Post-regeneration episodes are tricky. By and large the first episodes of the new actor as The Doctor focus either on an exhausted and confused Doctor trying to discover his himself for the first time (“Time and the Rani“) or resting and being out of action for much of the episode (“Castrovalva,” “The Christmas Invasion“). My main takeaway from “Deep Breath,” other than the fact that the jury is still out on just what kind of man the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) will be, is reminding me how well-constructed an episode “The Eleventh Hour” was. The Fifth Series premiere works as a strong story apart from the novelty of introducing a new actor into the series’ starring role. By contrast, while “Deep Breath” isn’t awful, it’s a far cry from the strides Matt Smith took in his first episode as the Eleventh Doctor.
Picking up sometime after the events of “The Time of The Doctor,” a befuddled Doctor and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) arrive back in Victorian London after bouncing around time and space for an indeterminate period. Oh, and they bring a Tyrannosaurus Rex with them. Sadly the dinosaur is only a red herring and quickly dealt with as the main story involves clockwork automotons attempting to make themselves more human. If that sounds a tad familiar, it is.
One of movie critic Roger Ebert‘s cardinal rules about movies is that they shouldn’t purposefully remind you of better movies you would rather be watching. And that’s a major problem here. Aside from directly lifting (and even referencing) one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever made (“The Girl in the Fireplace“) the start of the new series returns The Doctor and Clara back to the company of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), and their Sontaran butler Strax (Dan Starkey) . Now I enjoy this threesome, but the series has relied heavily on them over the past season and to do so again also reminds us of better moments each has found in other episodes.
That said, one of the best scenes of the season premiere doesn’t include The Doctor at all. The scene takes place between Clara and Madame Vastra who begins questioning the Earth girl’s loyalty which has wavered based on the changes both to the physical and emotional state of The Doctor. The scene reestablishes Clara as the companion The Doctor needs as well as force her to fight and defend the privilege which has been offered to her.
In terms of continuity the episode offers Clara the same kind of confusion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) dealt with when meeting the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) for the first time, unsure as to how much her Doctor has changed. With The Doctor acting off for most of the episode it’s hard to get a read on just what kind of a man this version of the character will be (hopefully less goofy). The episode does ends on a strong note with The Doctor and Clara finally having a real conversation, really one of only two scenes the pair actually do any real interacting (the first being the restaurant sequence which gives delivers the episode’s best line). Pulling on threads of stories already begun, we get mention again of the mysterious phone call that led Clara to meeting The Doctor as well as the introduction of Michelle Gomez as Missy (AKA River Song-lite) who it appears has an undisclosed history with The Doctor and some larger role to play in the days to come.