Why Does This All Seem So Familiar?
As the episode progressed last night, I’m guessing many Whovians began to think “This is starting to seem very familiar,” even before the Doctor himself began commenting on that fact. See, the big mystery at the heart of the episode involves ancient robots who crashed on the Earth millennia ago. Ever since then, they’ve been trying to repair themselves and their ship using organic materials harvested from unwilling local life forms, since they “did not have the parts” to complete the repairs otherwise. And that line ought to sound very familiar to you indeed, even if your pudding brain didn’t make the connection until the climactic sequence, when the Doctor discovers that the “rubbish robots from the dawn of time” were crew of the S.S. Marie Antoinette…sister ship to the S.S. Madame De Pompadour.
The Doctor’s freshly regenerated noggin couldn’t make the connections, but many Whovians did. “Deep Breath” was clearly tying itself back to one of the show’s most beloved episodes, 2006’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” (written by none other than current Who showrunner/exec producer Steven Moffat). After that episode’s Madame dDe Pompadour became stranded in deep space, its compliment of clockwork robots first cannibalized the human crew, and then began opening up “time windows” to harvest the brain of its historical namesake, using robot logic to conclude that the ship and the woman were “the same.” The Tenth Doctor put a stop to that nonsense, but he never figured out why the robots were after the Madame in particular, because he didn’t have the benefit of seeing the episode’s closing shot, which revealed the Madame De Pompadour’s name stenciled on the hull of the vessel.
The fact that the Doctor never discovered that connection was something I’d forgotten about until I sat down to write this and began reviewing “Girl in the Fireplace.” I very much doubt Moffat planned that original episode as anything other than a one-off, but he’s clearly using it as a launching point for this season’s overall narrative arc. (The skin-clad robots also tied in beautifully to the episode’s themes about changing faces and concealment versus deception.)