Well, here it is, folks — the wait is over. After nearly a year-long absence from our television screens, Doctor Who has returned, and right off the bat we’re plunged headlong into “newness” — there’s a new (and frankly pretty lousy) version of the theme tune, new (and frankly pretty cool) opening credits — and, of course, a new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi. But just how “new” are things really?
For good or ill, depending on your point of view (and in fairness I should state that I tend toward the latter opinion), Steven Moffat is still at the helm, Jenna Coleman is back as companion Clara, and the on-again/off-again supporting cast of Neve McIntosh’s Madame Vastra, Catrin Stewart’s Jenny, and Dan Starkey’s Commander Strax is all still in place. Director Ben Wheatley delivers the goods in the faux-cinematic “house style” that was a staple of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor era, and to be honest, title character aside, any “changes” in the show seem cosmetic at best (new TARDIS interior, new hairstyles for some the female characters, etc.). Heck, even the two major period tropes of the first story of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, Deep Breath (penned, as you’d expect, by Moffat himself) — namely Victoriana and dinosaurs — have been done to death on the show lately.So is it really all just a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?
Well, possibly — but here’s the damn thing : flat-out fatigued as I am by Moffat’s stewardship, this episode actually worked on a number of levels and left me feeling reasonably optimistic about things, at least in the short term — and that’s something I haven’t felt in regards to Who in quite some time (especially after the one-two punch of disasters that was Day Of The Doctor and Time Of The Doctor). I’m hedging my expectations a bit, to be sure — I thought Moffat got off to a flying start with The Eleventh Hour, but by the end of Matt Smith’s run, that was still probably his best story — so yeah, in a very real sense, at least in this armchair critic’s opinion, it really was all downhill from there. The same could easily happen again. But Jon Pertwee (yes, I really have been watching the show that long) taught me that “where there’s life, there’s hope,” so for now, I choose to remain foolishly positive in terms of my expectations for things going forward — at least until next week, at any rate.
I’ll freely admit that my own personal predilections in terms of the “classic” series probably contributed more than their fair share to how warmly I received Deep Breath — there’s a strong Ghost Light vibe to the proceedings here (right down to the setting most of the story takes place in really being a space ship), and there’s a Robot-like sense that the old characters are just here to help smooth the transition to a new era and will quickly depart to allow the Doctor and his companion to start free-wheeling their way through time and space again, and since those are two old school adventures that I love dearly, invoking them, even if by accident or coincidence, is bound to go some way toward putting me at ease here. Sure, the main baddie of the story is of the heavily-overused “steam punk” ilk, but at least he manages to impart a certain amount of genuine menace in his flat, mechanical, deadpan, clockwork non-persona. Not a classic villain by any stretch, but definitely as passable one.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though — it all rides on Capaldi’s shoulders here, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying the load. We knew he would be, of course — in a very real sense this is the Doctor us “classic” series fans have been waiting for, and not just because he’s a bit older. The best Doctors of days gone by imbued the role with a moral gravitas that the likes of Smith and David Tennant never achieved, either because they were too busy being cool (in Smith’s case) or feeling sorry for themselves (in Tennant’s). Of the new series leads, on Christopher Eccleston seemed to ever grasp the fact that the Doctor should always strive to do what’s right not just for himself, but for everyone and everything. Sure, you could still count on Ten and Eleven to come through and save the day, but not unless and until you were so sick to death of their self-absorbed, egocentric antics that you were actually hoping that they would fail and please just fucking die already. I’m pleased to say Capaldi has no time for that sort of portrayal and seems eager to make the Doctor a genuine hero again. A flawed hero, to be sure — all the best were, from William Hartnell on down — but a hero. Not a lonely god. Not a sophomoric dandy who likes to break the rules just because he can. A hero. We’ve needed that for a long time, and it looks like we’ve finally got it.
The one great failing of Deep Breath is, then, that the story really does drag when he’s not on screen. The episode is just plain too goddamn long anyway, mind you, but his numerous absences really gum up the works. One gets the sense that Moffat is trying to set up Vastra and her crew for a spin-off show or something, but if the interminable sequences where they’re asked to do the heavy lifting here are any indication, don’t bank on it being one that’ll be worth watching if it ever comes to pass. Capaldi is all energy and excitement combined with a sense of genuine, rather than forced (as it was with Smith), world-weariness that makes for an immediately addictive and compelling screen presence. It feels like he’s seen and done and it all before, but still doesn’t know what he’ll do next. When he’s absent, shit — we really have seen it all before and we do know what’s going to happen next. There’s a certain amount of charming like-ability in all of these secondary personalities, particularly Strax, but at this point they either need to go away and do their own thing, or just go away, period. I know they have their fans and all, but so did Captain Jack and River Song, and the show survived their departures just fine. My gut feeling, as mentioned before, is that Moffat elected to keep them around for this story in order to to ease both the fans and the characters themselves into whatever new direction it is that we’re headed, but if we end up seeing them again by season’s end, I’ll be more than a bit disappointed by the fact that he didn’t choose to go for the “clean break” that he’s been presented with here.
Let’s get back to that earlier optimism I was expressing, though, shall we? Deep Breath takes awhile to get going, sure, but once it does, it proves to be the type of slow-burn, character-driven, “period horror” piece that “the Moff” excelled at back when he was just part of Russel T. Davies’ writer’s pool. The dinosaur, fortunately, doesn’t hang around too long, we only have one instance of the type of painfully-overly-forced “squee” moment that the show has saddled us with all too often lately (“gee, something’s lodged in that T-Rex’s throat — he looks like he’s about to cough it out — damn, I think it’s the TARDIS — holy shit, the T-Rex is gonna cough the TARDIS out and I bet it’s gonna be coated with dino-slime!”), the plot (again, once it gets underway) is reasonably solid, and Wheatley does a nice job of layering on the atmosphere along with the lighting technicians, set designers, costume designers, and production managers in his employ. It’s not revolutionary stuff by any means, but the execution is uniformly solid, and that’s good enough for an introductory story by my estimation.
Still, in the end, it all comes back to Capaldi, doesn’t it? This guy is the real deal. He’ll be enough to get me to tune in week in and week out, even if subsequent episodes turn out to be pure crap (as some, no doubt, will be). He’s shown that he’s more than ready to bring his “A -game” right from the outset, and who knows? If Moffat and his writers show a willingness to come up with material that’s (at least) nearly equal to their star’s abilities, we might be in for a very memorable run here. Time will tell — it always does.