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Doctor Who’s “Deep Breath” Delivers a Strong Start to Series 8

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This article contains a full plot synopsis, review, and critique. If you have not seen the episode “Deep Breath” please do not continue if you are avoiding spoilers!!!!!


“Deep Breath” was a breath of fresh air for Doctor Who fans. Our first full introduction to Peter Capaldi taking on the iconic role of the Doctor was, well, fantastic.

This season’s new title sequence is focused more on time and less on space than the opening has ever been, and was created by a fan, so I enjoyed it. Murray Gold’s more steam punk version of the theme is a little off putting for my tastes, but it stands out as more edgy and intense than previous versions, which is probably a reflection of the new incarnation of The Doctor. When we look back, it will likely seem perfect for its time when all is said and done; especially with Peter Capaldi alluding to his Doctor having a unique relationship with time in the preshow of “Deep Breath.”

From the beginning, we are introduced to the great visual of a dinosaur stomping down the River Thames, spitting out our beloved TARDIS. While this occurs, we see that the Paternoster Gang has established itself in Victorian London, working with the police, allowing for the return of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (played by Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, and Dan Starkey respectively). Vastra in particular is shown to take charge and be the liaison between strange events and the Victorian police force, instructing them what to do and how to do it when the dinosaur arrives.

When The Doctor walks out of his box, and starts naming the Seven Dwarves to Strax, it is hilarious. It slowly degrades to demonstrate how confused The Doctor truly is, not even knowing who Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) is and confused as to how he got there. While he is able to speak dinosaur, the TARDIS does not translate for the companions as it generally does, whether this is a reflection of his confusion or the TARDIS giving Clara a hard time, we do not know, but it was very reminiscent of the Sycorax not speaking English until David Tennant fully awakes and emerges figuring out who he is in the process in “The Christmas Invasion” (2005).

We then see The Doctor’s response to a bedroom, confused about the point of a having a room “to not be awake in.” In his fury, he slowly realizes that his companions “have developed a fault” by speaking in their normal English accents rather than the new Scottish one The Doctor sports and proclaims no one should look in the mirror as “it’s furious”. Once more Vastra takes the lead and shows her skills coercing the Doctor to sleep prior to passing out while the Doctor insults her brain capacity.

While The Doctor sleeps, Clara inquires as to how to “change him back” and Vastra begins to question if the Paternoster Gang really knows Clara at all. Clara, upset that she mentally knows this is the same Time Lord, is still upset that he has changed his appearance and self. Vastra and Clara challenge one another as Vastra (delivering a poignant performance) puts on her veil and reveals that she wears it not as a courtesy but as a judgment on others. Explaining that The Doctor had let his guard down and had stopped “putting on a face” for her because he trusts her, Clara realizes she is essentially being called superficial and puts Vastra in her place. This allows for some great character development of Clara with the only pinup she ever had being of Marcus Aurelius, and she seems to have fancied him for his charisma and personality, rather than looks. It allowed us a glimpse into how she thinks, and reassures us that Clara is just having trouble with the adjustment, not that she is superficial in a way we did not realize.

The Doctor awakes and begins to draw chalk all over his room frantically, jumping out the window and flirting with the dinosaur. While he promises to get the dinosaur home and keep it safe, it spontaneously combusts into flames before his very eyes as he pleas for it not to. Upset he could not protect this creature he jumps from the roof stealing a horse in his pyjamas. He arrives at the scene and immediately apologizes to the dinosaur, angry, confused, but still investigating. In his rage and confusion, Clara is able to step forward and calm him down enough to get him to make his point rather than continue on with his condemnation of the murder.

The Doctor moves to an alley where he meets a tramp, and ponders, “who frowned me this face?” also realizing he must be trying to tell himself something, but not knowing what could be “so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking.” Complaining about “attack eyebrows” calling them “cross” “independently cross, they probably want to cede from the rest of my face and take up their own independent state of eyebrows” suddenly remembering he is Scottish and also tying in the current events of Scotland seeking independence. The Doctor finally realizes the thing in the alley way he had noticed earlier was a headline about spontaneous combustion, and requests the tramp’s coat. He declines and The Doctor in a fierce way explains there is no point in them both being cold. He later tells Clara he traded his watch for the coat he is now wearing, but the audience is left to wonder if he took it or actually traded it.

Back at Paternoster Gang headquarters, Strax is as funny as ever, still demonstrating nursing skills as well as military tactics by thinking like the Doctor to bring the TARDIS back to the estate, while at the same time throwing the Times up hard enough to knock Clara out. While Jenny is a bit more sexualized, she remains a good middle character – less comedic than Strax, less judgmental than Vastra, and less controlling than Clara, she brings a nice balance. Jenny also has the unique role as sub companion, the audience’s in to the knowledge Vastra as the head detective, and her companion in multiple ways. The nature of the relationship between Jenny and Vastra and their “exchange of oxygen later in the episode” has made some headlines, but it was a great way to remind us that Vastra is not human and has a bigger lung capacity, as well as continuing to cement their union, and giving us a couple that care about one another and are not simply there for drama.

We then see an advert in The Times that is both simple enough in Clara’s mind to figure out thinking simply as the Doctor would, yet complex enough that The Doctor believed it to be from Clara as “a person (who) would be an egomaniac needy game player sort of person.” Reassuring her he was happy to meet her there, while leading to the bigger issue of them realizing that there is a third party, also foreshadows, this is still the same doctor who will be more than happy to meet his friend if she called. It also demonstrates there is a third party that is aware he calls her “The Impossible Girl” and is re-highlighted when the Doctor in the end of the episode asks Clara who gave her his number when they first met. They both realize that this mysterious person or being is very “keen” to keep them together, but neither know who or what it is. The Doctor points out the advert and phone number may be connected, thus establishing the mystery is who the “woman in the shop” from “The Bells of Saint John” is.

Neither of them seem to notice they are the only ones talking, not moving in the same repetitive fashion, and… breathing as the Doctor realizes during their discussion as to who took the advert out. The banter between that realization and the escape attempt shows that the chemistry is phenomenal between the two actors, and can be funny, serious, and real all at once – drawing out the grouchier sides of one another, but also allowing for hilarious lines. As they recognize it’s a trap, and attempt to get out, they are stopped by robotic human cyborgs. The pair are scanned for useful organs by one of the cyborgs and The Doctor pulls the face off of their examiner; both scaring Clara by acknowelding it is made from human skin and at the same time revealing the cyborg has a similar design to the Clockwork Men from “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

The pair suddenly fall to the basement where the main half faced cyborg/clockwork man is recharging. Realizing he is re-charging, The Doctor explains to Clara that they’re meat to be cut up, trapped in a slaughter house, a ship that had crashed centuries ago, only being kept alive because freezing meat is more expensive. Escaping the booth they were tied to, he Doctor keeps thinking he’s encountered this scenario before, and realizes the cyborgs are attempting to become human. That “instead of a man turning into a robot, the robots are turning into men” and they need a constant source of spare human parts, thus the restaurant.

The lead droid starts to activate and we see the clockwork gears shifting. The two try to escape, and both successfully leave the primary room but the doctor turns around lamenting how familiar the situation seems. Only returning to get The Doctor out of the room, Clara becomes trapped with the Doctor safely on the other side of the door thanks to her retrieving him. He begins to lift the door with the sonic to rescue her but he runs off, while Clara sobs, unsure how the Doctor could ever leave her like that. Clara hides amongst the other “dormant” droids and holds her breath in an attempt not to be noticed by the head of the clockwork cyborg men. She slowly moves as a droid towards the door and upon leaving realizes the hallways are filled with more “hopefully” dormant cyborg humans. She struggles to hold her breath while moving and slowly things fall out of focus as she is forced to take a breath and collapses from the oxygen deprivation. The lead cyborg man requests she be brought forward and she thinks back to her very first day as a teacher.

The head cyborg man demands to know where the “other one” has gone or he will destroy her. She then cleverly talks her way out of the situation with the lead cyborg using memories of when she as a teacher used empty threats, pointing out that threats on her won’t work if he won’t follow through with them. She even challenges him, telling him he can’t frighten her more than she already is and she will not yield information, so he will have to kill her. Her threat to not answer questions until they answer hers works and he reveals they killed the dinosaur for the optical nerve, but to have that grasp of the biology of a dinosaur means they’ve been here a very long time to have encountered them. He discloses that the reason they continue from whenever they are from is to reach the promised land. He asks again where the “other one” is and while Clara says she does not know, she claims, “but I know where he will be, where he will always be. If The Doctor is still The Doctor, he will have my back” she reaches behind her and after a tense moment, the doctor grabs it revealing he had been hiding under a mask and that he knew Clara would get the information out of him proclaiming, “Thank you for all the gratuitous information. Five foot one and crying, you never stood a chance.” This was a beautiful moment reminiscent of when Tom Baker pushed Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) into becoming a stronger woman by insulting her, and lets us know that while we may have doubted him running away, he still would never abandon his companion so coldly.

He then uses his sonic to level a threat against the cyborg, and asks why they’ve been invited there. The cyborg reveals he had no part in the invitation, and The Doctor tells Clara to use her safe word, knowing the gang would never allow her to go into a dangerous situation without one. Together, they call “Geronimo” and Jenny and Vastra gracefully lower themselves from the roof while Strax falls behind them. While the cyborgs amount an attack against the gang in the basement, The Doctor quickly talks his way into getting the lead cyborg alone. Still throwing in little treats for the audience, Capaldi as The Doctor tells the lead cyborg there is no point in killing them as the authorities had been called only to find out the cyborg is hoping to reach the promised land. The Doctor sits at a table and says “I have a horrible feeling I might have to kill you, I thought you might appreciate a drink first, I know I would.” (Could that drink have been “multi grade anti-oil” from “The Girl in the Fireplace”?) As the Cyborg releases the evacuation balloon, made from human parts and skin, The Doctor approaches him, realizing the ship is from the 51st century and the cyborg is trying to “go home, the long way around” (a direct parallel to the destination Matt Smith’s Doctor reveals is his own in “The Day of the Doctor”). Pointing out the cyborg probably can’t even remember “where (he) got that face from” as he holds up a reflective item, we see on the other side The Doctor looking at his own face as he confronts the cyborg about his. As the Doctor recognizes he has seen this before again and finds the ship’s name is the SS Marie Antoinette, the sister ship of the SS Madame Du Pompadour. While this rings a bell, he still cannot place the connection.

The two have a conversation about their basic programming, with self destruction being against the cyborg’s, and murder against The Doctor’s while The Doctor admits he could kill the cyborg in the knowledge that he doesn’t “really want to carry on.” The Doctor realizes the other droids will deactivate if the leader is shut down as the gang is closed in on, and Clara realizes they can stop the attack by tricking the droids by holding their breaths. Jenny telepathically tells Vastra she can’t do it, and Vastra shares the oxygen she has to keep Jenny alive, as previously mentioned. Back in the balloon The Doctor declares, “Those people down there, they’re never small to me. Don’t breach the subject about how far I will go to protect them because I’ve already come a very long way, and unlike you I don’t intend to reach the promised land.” then letting the cyborg know that one of them has been lying about their “basic programming.”

The camera switches back to the gang who can no longer hold their breaths and just as the droids go to turn on them, they deactivate and we see the top hat of the lead cyborg fall off of Big Ben with him impaled to death by the spire on top, The Doctor overlooking the scene.

As the case is over, Clara takes a carriage back to the Paternoster Gang Headquarters, and they realize The Doctor had beat them there and already left with his TARDIS. Clara switches from the Victorian clothes she wore while solving the case to the clothes she was wearing at the time of the regeneration. She asks Vastra for a position, and Vastra assures her that while she is welcome, by instinct, Clara has changed, and Vastra does not doubt The Doctor is returning for her. Clara claims, “I don’t think I know who The Doctor is anymore” as the TARDIS re-materializes and Vastra gently tells Clara, “it does seem, my dear, you’re very wrong about that.” She reminds Clara to give The Doctor a hard time, as he’ll always need it, and Clara enters the TARDIS.

Clara runs in, pointing out she doesn’t like the redecoration while Capaldi laments not having more round things on the walls. He approaches her, saying “I’m the Doctor, I’ve lived for over 2,000 years, but not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes and it’s about time that I did something about that.”

After asking what she thinks of his new “no nonsense” outfit, she tearfully tells The Doctor she is sorry, but must leave, as her phone rings. As she steps out of the TARDIS and answers, she hears a familiar voice saying “it’s me.” We find out it is Matt Smith’s Doctor calling from Trenzalore imploring her to help the scared Time Lord he hopes she is with no matter how scared she may be, because he is even more terrified. Capaldi’s Doctor confirms she is on the phone with Smith’s Doctor, and when she hangs up, he steps out of the TARDIS and asks if she will help him. Clara sternly tells him he shouldn’t have been listening, and The Doctor reminds her that he didn’t have to, because it was him who made the call in the first place. He finally removes some of the wall and pleads with her to understand he’s not on the phone, rather right in front of her, but she cannot see him. After slowly surveying him, Clara smiles, and thanks The Doctor for calling. She embraces him in a huge bear hug, and when he protests he is not the hugging type she tells him he doesn’t have a say in the matter. She also informs him that instead of landing in London as planned, The Doctor had mistakenly landed in Glasgow, Scotland. The pair set off for coffee (and maybe chips) in a throwback to the early Rose-Eccleston Doctor style relationship at the start of the re-boot.

The shot suddenly switches to an open aired garden with the cyborg leader replacing his top hat, being greeted by an umbrella carrying woman dressed all in black. The garden is vaguely reminiscent of the way the TARDIS console is set up and the woman informs the cyborg he’s reached the promised land and she is Missy. She tells the cyborg leader that she will allow The Doctor to keep his Scottish accent, and that she “really couldn’t tell” if her “boyfriend” had pushed him or if the cyborg had jumped, acknowledging “he can be very mean sometimes. Except to me, of course, because he loves me so much.” As she confirms he’s made it to the promised land she stretches her arms out and says “Welcome to Heaven” as she makes a biting motion at the air, prances around the garden, and the credits role.

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