This could be the first post-regeneration episode to be about regeneration. Described by writer Steven Moffat as inspired by Tom Baker’s debut, “Robot”, which spent little time dealing with the regeneration’s effects and instead chose to carry-on as normal, “Deep Breath” sets-up several analogies within the story, without the story becoming incomprehensible.
While the Twelfth Doctor made his official debut in fiftieth anniversary special “The Day Of The Doctor”, this should have been his first full appearance, but this was overshadowed by the appearance of his predecessor, Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith. The changeover ceremony already happened as the regeneration, and this cameo, while meaning well, didn’t respect this episode’s status as the Twelfth Doctor’s first. But luckily, Capaldi is such a welcome replacement that this twist only shows how little I’ll be missing the departed incumbent. The Twelfth Doctor is less interested in whether people like him, as Capaldi’s long career as an actor is immediately established in the five-minute scene preceding a new title sequence, which is a vast improvement on the others used this decade, as is the theme arrangement. His deadpan style, ability to be funny and not just stupid, and seamless switching between comedy and terror is going to take this season in a new direction. This is especially true given the interconnected themes of the episode, with the Twelfth Doctor having exceeded the regenerative limit and being morally unstable, even suggesting there’s nothing of his original personality left, even though Vastra’s presence in the episode suggests quite the opposite. While Vastra was originally an interesting character in the Matt Smith era, she’s showing sign of slowly burning an arrogance behind her own veil, Strax’s humour is running out, while Jenny is beginning to only be there in order to praise Oswald for no real reason. Which is odd, considering Oswald’s best episode is this one, which I’d easily choose to re-watch over her other appearances. While this is partly the writing, it’s also an element of Ben Wheatley’s directing, who brings a keen gothicness to the story, even if it does take itself a bit too seriously. Even the semi-regular characters assume they no longer need to prove themselves to us.
Yet the most enjoyable aspect of this episode is the religious themes, and the way it connects to a tale about what it means to regenerate. The poorly and inaccurately-named Half-Face Man is rebuilding himself from other people, and has developed an obsession with going to the Promised Land as a result of memories and beliefs blending together. His arrival in Heaven, and the introductory cameo of Missy, establishes a very original story arc in a way that teases without giving away too much, which also creates a brand new level of threat for the show’s existential paradigm.
“Deep Breath”: atmospheric, if self-indulgent, new beginning. 8/10