Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Frowny Face

Doctor Who
Deep Breath
Series Eight, Episode One

It's finally here!  The first episode of Peter Capaldi – er, I mean Doctor Who: Series Eight.  They've been hyping it like mad, World Tour and everything.  So, does Deep Breath meet the hype?

Yes and no.  Yes, Peter Capaldi is fantastic.  No, it's not an exceptional episode.  I've been frowning for days.  I think I like it.

So, new titles.  The clock stuff is cool.  The TARDIS looks wibbly.
Shame about the new theme, a.k.a. The Violin's Death Rattle.
You may have been expecting something like The Eleventh Hour, so naturally Steven Moffat anticipated that and decided not to bother.  Rather than dazzling the audience with a brand new everything (ala Hour), the only really new thing here is the Doctor.  Okay, that's one way to do it.  In the Tom Baker opener Robot, characters and situations reeked of the previous era, which provided a contrast for the shiny new Doctor.  We then charged off into unknown territory the following week.  Fair enough.  Just one tiny problem: Robot isn't very good.

The Eleventh Hour is brilliant because it just gets on with what's new.  No naps, no amnesia, no old characters and none of the usual post-regenerative gubbins.  With that approach proving a barnstorming success, it's a tad disappointing to throw the lever the other way.  One can only assume it's to ease us in, and assuage any fears about the (much older) guy they've picked to replace Matt Smith.  Certainly the phone-call from Matt (filmed before he left) bluntly pleads with us to Give Pete A Chance.  But as the rapturous World Tour attests, there's rarely been an actor more universally accepted in this role than Peter Capaldi, so why not let him do the talking?  As much as I loved seeing Matt again, doesn't it detract from them both?

Most of the "old stuff" surrounding Peter is exactly what I was dying to get away from.  It can be very silly; the episode opens with an abnormally large T-Rex barfing up the TARDIS.  Despite being perfectly capable of delivering a funny line, and there are plenty of those, Peter Capaldi still has to do some very broad physical comedy, like getting a literal "bonk!" on the head, noisily serenading a dinosaur or talking to a horse.  This stuff was rubbish when Matt Smith had to do it, and that's why I rather hoped we'd seen the back of it.  Hands up who was quite happy with new stuff instead?  I'm guessing, everybody?

Which brings us to the Paternoster Gang, who are as one-note as ever.  What's the point bringing them back if they're going to be exactly the same every time?  Certainly in a New Doctor Story, when we're all desperate to see what the new guy is like, it seems absolutely insane to devote precious minutes to Strax calling Clara a boy, or Jenny pointing out that she's married to Vastra, or Vastra making some clumsy Sherlock Holmes reference again and again and again.  (I see Steven Moffat's still labouring under the delusion that his man-eating comedy lizard could have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Of course that's pompous, but also nowhere near justified.  I'm no detective, and even I figured out that a newspaper ad saying "Meet you on the other side" is probably referring to the other side of the paper.  Duh!)

Next Week: Madam Vastra and the Case of the Slightly
Troubling Crossword!
At 75 minutes Deep Breath has time to kill, and there are lingering scenes of Strax Funny Business and Vastra Being Clever.  If you're like me and you don't like these guys, it's a bit like being raked over hot coals, especially when they're trying to be clever.  But the slower pace is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can mean longer shots, more focus on the dialogue, less frantic sonic-screwdriver-waving to resolve the plot.  There's a patience and an elegance to some scenes, particularly as we watch Capaldi's Doctor percolate, and the pace makes that possible.  If the show's much-suggested "new direction" is about taking your time, hooray for that.  They just haven't got the hang of it yet, as they keep counterbalancing those patient scenes with padding and Strax jokes.  There's a stunning bit where the unconscious Doctor "translates" the dinosaur, but in reality, he's discussing himself.  It's quiet, restrained, and then BOOM!  Strax joke!  (Fortunately, this imbalance is mostly done away with in the second, much better half of the episode.)

There's noticeably very little plot here, which feels even more scarce for being scraped to feature length.  When a T-Rex spontaneously combusts (how's that for an inciting incident?), it leads the new Doctor to a gang of robots harvesting human organs.  The robots are something else we've seen before, cue Girl In The Fireplace references.  They're seriously creepy, and they provide a sinister parallel for the Doctor's regeneration, although they are as disappointingly stupid as the Fireplace ones, if not worse.  (They're fooled by holding your breath?  Seriously?)  The lead robot is compellingly understated, a refined turn from Peter Ferdinando.  Underplaying it is a smart move, particularly when we're focussing all our attention on the Doctor.  The plot works well enough, really; I just wish there was more of it and that it didn't take so long.  (There's a bit where the Doctor realises "This isn't a man turning himself into a robot, this is a robot turning himself into a man," but by then I'd already figured that out.  I'm no rocket scientist – it feels wrong to be a step ahead of so-called "genius" characters.)

Obviously this isn't meant to be a "plot" episode.  (Which isn't to say you can't do those with a new Doctor, because The Eleventh Hour did it, but okay, I know, let it go already.)  We're here for the new Doctor, and for the change in the Doctor/companion relationship that must come from that.  This can only improve Clara's character, who – no disrespect to Jenna Coleman – has been a tangle of timey-wimey portents and no actual personality from the start.

Clara is struggling to accept that the Doctor has changed, even asking how they can change him back.  That's an understandable reaction for most, see Rose, but it's an unfortunate fit for Clara, who has actually met all twelve Doctors and is aware of how regeneration works.  Um...?  Vastra makes a big deal of putting Clara in her place, and there's a very showy scene about how the Doctor's face is a veil to gain acceptance (and this new one means he trusts her), but the whole thing's built on Clara acting against what little we know about her.  Besides her uneasiness with the Doctor, her personality is then drily summed up in lists, and that's even worse.  Apparently she doesn't fancy young men, she's a big fan of Marcus Aurelius, she could "flirt with a mountain range" and blah blah blah.  Why not show us?  Oh, and she's "an egomaniac needy game-player".  What the hell's that based on?

This is pretty much how I feel about Clara.
Her previous relationship with the Doctor is also summed up, and I'm not convinced by that either, possibly because it never worked in the first place.  The Eleventh Doctor was hardly sexless, particularly with the right people (River, Tasha), but I don't think it's fair to label him a "boyfriend" when it comes to Clara.  Okay, he looked young, he pretended to be her boyfriend last Christmas, and he once made a (hideously out-of-nowhere) reference to her bottom.  But are we forgetting what he was actually like?  All that "I don't understand humans" stuff?  Clara drops hints at how much she (insert L word)s Matt's Doctor, but I've never seen much solid evidence of that either, besides the odd eyebrow-raisingly random reference.  This is someone who was quite happy to go home between TARDIS adventures, until the previous episode when she suddenly wasn't.  Their whole "relationship" never convinced, so it seems weird to pivot so much around it now.

Anywho, Jenna does a great job with the material, with Capaldi, and when it comes to facing down the bad-guy.  Right or wrong, now all that character bumf is out of the way there's promise for the series ahead.  And okay, speaking of promise... what's the Doctor like?

In one of his umpty-squillion interviews, Peter Capaldi said he doesn't want to find one way to play his Doctor and repeat it.  I absolutely get and respect that.  Too often David Tennant and Matt Smith were boxed in by scripts trying to anticipate them, and inadvertently squeezing the life out of them.  And there are plenty of Scottish jokes and eyebrow jokes in here that hint at that, but you'd still be hard pressed to squeeze his portrayal into a few adjectives.  Besides, this is a post-regen story complete with a blob of amnesia; it's not The Full Capaldi.  Nonetheless he imbues it with great flavour.  He's funny, vulnerable, rude, sympathetic, savage, childlike; there are shades of all your favourite Doctors if you look for them.  Best of all, he's unexpected, at one point abandoning Clara to her doom – though as a friend of mine pointed out, even that's not unlike the calculating Sylvester McCoy, or the initially cowardly Colin Baker.  But of course, he comes back.  He's still the Doctor.  We just don't know him very well yet.

Oh good, an arc plot.  Care to guess?  (DON'T DO IT!)
When the villain showdown comes around, all those post-regen wobbles have gone, and we're treated to a serious, seriously dark Doctor.  Now, that's an overused word, so I'll be clear: his behaviour at the end (when he may or may not have pushed a bad guy to his doom) could be interpreted as a scary new direction for the Doctor.  Personally, I don't see anything new here.  The Doctor has always been capable of vanquishing a villain, or convincing them to do the honourable thing.  But this one seems like he'll be less of a hypocrite about it.  There's a caustic honesty to him, which could be a defining trait.  That's an interesting development, and it fits what we know about the Doctor.  He's certainly got my attention.

Capaldi, as if there was ever any doubt, nails it.  He even looks like the Doctor.  I am very, very excited for where the series will take him, and us, and even Clara.  But I cannot honestly say this episode is the best showcase for his talents, or for a longer run-time.  The script totters around in much the same daze as a new Doctor, although in the end it gets itself together just the same.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi guys! Thanks for that. I'd like to extend the same sentiment to your review. :)