Doctor Who: “Deep Breath” Review

The Doctor is back! Peter Capaldi, taking over for Matt Smith in the Doctor’s 12th reincarnation in all his glorious style. Capaldi might be one of the best castings for the Doctor, and he could ever have come at a better time than after Smith’s departure. Capaldi’s angry eyebrows and brash voice, even removed from his famous turn in The Thick Of It as one of televisions most crude, offensive characters, lend a darkness and sobriety to the character of the Doctor that can take this beloved show to new highs and lows. Smith was a genius and his playfulness launched the series to new audiences everywhere, but as the show began to explore the darker sides of the Doctor, it became clear that a new actor was needed, and now, we have him. Although I’m still waiting for a female Doctor, I am more than happy and impressed with Capaldi’s first full appearance. I can’t wait to see what he does, and especially what his catchphrase will be.

On the other hand, although Jenna Coleman is incredible, her character, Clara, remains as undefined and vague as ever. After the disappointing reveal of Clara as “the Impossible Girl” – a condescending, sexist work of unimaginative cliche – she’s been left on the sidelines as a sort of combination of the Doctor’s previous companions, displaying a mix of all their traits, leaving her a blank slate as the writers don’t even bother trying to figure out her character. Finally this seems to be changing, although it will take several episodes to implement. The Doctor describes her as egomaniacal and a control-freak and… sure, I’m okay with that, as long as she really is an egomaniacal control freak. I have some issues with that being the same basic character traits as Amy and even Donna to a certain extent (although Donna had one of the best character arcs I’ve seen in a TV series that fully took advantage of her unlikeable traits and turned them into something truly special), I would allow this. However, I have some requirements:

Clara cannot be a control-freak woman. That is, she can’t fall into the stereotype that all women want is to control their men, giving dudes an excuse to brush off a woman’s legitimate concerns as somehow “bitchy” (what does that even mean?). I will not forgive the show if they do this.
Clara can however be legitimately egomaniacal, as long as she fully is so. If this is going to be her character, then go 100% and actually make it her character. Let it be her flaw too. Let it get her into trouble. So far, Clara only lands in situations she has to escape from when it’s someone else’s doing (read: the Doctor’s) and then, even worse, she only ever escapes from those situations by relying on the Doctor. Ugh. Talk about sexism.

Look, Clara’s smart. She goes toe to toe in a battle of the wits with a freaking robot in this episode. And yet she still only escapes because the Doctor shows up, and it turns out he was hiding. What??? Why did he wait so long? It seems that Steven Moffat, who wrote this episode as well as next week’s, has absolutely no use for Clara. I challenge Moffat to develop her character and stop relying on the Doctor’s magical appearances to get her out of trouble. In fact, let them both get themselves into trouble completely independently of each other, and then get themselves out of trouble, completely independently of each other.

Then you can start having them each get each other into trouble… and so on.

That would be much more interesting.

On to the plot. “Deep Breath” starts off incredibly disappointing, wasting almost a full half hour on a plot that gets completely abandoned when the real story begins. Useless. It’s not even an interesting “fake” plot. We also spend far too much time reiterating how difficult it is for the Doctor to regenerate, resulting in boring exposition and weird challenges issued from characters who have nothing else to do but talk smack about each other until they reveal they were just testing each other’s commitment, something like that. Again, boring, useless, and a waste of valuable time.

Watching the Doctor figure out his new self however, is quite fun, and once Capaldi’s accent kicks in the genuine fun begins and the show returns to form. Too bad this only happens after a long meaningless amount of time in the Doctor’s absence. Still, his first meeting with Clara is a blast of clever wordplay, twisted expectations, and a sudden tonal shift that brings to mind Moffat’s best talent of manipulating his audience’s visceral experience. For all his faults, he does a good job here of subtly introducing blood-cooling information that changes everything. I wish he just had a clue how to handle his characters.

Still, once the real plot gets going, it manages well enough. The ending is a little shaky, casting doubt on the canon of the Doctor’s character in a way that should never be messed with, and then framing the finale as a deus ex machina (even though it technically isn’t, it’s presented as such) which feels a little cheap compared to how well the episode could have worked with one change in the edits. I’m probably being picky, but it just goes to show how easy it is to be more effective. Small laziness equals large loss.

Can we talk about Vastra and Jenny? Jenny seems like a pretty legit character, although a very minor one. I would complain that she needs some more development but compared to her screen time I don’t think at this point it’s necessary (it will be later though, so I’m issuing a warning). Vastra on the other hand, while I appreciate that she exists as a character, adds a disturbing dynamic to her relationship with Jenny. I’m happy that this episode finally featured an extreme close-up of the kiss between the two of them. It’s not even a “romantic” kiss – although it definitely is, you know, take my oxygen, all that sort of stuff – which is good to see. However, the context of their relationship throughout the episode is creepy. Vastra treats Jenny like a slave. Jenny even admits that the put on a facade in public, which I guess considering this episode takes place in the past kind of makes sense, although it raises questions about how the public accepts a lizard woman walking around (seriously, a veil hides small details, not large ones like green skin) and a Sontaran, but then questions why she continues to act like a slave in private… and then shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. She chastises Vastra for flirting with Clara, and yet she’s sexually objectified in the next scene. I’m glad for the kiss, but their relationship is borderline disturbing. Shame.

I really liked the villain(s) themselves, although I did feel that I never understood anything about them. The Doctor runs around saying “this seems familiar” or things to that effect over and over again, which doesn’t really help, but he never figures it out so we’re left with unmotivated villains – the worst kind. Where did he see them before? Where did they come from? What is it with the main baddy’s obsession with the promised land, and what’s the point of it all? The clutch of the villainy is clever – Deep Breath, reflecting the title – and made me genuinely concerned for the characters… at least the first time. I don’t know, it all ends in a very disappointing and detached manner. This episode doesn’t work on its own nearly as much as it feels like setup for something else. I guess I can live, but I wanted more.

All in all, this is a nice return for the Doctor if it’s a bit off-balance for the rest of the characters. I wish Capaldi had more screen time to establish his “new-ness” and Moffat would man up and deal with the giant sexist dinosaur in the room (pun?) instead of falling back on his outdated patterns. I also wish he’d learn how to avoid the deus ex machina. And for the love of all things holy, stop it with the giant mysteries. We get it, you have a plan for the whole season, we can tell that going in. Season 5 had the crack in the wall, Season 6 had the Doctor’s death (and the most disappointing ending ever), and even Season 7 had “Doctor Who?” which although featured some clever wordplay, didn’t actually address the question it posed. Now with Season 8 we have yet another super mystery element that will hang over our heads and probably ultimately let us down in the end.

Just focus on what actually matters, Moffat. Get your female characters sorted out, stop being creepy, let Clara actually do something, and write some more of the good wordplay that made your first episodes so much fun.

 

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