After a year of anticipation, we finally get to see Peter Capaldi in action as the Doctor, and the contrast with Matt Smith is so striking, the script goes out of its way to acknowledge it and reassure us that everything’s okay.
The story is familiar: another technological menace in Victorian London. In giving us such a different Doctor, Steven Moffat has chosen to ease us into the changes that will result. It’s appreciated, but not strictly necessary. Matt Smith’s arrival coincided with Moffat’s as showrunner and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, so we were thrown in the deep end with a stylistic shift and an entirely new cast. We survived that quite happily, yet “Deep Breath” is much more timid. Along with that familiar story, we’re mollified with Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in addition to the returning Clara. Looking purely at the episode’s ingredients, this is indistinguishable from the Matt Smith era.
However, Moffat does something clever. The opening scenes are as frenetic and absurd as the most decadent of the Smith years. A T-rex roams through central London in the opening scene and spews up the TARDIS. The Doctor emerges, dancing around frantically and spouting random observations rendered even more nonsensical by his post-regeneration fugue. He calls the dinosaur a big sexy lady and tries to work out which of Snow White’s dwarves Strax is. Capaldi is playing an even more discombobulated version of the Smith Doctor, and the scenes move at their usual rapid pace. Nothing has changed.
But as the Doctor recovers his wits, the pace of the episode slows. Scenes last longer. The scene with the tramp – the first where the Doctor’s new identity starts to emerge – lasts a long time without cutting elsewhere, and it only slows from there. Just as the Doctor has become more measured, withdrawn, and cerebral, so has the execution of the show. Think back to the lunatic first half of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ and compare it to “Deep Breath”. The chassis may be familiar, but under the bonnet Doctor Who has changed. I’m curious how this played in a cinema, especially compared to the epic “Day of the Doctor”. I suspect it was a more subdued experience.
What’s most telling about Capaldi’s performance is, ironically, that it’s difficult to get a handle on. All Doctors take a few episodes to hit their stride, sure, but Moffat gives him no triumphant climactic moment to reveal how awesomely confident and capable the Doctor has become. Instead, we get his menacing confrontation with the clockwork warrior node – complete with scotch – culiminating in the node’s death which may or may not have been perpetrated by the Doctor. Moffat promised a darker, less knowable Doctor, and his first episode makes that plain.
Unfortunately, Moffat and the BBC don’t seem willing to let viewers feel too stranded. If the objective was to keep us on our toes about this enigmatic new Doctor, the best expression of this would be to leave Clara uncertain about him at the end of the episode. Instead, they give us the phone call from Matt Smith’s Doctor on Trenzalore, reassuring Clara – and us – that this new Doctor is still him and he’s scared too. Clara takes this on board, looks at him closely to find her Doctor in this unfamiliar face, and gives him a hug.
The mixed message is a misjudged attempt to placate us by metatextually making the Doctor and Clara’s interactions representative of hesitant fans wary of an older, more reserved Doctor. The script makes constant reference to his grey hairs and wrinkles, when it should instead be proving we have nothing to worry about by showing, not telling. We also don’t need to be told explicitly that the Doctor will not be her boyfriend – it’s awkward and patronising. The lack of any such dynamic was already abundantly clear.
Fortunately, the episode still has plenty of moments for Capaldi to demonstrate that he will be a perfectly engaging and fitting Doctor and that the writing will adjust to his more understated mystique. There was never any reason to be concerned that Capaldi wouldn’t do the part justice. He’s an exceptional actor with the otherworldliness a Doctor needs. Now that the hand-holding is out of the way, he’ll no doubt have more opportunity to prove that.
Odds and ends
- After bringing back River Song and the Weeping Angels from his Russell T. Davies-era episodes, Moffat has now returned to the Clockwork Warriors. They’re a narratively useful if not particularly intimidating antagonist, reflected in Moffat finding another variation on ‘don’t blink’ (‘don’t breath’) that doesn’t match its power. However, the node awakening in Michelle Gomez’s garden is a nicely inexplicable turn of events – what is this Promised Land he spoke of, how did he get there, and what is it? Gomez is undoubtedly the big bad for the season, and tonally already much more intriguing than the likes of Madame Kovarian and the Great Intelligence. Her lightness and eccentricity – which Gomez excels at – give her much more mystery and nuance.
- How or whether Gomez’s story ties into the search for Gallifrey – which goes unmentioned – is unclear, but her knowledge of the Doctor means it remains a possibility. How nifty too that Moffat seems to have planned ahead for her back in Clara’s first episode, when she referred to ‘a woman in a shop’ giving her a helpline number that ended up connecting her directly to the Doctor. At the time it seems like a contrivance to get the story going. Maybe it was and Moffat is good at tying up loose ends.
- It’s now clear that Capaldi’s prior Doctor Who casting will indeed be acknowledged in the show given the Doctor notes that the familiarity of his new face, which makes him think he’s being told something. He’s thinking of Capaldi’s character in “The Fires of Pompeii”, Lobus Caecilius. He also mentions that the metal in the clockwork warriors looks Roman – maybe we’re heading back to ancient Rome as part of the ongoing story and we’ll get two Capaldis on screen. However, the only good that can come of this is if the real-life situation inspired a story so cool and worthwhile that it distracts us entirely from the absurdly meta nature of such a plot. Moffat could easily ignore Capaldi’s history but I can understand it would be tempting and fun to try and tie it all together. I just hope he held the idea to an extremely high standard before deciding to proceed.
- The answer to that will likely also address Capaldi’s role in Torchwood: Children of Earth, a character the Doctor never met. Moffat has mentioned how Russell T. Davies had a theory for why two major guest characters looked like Capaldi even before he was cast as the Doctor and that he’s incorporating it into the show. Something similar to Clara’s likeness being split across the Doctor’s timestream, perhaps?
- I was relieved that Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi have quite a bit of chemistry. Coleman’s less mannered and hyperactive performance than Karen Gillan’s of a character less emotionally dependent on the Doctor reinforces how Moffat has discovered a more sophisticated way to characterise and cast the Doctor’s companion.
- As much as I thought Matt Smith’s appearance was counterproductive, it was certainly nice to see him in the role one more time. As pleased as I am about this new direction, I still feel he left too soon, especially only one episode after a multi-Doctor story. The Trenzalore story felt truncated too. He had one more series in him. Oh well, can’t exactly complain when we get Peter Capaldi instead.