"You can’t see me, can you?
You look at me, and, you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone - I’m right here! Standing in front of you.
Please, just… just see me."
Let’s get one thing out the way: I liked it.
Deep Breath marks a complete gear shift for the series. After Tennant left in Jan 2010, the DW crew lost vast swathes of personnel, all the way up to the executive office. I remember watching Eleventh Hour and feeling that the look and feel of the show had changed. But this is different. This isn’t just about aesthetics; this is about substance. You can’t have missed it - the Mincin restaurant scene was shared by the two principal actors, and it lasted about 10 minutes.
That’s a lot of time in DW world. The eleventh doctor could have killed himself twice in that time.
This marks a big, substantive change. Granted, not one we haven’t seen before in the show’s history; a lot of the promotional material has compared Series 8 to classic DW. But certainly a change in the context of ‘New-Who’. Remember: under Russell T. Davies, the show found its groove as an action packed, Buffy-style, twist-and-turn family show, filled with pathos and angst for the central character. I’m sure these elements won’t be entirely missing (and we’re yet to see how this pans out for an ordinary 45 min episode) but the point deserves a mention.
1) The change in pace is wonderful, but it’s potentially adult. Note that this is a very different reservation than that normally expressed: i.e. “The Silence are so scary, and adult, kids are going to be terrified”. This isn’t about adult content. This is about adult form. We went to a cinema showing of Deep Breath (more on that later), and you could definitely feel some of the kids 'zoning out'. In fact, one child behind us asked his dad, “What’s he searching in the bins for?” - the answer, of course, is because he’s a crazy man and we’re lingering on that unhinged persona for dramatic effect. But a child sees an action and expects a function, an action. And it’s that lack of ‘action’ compared to pathos and patience that might prove problematic.
2) The paternoster gang - don’t get me wrong, my wife and I laughed at Strax, and some of Vastra’s lines were delicious. But… enough now. Moffat has gone on record saying that he wanted to style Deep Breath not like the first Pertwee story Spearhead from Space (which The Eleventh Hour mimicked), but Robot, the first Tom Baker story. Unlike Spearhead, Baker’s first outing was a very familiar romp. It was basically a 3rd Doctor story with the 4th Doctor in it. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Paternosters turned up again. Moffat wanted an anchor to introduce us to the new Doctor. But enough now. Enough. Let them go.
3) Moffat’s heavy-handed secular liberalism. Look, yes, we’re a Christian blog. We admit it. But we really have no problem with watching ostensibly secular cultural artefacts such as DW. I don’t care that DW has gay characters in it, or characters who are atheists, or characters who have five heads each of them from a different political party. Doctor Who has always had an agenda. (I watched The Mutants the other day. Enough said.) Doctor Who is literally one of my favourite things in this world; I'll love the idea of Doctor Who regardless of its ideological choices. Much like a prodigal son or summat. I only ask that such an agenda be executed well. I know it’s mind-numbingly stupid to compare DW to The Wire - but let’s compare DW to The Wire. The latter has some genuinely brilliant characters in it, some of whom just so happen to be gay. And it’s this ‘just so happens’ that Moffat doesn’t seem to understand. He doesn’t need some semi-erotic, half-reptilian lesbian kiss. He doesn’t need the heavy handed references to gay marriage. He can still include all these ingredients, but do so in a way that elicits genuine sympathy and affection. You know, as if they were real people and that.
Can we agree that the story, though functional, was really very grim? Two words: skin balloon. Eugh. It reminded me a bit of the 9th Doctor’s run. Have you gone back and watched Ecclestone? If so, you’ll notice [a] that he’s absolutely brilliant (please, Chris, please start liking DW again!); and [b] that his run was dark. Sexual references, torture, genocide - the lot. That’s why “Everybody lives” was so wonderful, because it emerged from darkness. The same ‘grimness’ was present in Deep Breath. From a sentient T-Rex being horrendously burnt alive, to said skin-contraption, it didn’t hold its punches. Plus, the villain was very cleverly done wasn’t he? Did you watch Doctor Who Extra? (No 'Confidential' but it’ll do.) Those special effects people deserve a medal, all things considered.
Peter Capaldi was predictably fantastic, at times so very much like Malcolm Tucker that I couldn’t help but think he was going to make a joke about an octopus and a bra. As is par for the course in a regeneration episode, he spent most of his time being a little bit 'unhinged'. (The first 15 minutes reminded me a lot of Troughton’s first turn in Power of the Daleks, especially since, like Ben and Polly, Clara is a ‘transfer’ companion who witnesses a categorical personality shift.) Thankfully, Moffat excels at unhinged. His script crackled + popped, from the ‘angry mirror’ to the eyebrows that could take off bottle tops. His 5 minute conversation with the tramp (5 minutes!! this is great, someone pinch me) was absolutely wonderful and totally poignant, even more so when you discover that the actor who played that tramp was Elisabeth Sladen’s (i.e. Sarah Jane’s) husband. Wonderful. Can we also say, with 100% confidence, that Jenna Coleman was utterly fantastic? Remember, Sarah Jane fought alongside the 3rd Doctor, but it wasn’t until Baker that Sladen shined. Same thing here. Coleman has proved, as if it needed proving, that she is the right woman for the job. When the Doctor seems to leave her in the Half-Man’s lair, her despair is heart shatteringly well played. And when she finally manages to escape the room whilst holding her breath her face was quite literally difficult to look at, so pained and tragic was her expression.
As for the Doctor and Clara… well, there’s quite a bit to talk about here. First, it’s fair to say, given Capaldi’s a fanboy, that he was wearing some older faces in Deep Breath. In the live Q&A shown to cinema goers, Capaldi said that there are some deliberate moments when this is a conscious decision, but beyond that he has genuinely sought to be ‘new’. No doubt true and accurate. But as the latest issue of DWM revealed, Capaldi also puts his scripts into his own little binder, plastered with photos of Hartnell, Pertwee and Tom Baker. This is no mistake and it’s not insignificant. This is who we’re seeing - doctors #1, 3 + 4.
He’s an older man now. Old men are cool.
Interestingly, a major theme was ‘identity’ - in particular, the dissonance between who Clara thought she knew and who she now can see before her. All the promo material suggested that Clara is now having to deal with a Doctor she can’t control and flirt with. But here’s what they didn’t tell us - Clara may be at fault for this, but it’s the Doctor who started it. “I never said it was your mistake” - or, to paraphrase Vastra, the Doctor flirted with Clara, deliberately leading her on, so as to make himself feel ‘accepted’. I don’t think I can watch Smith’s Doctor meditating on Clara’s bottom in the same way again.
And so - we get to that last scene, and the Doctor says those words quoted at the top of this page.
It’s all a bit ‘meta’, isn’t it really? There’s the very real sense that he’s literally talking to us - here’s a Doctor (and a show) that’s different. Alien and foreign and some of us are just-not-happy (are we, Daily Telegraph?) A bit like the Doctor himself really. This is how he should be. This is how he’s always been. We may as well have loved a mountain range.
We’re asked to trust what we cannot see, on the grounds of our love for a show and a person, a love that’s been demonstrated time and time again. This isn’t The Eleventh Hour. The Doctor hasn’t demanded our approval based on a conquest. He’s asked for our trust based on love unseen but always proven.
“Is that the Doctor?”
We saw Deep Breath at the cinema in Gloucester (where my wife's parents live). We had previously chosen to watch Day of the Doctor at the cinema, and that was one of the best movie experiences I'd ever had. Whether it was the great company, the festival atmosphere, the dress code, whatever - it was just wonderful. But I've got to say Gloucester. You guys need to relax a little. No one applauded. In fact, people left as soon as the credits rolled. And contrary to what a critic might think it wasn't because they didn't enjoy it. The same people were laughing throughout. No, Cineworld Gloucester - you need to start demanding people dress up or something. And least then people wouldn't be so depressed.
In any case, Deep Breath wasn't shown in 3D whereas DOTD was. (In fact, DOTD was also one of the best examples of 3d I've ever seen, and I'm a cynic of the 3d project.) Did Deep Breath merit a cinema release? Culturally, yes. The hype was tangible. But cinematographically, no. It felt a bit limp. I've watched it on TV since and it was actually better. Don't ask me why - perhaps the characters and drama shine brighter where there's a smaller focus. It was a lot of fun though and the sound was fantastic. I'm still glad I saw it at the cinema and I'd go again. Post- Survival, a Doctor Who fan never knows when the whole thing's going to collapse. I'll take any epic DW showing that I can get. I'm just saying - don't feel bad if you didn't get to go the cinema.
One thing the cinema showing had to its advantage, however, were the exclusive features. Including a live Q&A with Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat. Capaldi and Moffat had a bit of a spat about Mondasian cybermen which was just lovely. One couldn't help but think that Capaldi is a better candidate for showrunner after Moffat than anyone else. He's an intelligent, compassionate man with an Oscar under his belt, and a LOT of geeky knowledge. (You know he applied to be the President of the Official Doctor Who Fan Club, right?)
But please, please BBC - don't let Zoe Ball present anything DW related again. She's lovely, I'm sure, but nervous and awkward. Not good. ]