For those of us who have recently emerged from a 9-month-long bout of suspended animation, either due to being caught in a Swiss avalanche or a mild case of alien abduction, I would be remiss to inform you all that a new series of Doctor Who started on Saturday. If not for your unfortunate incident in the Alps/depths of space you would surely have noticed the advertising for such an event being lauded as, well… an event. Doctor Who is event television now. It’s such an event that the damn thing has spilled onto cinema screens the country over to help it seem that much bigger, as if the BBC’s shiniest feather in its cap needed to be any bigger. And who even wears feathered caps these days?
Anyway, I’m getting very easily side-tracked. The big furore over this, the 8th series since the show’s revival in 2005, was that Matt Smith’s hip, young, floppy-haired Doctor had regenerated into Peter Capaldi, best known (as EVERY publication EVERYWHERE has taken great pains to mention, so therefore so must we) from Armando Ianucci’s peerlessly sweary political satire, The Thick Of It, as Malcolm Tucker. Since the live announcement of the new Doctor last year (I still can’t believe that was a thing), fans and followers of the show have been on tenterhooks waiting for this, their first chance to see how an older actor portrays their darling Doctor for the first time in a very long while.
Personally, before we really get into the meat of the episode, I was more interested in the fact that the inaugural two episodes are being directed by Ben Wheatley. Ben Wheatley? Ben. Wheatley. I could say his name a few more times but I somehow doubt that’d help my argument. If you don’t know, Wheatley is the man who wrote (with his frequent collaborator Amy Jump) and directed the psychedelic and generally-unsettling horror-heavy Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. Now he’s directing a family-orientated television show. Never sleep again, kids!
Now, with all that pre-amble out of the way, let’s actually, finally, really, talk about Doctor Who, series eight, episode one: Deep Breath.
Given this new series of Doctor Who’s fear of going too dark, it was an unexpected welcome to have the show’s first scene be as light, airy and fun as it was. Incongruous dinosaur? Check. Fan favourite trio of Victorian crime-fighters? Check. Genuinely brilliant introduction of the Tardis? Check. I mean I could go about the things it checks off, but the important thing to take away from it all is Peter Capaldi’s performance.
Right from the very start of this episode there is this same level of energy, playfulness and charisma as we’ve seen in all the Doctors since 2005, it’s just channelled somewhere new. Within the show’s first five minutes I was already at peace with the idea of Capaldi taking on such a job, and the most important thing is he kept it up. The man is a veteran actor, and he’s been pining over Doctor Who since he was a teenager if not longer, but even still I can’t help shake the image of him practicing every nuance of his Doctor in the mirror. It’s kind of adorkable: so dorky, it’s adorable.
Despite the inherent playfulness of The Doctor, there is also a kind of suspicious darkness to Capaldi’s version, one that is far more believable to be untrustworthy of than say, Tennant or Smith, who just looked and acted too aloof to convincingly be shifty. I think it’s the eyebrows myself. They get their own segment in the new opening title sequence for crying out loud. Plus a special mention in the episode itself.
Aside from Capaldi, the rest of the show unfortunately potters along at an uneven pace. On one hand, Jenna Coleman’s Clara still manages to be the best imaginable foil to The Doctor since maybe series two’s Billie Piper, oh and the Silurian detective Madame Vastra should really get her own show by now. Who wouldn’t want to see a female lizard-person detective fight and eat Victorian England’s enemies? I should probably mention Vastra’s wife/maid Jenny and their confidant Sontaran, Strax, are there too but just aren’t as engaging as they really should be at this point. Kind of amusing, but nothing to devote more than an allusion to in an article.
On the other hand, the show didn’t really know where and when it wanted to go, or even how it wanted to get there. So we start with a giant dinosaur trapped in London, with the Doctor vowing to get it home, then we are faced down with a plot about spontaneous combustion, organ-harvesting robots from several series ago, and finally a tease over the series-long plot about paradise. For an opening episode it did have too many dalliances with differing plot directions, but not as many as the show has been damned to have had before. Ultimately the show never felt as if it went too fast, I mean, yeah it was 75 minutes long and had all the above plot turns in it, but I didn’t feel at once like I was being rushed through a convoluted series of attempts to be smarter than the audience.
I’m also going to put it out there that if you ever wanted someone to convey a sense of loss, both emotional and oxygen, then Ben Wheatley is the man to put it on screen for you. I didn’t expect him to play with the more trippy aspects of his cinematography, I mean, this is a family show, but he carried it off without it going overly weirdy-beardy on us, the doting audience.
If the episode had any overall feeling to it, though, it rings parallel to the beginning of series 3 of ‘Sherlock’. Both shows (both by Steven Moffat) have achieved such a cultural height that in the space between series the discussion as to ‘what comes next’ becomes an entity unto itself. ‘Sherlock’ spent its first episode of its newest series dealing with the fallout and internet obsession that had plagued the ending of its last one, and Doctor Who seems to glaring down the same gun. ‘Deep Breath’ had some of its best moments when it was dealing with what it means for The Doctor to have this new, old face. Why that face? Had he subconsciously chosen it from someone he’d seen before? (Cough, cough, yes he did) There were also the keen ideas of The Doctor flirting with the universe by wearing a young man’s face, something which we as an audience had just taken for granted up until being made aware of it, and the paradox of Theseus’ ship being aimed not only at our meat-gathering robot adversaries, but at the Doctor himself.
Finally, after all the goings on in the episode, Matt Smith’s Doctor turns up at the end via the medium of a magic space phone-call (whoops, spoilers) to reassure Clara that that new man is indeed him and that he needs her more than ever. It’s nice to see Matt Smith giving his twenty-seventh goodbye as The Doctor, if a little perfunctory at this point.
So that was episode one, and thankfully by that I don’t mean The Phantom Menace. Eurgh. Despite a few issues with the aspects of the plot not focussed on the Doctor being all manners of higgled and piggled, everything else seemed to click. Unlike my last attempt at documenting a telly show, this one is undeniably fun to watch and the new chemistry between the show’s leads is immediate and beyond a doubt. It could still fall into the plot problems of previous series, but so long as the script and characters keep this sharp, I really don’t care.
View the trailer for episode 2 – Into The Dalek
Doctor Who is on BBC 1 on Saturday’s at 7.30pm