Doctor Who “Deep Breath” review

Doctor Who “Deep Breath” review

Hey there! I’m Cariad, and I’m a Doctor Who fan here in the UK. I’m a bit of a newbie — I only joined the fandom with Nine and Rose. I loved Nine and Ten, but Eleven’s childishness disappointed me. Will a new season and a new Doctor reignite my love of the show? Let’s find out!

Synopsis of “Deep Breath”

A dinosaur stomps beneath a grey, cloudy sky. It roars, and stomps past Big Ben; this is London of Victorian England, and crowds are gathering along the River Thames to watch the dinosaur.

Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax arrive to Inspector Gregson’s relief. They guess the dinosaur has time travelled, and Jenny uses her sonic gauntlet to surmise that there’s something caught in its throat. The dinosaur coughs it up; it’s the TARDIS, and it lands on the shore of the Thames. Vastra, Jenny and Strax leave the inspector with a bag of sonic lanterns to encircle around the dinosaur to prevent it leaving the area, then go to investigate the TARDIS.

Strax knocks on the door to get the Doctor out. He emerges, still in his post-regeneration confusion. He barely recognises anyone, even Clara, and they don’t immediately recognise him as The Doctor.

The Doctor tells the group to turn the sonic lanterns down. He can translate for the dinosaur, and the lanterns are giving it a headache. His vision fades and he collapses to the ground in exhaustion.

The Doctor is taken back to Vastra’s home, and they get him into bed to sleep. Clara asks how they’re going to “fix him” — how they’re going to change him back to how he was before he regenerated. In disgust, Vastra leaves the room and asks Jenny to fetch her veil, because she’s found herself in the company of strangers.

Clara finds herself alone with the Doctor sleeping, and the groaning of the dinosaur echoing across London. In his sleep, the Doctor starts murmuring about being alone, and the ground that shook at his feet, and the sky and the trees, being gone, and that people “[don’t] see me”. Clara assumes he’s translating the dinosaur in his sleep.

Meanwhile, outside, a man – Alf – joins the crowd to watch the dinosaur. He isn’t convinced it’s real; he thinks it’s a government trick. A stranger approaches him, and Alf tells him how the dinosaur doesn’t look realistic to him. “You have good eyes,” the stranger tells him. He turn to face Alf, who sees that half of the stranger’s head is open, exposing the clockwork mechanism powering him. “I have bad eyes,” says the stranger, and grabs Alf.

Back at Vastra’s home, she is wearing her veil and questioning Clara about the Doctor’s regeneration. Clara doesn’t understand how the Doctor could have regenerated but look older than he did. Vastra tells Clara that the Doctor chose a young face for the same reason she wears a veil; to be accepted. She doesn’t wear it in shame, but instead in judgement of others. She asks Clara if she’s judging the Doctor for changing his face, which offends her and she defends herself. In her anger, she proves her friendship with the Doctor, and Vastra is convinced to remove her veil.

Upstairs, the Doctor wakes up. He hears the dinosaur groaning, and he escapes the room to go and find it. He yells at it, apologising for bringing it into the future. Suddenly, and horrifyingly, the dinosaur bursts into flames and collapses.

The Doctor, Vastra, Jenny, Strax and Clara race to the dinosaur to find out what happened. Amongst the crowd of humans gawking at the flames, the Doctor sees the Half-Face Man staring, emotionless. The Doctor dives into the Thames to chase him.

In the morning, Strax has the TARDIS brought back to Vastra’s home to entice the Doctor back to them. Meanwhile, the Doctor is in an alley in the city, trying to find something that caught his eye; a newspaper article about a fourth case of spontaneous human combustion reported in London.

Back at Vastra’s home, she and Jenny wonder if someone is combusting people to hide something; specially, to hide what’s missing from their bodies. Clara runs into the room with a newspaper, and shows them an ad which reads “Impossible Girl – lunch on the other side?” which she presumes is a message from the Doctor.

She figures out where the ad means – a restaurant – and goes there, where she meets the Doctor. They both assume that the other wrote the ad to bring the other one to that place, which raises the question – who wrote the ad? That’s when the Doctor realises that everyone else in the restaurant appears to be a clockwork robot wearing human skin. They get up to leave, but the other restaurant patrons stand up at the same time, and coerce them back to their table, where a waiter scans their organs and their seat descends down to the larder below the restaurant.

They explore the larder and find the Half-Face Man and other robots, all dormant. They take the opportunity to get a closer look at him, and they discover that he’s an ancient robot who’s replacing his parts with human organs. When he starts to wake up, the Doctor and Clara run to escape. The Doctor makes it through the door, but it closes down in front of Clara. The Doctor says there isn’t time to save them both, so he runs, leaving Clara locked in the larder with the robots. She holds her breath for as long as she can so they don’t detect her, but she eventually gasps for breath and they grab her.

Half-Face Man demands to know where the Doctor is, and threatens to kill Clara if she doesn’t tell him. Clara remembers her first day of teaching in school, when she threatened to have an entire unruly class expelled. One student calls her bluff and goads her to do it. Clara realises that she shouldn’t have made a threat that shouldn’t follow through with, and she uses that memory to goad Half-Face Man; if he kills her, then he’ll never know where the Doctor is. He says he needs to keep repairing himself because he wants to reach “the promised land”.

Clara eventually admits that she doesn’t know where the Doctor is, so she can’t tell him, but she has faith that he’ll save her. Indeed, he storms into the room and reveals that he wanted Clara to be scared so that she could tease information out of the Half-Face Man. They call for Vastra, Jenny and Strax, who fall down into the larder and fight the Half-Face Man’s robot soldiers.

The Half-Face Man announces that he’s heading to the escape pod, and leaves everyone fighting in the larder. The Doctor chases after him and it’s revealed that the “escape pod” is the entire restaurant above the larder, being lifted and flying away in a hot-air balloon made of human skin.

The Doctor tries to convince the Half-Face Man to kill himself and end his need to murder people to continue his own life. The Half-Face man says he can’t kill himself, and the Doctor says he can’t commit murder; but yet, somehow, the Half-Face Man falls from the balloon, and is impaled on the spire of Big Ben’s tower.

Back at the TARDIS, Clara decides she wants to go home and stop travelling with the Doctor because she doesn’t feel that she knows who is is any more. However, she changes her mind when she gets a phone call from the Doctor’s previous reincarnation — a phone call through time, from moments before he regenerates. He guesses that Clara will be scared because of his change, and he implores her to stay with him, and she does.

The episode ends with the Half-Face Man waking up, and finding himself in a garden. There’s a woman with him, who introduces herself as “Missy” and expresses hope that her “boyfriend” wasn’t too mean to him. The Half-Face Man is confused, and doesn’t know where he is. She tells him he’s made it to the promised land — or, as she calls it, “Heaven”.

The Good

I’ll get straight to the point: Peter Capaldi is brilliant! He’s instantly more likeable than Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, whose introduction consisted of chewing up food and spitting it around a little girl’s kitchen for her to clean up after he’s gone. Eleven was gross, but Twelve has matured.

When the Doctor is angry and confused about the bedroom, he warns everyone “Don’t look in that mirror – it’s absolutely furious!” His delivery is perfect; funny and creepy at the same time. Would you want a furious mirror in your bedroom? Shudder! Of course, the mirror isn’t furious. As we discover later in the episode, the Doctor doesn’t recognise his face yet, and in his post-regeneration confusion, he sees his furious face in the mirror and assumes the mirror itself is furious.

Plus, the Doctor makes a good point about bedrooms! If you have a room only for not being awake in, doesn’t it sort of feel like a waste of a room?

“I don’t ‘like’ her, ma’am… I love her.”

It was great to see a loving, romantic same-sex relationship between two lead characters. The BBC received six complaints about their “kiss”, which is far fewer than less-controversial shows receive (in the same week that this episode was broadcast, the BBC’s bakery show The Great British Bake-Off received over 800 complaints about cheating!). Hopefully, this indicates a positive change in attitude towards LGBT couples from the show’s producers, the BBC at large, and the viewing audience.

Despite a few duds, Strax is hilarious in this episode! His confusion about human nature, along with his absolute confidence that he’s always correct, always makes me smile. I laughed out loud when he offered to take Clara’s hat (“It’s hair!” “No, I think it’s a hat. Would you like me to check?”)

“He will be lured from the dangers of London to this place of safety, and we will melt him with acid! …sorry, old habits.”

I haven’t laughed at slapstick as hard in a long time as when Strax throws the newspaper up at Clara. Simple, but perfectly executed!

I know there have been some debates amongst fans about Vastra & Jenny’s relationship. Yes, they do keep mentioning their marriage a lot. I don’t read that as particularly “ramming a point home”, but more a demonstration of Jenny’s naive romanticism. She is the one who asked if spontaneous human combustion is like “love at first sight”. I think Jenny is young, utterly in love, and has to hide her marriage from so many people that she revels in being around company she can share it with.

And yes, Vastra does seem very controlling of Jenny. Do I think it’s problematic? In this case, no. Jenny knows she’s being controlled, but her complaints about it seem more like jibes at Vastra than serious concern. In private, away from Vastra, Jenny’s love for her is unwavering and she never asks for help or advice, or shows any concern for how she’s treated. Also, in past episodes, there have been a few references to the kinky side of their relationship. In this episode, I read their relationship as a consensual kinky power-play. Perhaps Jenny’s jibes about her treatment are setting up an excuse to be “punished” later? Anyway, this is getting into the realm of fan-fiction…

The Interesting

Did you know the new opening credits were designed by a fan? Billy Hanshaw, freelance motion-graphics designer, mocked up a new opening title sequence to challenge himself and posted it on YouTube:

The video went viral, and caught the attention of Steven Moffat who loved it and asked Billy to work with the BBC’s graphics department to make an official version for the show.

Speaking of fan involvement, three futuristic gadgets in the show were invented by children for a BBC Blue Peter competition. The competition entries were judged by a panel including Steven Moffat, and the winners were written into the show: Vastra’s hairpin with the blue dinosaur feather, Jenny’s sonic gauntlet and Strax’s medical lorgnette.

In his post-regeneration confusion, The Doctor believes for a moment that Clara is “Handles”. Handles was the head of a Cyberman in the previous season, who kept The Doctor company during his occupation on Trenzalore.

When Jenny suggests to Clara that she should stay out of the larder, it turns out to be apropos advice; later in the episode, she’s fighting for her life in a larder. And right after the scene implying that Vastra is going to murder a child-poisoner in the larder, we cut to… Strax mopping the larder! The juxtaposition of a hardened military commander like Strax being trapped as a butler in Victorian England is delicious enough, but it does come in handy when you need someone with the stomach to clean up bloody human remains.

When the Doctor is cold and looking for clothes, he instinctively wants a big, long scarf — a reference to Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.

Why does the Doctor think he’s seen his face before? Is it because his younger self heard his voice on the phone at the end of the episode and imagined what a face would look like to match the voice? Did he model his face on Lucius Caecilius Iucundus who he met in “The Fires of Pompeii” (who was also played by Peter Capaldi)? Is it because he remembers seeing himself from the future in the events of “The Day of the Doctor”?

The Doctor’s joke about his eyebrows wanting to cede from the rest of his face to form their own independent state is a reference to the current debate about Scotland splitting from the United Kingdom and becoming an independent state.

The restaurant where Clara and the Doctor meet is a “family restaurant”. Sadly for the families who venture in, steak doesn’t go to a “steak restaurant” to have a good time.

Did the Half-Face Man scan the dinosaur when it arrived, and that’s how he knew its optic nerve could be used as a spare part in his computer? Or did he recognise the dinosaur from long ago, and know from experience? He could’ve been trapped on Earth and rebuilding himself for over 65 million years!

Clara’s keyword to call Vastra, Jenny and Strex — “Geronimo” — was Eleven’s catchphrase.

The ancient ship that crashed and left the Half-Face Man stranded on Earth was the S.S. Marie Antoinette, sister ship of the S.S. Madame du Pompadour — which was last seen in the episode “The Girl in the Fireplace” , which was about time-travelling clockwork robots fixing their ship with human body parts. The Doctor mentions a few times that the situation is familiar — and that’s why!

The episode ends with the Doctor still not knowing who posted the ad in the newspaper that caused him and Clara to find each other in London. He compares it to the phone call which Clara placed which initially caused them to meet years ago, and she remembers that she got the phone number of the TARDIS from “the woman in the shop” — which happened in the episode “The Bells of Saint John”. Is this woman “Missy”?

The episode repeats its theme of “wearing a veil to be accepted” several times. Vastra wears a literal veil to hide her face in in the company of strangers, the Doctor chooses his new face, and people are “accepted” by the robots by stopping breathing and appearing to be one of them.

At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor murmurs in his sleep about not being seen. At the time, Clara assumed he was translating for the dinosaur, but at the end of the episode the Doctor implores her to “please, just see me”. Apparently, right from the beginning, he felt like Clara couldn’t see beyond his face.

Also at the end of the episode, when the TARDIS has arrived back home for Clara, the Doctor asks if she wants to go and get some chips. This is very similar to the scene at the end of “The End of the World” when the TARDIS returns home for Rose and she wants to go and get some chips. Was this scene a little homage, or does the Doctor assume that humans like chips when they arrive?

The Bad

The comedy sound effect when Vastra used the psychic link to knock the Doctor unconscious was out of place, and knocked me out of the episode. For a moment, I saw them as actors on a soundstage, and that ruined it.

Why did the Doctor chase after the Half-Face Man alone? Why didn’t he accept the help of Vastra, Jenny and Strax? Why did Vastra, Jenny and Strax just watch the Doctor swim away to chase the Half-Face Man? Why didn’t they jump back in the carriage and race down the Thames to join him?

When the restaurant seat descends into the larder, the editing is weirdly choppy. First, it’s just a seat, and then we cut to it descending down a tunnel. With the sort of budget Doctor Who has, it’s odd that there wasn’t a smoother transition.

Clara kicking the sonic screwdriver into the Doctor’s groin just wasn’t funny. I wish the show beyond Jackass humour.

The rumour mill built this episode up to having Vastra and Jenny’s first on-screen kiss, but when it happened… it wasn’t even a kiss. It was just a practical method of sharing oxygen, and nothing at all romantic. Why does this bother me? Because the previous Doctor flew around all of time and space patting peoples’ bums and kissing them without their consent. After years of the Doctor sexually assaulting people, I was excited about seeing a genuine, loving, queer kiss — and it didn’t happen.

The Ugly

Sadly, some of the humour went beyond “bad” and strayed into “awful”. Calling a short person the names of the seven dwarves? It isn’t just old and tired, but it’s childish bullying that we should be beyond by now. Strax continuously misgendering the women? Okay, so Sontarans are all clones and there might not be any Sontaran women, so there’s a joke to make in that situation somewhere, but not over and over again.

The Doctor shouting across London, calling the dinosaur a “big sexy woman”, was cringeworthy. Is it ever funny to yell across the street and call a stranger a “big sexy woman”? Even the Half-Face Man had more respect when he called her an “ancient, beautiful creature”. It was weird and uncomfortable that the Doctor sexualised her. And let’s not even get into the fact that it was the vicious murder of this innocent woman which triggered the Doctor’s interest in the mystery. There’s a bit of a trend in recent Doctor Who that the stories are set up by the torment of women; I hope this isn’t a trend for the rest of the season.

When Clara claims that her pretty face had caught Vastra’s eye, which was why Vastra was treating her so differently, I groaned. I hadn’t seen anything from Vastra which indicated that, so was it something Clara had imagined or assumed? I think we’ve all known homophobes who’ve been afraid of gay people being attracted to them, and being afraid of being assaulted. Clara’s reaction smelled a bit like that sort of homophobia; that lesbians must be attracted to her and can’t control themselves.

The Doctor demanding that the vagrant give him his coat was awkward to watch. This is the Doctor, hero to billions across the universe, demanding a homeless man give up his warmth? I want the Doctor to be a hero, not a mugger taking clothes from the needy.

In that vein, the Doctor telling Clara that she was too slow to save, and leaving her to die — so harsh! In the past, the Doctor has always had time to share his plans with his companions and trusted them to do what they needed to do. In “The Sound of Drums”, the Doctor had time to whisper a years-long plan in seconds to Martha before they were separated. This Doctor put Clara in genuine fear for her life so that he could gain an advantage. Even when he apologises, he immediately retracts it.

The racial diversity in this episode is essentially nil, The only non-white living human being in the show is a classroom bully. Doctor Who has a tendency to suck at positive racial diversity and representation, and this season hasn’t got off to a good start.

When the Doctor asks Clara if she wants to stay with him and travel, she says no because “I don’t think I know who you are any more” — which is fair. Heck, it would be fair if Clara didn’t give a reason at all, and the Doctor ought to accept that. The thing is, not only is regeneration a tough and painful concept for humans to accept of their friends, but it’s a fact that the Doctor’s personality changes with each regeneration. He is, in many ways, a different person — and it should be acceptable to him that she wants to leave. When the Doctor’s previous reincarnation calls her and guilts her into staying because, to paraphrase, “my pain is greater than yours”, I felt sick. That’s a toxic, abusive friendship.

In Conclusion

…I liked it! The comedy was a mixed bag, but had more hits than misses. The plot wasn’t thrilling as a standalone episode, but I enjoyed the reference back to “The Girl in the Fireplace” and the setup of “the promised land” is utterly intriguing. I appreciated the sexual diversity, but I wish there had been more racial diversity. The new Doctor is more enjoyable to watch than his previous incarnation, but his treatment of his friends is still rotten. He might be a hero, but he isn’t the role model that perhaps he should be for his younger audience.

Overall, it’s a fine episode and I’m optimistic for the rest of the season!

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