This was a pretty humdrum season Doctor Who season opener for the most part. Except that Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor, is already bringing a marvelously strange energy to the role of the Doctor. Capaldi's presence lent a huge spark to the storyline about Clara having trouble adjusting to the Doctor's new face.
The basic storyline of "Deep Breath" goes like this: there are some clockwork robots, who are distantly related to the ones from "The Girl in the Fireplace." They've traveled back in time from the 51st century and been stuck on Earth for millions of years, collecting organic spare parts, including bits of humans. When the Doctor accidentally brings a dinosaur to Victorian London, they kill it and burn it alive, and the Doctor and Clara put them out of business.
But the real meat of the episode deals with Clara having a hard time adjusting to the Doctor's regeneration — something that's usually dealt with pretty quickly in post-regeneration stories. Clara doesn't see Capaldi's Doctor as being the same man as Matt Smith's, and she doesn't like or trust the new, rude, version of the Time Lord. And there are hints that Clara just wants someone she can control with her kittenish charm, which doesn't work as well on this new Doctor as it did on the old one.
Clara and Madame Vastra
Clara's weird relationship with the Doctor gets contrasted pretty heavily with the unconventional marriage between Madame Vastra and Jenny — they're a lesbian married couple in Victorian London, plus she's a lizard from the time of the dinosaurs. And she eats people, but only really bad people.
When Clara admits to the slightest doubt that she still knows who the Doctor is, after he's changed so much, Madame Vastra puts on her veil — the one she uses to talk to ignorant Victorian strangers who are intolerant of her difference — and delivers a rather harsh putdown to Clara, accusing her of judging the Doctor.
Madame Vastra hints that Clara misses the young, cute version of the Doctor, which was a guise this ageless titan only put on to win over mundane people — the same way that Vastra wears a veil to deal with Victorian London.
Clara's response to this is to insist that she's not a shallow person, because the only pinup on her wall when she was 15 was Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher. And her outrage and fury are enough to convince Madame Vastra that Clara is a worthy companion who actually does see past the Doctor's "veil" to the true ageless being beneath.
But meanwhile, the episode is full of hints that Madame Vastra and Jenny have an odd relationship in ways that go beyond the interspecies and same-sex stuff. In public, Jenny pretends to be Madame Vastra's maid — but this continues somewhat in private, as Jenny points out. And when Madame Vastra is doing her deduction on a big board, she has Jenny posing in an uncomfortable manner, leaving Jenny to believe she's painting her portrait.
It's sort of cute and funny — but the fact that Jenny and Vastra's relationship is explicitly compared to the Doctor's relationship with Clara makes you wonder if the point of the episode is that Clara should really be happy to be treated like a subordinate.
(But the bit where Vastra kisses Jenny to give her extra oxygen is lovely, and it's still kind of amazing that there's a same-sex marriage so close to the heart of this show now, and it's so matter-of-fact.)
Was the Eleventh Doctor Clara's boyfriend?
And both Madame Vastra and the new Doctor kind of hint that there was a romantic dimension to the relationship between Clara and the Matt Smith Doctor, which can't continue now that the Doctor looks like Peter Capaldi. Flirting with the Doctor is like flirting with a mountain, Madame Vastra explains, but in fact the Doctor's formerly cute visage was his way of flirting with Clara, and others like her.
(And meanwhile, the Doctor keeps almost flirting with the female dinosaur, and finally actually says, "I'm not flirting.")
The relationship between the new Doctor and Clara, though, is set up as being somewhat dysfunctional. All of their conversations seem to consist of him accusing her of being a needy egomaniac who plays games. Or a control freak — which, accusing someone of being a control freak is basically a way of manipulating them into giving up control.
Just when you think that this new Doctor is going to be too horrible for Clara to deal with, he reveals his deep inner pain, and says that it was he, not she, who thought that he was her boyfriend. The Doctor was flirting with her by using a young, dashing face, and seeing her as a romantic prospect - but that's all over now.
And then Clara gets a very moving phone call from the dying Matt Smith Doctor, sent through time to his own future. The Eleventh Doctor tells her that the Twelfth Doctor is more scared than she is, and she needs to help him. And the Twelfth Doctor emerges from the TARDIS and accuses her of not seeing him — a callback to Madame Vastra's thing of saying the Doctor's face is his veil, through which you can't see the "real" him. The Twelfth Doctor gives her some puppy-dog eyes, and she hugs him.
The whole thing feels just slightly weird, to be honest. The Doctor keeps undermining her — even when she's been utterly awesome, he says that she triumphed over the robots because she was "5'1 and crying." But when she's finally had enough of his meanness, he shows his wounded side and makes her feel sorry for him.
Clara steps up
Perhaps because so much of the episode is about judging Clara for not immediately accepting the new Doctor, we do get some great moments of Clara stepping up and being heroic.
There's the aforementioned "Marcus Aurelius" scene, in which she wins over Madame Vastra and makes Jenny clap and whoop for her — and it is a nice speech, to be sure.
And then there's the bit where she outwits the robots. First by holding her breath ("don't breathe" is this episode's version of "don't blink") and then by calling their bluff. She has a weird reverie about bad classroom discipline and the insufficient effects of threatening to expel her unruly students at Coal Hill School — and then she turns around and uses that same logic on the Half-Face Man, the leader of the clockwork robots.
She basically completely outsmarts the "rubbish robots" as the Doctor quite rightly calls them, and talks them out of torturing her and into answering all her questions. It's a lovely scene that shows how badass Clara can be.
It's still kind of odd though — the companion is usually the audience surrogate, and in a story where the companion is having a hard time accepting a new Doctor, you'd expect this to be a representation of the audience needing to warm up to the Doctor. But instead of the Doctor having to prove himself to the new companion, the whole episode is about Clara needing to prove that she's not intolerant or shallow. She has to prove her worth, even though she's already proved it a dozen times. It's an odd dynamic for a post-regeneration story.
The Doctor and the Half-Face Man
Meanwhile, the Doctor himself is having a bit of adjustment to his new face, and the fact that he has a Scottish accent. He has a long scene with a homeless man, in which he talks about the strangeness of seeing this new face in the mirror. And the Doctor's disconnect is contrasted with the monster-of-the-week, who keep stealing body parts, including faces, from random humans.
At one point, the Doctor says that the Half-Face Man has probably forgotten who he stole his current face from — and they both look at their own reflection, as the Doctor ponders his own borrowed face. Like Madame Vastra's veil, the Half-Face Man's grotesque imitation of a human visage is a metaphor for the Doctor's impersonation of a human.
At the end of the episode, while the Doctor's friends are fighting the other clockwork robots, he winds up grappling with the Half-Face Man aboard an "escape capsule" that's actually a hot-air balloon made of human skin. And the Doctor keeps threatening to kill the Half-Face Man, but then says that killing isn't in his basic programming any more than self-destruction is in the Half-Face Man's. In the end, the Doctor says one of them is lying about his basic programming... and the Half-Face Man falls to his death. Murder or suicide? It's meant to be ambiguous, but Capaldi gives a wonderfully steely look to the camera.
And the Doctor's face is in fact borrowed — he's wearing the same face as Caecilius Iucundus, a character from "Fires of Pompeii" who was also played by Capaldi. (Similar to the way Romana borrowed the face of Princess Astra when she regenerated back in "Destiny of the Daleks.") The Doctor supposes he was trying to send himself some subconscious message when he chose this face — but what? What was it about a Roman whom the Doctor saved from Pompeii (slightly changing history in the process) could be significant to this new Doctor?
Missy the creepy stalker
Meanwhile, we also meet the season's new Big Bad — Missy, a somewhat governess-ish woman who greets the Half-Face Man when he arrives in the Promised Land, the paradise he was seeking. (The Doctor, meanwhile, says that for his part, he's given up on ever getting to the Promised Land — probably meaning Gallifrey, in his case, not some weird futuristic garden.)
Missy is apparently the person who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number, when she called him up for tech support back in "The Bells of St. John". And she's the one who arranged for the Doctor and Clara to meet for lunch at the Half-Face Man's restaurant, via a cryptic puzzle in the newspaper. (How did she know they'd both see it? Best not ask.) She's very interested in keeping the two of them together.
And Missy refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend (a callback to when the Doctor said he'd thought of himself as Clara's boyfriend in his previous life). And she talks about him in very stalker-ish ways, saying that she's the only one he's not mean to, because he loves her so much. In an episode that's all about the women in the Doctor's life, and which of them can see him for who he is, this is a uniquely creepy coda.
But in any case, Capaldi totally steals the episode, puts it in his pocket throws it around, and then steals it again. Tons of moments like him speaking the thoughts of the dinosaur, stealing the horse from a carriage, pouring a drink while telling Half-Face Man that he's afraid he'll have to kill him... he's just perfect. And he's channeling Tom Baker's aggressively weird, baffled-but-rude performance, which is just the best thing ever.
Purely for Capaldi's bravura performance, I'm 100 percent excited for Doctor Who all over again.