, again effectively retconning the Eleventh Doctor’s motivations and feelings in regards to Clara. Perhaps you could make an argument for Matt Smith’s Doctor playing boyfriend with Clara in the Christmas special, ‘The Time of the Doctor, but as I said in my review of that episode that implication felt out of place because there was no precedent for it. The Eleventh Doctor and Clara were friends. Perhaps they were a little flirty at times but Matt Smith’s Doctor would have flirted with a broomstick.
Furthermore, there is an insinuation that Clara doesn’t like or is in someway biased against the Doctor because he looks old now. Madam Vastra explains the Doctor’s century long lifespan to Clara despite the fact that Clara lived in. That’s what makes it especially hard to accept that Clara is somehow unimpressed with the Doctor because he’s changed and looks old; fragments of Clara have appeared throughout the Doctor’s timeline, aiding him and saving him when he’s needed it. The Doctor may have been unaware of her interventions but she saw him in every incarnation, older and younger, varying personalities and all. Given the character’s history, that she would be unable or unwilling to accept this incarnation of The Doctor as an extension of the previous eleven is absurd.
Clara herself is quite quick to put down Madam Vastra’s argument, but for all the wrong reasons. She gives examples of older celebrities whose posters she once pinned upon her wall as a little girl, rather than her own personal history with the Doctor. And all that really does is make Vastra become enamoured by Clara. The whole episode was centred about how pretty Clara was, which might been significant if it were worked into the body harvesting plot…but it wasn’t. In one scene, Vastra appears to be painting a portrait of her maid/wife but is actually documenting instances of supposed spontaneous combustion in the area at which point Clara enters and Vastra suggests she remove her clothes as well. It’s not funny and it drags down the plot.
The humour throughout is rather flat. Strax hits Clara in the face with a newspaper in an odd instance of slapstick humour that would be more at home in an American sitcom than a British science fiction drama. It is difficult to know whether some of the Twelfth Doctor’s incoherent madness in the earlier parts of the episode are meant to be categorized as humour or if it is simply a case of him adjusting to the regeneration because he does appear to mellow out by the end of the episode. And that’s why it’s hard to criticise the writing of his character because, like Clara, I’m still trying to figure out who he is.
I did like that we don’t really know whether the man with half a face jumped or was pushed and it’s obvious that they want the viewer to wonder about this Doctor’s morals and ethics. I could have done without the heavy-handed assertion of the question at the end and the Twelfth Doctor has a long way to go until he rivals Ten’s ability to be absolutely merciless and terrifying but as a theme for this new season, I can dig it.
On the whole, ‘Deep Breath’ was, in a word, boring. It should have been more interesting but instead it was drab. It was a run of the mill episode that deserved to come in the mid-season lull not as opener to this eighth series. That, coupled with the bad writing of Clara, made it an episode which made me angry rather than excited. Maybe the second episode will fix that. If anything in Doctor Who should bring the excitement it should definitely be the Daleks.