When Matt Smith took over the role of the Doctor from David Tennant, he injected a sense of adventure and childish wonder back into the series. Though his tenure isn’t without its critics, his handling of the role did a marvelous job of building on Tenant’s work and snowballing the popularity of the show into the cultural juggernaut it is today.
Peter Capaldi made his debut this week with Series 8’s feature-length opener Deep Breath and while his opening performance was a little uneven, it definitely did a good job of showcasing the new direction Doctor Who looks to be taking.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
First things first, Deep Breath was particularly effective in the way it warped the inevitable uncertainty of the Smith-Capaldi changeover into a compelling plot. While the meat of the episode concerned robots, dinosaur and time-travel, the thematic bones took on the dilemma of whether or not Clara can handle and embrace the Doctor now that he’s almost unrecognizable to her.
His Scottish accent aside, Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor in this episode was magnetizing. He did a good job of setting the tone of his Doctor as one that’s more gruff, mature and prickly – yet still filled with the sort of energy that’s common across all versions of the character.
Early parts of the episode were a little bit rough and threatened to drag when the show went through it’s usual post-regeneration motions (“Here we go again”). That said, it wasn’t long before Capaldi’s delivery of a superb monologue/dinosaur translation and a particularly sharp line (“The question is, have there been any similar murders”) helped kick things back into gear.
Plotwise, Deep Breath was a fascinating (though a little flavourless) pastiche that made up for its occasional lack of dramatic value with countless fun quips for newcomers and allusions to Who-classics for fans. Although not quite as good as The Girl in The Fireplace, It did a good job of bringing back Series 2’s clockwork androids – who still make a good fit in spite of all the changes the show has gone through since then.. I also felt like there was some shared genealogy between the episode and Tennant’s own debut, The Christmas Invasion.
The T-Rex that opens the episode did have me worried for a moment but it’s role being mostly tangential ended up being a huge boon to the episode as a whole. Similarly, dragging Madame Vastra, Strax and Jenny back into the fold was another smart move on Moffat’s part. Vastra did a good job of counseling and mentoring Clara and almost all of the episode’s funniest lines were flawlessly delivered by Strax (“Oh no, trick of the light, you still look terrible”).
Deep Breath also made the smart move of sending The Doctor and Clara in different directions during it’s middle-act. This gave the pair both room to develop and worked to make the payoff of their scene in the restaurant all the more satisfying. I really liked how Deep Breath wasn’t afraid to slow things down and let scenes develop at a more natural pace. That said, I did have some niggles with the episode in terms of the editing and scoring – both of which occasionally felt a little clumsy.
Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t the one we know and Deep Breath did a good job of playing with our expectations and ambiguities. Capaldi’s Doctor looks different, speaks different and carries much darker dramatic presence to his predecessors and it’ll be interesting to see him portray The Doctor that’s stopped running from his mistakes. I also dug the small ambiguities surrounding the fate of the episode’s robotic villain.
Matt Smith’s final appearance in this episode is also something to be touched upon. It was a neat surprise and likely a smart move in terms of winning over Capaldi-doubters. It also helped bring things full circle and emphasized just how different his and Capaldi’s take on the character was.
Deep Breath is an episode that’s all about Peter Capaldi leading Doctor Who into uncharted territory. Though not without its missteps, it’s a fun pastiche of an episode that bodes well for the season ahead.