And so we do this merry dance once more, the Doctor and I. I’ve been through every one of these – though most of them long after the good folks of Britain and the right generations went through them – and they never get less compelling. But having an actor like Peter Capaldi blow through Doctor Who like a Category 5 Hurricane certainly doesn’t hurt matters.
I’ll say up front, I liked Capaldi better than “Deep Breath” as a whole. As an episode I thought it was mediocre – too long and too often rambling, with a batting average of about .500 on the humor and the Paternoster gang over-saturated to the point of becoming grating. As an introductory episode it was better, giving a nice opportunity for the new tiger to show his stripes and make the show his own, and for Clara to experience regeneration shock herself.
As for Capaldi himself, though, he lived up fully to the high expectations I had for him going in. I’ve been pleading for the new series to jump off the man-child express before we got a Doctor who doesn’t shave yet, and in Capaldi they got not just an older star, but a brilliant actor as well. Matt Smith was very good, David Tennant flat-out superb, but there are places Doctor Who can go with a mature actor in place that it can’t with one in his 20s or 30s. And I like the transition from Smith to Capaldi – in a sense Smith was an old soul who was trapped in a boy’s body (albeit a very tall one) and Capaldi’s initial impression is that of a youthful spirit trapped in the body of a middle-aged man.
If there’s anything specific I take away from Capaldi’s persona as the Doctor (and that persona will change substantially, as they always do) it’s that while I think we got what everyone expected in a sharp-tongued and edgier Doctor, we also got a surprising amount of vulnerability. Part of that is due to Capaldi’s sheer talent and part of it due to Steven Moffat doing a fine job expressing it through the script. People who only know Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop (and the British TV series it was based on, The Thick of It) have no idea of the warmth and sensitivity Capaldi is capable of, and it appears that his Doctor will have ample measures of both sides of his repertoire.
What it will also have is a burr – a Scottish accent – a point which Capaldi and Scottish writer Moffat make sure we’re aware of (along with angry eyebrows and a propensity to complain). We’ve had two Scottish actors play the role already in Sylvester McCoy and Tennant, and both were famously denied permission to use their native accent – so this is a bit of a milestone I suppose. I suspect it’s mostly a gimmick that’s the province of an introductory episode and probably won’t get much play afterwards, but I certainly applaud that we’re finally getting a Scottish Doctor who’s allowed to be Scottish. Heck, he even makes a joke about his eyebrows voting to secede from his face and become independent (which may be interpreted as a dig at the “Yes” side in the upcoming referendum, though I’m not sure it was intended that way).
We also got a new OP sequence, which is by far the most radical departure since the reboot of the show (and maybe ever). It’s very Victorian, which cogs and sprockets and chimey-wimey sounds everywhere, but I don’t think that’s a coincidence as so is “Deep Breath”as a whole (which is apparently a de facto sequel to “The Girl in the Fireplace”, which Moffat also wrote). There’s a sense that this season and perhaps this Doctor’s reign is going to have a Victorian feel generally, with lots of trips to Earth’s past and perhaps not so much of the depths of space. I certainly see more of both Bakers – Tom and Colin – in Capaldi’s Doctor than any of the others, but the overall tone of the episode reminded me more of the Pertwee era than anything.
And then there’s Clara, and her future with the series is an open question. There’s a reason why new Doctors tend to get new companions pretty quickly (with some notable exceptions like Sarah Jane) – they’re brought in for their chemistry with one actor, and it doesn’t always survive to the next. Of course I never thought Clara had all that much chemistry with Smith either, and it wouldn’t break my heart to see her go – or at least be supplemented with a second companion, which is a dynamic I always liked better anyway and one which seems better suited to an older Doctor, what with the forced romantic tension thankfully a thing of the past. Clara’s self-pity in the first half of the episode annoyed the hell out of me to be honest, though things got better once she and the Doctor visited “Mancini’s” and had a quite humorous conversation. I didn’t think her character was done any favors by having a call from Matt Smith’s Doctor needed to remind her of what should have been obvious, and I didn’t like the idea of having the old Doctor appearing in the new one’s introductory serial – it feels like a bit of a cheat to me, a crutch for both the audience and the characters.
My sincere hope is that Vastra and her gang don’t become semi-regulars (which they will if this becomes a “Victorian season”), because it really feels to me as if their appeal is pretty well played out. I love Strax but he is strictly a comic character, and Vastra and Jenny with their oh-too-witty banter are becoming almost as annoying (if not quite as omnipotent) as River Song. I did like the character of the half-faced man (Peter Ferdinando) at the center of the plot, a sort of reverse-Cyberman slowly turning his robot body into an organic one over the millennia.
“Deep Breath” asks a good number of open-ended questions, which is a Moffat Specialty, the most important being “Did he jump or was he pushed?” It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen the Doctor kill in this fashion, but it is a compelling debate. Then there’s Missy (Michelle Gomez) who pops up at the end of the episode like a demented Mary Poppins, having plucked Half-Face from his final rest to wherever it is she’s hiding (which I’m guessing isn’t the “promised land” he’s been chasing). She also introduces herself as the Doctor’s girlfriend – do we officially have a stalker on our hands? Is she someone else we might know? There’s also the matter of the “Impossible Girl” ad someone placed in the Times to get the Doctor and Clara together, which might have been Missy – it certainly doesn’t seem to have been Half-Face. Missy is presumably this season’s Big Bad, so expect to see more cryptic appearances from her in the weeks ahead.
In the end the most important question of course is what sort of man this Doctor is, and what his intentions are beyond redecorating the control room (more roundels!). He declares himself “on a mission” which suggests he sees this as a chance to right past wrongs – and he seems to take his age (which honestly I felt was made way too big a deal of, as if the first 30 years of the show’s existence never happened) to become a more responsible and serious man. My favorite moment of the episode comes when Capaldi asks “Who frowned my face this way?” as a response to the lines on the face that he didn’t earn himself – it says a lot about both the Doctor and this Doctor. While “Deep Breath” certainly won’t go down as among the best Doctor Who episodes, it does rank as one of the most exciting for introducing the prospect of where Capaldi can take the series. He’s a remarkable actor, and he may be heralding a return to a sort of Doctor Who we haven’t seen since before the reboot. At the very least, you know he’s going to make the absolute best out of the material that’s given to him.