It’s been too long but last night we finally got a chance to watch Peter Capaldi play the Doctor in full as Doctor Who returned for the 8th series of the modern era (which is an unfortunate way to describe the New Who and the Old Who in that it makes the past versions sound positively archaic). As we found out, though, our reaction to the new Doctor wasn’t quite as important as Clara’s reaction.
I have to admit that I wasn’t an avowed fan of the puppy dog cuteness of the Matt Smith/Jenna Coleman pairing. Too much flirting. Not banter, not the occasional cheek — doe eyed, cotton candy flirting. I love that those antics have been put out to pasture and I adore that we got to see that in the beginning, but while it might be a welcome change for some viewers, it was clearly a whiplash inducing course shift for Clara (Coleman), who strongly rejected the Doctor right away because he was no longer “Her” Doctor.
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To Madame Vastra, that meant that Clara was rejecting the Doctor due to his aged visage and grey hair, but while Clara emphatically denies that and resents Vastra’s judgement of her — to the point that Jenny (as an avatar for Steven Moffat, no doubt) applauds Clara’s defiant speech/denial that she cared about such vain things — many of her actions tip the scales more toward reinforcing Madame Vastra’s read of the situation throughout the episode. Because Clara is very clearly judging this new Doctor.
As Vastra, Neve McIntosh continues to do Alex Kingston and John Barrowman proud as she continues the legacy of the Doctor’s occasional and randy associates. Too much of her, Jenny (whom Vastra is an outright dick to at times) and especially Strax would be too much of a good thing on Doctor Who, but if Steven Moffat ever accedes to people’s wishes and allows a Vastra spinoff to burst into existence, that would be just fine. Perhaps a series where she and Captain Jack troll the universe for strange, since it’s clear that her eye is wandering. Maybe call it ‘Space Lotharios’ or ‘Lizard and Jack’? Something snappy.
While we’re handing out team-up spinoffs, Clara and Strax have an amazingly weird back and forth that gives Whovian Jar Jar something to do besides get on my nerves for a moment. He clearly annoys the Doctor as well, since he gets told to shut up, shush and gets accused of having pudding for brains by the new last of the Time Lords. I think I’m gonna like this new guy.
Actually, I think I’m going to love him.
Matt Smith was buckshot — all over the damn place. He used too many words. Capaldi, on the other hand, is more subdued, but he makes his words count when they do tumble out of his mouth, even here as his mind is rebooting.
Witness the scene in the restaurant/robot trap. Brought there by a cryptic message in the local paper as they search to find out why someone would torch a dinosaur in Olde London Town, Clara begrudgingly meets with the Doctor — who is decked out in a tramp’s coat and its accompanying stink — only to get verbally accosted by this version of the Doctor that is as rude as advertised. He’s a bit caustic and antagonistic towards her, but there’s an undercurrent of affection. We’ve left the puppy love stage and sprinted right into the mildly bruising patter of an old married couple — filled with disdain but also love, banging on each other’s Achilles like a xylophone. It’s fantastic.
As Clara and the Doctor get into the thick of it, though, he leaves her hanging with only the memory of a throwaway question about how long she could hold her breath to keep her safe while in the clutches of the same kind of human body part harvesting clock-gear robots that we saw in the Davies/Tennant era episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace”. Naturally, the Doctor does come to save the day after the main robot gives away the particulars of his plan, but Clara doesn’t seem as if she is happy to be used as bait.
I love a Doctor that will use his friends like pawns occasionally. I love a Doctor who will, as Capaldi does at points, regard humanity with a bit of that “Disappointed Daddy” thing that Eccleston used to have. I love a Doctor who isn’t running away from himself.
I like the lighter stuff about going Scottish, the attack eyebrows and “Who frowned me this face?”, but as the Doctor tussles with the head robot on skin balloon powered ship, things get a bit real. The robot’s purpose is to get the the promised land, but the Doctor dismisses that notion and later acknowledges all the things that he has done to save humanity and how it has denied him a place in the promised land. There’s also a good moment where the Doctor relays a story to the patchwork robot about a mop that has had all of its parts replaced and whether any of it truly remains intact. “Are you a mop?” he asks, pausing for a moment to look inward and perhaps ponder whether any of his initial essence is left after so many regenerations.
We also get to see a glimpse at some of the darkness that we have been promised as the Doctor remains in the ship after the robot has fallen to his death. Was he pushed or did he jump? Which one went against his programming — the robot or the Doctor? We’ll never likely know, but we do get a fourth wall break as the Doctor stares right at the camera afterwards in a “Hey, I’m Steven Moffat and look what I just did” bit of annoying fan service.
And speaking of annoying fan service…
Did we really need to say goodbye to Matt Smith all-over again so that Clara could be re-assured that this Doctor, the Capaldi Doctor, was “her” Doctor? I’ll concede that Moffat’s effective Amy Pond stunt last year in the Christmas Special did steal some of Clara’s thunder and that this moment can now stand as her “goodbye” to the Matt Smith Doctor, but I feel like the torch had already been passed. I also feel like this appearance slightly undermines the emotional heft of Smith’s exit.
The story felt a little flimsy but it allowed Moffat to explore a few parallel themes between these flesh mining aliens and the Time Lord’s penchant for rebuilding himself. It was also a bit better than the last time that Moffat introduced us to a new Doctor in the “Eleventh Hour”.
It’s far too early for me to really care about the weird disco that is “Missy of the Promised Land” and I don’t understand why we couldn’t have had a few adventures before we had to start wondering about the meaning of this latest season.
As for Clara’s angst over the suddenly older Doctor, in some ways, it echoed Rose Tyler’s feelings about the switch from the Eccleston Doctor to the Tennant Doctor, but this was far more severe. At this point, the new Doctor’s age should be a non-issue on the story side. They didn’t make this switch under the cover of night — people knew and the effort has been made to extensively “sell” Capaldi as the new Doctor over these last few months. I don’t think that the audience’s “feels” on the matter and the “heartache” of going from the young and vibrant Matt Smith to the old Peter Capaldi needed to be represented here and they certainly didn’t need to filter it through Clara. Peter Capaldi is the Doctor, not our boyfriend.
Moffat irritations and Clara’s issues aside, the point of this episode was to let fans meet Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor and in that regard, “Deep Breath” stands out as a great introduction to this new era for Doctor Who and it allowed Peter Capaldi to be appropriately grumpy, surprisingly funny and even silly at points. It’s not exactly what I expected, but in many ways, it bested my expectations.
Final Grade: B
This is only my take on “Deep Breath”. To hear us debate the merits of this episode and what we expect to see this season on Doctor Who, tune-in to our next episode where we’ll talk exclusively about Doctor Who with known anti-Moff Chris Cummins and Doctor Who know-it-all Steven Sautter.