Contains spoilers for the episode
So Doctor Who is off and running again. And by running, I mean that literally as well as figuratively, the new incumbent in the title role wasting no time to disprove those doubters who felt that he might be too old for the role at the age of 56. On this evidence he’s more than up to the part and just as capable of manic-running-aroundness as even his youngest predecessors in the role were.
It makes sense to start this review with the question everyone had on their lips coming into the weekend: is Peter Capaldi going to cut it as the Doctor? To be honest few of us who knew Capaldi’s body of work had any doubt that he would be anything other than completely wonderful in the role, but it’s still the case that seeing is believing and until he finally appeared on the screen there was always just the tiniest chance that it could go horribly wrong. It’s a big relief then to report that instead it’s all gone wonderfully right: Capaldi is fantastic as the Doctor. For the first five minutes I was distracted by watching his performance, but after that I completely forgot about the actor himself because the Doctor was once again just the Doctor, which is just as it should be.
Capaldi’s Doctor certainly makes for a change from the others we’ve seen since the 2005 reboot, all of whom were very user-friendly and effortlessly charming, not to mention easy on the eye for the younger and also more female demographic drawn to the modern show in a way that was rarely the case with the classic series. No, this Doctor doesn’t really care if you like him or not – he’s not even very sure he likes himself. But he’s certainly fascinating and compelling and mysterious, which is not to say that he can’t also be very funny when he wants to be such as when he’s critiquing his new face and wondering from just where those “attack eyebrows” came from. For my money one of the most sublime lines ever uttered on television came early on, a throwaway moment when he told his companions “Don’t look in the mirror. It’s absolutely furious.”
As masterful and captivating as Capaldi was, he actually had some serious competition in “Deep Breath”, the opening episode of the new series. Finally, Clara Oswald was allowed to become a fully developed and realised character instead of just being the Impossible Girl plot device that made no sense. Until now Clara had just about got by purely on Jenna Coleman’s acting and personality alone, but here the role was finally given a proper story and purpose, and Coleman not only proved herself more than equal to the challenge but also clearly relished it, gripping it firmly in both hands and giving a simply astonishing performance that shows what she can really do when finally handed some decent material. As a result of the character coming to life and embodying the audience’s emotions and expectations, the sequence where she was trapped alone in the underground lair had a real sense of danger, jeopardy and suspense to it that has been all too often missing from the show of late.
Elsewhere there was also some great fun to be had from the recurring Pasternoster Gang, where finally we get to see Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax in their element and doing their Holmesian thing. The episode added layers of depth to the characters of Vastra and Jenny, while the comedy of Strax the Sontaran butler simply never gets old for me: I laughed out loud when he “sent up” The Times for Clara to read and promptly knocked her out; and the moment when Vastra and Jenny came to the rescue in balletic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style to be followed a beat later by Strax plummeting to the ground like a sack of potatoes was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages.
As for the rest of the show – the actual plot of the episode, in other words – I’m afraid I get less enthusiastic. The dinosaur in the Thames that had featured in all the pre-show publicity proved to be a red herring (a rather large one admittedly; and with big teeth) while the tale of the half-face Clockwork Man lacked any real meat on the bones (if you’ll forgive the allusion in the circumstances.) The story as a whole felt rather messy and disjointed, made up of whatever left-overs writer Steven Moffat had found in the fridge when he came to writing the ‘running about bits’ to buttress all the important character work he was doing to introduce the new Doctor. Accordingly the story came across as being rather incidental compared with what was really important here, while at the same time the new style of the show (slower and more cinematic, as befitting the stylishly effective début on the series of noted film director Ben Wheatley) was rather discombobulating compared with what we’d been used to in the previous seven series.
In fact I think a lot of this is intentional on Moffat’s past: he wants this season opener to be new and different and most of all unsettling. It’s no longer cosy and safe and we should no longer think we know what to expect in the way that we have done over the past seven seasons, just as the new Doctor himself is a very different and unknown quantity. For example, we don’t know whether he pushed the Clockwork Man from a great height or not, and that sort of uncertainty is refreshingly new to the modern show even though not having the answers can also make for a slightly frustrating viewing experience. We expect to know but Moffat likes withholding the answers, all of which may help to explain why this episode didn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying for the audience as a standalone episode as, say, Moffat’s previous regeneration story “The Eleventh Hour” managed.
Part of the distraction is the sense that the episode – like the Doctor himself – was busy scrabbling around “in the ruin of himself,” because there were an awful lot of call-backs and familiar themes and plots being riffed off over the course of 76 minutes. From familiar lines such as “Here we go again” and “You’ve redecorated – I don’t like it”, references to missing Amy and needing a long scarf through to the spectacle of dinosaurs in London and the substitution of “Don’t blink” with “Don’t breathe”, it seemed as though long-term Whovians were being continually tickled into hyperstimulation. Again the feeling that the episode had been made from left-over spare parts may well have been an entirely intentional one on Moffat’s part, structurally mirroring the grisly work of the Clockwork Man himself.
The biggest callback to the past was the very nature of the clockwork threat, and I admit that when I first noticed this I figured that poor old Moffat had run out of ideas and had been reduced to simply rehashing the iconic automata from the Tennant-era classic story “The Girl in the Fireplace.” However it was soon clear that this element was no rehash but a very deliberate back reference for the story, although not necessarily in the sense of plot as you didn’t need to have seen that earlier story to understand this one. What it did do, as the clues linking it back to the earlier story gradually fell into place, was put the audience in the position of knowing more than the Doctor does: we’re practically screaming at him to remember and all he can do is shake his head in response and say, “No, still not getting it.” It’s a classic pantomime trick that does one thing incredibly well: it puts us on the side of the Doctor as we try and help him and urge him on. From that point on there’s no question that we won’t accept this new 12th Doctor because we’re already actively pitching in on his side. Think about that for a minute: it’s very, very clever.
But of course that’s the one thing we always knew about Steven Moffat – that he’s a very, very clever writer indeed. Even the structure of the episode, as messy and disorganised as it might have felt, was as intricately constructed as any of the clockwork people on display. As a whole it seemed to take for inspiration the format of Tom Baker’s regeneration story “Robot” which was very much the sort of Earth-based, UNIT-centric serial that would have suited his predecessor Jon Pertwee but which already felt wrong for Baker. In the same way, “Deep Breath” drops Capaldi into a story that would have been tailor made for Matt Smith (back in Victorian times with Clara and the Paternoster trio) but which immediately feels wrong and out of shape for the new incarnation of the Time Lord. We’re expecting something new, but instead we have to wait for the rest of the series to unfold in order to see what Capaldi’s Doctor is really capable of.
The different parts, as disparate and unconnected as they initially appear, do serve a unifying purpose in allowing commentary on the new Doctor. In an early scene, he’s lying asleep on a bed mumbling about a grey world and being alone; Clara deduces that he’s translating the plucked-out-of-time dinosaur’s roars, but the sentiments could equally as well be from the Doctor’s own disorientated state of mind. Later on, the Doctor is facing off against the Clockwork Man and accuses it of having changed its component parts so many times over the years that, like a broom which has changed handles and brush many times over, it no longer has any idea if it still counts as the same broom anymore, before holding up a silver platter to it and concluding: “You don’t even know whose face that is.” Looking at his own reflection in the other side of the platter, the Doctor is forced to realise that precisely the same question is equally true of himself. All of which feeds into the episode’s central theme of investigating who this new Doctor is: is he the same man he was before, or the kind of person who now pushes his enemies to their deaths?
It’s unnerving and startling (underlined by a brilliant touch when Capaldi suddenly breaks the fourth wall and looks direct into camera just as you’re speculating about what he may or may not have done) and once again all very, very clever, just as to be expected from Moffat. But it’s not necessarily entirely satisfying for the audience, who may be left admiring the episode but not necessarily enjoying it as much as past outings. And that’s a bit of a problem, because the one thing that this episode needs to do above all else was reassure those new fans who had come to love the show under Tennant and Smith and convince them to stick around for Capaldi.
In fact at times the show seemed blatantly desperate to win over the fans of the previous Doctor, to a degree that I’ve never seen before. It all felt unnecessarily anxious to me as someone who had taken to Capaldi five minutes in, that by the end of the episode the new Doctor was reduced to begging Clara to stay and see him for the same man he always was. Since Clara is the audience identification figure, this means the Doctor was essentially pitching us to stay and help him out as well. And then of course the kitchen sink was thrown in and reinforcements deployed with Matt Smith telephoning in a cameo with the same plea. I have no problem with Smith showing up again unexpectedly (actually it’s a shame the series doesn’t do more of this sort of thing) but was it really needed – is the audience’s acceptance of Capaldi still so very much in doubt? That said, his line “You look at me and you can’t see me. Have you any idea how that feels?” was just achingly beautiful and heartbreaking.
Away from this, there’s only one thing that genuinely irked me about the episode and that’s the coda with the Clockwork Man showing up in what is described to him as Heaven and being welcomed there by Missy, played by Michelle Gomez. The one thing I really hoped Moffat wouldn’t repeat is one of his complicated and intrusive series-spanning arcs such as the crack in the wall in season five, Madame Kovarian in series six, and the “Doctor Who?”/Impossible Girl in season seven. So what do we get at the very outset of season eight? A wackier, more comedic version of Kovarian by the look of it, whom we’re invited to speculate over for the remaining 11 episodes.
I wouldn’t mind so much if Missy’s influence was limited to just the coda since I can always mentally edit that out and enjoy the main story in its own right. But there’s the strong sense that a big part of this week’s plot is also linked to Missy, specifically regarding the question of who placed the newspaper advert that brought the Doctor and Clara together at Mancini’s restaurant thereby allowing the entire second half of the episode to commence. That’s linked back to an even earlier reference (who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in “The Bells of St John”?) as proof that someone really wants the Doctor and Clara to stay together come what may – but why? On top of this there’s the continually asked question of where the new Doctor’s new face came from, which seems to have more behind it than just a fanboi reference back to the fact that Capaldi guest starred as a Roman Senator in the Tennant episode “The Fires of Pompeii” (and can it really be just coincidence that the Doctor also noticed Roman-era metal work in the Clockwork Man’s construction?) Once again we already have an episode partially compromised by a series arc, which has been what’s irritated me for a couple of years now. Can’t we just enjoy a few self-contained stories again, for old time’s sake, without people dismissing such one-offs on account of not being linked to the story of the Big Bad?
If I was feeling in a testy mood I could also add that once again we have a story that concentrates so tightly on the Doctor and his companions that the Clockwork Man (nicely played by Peter Ferdinando) is the only other properly developed character in the entire episode (I’m not counting the comedy Scotland Yard detective who is just the punchline for Madame Vastra’s gibes, or the cameo from Missy.) There’s a decent number of extras, from bystanders on the Thames to the diners in the impressively creepy restaurant scene and the weaponised automatons in the lair below, but no one who gets more than a single line or two. That oppressive sense of narrow focus is something that’s become a real bugbear of mine of late but in this particular case I’ll give the episode a pass on that point, since a regeneration story should be focused first and foremost on the Doctor (and secondly on his companion’s responses), but the series really needs to have more interesting guest characters in future. Look back at the aforementioned “Robot” for example, and there were several proper characters for that story other than the Doctor, Sarah and the UNIT team to make things interesting and expansive.
But that’s an agenda for the future and I’m not going to hold that against “Deep Breath”, which did its primary job of introducing Peter Capaldi and setting up a new dynamic between himself and Jenna Coleman really very nicely. It’s a shame that the rest of the episode was a little too clever for its own good to really come off in a truly satisfying way, but it was solid and certainly had its moments, and should be a good foundation for what’s to follow.
It’s often said that beginnings are the most difficult thing to pull off successfully, in which case it’s a relief that it’s been achieved as well as it has. However I think that in this case it’s how the show builds on this beachhead that will be the real test, and I’ll be keeping my fingers firmly crossed that they manage it because while Capaldi and Coleman might have completely won me over, I’m yet to be sold on whether the production team have learned from the lessons of the past and found a new direction for the show that’s going to address some of those cracks and flaws that had been starting to really get to me by the time Smith stepped down last Christmas.
As ever when it comes to Doctor Who, time will tell.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Fridays on BBC Three and available on BBC iPlayer. A ten minutes ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer on on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and “Deep Breath” will be available as a standalone release on September 8 2014.