The newly-regenerated Doctor arrives in Victorian London with Clara and tyrannosaurus rex. When the latter is murdered the Doctor sets out to solve the mystery of a string of similar spontaneous combustions.
Upon landing on the banks of the Thames, the Doctor’s struggle to remember his friends is not just the post-regeneration amnesia, but as a very welcome acknowledgement of the sheer amount of time he spent on Trenzalore in The Name of the Doctor: virtually half of his entire lifetime. Vastra’s belief that the person who knows him best in all the universe is Clara is unfounded; he knew the residents of Christmas for literally their entire lives, dwarfing his short relationship with Miss Oswald. It’s telling that he thought she was Handles at first, a companion he was with for decades longer than her.
The sight of a pre-historic monster in London brings back warm memories of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Terror of the Zygons. The sight of the T-Rex matched only in sheer majesty by the sight of the Skarasen making it’s way along the Thames.
The episode sets out the new Doctor’s stall with Steven Moffat’s usual wit and economy. I was surprised though by how much of this was explicitly stated; the lacking of flirting and hugging, and the way his age was addressed. If the companion is the audience’s proxy in the show, it does seem to suggest that it was felt Peter Capaldi’s age needed to be addressed for viewers of the twenty-first century series.
Hopefully the amount that Mr Moffat’s script rings in the changes will help put paid to the bizarre idea that has taken root that Capaldi arrived in Cardiff and intimidated everyone into doing his bidding. There is one line in The Sunday Times Magazine interview, where the actor states, “I did call and say, ‘I want no Papa-Nicole moments’. I think there was a bit of tension with that at first, but I was absolutely adamant.” He takes no personal credit for any of the other changes to Doctor Who that he talks about in the interview (and all other interviews) and they all chime with Moffat’s earlier comments about changing gear for series eight. There has been loads of discussion online though, where Capaldi has taken over every aspect of production. I actually clicked on a story with the headline ‘Peter Capaldi Put His Foot Down On Flirting and Costumes, Is Apparently in Charge of Doctor Who‘ because I thought it was a parody of this bizarre narrative that’s been inferred on the production, but no. The writer seems to seriously believe it.
There’s no ‘traditional’ costume-choosing scene here, reinforcing the lack of emphasis on superficial elements in the new series. Peter Capaldi said in his interview in Empire magazine issue 303, “It can become a kind of franchise where it’s not a real character at all but just an amalgam of elements that people think are Doctor Who: a scarf, a bow tie… I wanted to be the actual Doctor Who.” The new costume is stripped back, with nothing that can become an internet-obsessions like bow ties, brainy specs; and it would be nice if there’s no catchphrase for his Doctor either.
Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor is utterly mesmerising in his scenes, probably the most captivating presence in the lead role since Tom Baker (he even looks at the camera at one point like the great man himself). He’s brilliant to the extent that scenes with the Paternoster Gang become annoying by virtue of his absence. Well, that and the way Vastra and Jenny are becoming quite one-note. Like River Song before them they have fallen into a routine of smug innuendo. It might be more progressive to have married same-sex couple who don’t constantly refer to it. The exciting, newer stuff in Deep Breath are much more compelling than the older stuff now. I wouldn’t be sorry if we don’t see the Victorian crowd for the rest of this series. A change I would also more of is the return of the rational-thinking Doctor. As the twentieth century Doctors would eschew superstition for science, so does this new incarnation pour scorn on the Clockwork Captain’s ‘promised land’. This sits better than his predecessor trying to make deals with ‘the universe’ as in The Snowmen.
The plot is relatively slight, as is often the case with a new incarnation’s debut. I didn’t spot the clockwork droid connection when I possibly should have done, when the ship’s captain takes the dinosaur spectator’s eyes; but during the scene in the restaurant I realised once the tell-tale sound effect kicked in. This is one of the key scenes in the episode; the interplay between the Doctor and Clara is superb. They have terrific chemistry and their attempt to sneak out unnoticed is a nice riff on the social embarrassment I for one would feel in changing my mind when we’ve already taken a table. It’s a lovely macabre escalation of The Girl in the Fireplace to have the droids repairing themselves this time, like self-perpetuating Frankenstein monsters.
Spontaneous combustion feels like something Doctor Who would have used before, it’s such a strange and unsettling idea. It’s an idea that caught the popular imagination in those times. Charles Dickens writes about the phenomenon in Bleak House and A Christmas Carol. Although it was not without question, and Dickens defends the scientific validity in the preface to the former. There only having been two hundred recorded cases in worldwide in the last three hundred years (it was recorded as a cause of death in Ireland as recently as 2010), the number of incidents reported in London is a high enough concentration to arouse suspicion.
The droids here go on regenerating themselves with no purpose, purely to survive. When this is juxtaposed with the Doctor himself, renewing himself until there is nothing left of the original it seems to get him thinking; ultimately when he returns for Clara he says, “I’ve lived for over two thousand years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time I did something about that.” It seems like the Doctor has an actual agenda for the first time since his previous Scots persona had ‘unfinished business’.
Originally published on my Doctor Who blog: Trap One