“He is lost in the ruins of himself. We have to bring him home.”
The arrival of a new Doctor has always been a hotly anticipated event for us fans, but until recently the rest of humanity tended to just roll their eyes indulgently at the excitement of the nerds. Since the show’s resurrection in 2005 however, it’s been getting more and more popular; to the extent that last night, Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Twelfth Doctor was simultaneously broadcast in countries all over the world, while back here in Blighty, you could go and watch it on the big screen at one of 450 cinemas across the country. Those cinemagoers were also treated to a live Q&A session with Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat, broadcast by satellite from the stage of the Odeon Leicester Square.
This isn’t just a cult TV show any more – it’s a cultural phenomenon. And so, there was a lot riding on this episode, which had to introduce a Doctor who, for the post-2005 audience, would seem radically different – because he was (gasp) old.
Actually 55 isn’t that old (says the guy in his mid-40s), but it means Capaldi ties with original Doctor William Hartnell for the title of oldest actor to play the part. For the modern audience, used to the Doctor as a romantically available, youthful (appearance-wise) dashing hero, this could plainly have been a game-changer, so Steven Moffat’s script had a lot to pull out of the bag to reassure those modern viewers that this was still the same show.
For the most part, it managed. Deep Breath had a rather slender plot; but debut eps of new Doctors usually do. The focus here needs to be on the new guy, and the transition, as he finds his feet after what’s almost always a vastly traumatic experience. River Song and Romana might be able to handle regeneration easily enough, but even at 2000 years old the Doctor’s experiences of it are shambolic at best.
So how did the new guy fare? Unlike Matt Smith or David Tennant, Peter Capaldi was pretty well-known to sci-fi/fantasy fans already, what with his roles in The Crow Road, Neverwhere, and, yes, Doctor Who. When he was cast, most of us thought, “yes, he’ll be great!” on the basis of past experience. That must have been a hell of a lot to live up to, especially given his established fanboy credentials.
I think he managed. This is undoubtedly a new kind of Doctor for the post-2005 fans, a more mature man with a certain remoteness, harder to instantly know that the previous two. And yet he’s not without humour or whimsy; while he didn’t introduce himself with a ten minute comedy routine like Matt Smith, his frenzied antics after being vomited out of an improbably huge Tyrannosaurus were a masterclass in comedy.
It’s no surprise that he can also pull off seriousness and pathos – his anger at the death of the dinosaur (“Planet of the pudding-brains!”) was pretty fearsome. The Scottish accent is a refreshing change too, leading to some amusing Moffat self-deprecating pops at the Scots. Capaldi’s not the first Scot in the part, of course; but Sylvester McCoy’s accent was far less pronounced, and David Tennant disguised his as Essex.
A good tip for a Doctor’s debut ep is to give him a scene with one or two other characters to “find himself”. We got that here with two ambitiously long scenes. The first, as the fleeing, nightshirt-clad Doctor bumped into a baffled drunk tramp, cleverly mixed pathos, humour and mystery as the Doctor used the poor man as a rhetorical sounding board for an astonishing stream-of-consciousness outburst which, among other things, mercilessly lampooned Capaldi’s looks – “you could open bottle tops with these eyebrows!” Good to see those eyebrows making an appearance in the classy new titles too – though I’m less than sure about the new arrangement of the theme tune, which sounds like a badly tuned theremin.
But that scene had a serious point too, as the Doctor reflected on his new face in more depth than we’ve ever seen in the show before, wondering how it was that this was the face he’d ended up with –“it’s got lines, but I didn’t do the frowning. Who frowned me this face?” The unspoken implication, for those with reasonable memories, is that he’s actually “borrowed” it from Caecilius, the character Capaldi played in The Fires of Pompeii. But it’s also an interesting new revelation for fans. We know, from Romana’s regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks, that Time Lords can copy the faces of those they’ve met. Was every Doctor’s face based on somebody else?
That scene, beautifully played by Capaldi and Brian Miller (husband of the late Lis Sladen), was followed by an even longer one in a restaurant with Clara, which served to establish that this was not going to be the same Doctor/companion relationship she’d become used to. After all that mooning after her from Matt Smith (“my impossible girl!”), it was refreshing to see the new Doctor dismissively describe her as a narcissistic, egomaniac control freak. The comical misunderstanding in the dialogue made it pretty clear that all these adjectives could just as easily apply to him. And has there ever been a wittier line than “there’s nothing more important in this room than my egomania!”
For the first time, I think, Clara is being made to look flawed, and she’s infinitely more interesting as a result. The scene with Vastra needling her to provoke an angry response added fuel to that fire, and made the important point to Clara (as the audience’s viewpoint) that the Doctor is not some dashing young buck – he’s a near-omnipotent alien being who’s 2000 years old and can wear different faces. He’s not her boyfriend, as the Doctor himself pointed out towards the end (wryly adding, “I never said it was your mistake.”).
This new Doctor may still have her back, but he’s far less obvious (and soppy) about it than the last one. He may not have tried to emphasise his difference by strangling his companion like Colin Baker did, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when he seemingly left her in the lurch in the droid ‘larder’. With this new Doctor being an unknown quantity, Capaldi played that so believably that there was real tension when Clara emphasised her faith by reaching behind her for where she knew (hoped?) he’d be.
Amidst all the strangeness of a new Doctor, the audience were eased into the situation with comfortably familiar faces. Besides Clara (the first companion since Rose to have to deal with a regeneration), we were once again in the company of the Paternoster Gang (their debt to Sherlock Holmes further acknowledged this time with mention of the “Paternoster Irregulars”). Vastra and Jenny were as cool and witty as ever; it was nice to see their relationship’s sexual side hinted at, with Jenny’s raised eyebrow at what might well be some sexual tension between Vastra and Clara.
Strax, as usual, served up some reliable comic relief – I laughed out loud when he brained Clara with The Times, and at his none too skilful ‘medical examination’. Having said that, I do wonder whether Strax is being relied on too much for comic relief – Dan Starkey plays him brilliantly, but he’s a bit one-dimensional to have so much screen time.
However, the presence of so many familiar faces did rather give me the impression of an episode lacking in the confidence and brio of Matt Smith’s debut, where everything was new. This was further reinforced when, quite unexpectedly, Matt Smith himself put in an appearance, phoning from the past to persuade Clara to give the new guy a chance. I know a lot of people loved this cameo, and certainly at that point in the characters’ stories, it may have been dramatically necessary to convince Clara to stay. However, it seems odd that, just when viewers are about accustomed to the new leading man, you bring back his much-loved predecessor to share the limelight. Together with the return of those much-loved familiar faces, it all felt like Moffat was a bit too desperately trying to persuade his audience that this new era will still be the Doctor Who they love.
Or hate, for that matter. Because if you’re one of those who dislike Moffat’s style and were hoping for something new, you were probably disappointed. As I’ve said, the plot was (necessarily) slender, but it wasn’t even a new plot; it was the one from Girl in the Fireplace (minus the central romance) as the Doctor himself kept nearly remembering. I really liked the clockwork droids, and certainly thought they deserved another episode, so that didn’t bother me too much. And their attempts to clothe themselves in a patchwork of human flesh was an inspired idea, very much dialling up their creepiness.
Well-regarded horror director Ben Wheatley made the most of the creepiness potential, particularly in the dining room scene when the Doctor and Clara realised something was amiss. It was a nice touch that the droids can extrude weapons from their arms, like steampunk Terminators; and the idea that the ‘escape pod’ was basically the restaurant dining area hanging from a hot air balloon made of human skin was an inspired idea – Moffat’s imagination is certainly enviable.
It was also a good idea to give them a ‘spokesman’, in the eerie form of Peter Ferdinando’s ‘Half-Faced Man’; though you could have been forgiven for mistaking his initial appearance, in profile, for a reappearance of Richard E Grant as the Great Intelligence. Interesting too that the direction left it ambiguous as to whether he was persuaded to end it all, or whether this new Doctor is ruthless enough to have given him a helping hand.
I’m guessing that question, along with the Half-Faced Man’s cryptic references to “the Promised Land” will be answered later in the series – given recent experiences, perhaps in several years’ time. Because the end scene made clear that, new Doctor aside, we’re still very much in familiar Moffat territory, with the introduction of Michelle Gomez as the mysterious ‘Missy’ in ‘Heaven’ (very obviously the same portico featured heavily in The Girl Who Waited). She really does think the Doctor’s her ‘boyfriend’ – or does she?
There’s also the question of just who placed that ad in The Times, and going back even further, who was “the woman in the shop” that gave Clara the TARDIS phone number? I’d always assumed it was River (and it still might be), but the reference here means it’s a mystery that’s going to be addressed.
So, if you don’t like Steven Moffat’s lengthy story arcs, you may have found this all a bit frustrating. Generally speaking, I got on fine with them; sure, they were unnecessarily convoluted and didn’t always add up, but they made more sense than Lost. This was a season opener that was perhaps a bit overlong for what plot it had, even with the focus on the Doctor’s new incarnation and his friends’ reactions to it. If I had to compare it to the near-perfect Eleventh Hour, I’d find it a little wanting. But Capaldi is already an excellent Doctor, and the new dynamic with Clara looks very promising. If you’re one of those who thought Matt Smith never got a better episode than Eleventh Hour, you might find it promising that Deep Breath wasn’t as superb as that – it means the best is probably yet to come.