If you’ll forgive the pun, “Deep Breath” was a welcome breath of fresh air, bringing a much needed shift in tone and format and exploring characters in new and exciting ways. It was, of course, not a perfect episode, and I found that many of my early misgivings about this series of Doctor Who were realized. Yet, in spite of all of its problems, I found the episode engaging, and my interest in the Doctor and Clara as characters has been renewed. And, for the first time in a long time, I’m actually interested in seeing the next episode of Doctor Who.
The main plot of the episode was engaging but unobtrusive. It lingered in the background, injecting dread and driving the plot at crucial moments, but otherwise allowing the focus to be on the character-driven drama. To my surprise, I even liked the return of the clockwork droids. I was initially wary when it was revealed Moffat would be bringing them back for this episode because he has a tendency to take his uniquely terrifying villains and drive them into the ground until they are just ridiculous. But the clockwork droids remained macabre, and the half face man managed to be both poignant and terrifying.
The Paternoster Gang returned to provide support for Clara and the Doctor after their dramatic return to London (can we say that being thrown up by giant T-Rex in Victorian London is the most dramatic entrance a new Doctor has ever made?). Strax, as usual, was a bit too ridiculous for my taste, but Vastra and Jenny were unexpectedly interesting to watch this episode. I’ve always wanted to like Jenny and Vastra more than I do because, well for god’s sake, they’re a lesbian sword-wielding couple who (in Doctor Who, at least) provide the original inspiration for Sherlock Holmes! And they are so sweetly in love with each other that they are always charming to watch. Yet their relationship has always been a bit problematic. There’s been a lot of commentary on Tumblr about the weird way Jenny and Vastra maintain the Master-Servant dynamic in public and in private. And a lot of people had been frustrated that Jenny and Vastra had never shared an onscreen kiss, something that became exceptionally problematic last season when the only kiss Jenny received was an aggressive, non-consensual one from the Doctor.
Yet to my surprise, both of these issues were addressed in “Deep Breath.” After Vastra remarks that she and Jenny maintain a pretense of Master and servant in public to be accepted, Jenny sarcastically comments on the fact that she’s treated like a servant in private too. And in the final climatic battle against the clockwork droids, Jenny and Vastra share a sort-of-kiss so that Vastra can share oxygen with Jenny.
So, has Steven Moffat been reading Tumblr in his spare time? If so, I’m thrilled that he seems to be trying to address these problems, but a little bit disappointed by the execution. After Jenny’s comment that she’s treated like a servant in private, Vastra shushes her, and everything continues on as normal with no change in their dynamic. And the “controversial” Jenny-Vastra kiss was actually a bit disappointing. Compare it to the kiss Jack and the Doctor shared in the Series 1 finale. That kiss required no justification and none was given. It was an intimate act—even between friends—given for the sole purpose that Jack was fond of the Doctor and fully expected to never see him again. But Jenny and Vastra didn’t even really kiss. It wasn’t an emotional, intimate act. Jenny and Vastra locked lips for a pragmatic purpose: so that Vastra could share the oxygen stored in her lungs with the oxygen-deprived Jenny. Why can’t they, as wives, lovers, and friends, just kiss?
"Deep Breath" also gave us our first real introduction to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. And wow, what a Doctor he will be. He may not have Matt Smith’s rapid fire pace, but his Doctor is dynamic, fierce, and intense. He is brusque and coarse. He puts on no affable pretense and will tell you directly to your face exactly what he thinks of you. He seems to be a much more introspective Doctor, and he seems much more willing to directly confront his faults and his responsibilities. Yet he still retains the Doctor’s ridiculous charm.
This episode may have been about introducing us to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, but it was Jenna Coleman’s Clara who was the true star of “Deep Breath.”
Poor Clara has been neglected by the narrative lately. I’ve been complaining for quite a while that Clara had little defining characteristics beyond her mystery and her title as “The Impossible Girl,” but in “Deep Breath” I felt we finally were getting to know Clara as a person. Exhausted from chasing after a newly regenerated Doctor, distraught at his sudden change, and deeply hurt that he couldn’t remember her, Clara still managed to keep her wits and continued fighting to keep him safe. As the Doctor said, she’s brilliant on adrenalin.
And despite being constantly challenged and insulted by both the Paternoster gang and the Doctor, Clara always defended herself. Quite possibly my favorite moment of the entire episode was when she stood up to Vastra for assuming that she only travelled with the Doctor because he looked like a pretty young man, which I also interpreted to be a wonderful meta-commentary on the rampant assumptions of many that young women will stop watching Doctor Who because they were drawn in by pretty young men playing the Doctor. Some have been upset that Vastra implied that the Doctor has appeared to be a young man so that he will be accepted by his young female companions, but I interpreted this as an attempt by Vastra to antagonize Clara, rather than a commentary on why the Doctor has appeared young in recent regenerations.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with how “Deep Breath” addressed the end of the romance between Clara and the Doctor. Clara may not have just travelled with the Eleventh Doctor because she fancied him, but it was clear that she did fancy him. The Twelfth Doctor made it very clear that he was not going to be Clara’s “Boyfriend,” but did not shame her for feeling that way about his former self and acknowledged his own role in encouraging her romantic feelings toward him.
However, I was bothered by the incredibly high number of insults Clara endured throughout this episode. Deflected narcissism. Control freak. Egomaniacal needy game player. Moffat really doubled down on trying to characterize Clara as a bossy control freak, but I’m just not seeing it. Sure, she’s assertive and likes to be in control of situations, but she’s not overly controlling or bossy. And her attempts to boss the Doctor around don’t hold a candle to some previous companions, like Donna.
I have very mixed feelings about the dynamic between the Doctor and Clara. On the one hand (and this is probably going to sound very strange to all of you who have been following me for awhile) I actually liked that he seemed to be a much less reliable Doctor. That moment where the Doctor abandons Clara to the clockwork droids chilled me to my core, and I liked it.
Because the truth is, the Doctor has never really been a reliable friend to Clara. It was shocking and horrifying that the Twelfth Doctor put her in danger and lied about his intentions to get more information about the droids, leaving a terrified Clara to fend for herself. But how was that substantially any different from the Eleventh Doctor taking Clara along with him on his adventures to try to figure out how multiple versions of her have existed across time and space, knowing that this could put her in mortal danger, and deliberately hiding his intentions from Clara?
This has forced Clara for the first time to directly confront the fact that the Doctor is not reliable and does not always have her best interests at heart.
And yet, I was frustrated by the ultimate resolution between Clara and the Twelfth Doctor. Clara had clearly been through quite a lot throughout this episode and was disconcerted by the change in the Doctor. When she said “I don’t know who the Doctor is anymore,” she was very justified in doing so. But the focus was entirely on reassuring the Doctor. Matt Smith’s cameo was sweet, but ultimately it was about convincing Clara that she should remain with the Doctor because her fear was not as great as his. I can’t even begin to tell you how mad this made me. Clara was put in danger and abandoned several times by the Doctor; she was afraid by how unreliable this new Doctor seemed. But instead of confronting this problem, Clara is simply guilted for not accepting the Doctor as he is.
I don’t want the Doctor to more visibly be an unreliable friend to Clara because Moffat finds it fun to mess with Clara. The Doctor is a very flawed protagonist, and Doctor Who is at its best when it acknowledges and confronts this fact. If this is going to be a more prominent part of the Twelfth Doctor’s characterization, I want the show to address it and confront it. It’s early yet in the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, but I have to say that the end to “Deep Breath” didn’t give me much hope that this will be meaningfully addressed.
This wasn’t Steven Moffat at his best, but “Deep Breath” was, in my opinion, his best work since Series 5. With a new Doctor and an opportunity to redefine the dynamic between the Doctor and his companion, Moffat seemed to finally be challenging himself to break out of his old patterns. And I’m curious to see what the rest of the Series will bring.