A bold new era! At this point, I half-expected DWM to drop me as their Doctor Who reviewer, simply because I’d covered the entirety of Matt Smith’s run. I figured they may, very reasonably, decide a fresh approach was required for the new guy in the TARDIS – so much so, I’d composed my final Eleventh Doctor review so it would also stand as my final ever review. Not that anyone would have cared (other than me)! But, back I came – I’m currently mulling on what I’m going to say about In the Forest of the Night – and I’m still glad to be here.
And, lo! From DWM #478 here’s Peter Capaldi’s debut episode. Although I’m getting more comfortable with using ‘I’ in these pieces, I still hate actually putting myself in a review. It seems self-aggrandising and boastful, and it muscles in between the reader and the show. Yet I really wanted to use that moment with the new leading man, because that’s what happened. As a consequence, my intro was originally far more apologetic about the fact I’d been at the press launch. But after some wise counsel, I came to realise this approach was counter-productive – it just flagged it up even more. Better, instead, to lay it out flatly, as if it was entirely the business of DWM‘s man to be at such an event.
Well, let me take you there now…
Your DWM reviewer was at the London preview screening for Deep Breath on 7th August. Although he didn’t share chips with Peter Capaldi, afterwards, among the hurdy gurdy and pressing of hands on shoulders, he did manage to exchange a few words. “Now you’ve seen yourself on screen and signed hundreds of autographs, can you finally believe you’re the Doctor?”
Shining TARDIS blue, Mr Capaldi’s eyes locked on. “I’ve always been the Doctor.”
That is the loudest chime in this adventure. When the Doctor’s family unit – or ersatz UNIT family – of Clara, Jenny, Strax and Vastra gather around him at the start of the story, and the lizard lady sighs à la Alistair, “Here we go again”, it’s more like, “Here we are at last”. As if, over the last 51 years, we’ve seen a sequence of Russian Doll Doctors who have all been removed to finally reveal the Twelfth at their core. On comes the spiralling new title sequence and the treble-heavy Telstar-inspired musical update (goodbye counter-melody, and is that a Theremin on the main refrain?). And then it’s official. There’s the name, followed, more powerfully, by the eyes. Peter Capaldi is the Doctor, and with a passion and lust for it that’s tangible.
So much so his predecessor – who also succeeded in immediately inhabiting that space on his debut back in 2010 – now feels almost an imposter. The lovely scene near the end of the story with the Eleventh Doctor on the phone to Clara is quintessential Matt Smith, recorded during the Matt Smith era. And yet, an hour has passed. An hour with the Twelfth. As a result, the guy on the blower is, like, forever ago. As much as I loved Matt’s portrayal (my favourite since the series returned) he’s been accessioned to a more passive spot in my affections. Seems I’m fickle with Doctors. None can be more vital than the current incumbent.
So what sort of Doctor is Capaldi? He’s one whom I don’t feel would thank us for referring to his this-world counterpart as the more informal ‘Peter’. But beyond that, it’s hard to truly say. Steven Moffat’s story keeps him from us, even at the very end. Where other versions – aside from Patrick Troughton, perhaps – finally come good on their debut with a smile or some reassuring gesture, he remains opaque. Aside from the sheer excitement of having the Eleventh show up to match-make, it also means the new man can stay in the dark. Where the former was almost puppyish, this one’s a fighting dog, scooching his backside along your carpet and snarling.
From the off, a sense of rage precedes the Twelfth. Indeed, the story quivers, slightly, is if waiting for him to lose it (“Don’t look in that mirror, it’s absolutely furious!”). That’s maybe because we’re all still nursing heat-damage from the incredible Capald-eyes in The Day of the Doctor. But it’s also thanks to the fact there’s a massively on-the-nose comparison to be made about this incarnation. Okay. This is going to sound unfancy, bordering on dumb. It’s the kind of thing we’d normally tie ourselves up in knots to avoid. But! Here it is! The new Doctor is a bit like Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It.
Right, now that’s out there, let’s all take a quick break, shake ourselves out a bit…
Better? Then we shall continue, because in fact, there is precedent. Back in 1980, when Peter Davison was formulating his take on the Time Lord, he consulted – as one should – Donny MacLeod and a quorum of teens in the Pebble Mill At One atrium. In that session, a youngster famously offered up the thought the Fifth could be “like Tristan Farnon, but with bravery and intellect”. By Davison’s own account, he stuck with that note, even though there seems to be almost nothing to it. So, like Malcolm Tucker, but with bravery and intellect? (Plus, Z-bombs instead of the F-variety?) It’s a reasonable starting point, this fearsome, lonesome man with a long reputation and a rather disdainful take on the human race.
But let’s be clear, no-one’s claiming that’s all there is to his Doctor. It’s more like a bass note. Early on, I was also picking up a little Spearhead from Space, not just because the newly regenerated Time Lord was darting around in his night attire, but there was also that angular anatomy and slightly calamitous body language. Of course he settles down as the episode continues. We learn he’s resolutely alien and catch glimpses of his alien thought-processes (“The question is… have there been any similar murders?”). At the point he’s pouring whisky for his discussion with the Half-Face Man – and remember how his previous self couldn’t stomach wine? – it’s apparent he can also be a proper grown-up. The kids have been left to rumpus while he takes care of business, which, in this instance means either pushing or talking his foe to death, a point left deliciously ambiguous.
Then at the end, most beautifully of all, we also discover this is a Doctor who still needs a friend. In recent past, the Time Lord’s devotion to his companion has sometimes diminished him, particularly when cooing and giggling over Rose. But the joint venture of Moffat’s writing and Capaldi’s playing lends both a dignity and a nicely contained pathos to the scene when he asks Clara, “Please, just see me”. He’s older, he’s greyer, he’s angrier and he’s not your boyfriend. But that simple plea, coupled with an endorsement from his boyish prior persona, is enough, and the two pals walk off into the city looking for refreshments. Although there’s no handholding or locking of arms, they are together.
We should talk of Clara too, because Deep Breath is nearly as transformative for her. Rather brutally so. As if harbouring hostility towards the companion, the story goes to some lengths to trash her slightly too-good-to-be-true demeanour. Her first appearance sees Clara thoroughly dishevelled and from there the indignities keep on coming. Strax throws a copy of the The Times at her face and embarrasses her by announcing her subconscious contains “deflected narcissism, traces of passive aggressive, and a lot of muscular young men doing sport”. We also see what’s presumably a flashback to a Coal Hill classroom of teens mocking her horribly, and even the Doctor lays in a few blows, calling her an “egomaniac” and joking a hair he’s yanked from her head “was the only one out of place – I’m sure you would have wanted it killed.”
It could be construed as workplace bullying. But let’s call it tough love; tearing a character down so she can be rebuilt. That’s first apparent when Vastra demolishes the Doctor-Clara relationship with the remarkably pertinent: “You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” It precipitates the finest moment yet for the young teacher, and indeed Jenna Coleman, as she rounds on the Silurian – the Impossible Girl thoroughly ruffled and rather magnificent… Although I can’t buy that line: “Just because my pretty face has turned your head, don’t assume that I am so easily distracted!” Has anyone ever heard anyone earnestly describe themselves as “pretty”? Or, if you have, how long did you wait until texting a mutual acquaintance?
As this rough process continues, we are given other reminders that despite everything, Clara remains the perfect counterweight to the Time Lord. First she figures out the clue in the newspaper and then, when she and the Doctor are manacled to the banquette of reasonable comfort, she’s cued and ready to launch into their escape routine with the sonic screwdriver. It’s no surprise that despite her misgivings, when she hears the TARDIS arrive in the final reel, she runs towards it. It’s where she’s meant to be. However, it’s in facing up to the Spanish Inquisition-style threats of death then torture that she supplants her prior ‘finest moment ever’, and brings us one of the finest companion moments per se, with Jenna impressively playing the fear that fuels her bravery. Here is the new Clara burning brighter than ever.
New Clara and, of course, new Doctor. Same old Paternoster Gang. This story means that, unlike anyone else in Doctor Who history, Steven Moffat has written two post-regeneration adventures (let’s not get into how far along Christopher Eccleston was in Rose). Having had to start completely anew with Matt Smith in The Eleventh Hour, it’s interesting he’s layered this one with familiar faces. Whether that’s in reaction to the challenges he endured or – more likely – just to switch things up, I have to confess that, contrasted against all these fresh starts, it made me feel the trio have perhaps had their time.
Strax’s “mandatory medical examination” of Clara seemed more like a contractual comedy obligation for Dan Starkey, and not of a piece with the rest of the story. Meanwhile Jenny has developed a weird habit for continually showboating her relationship with Vastra, as if it’s now a novelty, rather than something that was painlessly assimilated by we viewers back on Demons Run. “The wife doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” says she, tipping us a wink. Yeah, it’s fine, we know you’re married. “I don’t like her, ma’am, I love her.” Honestly, Jenny, we get it – this isn’t a thing. That coupled with Vastra’s new Victorian misogyny, in which she endeavours to treat the other female leads as decorative objects, made the whole set-up feel – well – a bit weird. As much as I admire the actors, I’m not sure what the gang is about anymore, particularly as our antisocial Doctor no longer seems to fit into a pack.
I mentioned The Eleventh Hour, which makes me feel obligated to come up with a judgement on how Deep Breath compares as a story. Doctors aside – because Smith and Capaldi both brilliantly find their own at speed – the Twelfth’s intro doesn’t have such a large engine powering it. Where the Hour was a head-down roar to the end credits, this one lingers in places. Yes, it’s front-loaded with a dinosaur who acts like a fairground barker, promising more visual thrills to come, but that’s not how it goes. This is a more cerebral, talky piece, showboat scenes being the discursive ones – Clara and Vastra, Clara and the Doctor in the restaurant, the Doctor and the Half-Face Man in the escape capsule. Even our hero seems intent on under-selling the novelties of the plot, telling us on a couple of occasions he’s seen it somewhere before.
Where once there was exuberance, now there is restraint, something that is reflected in the directorial choices. Although the production is helmed by Ben Wheatley, best known for his cinema work, it is a very televisual style, told mostly in close-ups. We see the Doctor’s rooftop dash and tumble only in bits, and when he hangs underneath his foe’s ascending restaurant booth (only in Doctor Who), we aren’t rewarded with a long-shot capturing the full legs-dangling jeopardy. This is all heads and shoulders. The initial tyrannosaurus money-shot aside, the sequence that comes closest to showing off is an intimate one, when Clara is struggling to hold her breath. Red and yellow blurs stripe the screen like the onset of an ocular migraine and she falls in slow motion to the floor…
Lights out, everyone.
When it debuted on BBC One, Deep Breath aired further into the night than any first-run Doctor Who story in recent times. Further into the night. That’s where this series seems bound. Here’s a solid indication: “Where are we going?” asks Clara in the season trailer. “Into darkness,” replies the Doctor – and towards that point, he guides his flight. Will this be deeper, bleaker, maybe even more grown-up Doctor Who? With a leading man who isn’t guaranteed to keep us safe? It’s exciting not knowing, isn’t it?
“Now you’ve seen yourself on screen and signed hundreds of autographs, can you finally believe you’re the Doctor?” No, that is not the question. That is not where we start. The question is: Can we now finally believe Peter Capaldi is the Doctor? Because he has been all along. He staked his claim on the show in the Sixties when he drew his first Dalek, and again in the Seventies writing essays for the ambitiously titled Doctor Who International Fan Club magazine (one wonders if on his recent World Tour, he secretly imagined himself an emissary for that publication). And in consenting to his first chat with DWM, he apparently described it as the interview he’s waited his whole life to give. So yes, he’s the Doctor. And a very special one – a man who’s living his dream. Living all our dreams, really.
If unusually dark days do lie ahead for the new Time Lord, we can rest assured they will be illuminated by that passion and excitement. And even that anger. “I’m the Doctor, I’ve lived for over 2,000 years and not all of them were good. I have made many mistakes, and it’s about time I did something about that.”
Here we go again.