Editor’s Note: This Editorial is loaded with Spoilers and personal opinion. You have been warned.
On December 25th, 2013 I wrote a breakup letter to Doctor Who following ‘The Time of the Doctor,’ I was livid that Matt Smith received an exit that felt more like Timelord Ex-Machina than an actual save. I was taking it too seriously. After all, Doctor Who is a Family Program in the UK; it is only by luck and sheer enjoyment that adults get to play too. I shut the laptop and then walked away from The Doctor for (what I thought) good.
Adverts came like crazy over the past few weeks from BBC America, reminding me that the 23rd was the big day! Didn’t I want to watch Peter Capaldi’s introduction? I’ve witnessed every regeneration, written and published Doctor Who poems and even spent my hard earned vacation in London and Wales during the 50th Anniversary Celebration. I’ve personally hugged Matt Smith and John Barrowman. I’ve stood in front of River Song’s famous black dress and been on two sets of the TARDIS. For me, the breakup letter was letting go of something that had dramatically impacted my life, including giving me my start writing for online magazines. I teared up at the notice that the Doctor Who Experience was shutting down for Capaldi upgrades, but I would still not be moved. Still, that tickle of curiosity was there and like an ex with boundary issues, I found myself sneaking over to figure out just what my Doctor was up to.
For long-standing fans of Doctor Who, the first fifteen minutes of ‘Deep Breathe,’ was going to be rough. Within seconds, a T-Rex rampages through Victorian London and it appears only Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax have any idea what is happening. This episode without a doubt is written by Steven Moffat. I almost shut down the television, but I had to know what would happen when Capaldi swaggered out of that blue box. The Doctor appears with Clara, the TARDIS emerging from the throat of the dinosaur. Like an aging grandfather suffering from dementia, Capaldi stumbles, falls, and grows angry that no one can understand him; this was almost too painful to watch. Clara is beside herself; this is not the Doctor she knows. Then, like a curtain being pushed away, the Doctor regains his lucidity. He calculates and plots, working to figure out just what is happening. The dinosaur inexplicably explodes, burning to a pile of bone and ash in the city center. A clockwork man gathers body parts in the city in an attempt to rebuild his ship and get to the ‘Promised Land.’ Hot air balloons of human skin and pieced together robotic creatures emerge like nightmares from some of the worst dreams imaginable. It reminds me that the United Kingdom has a far different concept of “Family Programming” than the United States. The Doctor must face what kind of Timelord he is this go-round and stop the wickedness that has taken over London.
Like many Steven Moffat episodes, callbacks to previous Doctors are required. Madam Vastra mutters “here we go again,” which Classic fans will remember Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart muttering as Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker’s Doctor. The adventure of this episode is taken from a previous Tennant episode with the Clockwork creatures stealing body parts. Moffat does do an excellent job of hearkening back to that episode, while giving brand new fans the chance to experience the horror of it all for the first time. Capaldi discussing the clockwork man going home “the long way round” is no doubt a reference to the 50th Anniversary Special and the question from fans if this is the season we go back to the Doctor’s homeworld, Gallifrey. During a particularly uncomfortable scene where Clara struggles to retrieve the sonic screw driver from the floor, the Doctor mentions missing “Amy.” Amy Pond, of course, is one of the past Doctor’s greatest losses.
This Doctor is rash, dark, and possibly not the upright citizen we’ve become accustomed to with Matt Smith. Capaldi rants about his own eyebrows and delights in the fact he is Scottish with the ability to complain. No more does the Doctor follow the path of Tennant with an accent hidden by Posh London voices, but takes on the gruff tone he was born with. In a year where Scottish Independence comes to a vote, this is more important than the casual viewer may think. At one point Capaldi points out that Clara and Jenny both have English accents and thinks something may be wrong with them. Mr. Moffat, your Scottish is clearly showing.
The episode is very much about assumptions. Clara’s speech to Madame Vastra about assuming that Clara is only after the Doctor’s pretty face is alluring. Jenny’s cheers following are warranted, and for a moment Clara stands for every Fangirl who was questioned about whether or not she’d continue to watch the Doctor, even if he was played by an older man. Her anger is justified, strong, and for the first time since ‘Asylum of the Daleks,’ Clara feels less like a plot device and more like someone we want to watch. In this episode Jenna Coleman gets a part that is something to chew on, rather than the cotton candy fluff she had been given in the previous season. She stands in the face of danger and even when she has a tear running down her face you know she is stronger than ever before. Madame Vastra reminds her to “give him hell, he’ll always need it” when Clara leaves with the Doctor. Madame Vastra and Jenny continue to be very vocal about their inter-species/lesbian marriage. Though the use of the two at this point feels overdone and too prevalent for side characters, Jenny and Vastra have an important part to play in the concept of love and assumptions in Doctor Who. To those that surround them in London, Vastra is a woman with a “facial disfigurement” and Jenny is her housemaid. Behind closed doors, the two are a married couple, although Jenny reminds audiences that she is still “pouring the tea” in a literal, not sexual sense.
The TARDIS has also changed, but just so. Matt Smith’s Doctor had redecorated to a cold unfeeling interior, filled with dismal metal and circular Gallifreyan symbols. Capaldi’s Doctor has given it a bit of a classic feel, adding bookshelves but still leaving what Smith’s Doctor had changed in the background. Capaldi’s Doctor is not a whole new man, but 2,000 years of experiences and the TARDIS is allowing us to see that overlap.
A brief cameo by Matt Smith towards the ends of the episode manages to fix a great deal of the rushed plot damage done by this past year’s Christmas Special, but opens up emotional wounds for the recovering Fan. I will admit I began sobbing. For those who have never experienced the loss of one Doctor and the regeneration of another, seeing your previous Doctor during the healing process can be catastrophic; it is much like a break up in that respect. After all, Tennant fans had several years before seeing his face on a new Doctor Who episode again. For Clara, the experience allows her to find closure and move on to time with her Doctor and his new face. For some viewers, the experience may have only served to yet again feel Showrunner Steven Moffat twist an emotional knife.
Overall, Deep Breath was worth the emotional trauma. After Christmas I promised myself I could unlink my emotional attachment to Doctor Who. I told myself it was a silly TV show and that all the excitement and hype was just no longer for me. Capaldi has ripped that away and brought me back in through the doors of the TARDIS, sat me down, and asked me to give him a chance. How can I not?