The first episode after a regeneration sets the tone, but is also a one-off. The Doctor gets the opportunity to be vulnerable in ways he is mostly not the rest of the time. Much of the rest of the cast can be left to drive the narrative given his erratic behaviour, mental confusion and often unconsciousness. This was especially apparent in David Tennant’s regeneration episode. The difference between The Christmas Invasion and Deep Breath was that The Doctor was left with Rose, Jackie Tyler and Mickey to sort stuff out – and that was ok, because we knew them.
In the absence of a full history for Clara and her air of ‘unknowability’, The Doctor and Clara end up with the utterly delightful Paternoster Gang. Strax, as usual, provides the laughs in place of Mickey and Jackie. Strax and Clara are comedy gold, and everything they say to each other is also revealing of the themes of the episode and the conflict Clara feels. In addition, not only do Vastra and Jenny offer the caring role and secure home in place of Jackie and her flat, but provide the passion and the action. Their fight scene was pretty cool.
What was interesting for Clara’s character was that she was given the range to be several levels of emotional, clever and defensive. It’s all very well to meet the Doctor’s former selves and help them, but it’s a different experience to witness a regeneration – to see one person die and that person replaced by someone else. There is a cognitive dissonance: the same person is a different man, the different man is the same as he always was. It is upsetting. It was upsetting for Rose. It is upsetting for Clara. And now he is Scottish and they ended up in Glasgow and it is upsetting for The Doctor. All this gave Peter Capaldi the opportunity to play off Jenna Coleman’s turmoil and to let The Doctor need a companion’s approval in a new way.
I particularly liked the moments when Clara’s previous experience as a teacher informed her behaviour with the robot command node. We need more of that kind of writing in order to better appreciate her motivations and where she has come from. Clara, unlike any of the other companions in New Who, is a tabula rasa, magnified all the more because her multiple selves in The Doctor’s timeline. She is indeed Impossible, but hitherto, a bit of an Every Girl, barring The Dalek Asylum and The Snowmen, who were versions of Clara. Now Clara is becoming somebody and she must redefine her role in The Doctor’s life.
The episode nicely references the past (Madam Pompadour and Amy among other shoutouts) and sets up future investigations regarding Clara. As much as Clara has always been in The Doctor’s world, the mystery of how it happened remains to be investigated and there is a new thing: this supposed robot paradise that looks like Appalappachia from The Girl Who Waited.
If the episode seemed a little uneven, I think, in part, it is because of the nature of an episode like this. It was a Sherlockian/HP Lovecraft murder investigation, with battles against robots set amongst a meditation on the meaning and importance of identity and trust and friendship run through at a hectic rate.
Vastra, Jenny, the dinosaur, the command node and The Doctor and Clara’s response to them, each provide opportunities for Steven Moffat to explore: What makes us who we are? How is identity built and if it is always in progress how far can we change and still be who we think we are? Who can we rely on when we are lost and alone? Are our closest friends, the people we love, mirrors of ourselves – with similar traits and personalities – or do we think we see in them only what we hide from ourselves? Why continue, what is our purpose? How often do we pretend to be what we want others to see? What lines can we cross and remain who we are?
So I liked the episode, and even if some don’t, the questions it posed, or reposed, about who we think we are and what we do about it, are challenging ones for writers.