The premier episode for any new Doctor has become a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Once upon a time, Patrick Troughton genuinely shocked audiences by showing up as the new main character of the series, but nowadays, there are big events to announce the new actor, and we all tune in to check it out, full of dread or hope or relief. The production team’s big challenge is not so much to explain the concept to the audience, but to create an engaging story that also helps us to connect to the new actor and the new tone of the series.
The situation is this: a new Doctor means a new personality for the show, but it also means a chance for the Doctor to be as crazy as he’s ever going to be. It’s pretty established now that the character is meant to be some combination of sick and addled in the hours post-regeneration, so the stories often send him to particular heights of lunacy, down from which the incarnation’s personality eventually emerges. The confusion of the current companion is meant to reflect the audience’s own uncertainty. This goes on for as long as whoever’s in charge feels like it’ll be funny or dramatic. If the show overplays this hand, the danger is that it becomes a bit tedious as we wait for the new Doctor to properly “kick in” and invite us along on some amazing adventures.
Traditionally, classic-Doctor Who has not been terribly successful at this. I have never seen Patrick Troughton’s debut, and I frankly don’t remember Jon Pertwee’s well, but neither Tom Baker’s nor Peter Davison’s first appearances are considered classics, and both Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s are pretty terrible. The best examples of this have been in the new series, specifically with both David Tennant and Matt Smith.
Tennant’s first episode, The Christmas Invasion, solved the problem of the post-regenerative Doctor by having him just be unconscious for almost the entire time, and then show up, more-or-less fully formed at the story’s climax. Matt Smith, as first seen in The Eleventh Hour, played the Doctor with such off-the-wall frenetic energy that the “addled” version of his Doctor was basically the same as his “regular” version.
And now we have Deep Breath, the latest story to bring a new Doctor to our screens, and its take on the whole new Doctor shtick. It makes the new Doctor both addled and bed-ridden for a while, and perhaps overplays these elements just a teensy bit. We do get to know our guy before the story is over, but maybe I’d have liked to have gotten to know him just a little bit more, which maybe we could have had with just a bit less attention on our mysterious lizard woman and her disappearing veil.
More on that in a moment, but what can we actually say about the new Doctor?
First thing’s first: he’s old. Everyone seems to be talking about this. Various people I know (including my wife) who hadn’t been paying attention before he turned up on screen (because they have, you know, things to do) commented on this when he first turned up. The New York Times had an article about this. Clara Oswald, the show’s current companion, seems really thrown off by this. So let’s get it out there. He’s old. Or at least, he looks older than before. But I think most people who are thrown off by this have just not really been all that familiar with the Doctor prior to David Tennant. Peter Capaldi does not necessarily come across significantly older than Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee (though he is older than both when they first appeared), and he certainly seems younger than original Doctor William Hartnell (though he’s actually about the same age). This Doctor is more mature, but he is still energetic and lively.
Secondly, he’s got some bite in his personality, and it’s not all in his eyebrows. Obviously, there’s the whole thing at the end – with the question of whether the Doctor actually pushed his enemy to his death, or merely convinced him to do the deed himself. Either way, that’s the dark side of the Doctor being highlighted. More than that, he’s got an edge to his demeanor that is aggressive without necessarily being smug, which I enjoyed. A lot of this came out in his relationship with Clara. In fact, one of the highlights was the moment when you at first thought that he was becoming quite humble and admitting that his crazy machinations indicated egomania – before you realized that he was actually talking about his companion. Which brings us to…
Third, he’s not Clara’s boyfriend. Of course, he never was, but he basically admits that he may have forgotten this from time to time. That appears to all be behind us with this new Doctor. It was connected in to all the comments about his apparent age, and the theme of aging and change that was brought out. The truth is that Matt Smith’s Doctor was always too old for Clara, but Peter Capaldi’s Doctor knows it, and makes sure that Clara knows it too. Of course the change is almost too much for her (which is maybe a little strange – you’d think she’d be used to his different faces more than any other companion, remembering what happens in The Name of the Doctor), and she’s almost out of there except for that surprise phone call (a surprise I stupidly ruined for myself months ago by looking at some website or another). That phone call was a highlight of the show, mostly because it brought home to me how much I was ready for Capaldi’s non-addled Doctor to really take center stage here. Matt Smith, you are more than a fond memory, but you moved on and now we must too.
So I don’t feel I got to know the 12th Doctor as much as I’d like, but the beginning was there, and I’m ready for more.
But what about the story? It’s a mixed bag. Let’s see…
First, try as it might, “Take a deep breath,” is not going to anytime soon take the place of “Don’t blink” as the show’s simple catchphrase that belies a terrifying monster . I mean, that first time, when Clara was trying to get out of the underground spaceship without the androids noticing her – that was actually pretty good – Jenna Coleman helps to sell it. But at the end, when they all held their breaths in order to keep the androids from killing them – that was pointless and as stupid as Clara says that the androids are. Someone else pointed out the fact that if the androids are that thick, than you can just hold your breath, run away, breathe, hold your breath again, run away some more, etc. But the scene was already a disaster before that took place: 20 unstoppable machines surrounding five people in a room that offered no maneuverability, stabbing at them with swords, and yet nobody actually got hurt? Nope – turns out the androids were just stabbing into the scene’s tension and deflating that, that’s all.
Second, I’m ready to say goodbye to the Paternoster Gang–I am tired of these guys. Jenny Flint is more or less non-personality, whose best moment came when she died in The Name of the Doctor. Madame Vastra has got personality, but is annoying. Her best moment came when Clara rightly told her off in this story, but that was undermined when it was somehow implied that by the whole disappearing veil thing that it was Clara who had learned some sort of lesson. Narratively, the characters don’t do anything except to give Clara someone to talk to while the Doctor is unconscious (even their charging in and helping at the end basically amounts to nothing) and of course promote the show’s social agenda (‘cuz Vastra and Jenny are married, the show is sure to remind us, married married married). This in fact seems to be one of the reasons for the disastrous scene mentioned above, as it was used to facilitate the pseudo-kiss between the two characters, so the show could further drive home whatever point it thinks it’s supposed to be making. Thankfully, Strax is still funny, with his thinking Clara’s hair is a hat and whatnot, but I would have happily sacrificed those scene for a bit more of Capaldi being the Doctor, given the choice.
Third, for some positive notes, the scene in the restaurant with the creepy android customers was outstanding. The dinosaur was cool as well, albeit a bit daft. The connection with the Clockwork soldiers from The Girl in the Fireplace was a fun nod (Man, whoever invented those things in the 51st century really blew it!). Their plot was ludicrous, but I was all right to roll with it.
Jenna Coleman as Clara is as good in this episode as we’ve seen her. Her relationship with Capaldi’s Doctor is heaps of fun – with their tension and edginess with each other leading to better chemistry than she ever had with Matt Smith. But more than that, she’s given some great showdowns, both with Madame Vastra and the main villain of the story in which she comes across as courageous, strong, vulnerable and admirable. I was never really sold on Clara during her whole “impossible girl” arc, but if things continue as we saw them here, I may becoming so.
And then there’s that wacky ending, with Missy, the crazy villainous (presumably) matriarch-type who seems to be cut from the same cloth as previous Steven Moffat-creations Madame Kovarian or Tasha Lem. There’s some speculation online that she’s supposed to be the Rani, another renegade Time Lord who appeared in some of the classic series’ least impressive stories. I really hope that the answer is something more interesting. Either way, welcome to the season’s story-arc plot!
So the end result for Deep Breath is not the near-perfect success at reintroducing the series that we had in The Eleventh Hour. But we’re doing pretty well, with a Doctor / Companion combination that promises some new dynamics and a spiffy new title sequence. I’m looking forward to the rest of Season 8.