Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: Deep Breath

Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Deep Breath, the first episode of series 8 of new Doctor Who, starts off with a bad case of Did Not Do The Research by writer Steven Moffat. The story begins in Victorian London, with a ludicrously big Tyrannosaurus Rex having been accidentally transported there after getting the TARDIS caught in its throat like some sort of time-travelling toffee. This ridiculously large dinosaur is shown close to the height of Big Ben, or 315 feet (nearly 16 stories). In reality, T Rex was large, but not anywhere near that size: 13 feet tall, not that much bigger than the TARDIS itself.

The opening credits have been reworked. Gone is the wormhole through space, in its place we now have clockwork gears and a spiral marked with Latin numerals like the face of an old-fashioned clock, rather suggestive of H.G. Wells' Time Machine. I thought that the look of it was quite good, although I haven't made up my mind about the theme music. If this is an indication that the Doctor is going to return to his old-fashioned Hartnell-esque roots (only, you know, better), I look forward to it. Unfortunately there is no sign of it in this episode. The newly-regenerated Doctor, played by the talented Peter Capaldi, spends most of the episode behaving erratically. He's unsure of who or what he is, uncertain why he has the face he has, and confused beyond measure. Even when he recovers he's not quite the Doctor. He's just some guy. Although he does have possibly the best line in the show:

It's spreading! You all sound all...English. No, you've all developed a fault!"

I'm not familiar with Capaldi as an actor, but Mrs Impala has followed his work for many years and thinks very highly of him, which made this performance all the more disappointing. She tells me that this is the first time that a new Doctor has failed to "sell" the role in the opening episode, and considering what the BBC made Colin Baker do, that's saying something. I have to say I agree: whoever Capaldi was playing in Deep Breath, we haven't yet seen him play the Doctor.

It's always fun to watch the Paternoster Gang, Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax, and it would be awesome if they got their own spin-off. Strax in particular is always good for a few laughs, although I really hope that the writers don't continue to make him nothing but a buffoon. He is, after all, a Sontaran officer, smart, strong and dedicated, and if he's acting like a clown it's almost certainly to lull his foes (i.e. everyone who isn't a Sontaran) into a sense of false security.

Despite the impressive visuals of the opening, the T-Rex plays no real part in the story, existing only to show off Team Who's rather large budget for special effects. There are a few wise-cracks about the dinosaur, and a complete failure to consider what a cranky and hungry tyrannosaur is likely to do in the middle of London (all you can eat buffet comes to mind). There's a brief interlude where the Doctor (who apparently "talks dinosaur") makes a moving translation of the Rex's roars, and for all of five seconds I can almost believe the T Rex is a sentient being. And then it spontaneously combusts, thus neatly providing the hook for the Doctor to begin investigation and solve the problem of what to do with such an unfeasibly large carnivore. Ultimately, the Rex was nothing more than ridiculously implausible and unnecessary plot device.

The main plot of the episode was a weak re-hash of The Girl In The Fireplace, right down to the Doctor rushing off on horseback (although not by crashing through a mirror). Clockwork robots seeking to return to "the Promised Land" rebuild themselves with human body parts. The Girl In The Fireplace was charming and beautifully made, but in Deep Breath Moffat displays one of his major weaknesses: returning to the well after it's dry. He has a real talent for ideas which drip style and imagination, but don't stand up to a second look (e.g. the Weeping Angels), and then returning to them for a second or third look. And so it is here: clockwork robots stealing body parts are cool once but the concept is not strong enough to survive a second look. We're expected to believe that these robots have the knowledge and dexterity to somehow plug human body parts into their clockwork mechanisms and keep them alive and working indefinitely, but that they aren't able to make replacement gears. Oh rly?

There were a few genuinely suspenseful moments, like the restaurant scene, but I felt that the rest of the episode fell flat. The fight scene between the Paternosta Gang was disappointing, Vastra and Jenny seemed stilted and clumsy, as if they hadn't rehearsed their action scenes. The Doctor makes a big production over the "axe of my grandfather" paradox, insisting that it is not the same axe (or in this case, broom). I hope that Moffat intended it as an ironic counterpoint to the episode's theme that this is still the same old Doctor even though he no longer looks like, acts like, or sounds like the previous Doctor, but the cynic in me fears that the writing team simply failed to notice that the Doctor's remarks apply to himself. Or, for that matter, everybody else.

And then we come to the epilogue. In it, we are introduced to "Missy", a mysterious and obnoxiously saccharine Mary Poppins like character. Missy claims to be in heaven, and describes the Doctor as her boyfriend. Presumably she will be the Big Bad antagonist of the series, or at least the red herring to distract us while Moffat sneaks in a completely different Big Bad. Some fans have speculated that Missy is short for Mistress, and she is a new, female, regeneration of the Master. I fear that she will turn out to be some sort of lame-duck character like the Celestial Toymaker or the Master of the Land Of Fiction. Either way, it gives a dark hint that the series 8 story arc is going to be even more cringe-worthy than the "silence will fall" arc turned out to be. I hope to be proven wrong, but the epilogue feels like fan-fic of the worst kind. Overall, despite a few good moments, I think the episode was a failure, and can only give it a single star.

Deep Breath, series 8 episode 1:


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