24 August 2014

TV: Deep Breath

thanks to the amazing Tom Newsom for letting us use his cover

Welcome to the era of the Twelfth Doctor, everyone. Let's make it a good one. Peter Capaldi unquestionably owns the role now and gave a fantastic debut performance. Oddly, the only other character significant to the plot was Peter Ferdinando's Half Face Man. I didn't really feel the inclusion of the Paternoster Gang was wholly necessary. Yes, they (well pretty much just Vastra) helped Clara through coping with the new Doctor, but even then they still felt superfluous. The plot of this episode was above average, and enjoyably executed, but I thought it took way too long to get to.

I'll return to the start. I actually missed the opening on first broadcast, and so felt a bit lost for a few minutes - not in the heady, exciting sort of way where everything is going mad around you, but in the way that I felt like I'd missed a couple of minutes of vital exposition. Watching it again late last night, I realised that in fact, I'd only missed about five seconds' worth, which surprised me. Having watched Doctor Who Extra (which seems to be Behind the Lens reincarnated) I was shocked to learn that that first scene, at the riverside, was all a set. I'd assumed it was a location, not only for the detailing, but because building a set for such little use seems extravagant to me. It was good, but really the TARDIS could have landed somewhere a bit cheaper, couldn't it?

Unlike many people, I'm not a huge fan of the new titles. I was happy with the others and for the first time, we've had four consecutive episodes where the titles were different to the previous episode's. These new chronology-based ones are undoubtedly of high quality, I'm not just not so keen on the TARDIS flying through them still. And the title was only up for about 20 frames. On the plus side, I did love the 'liquidy' blue hues and the new font, but congratulations to Billy Hanshaw for getting his concept realised on the small (and big, for one week only) screen. I was more or less indifferent to the new theme. It's another natural progression from what we had before (though I did like what sounded like bells towards the start) but needed more bass, as Harry Matthews put it. It still feels like a step backwards from the themes of the Eccleston and Tennant eras, but it will probably grow on me.

This reminded me of many Doctors' first stories. For the first portion, I was put in mind of Time and the Rani most, with the ersatz new Doctor bumbling about, his most notable trait being that he was different to his predecessor. For the majority of Deep Breath I was reminded of both Robot and The Christmas Invasion. In many ways, Moffat seemed to be trying to write for Sarah through Clara, particularly in the scene where she was interrogated by the Half Face Man, but also when visiting the restaurant itself. The reminders of David Tennant's debut came towards the conclusion, during the confrontation and struggle with the leader of the alien race in the skies of London. Whilst we're on the subject, I am in no doubt that the Half Face Man threw himself to his death. On first viewing, I wasn't sure, but after rewatching, I'm almost certain of it.

The main plot of the episode, concerning the droids, lasted around twenty-five minutes (from the 36-minute mark to the 61-minute mark, fact fans). Although it was bad that people were spontaneously combusting - presumably because of the droids, but it's never really addressed - they didn't really seem like villains. Of course, they'd been using 'spare' parts for centuries to repair themselves (why were they spare? As far as I could tell, most of the owners were still using them) but they seemed content mostly to sit in their restaurant and wait for the Promised Land. Another point I wasn't very clear on was how long exactly they'd been there. If they were hoping to run into Marie Antoinette, leaving the fact that they were in the wrong country aside, they'd arrived around a century earlier. I know it's mentioned that they crashed, and this does seem to tie in with the notion that they have knowledge of dinosaurs' biology, so it would seem they'd been there millions of years. But the crew of the SS Madame de Pompadour were almost pin-point accurate with their time windows, so considering this was supposed to be a sister ship, they were pretty rubbish in the time department. Talk about overshooting.

Of the scenes in this segment, the strongest has to be aforementioned interrogation. The reveal of the Doctor (and on second viewing, it's him that catches Clara in the first place) was good and this was the scene where I really felt like Capaldi was the Doctor for the first time. It can't just be me that thinks he looks much better in the Victorian garb than his 'regular' look? Just add a bit of red lining to the jacket and you'll be sorted. I thought Capaldi (and the Doctor)'s best scene of the entire episode though was that with Brian Miller. The pair worked very well together, both inhabiting their characters completely. In fact, I think Barney was my favourite guest character of the entire piece, and I think this was the new Doctor's chance to really be a bit zany following the regeneration, and you could probably lose most of the rest of it.

I think trying to get to know the Doctor and showcase the shock of the sudden change (after all, we've been living with the knowledge that the Doctor was going to regenerate for getting on fifteen months now, Clara's had just minutes) through the companion's eyes is always a good tactic, but I felt that here it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. The scenes in the restaurant and in the street at the end were prime examples of the relationship being built upon, but the lead pairing were separated no less than four times in this story. Clara as a whole seems to have grown more of a personality, but once again I think Jenna Coleman may be mostly to thank for that. She's headstrong and resistant to change but doesn't really exhibit many other characteristics. We're told she's controlling, but I didn't really see a whole lot of evidence of this. I realise this episode was centred around the Doctor, but I did think the petulant, child-like aspects of her personality brought to the forefront here were a bit of a step back from The Time of the Doctor.

The Paternoster Gang weren't included for any special reason, it would seem. The credible characters created in A Good Man Goes to War are now almost gone. The trio were present simply because of the setting, and to give the viewer a sense of reassurance I think, in the same way that UNIT were still around with the introduction of the Fourth Doctor. They were nearly entirely comedy characters, which jarred with the feel the episode was going for I think. Strax was once a proper warrior of the Sontaran Empire, now he's reduced to delivering the newspaper, mopping the floor and falling from ceilings. Very little at all was made of Madame Vastra's race, I thought. There was barely anything to stop from being human. I can think of three occasions when it was referenced, and only one when it was actually used - the veil scene. if this is the best this trio have to offer now, I think that they'd probably be left there. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a good idea to have everything exactly the same and change only the Doctor, to see how that affects things, but I don't think it really did here. Also, was anyone else put in mind of that BBC One ident from a few years ago during Vasta and Jenny's entrance towards the end? Talking of characters with little impact, at no stage did I get the impression that Inspector Gregson needed to be there. His appearance at the end was completely unnecessary and he had some quite jarring and unnatural lines, I thought.

The idea of things being replaced so many times there's nothing left is a sound one, and provides a subtle commentary for the Doctor. He has completely changed, yet is still exactly the same, whereas the result for the Half Face Man and his droids is the reverse. While we're on droids, I thought the knives sliding from their sleeves here weren't nearly as effective as the weapons presented in The Girl in the Fireplace. And how many times did the Doctor need to beat over the head with the fact that he recognised the plot? If you're reading this review, you're probably enough of a fan that you would have seen the links anyway. A simple "I thought it seemed familiar" when he read the inscription about the sister ship would have sufficed for me. I did think the Half Face Man looked excellent and was shot stunningly. The remote control prop was a marvel, I was convinced it was CGI. A real triumph for the effects team, but I thought Peter Ferdinando did a great job too. His physicality and the way he moved and spoke was pitched perfectly, and the entire performance and character really worked for me.

There was quite a bit of hype around Ben Wheatley directing the first two episodes of the series. To be honest, I'd never heard of him before, and I haven't seen any of work, so I had lower expectations. Although this did look very cinematic, I'm not sure I liked all of the directorial decisions, and indeed the look of the whole episode felt out of place. The opening scene was particularly weird, with its slow-motion and perspective shots. The revelation about the droids in the restaurant would have worked much better if we'd actually seen them (on the periphery) a few times before we were shown the truth. Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed and I think Saul Metzstein (along with Nick Hurran and Jamie Payne) worked better with this show.

The segment in 'Heaven' at the end also didn't thrill me much. I had a feeling Michelle Gomez's Gatekeeper would feature throughout the season - in the same way as Kovarian did two series ago - and I have to say I've already taken a dislike to her. She seems to be another of the characters from the same factory as River Song and Tasha Lem - she's overconfident, presumes she knows more than everyone else in the room, refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend and knows him of old and comes from a mysterious background. I think the scene would have had more of an impact on me if they'd just left it with the Gatekeeper (and it would seem that the Nethersphere is 'Heaven') replying "Welcome to Heaven!" when the Half-Face Man asked where he was. I do hope we're not going to see her at the end of the first ten episodes of this series, collecting the monsters and villains, as it could get wearing quite quickly. I'm sure Moffat is a better writer than that though.

To sum up, I was a bit underwhelmed by this episode given all the build up to it. The only character who seemed affected at all by the Doctor's change was Clara, and setting it amongst her family (who we established in the last episode) might have been better from that perspective. However, I can see why Moffat wanted to make this a historical, because it's more convenient for the droids segment of the episode. There would be no end of questions about technology etc. had this been set in the modern day. The Paternoster Gang were unnecessary and almost entirely superfluous to requirements. The music was odd when present, although that seemed quite sparingly to me. The direction was odd and seemed like they were going for an unusual feel rather than what served the story best. However, I did enjoy the main plot of the episode, and I thought that part was pretty well written. Clara was lit atrociously in the interrogation scene, but aside from that the lighting was pretty good. Alf wasn't well enough established to do his scene justice, and I think we should have followed his story a bit longer and maybe seen more of the Half-Face Man terrorising the streets. I still long for more episodes with proper armies of monsters rather than single villains. I know there was the rest of the droids, but even Clara said they were stupid - plus there wasn't really a plan.

This was well structured but I think most of the scenes towards the beginning and end could have been cut in half and worked just fine. This could have been a really tightly-paced 60 or 65 minute episode but as it is, it does feel a bit overlong. Peter Capaldi is undoubtedly the star of the show, redefining the Doctor in exactly the right way. In my opinion he showed shades of the Second, Seventh and Tenth Doctors, which is brilliant. I think this character was written really well for the last two-thirds and I hope we continue in this direction. He may yet soften, despite all the talk about him being hard of whatever. After all, in The Christmas Invasion the Doctor was yelling at Jackie to shut up and said he didn't give second chances. Look how much he changed over the course of his era. If this is how the Brian Minchin era (am I the only that hasn't forgotten him?) is going to be, a new confidence is instilled in me. I feel bad marking this so harshly, as I'm aware of all the man hours and effort that went into Deep Breath. I'm afraid the writing and direction just let things down a bit for me. I am massively looking forward to next week, mainly for the return of Phil Ford.

Top Three Lines
  • "Don't look in that mirror; it's furious!"
  • "Do you have a children's menu?"
  • "Hello rubbish robots from the dawn of time!"
I watch the show every week with someone we'll call Larry. He grew up with the show, but has never been a huge fan of the Moffat era. On the whole, though, he usually enjoys episodes written by the showrunner the most.

Larry's Line: "Very weird. We're used to better graphics than that."

In a Nutshell: A confident (if overlong) introduction that serves brilliantly as a showcase for Peter Capaldi but not as much else.

PS: By a happy coincidence, not only is this 8.1 and episode 801 of the show but it's my 81st published review. Hooray!

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