There are two types of Doctor Who fan: those who divide the programme by Doctor and those who divide it by production team. These sometimes coincide, but that is not the case with Deep Breath. Steven Moffat seems to think the programme needs a new, raw style for the new Doctor, but also chooses to follow the old tactic of using old friends or foes in the first story of a new Doctor to provide continuity. This leads to a darker, more dangerous Doctor and a grey/blue colour palate for the new era, but also to the return of the Paternoster Street Gang and a plot that is openly acknowledged to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace and the occasional line borrowed from classic Who, as well as a surprise guest appearance from Matt Smith.
Like the Half-Face Man, then, this is a Ship of Theseus story that swaps its parts around while trying to convince the audience that it is the same programme, only regenerated and fresh. The real problem, which will dog this whole season, is that the new Doctor, like the sixth Doctor before him, is too unsympathetic. He is dangerous, which is novel after Matt Smith, but also rude and unpleasant. It is not always fun to be with him, especially when he seems to be on the point of mugging a tramp for his coat. It’s also somewhat overlong and the bonus length isn’t really necessary. In many ways a faster pace might have been better to sweep the audience along without giving them time for reflection.
Still, as curtain-raisers go, it works, holding the attention reasonably well and setting the stage for future adventures.
Into the Dalek is one of those stories that seems to be fighting against itself (perhaps appropriately, given the plot). On the one hand, it’s one of those supposedly ‘adult’ stories that comes across as rather childish in its view of what constitutes ‘adult’: all soldiers and testosterone and pointless death. On the other hand… well, it’s Fantastic Voyage in a Dalek. That’s not the most adult pitch ever. Nor is it original, even in Doctor Who terms. This is like The Invisible Enemy, but with a twist. Shockingly, it’s rather less inventive than the 1970s story. The Invisible Enemy was not a great story either, but it had moments of inspiration and it did at least attempt to make the inside of the Doctor’s mind look different from (a) regular Doctor Who and (b) the story’s other locations. Here the inside of the Dalek looks much like the outside of the Dalek, only more banal. It even looks like it has corridors expressly put there for little people to run up and down! Then the Doctor fixes the fault that has made the Dalek good and it becomes evil again. Everyone reacts as if this was a surprising turn of events.
The other problem is that the episode brings up one of this season’s key themes, the Doctor’s hatred of soldiers. The problem with this is that he doesn’t really hate soldiers. He dislikes the military mind and the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude, but his best friend was a brigadier. The same one the Moffat-era keeps on referencing (including a really crass and tasteless reference at the end of this arc). Just as Russell T Davies did, Steven Moffat decided to use his fourth season to examine the Doctor’s role as a soldier, missing the point that he isn’t really one, a theme that becomes more pronounced in The Caretaker and Dark Water/Death in Heaven.
Which brings us to Danny Pink, the source of much typical Moffat ‘battle of the sexes’ sitcomery. It doesn’t really sit well in Doctor Who, which isn’t a relationship sitcom, mostly because Clara and Danny have to act as complete idiots for much of this season to make the arc work and then right at the end we discover that Danny shot a child, which makes the whole thing retrospectively uncomfortable and probably not really right for this timeslot. To be fair to Into the Dalek, at this stage the Clara/Danny side of things is fairly low key and serves mainly to throw Clara and the Doctor’s attitudes to soldiers into relief, but you do have to wonder why Danny was talking to himself so much unless he actually knew Clara was there and wanted her to overhear him.
As with most twenty-first century Who, Into the Dalek is reasonably technically accomplished in the way that, say, The Chase or The Invisible Enemy are not, in the sense that there are no massive blunders or misfired effects. But the characters are cardboard, the plot is third-hand, the moral dilemmas are forced and the Doctor is continuing to be rude and unpleasant post-regeneration. The really sad thing is that it’s not necessarily the worst story of its season.
I’ve always enjoyed Robot of Sherwood, although I can see why Mark Gatiss says he knew it was destined to be unloved by fandom. Fans still tend to prefer epic and ‘serious’ episodes to light-hearted ones. It’s a fun romp, but I wonder if it missed a trick. With Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, both played well and a little larger than life, this could easily have been a ‘pure’ historical, with the Doctor thinking Robin was an android and getting involved in the adventure, only to find out at the end that he was real after having had a swashbuckling adventure fighting against the all-to-human Sheriff. With the scene that really established the Sheriff as a cyborg cut for reasons of taste, it wouldn’t be all that different from the story we got and given that the technobabble is clearly the weakest part of the story, this might have improved it. However, with Listen in the next episode apparently giving us a monster story with no monster (bar one ambiguous shot), this might have been deemed too experimental. I would at least have liked more attention to detail in the dialogue, though. I can understand why no one speaks anything like Middle English, but when the Doctor starts talking to a Medieval woman about a “ship” flying, it would be nice if she stopped to ask how a ship could possibly fly rather than assuming everyone knows twenty-first century idiom. I suppose we have to blame the vagaries of the TARDIS’ translation system.