“He needs you.” — Doctor Who: Deep Breath, series return review

Previously on Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor.

The Doctor has landed, the Doctor is in.

Doctor Who has returned, clockwork dancing to a darker tune, in sync with a Scottish heartbeat and an erratic consciousness. Welcome to the Untempered Schism that is Peter Capaldi’s ferocious first performance as the Twelfth Doctor.

Clara Oswald — Character and Characterisation

Clara Oswald. I think we can all agree that, in this episode, Clara is everything. I’m not sure she’s been written for so well in her entire run as she has in this episode, and Jenna Coleman played her with a surety and compassion that never misstepped by an inch.

For us, it’s been months, but Clara has literally just lost her best friend. Eleven, her Doctor, he’s gone, and even though there’s one still in front of you, it’s like that friend has died. There was a reason, after all, why Clara went off with the Doctor at all — they were friends, she liked him, they clicked. And what are the odds of that happening with two different people in a row? I liked Clara’s upset in this episode, because it wasn’t just her own grief that upset her, it was her worry for him. He got old, and it throws her — what if he’s sick, what if something went wrong? It’s not just her own feelings that have her struggling to cope, it’s her worry for someone she knew so well, who mysteriously changed every cell in his body in a process she has never even heard of and can’t understand. As someone who feels anxious when she doesn’t know what’s going on, Clara is used to coping when faced with unexpected and uncontrollable situations, but she also, in her travels with the Doctor, knew he’d be there, be her anchor, her constant, as ever-changing though he was.

The New Doctor — Who Is He?

And now there’s this man who should by rights be him, yet isn’t, and post-regeneration amnesia is only contributing to his erratic behaviour, which makes it so hard to see behind the veil and see that, well. It’s still the Doctor. Still the same man. Different face, different ears, different voice, and a very different chin, but he’s still there. There will always be something about him we recognise. Sometimes it’s kindness, sometimes it’s ruthlessness, sometimes it’s the sheer sense of mystery that surrounds him. But right then, Clara doesn’t know who the Doctor is anymore, and it’s not only about unexpected change, it’s about trust, it’s about losing someone you felt connected to, it’s like someone dying while they’re still in the Drift with you.

He’s lifted a veil — to himself, and to Clara. He’s trying to make a point: to stop running away. He went pretty boy for Rose, he went cosmic twelve-year-old for himself, but now he’s someone the old Time Lord can recognise. He’s got lines, but he’s not the one who did the worrying. He’s had a few lifetimes of worrying by now, and they’re showing this time.

And it’s hard for Clara to accept, and her distress feels genuine without it being all about her — and that means, without it being all about the audience. It’s what made me so angry at The End of Time, it became all about David, and because there was no constant companion at that time, and he was alone when he died, the Doctor became the audience’s stand-in. It became all about him, and all about the audience, and I think that’s why so many fought the transition to Matt Smith so viciously. But here, Clara goes through tangible pain even whilst keeping her head on straight in a legitimately frightening situation, whilst negotiating her relationship with the new Doctor without necessarily realising it, and whilst being furious at the suggestion that she would judge him for any choice he made re: his appearance, as long as it was his choice, furious at the notion that she would rate the validity of his choices by whether it would make him attractive to her or not.

Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor in Deep Breath

That phone call from the Eleventh Doctor was that last push that Clara needed because it reminded her of what the Doctor always most admired about her: she doesn’t leave when she’s needed. And she’s needed here, with him, everywhere, because he’s as frightened as she is, Eleven knew that they both would be, and so he gets a chance that no Doctor’s had before, and calls, and explains, and shows her that he trusts her with this, with himself.

“You can’t see me, can you? You look at me, and you can’t see me. Have you 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.”

But in the end, she can, because he lets her see a glimpse of that vulnerability, and just for a moment, he holds still. That’s the thing about Twelve, he just never holds still, and not in the same way that Matt Smith didn’t, or even David Tennant. His physicality, the way he uses his body, is completely different and going the other way. Eleven was all flailing limbs and lanky clumsiness that somehow didn’t lead to him strangling himself with his own legs, but Twelve is… everywhere, all at once. He fills a room one minute and can then tuck himself into a corner, only to reemerge where you hadn’t expected him. His movements lack all the slapstick quality of the Eleventh Doctor. But in that moment with Clara, after the phone call, when he tries to explain to her that he wasn’t listening to the call, didn’t have to, because he was remembering it, that’s when he holds still and just lets her see him. And that’s when she does. And that’s when she thanks him for phoning. Her new and old and still her Doctor.

The Times, They Are a-Changing

That’s why the dialogue in the scene with the Half-face Man is so powerful — if you’ve got a broom, and you replace the handle, and then the brush, is it still the same broom? His answer — is no. He’s using the same logic that applies to himself to dismantle the Half-face Man, and you see the realisation on his face. The tray acts as a mirror, but for both of them, the Clockwork Man and the Doctor. But of course a broom analogy can only fall short of the real thing, because a broom doesn’t have the consciousness of a Time Lord in its brush. At least I hope not.

The Twelfth Doctor is not immediately definable, he’s a strange, cosmic, temperamental being that’s 2,000 years old and a very angry Scotsman. He’s right there, but he’s not. He doesn’t tell you his secrets — with Eleven, it felt as though there weren’t many left to keep, but Peter Capaldi chucks you right into the dark and leaves you there, flitting through the patches of light around you, but you can never quite see him for long enough. His Doctor is peeking through the cracks, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know him. I like that idea.

The other thing that I loved was that Clara continues punching the damsel in distress trope right in the face. She’s scared, she’s terrified, but she fights back, she keeps her head, she admits her fear but pushes past it, and she doesn’t give up. And it’s then that she takes a chance on the Doctor, takes a chance on them being a team as they used to be. The Doctor needed to observe the cyborg, Clara got him that time. As the Doctor tells her: sorry I left you, but, eh, you were brilliant on your own, what do you need me for?

The Doctor and Clara at Mancini's restaurant.

The long dialogue, i.e. the bickering scene at the restaurant worked terrifically well for being such a long piece of conversation standing pretty much alone in an already longer than usual episode. We don’t usually get that much talking on end, so it was great to see the chemistry between Jenna and Peter and the way they just bounced their cues off one another, it was really quite a sight to see. Timing is a wondrous and fickle thing, and to have it to the extent that your body language just clicks on camera with all verbal and non-verbal cues coming together is amazing.

Neve McIntosh plays Madame Vastra

The Paternoster Gang — and the Thing with the Boyfriend

I love that we got to see more of the Paternoster Gang this time around, along with married life that wasn’t just played for laughs. The bit I wasn’t so keen on (and that I will have to rewatch tomorrow) in Clara and Vastra’s conversation was the last bit, the one about flirting with a mountain range. I’m not entirely certain about the inherent logic in that conversation that made the veil disappear and what it’s got to do with pin-ups of boybands and flirting with mountain ranges.

The episode also could have done with some fewer mentions of the word ‘boyfriend.’ As far as buzzwords go, it’s not really productive. It’s one thing to reaffirm that Clara saw him as only a friend, once, but by the end of the episode it felt forced and out of place and I felt like they were trying to tell me something I was missing the point of, and that perhaps even the actors weren’t quite sure how to play their reactions sometimes. (Perhaps because after seven or eight times a word tends to lose its meaning and it feels more like cerebral jellyfish.) I’m guessing that the last mention and the Doctor muttering that Clara not thinking of him as a boyfriend was his fault then means that the Doctor was the one with the crush, the one who presumed shallowness in her where there was none. (And I’m immensely glad that after Martha, after Amy, one of the Doctors is taking the responsibility for the mixed signals, for the completely understandable reactions, for the tension that he didn’t know how to deal with. Ten was horrible to Martha, and Eleven was a flirt because he thought it would help, but then never realised that he didn’t need to flirt with Clara for her to accept him. Twelve knows that now.)

However, it’s one thing to alert both the characters and the audience to the fact that their relationship is going to be different from now on, but to have that hinge only on the romance angle is not even thin, it’s flimsy, especially because Clara makes it clear that you can be really attached to someone without defaulting to romantic love. The ‘Boyfriend Doctor’ is probably not the best of identifiers for the Eleventh Doctor, although the initial notion of ‘he was young and flirty with everyone — and for the benefit of everyone, to wear a mask that is acceptable and accepted’ does make sense. To behave like a flirty bloke is probably one way of having yourself written off as mostly harmless. It’s certainly a riff on people claiming that Capaldi would be too old for the role, that a younger Doctor would be more relatable.

Representation vs. Titillation

Edit & update: another bit I’m not keen on, but that escaped me during the first watch a little because I got distracted by someone two rows down having a cough attack — the sharing air close-up. Consider: they could have shown Jenny and Vastra sharing air in a medium or long shot, but they chose the extreme close-up of the lip lock. For what? We’ve seen Martha push the last of her air into the Tenth Doctor’s lungs once, and they didn’t need the close-up then. This was obviously pushing it for some audience titillation, and that’s so last century.

Overall, the tone of the episode was a lot more grim in a more visceral and immediate sense than just planets blowing up: that shot of the Half-face Man pierced by the tower ornament was really rather different from what the show’s done before, and I know it surprised the folks I was watching with. I’m looking forward to seeing where they’ll be taking this.

And the last thing: Missy? Scary evil twin of Mary Poppins? Paradise? What the hell??

Next: Into the Dalek. Oh, good.

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4 thoughts on ““He needs you.” — Doctor Who: Deep Breath, series return review

  1. I liked this. It didn’t have the immediate joy of The Eleventh Hour, but as post-regeneration stories go this was excellent, in a quiet way. I liked the fact that the story was more contained and intimate. I liked that the darkness was more about the characters themselves than about interstellar wars or planetary threats. Most of all, I liked the fact that Clara became a proper companion here and not a walking impossible mystery, and that Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi were as brilliant together as they were individually.

    The one thing I didn’t really love was Matt’s cameo. As far as I was concerned, he’d had his farewell in Time of the Doctor and so this was a little self-indulgent. Of course, I still enjoyed it, but I felt it was unnecessary and shoe-horned in on the flimsiest of premises.

    A promising start. I’ve got a good sense already of where we’re heading this season. I just hope Moffat follows through fully on the new mission statement he has laid out here.

    Like

    1. As far as self-indulgence goes, Matt’s cameo was far lower on the scale than the entirety of The End of Time. As long as that sinister debacle isn’t repeated, I tend to let these things slide 😀

      No but you’re right, the episode could have done without him and Clara could have easily had her epiphany by remembering something or just by way of the Doctor asking him to please see her. On the other hand, it was a stark reminder that, although for us Matt has had his farewell ages ago, for Clara it’s really only been a day. So, I don’t know, I couldn’t find it in myself to mind.

      Now that the second episode’s through as well, I think chances are that we’re pretty much on course.

      Like

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