This weekend, the beloved science fiction series Doctor Who, pet obsession of Anglophiles the world over, made its triumphant return to television screens with the premiere of its eighth season (or thirty-fifth, if you want to be technical about it). The episode, titled “Deep Breath”, was penned by controversial showrunner Steven Moffat, and was burdened with the unenviable task of “rebooting” the show. Unlike other series, Who regularly recasts its lead character, The Doctor, through the narrative device of “regeneration.” The Doctor dies and is reborn as a new person with the same memories but new character quirks, giving actors the opportunity to make the role their own and writers the chance to steer the ship in a new direction. It’s also, ideally, a good jumping on point for new viewers. It’s a high wire act trying to please fans old and new while essentially crafting a brand new pilot for a show that has been around for fifty years. Moffat already did this rather nimbly in “The Eleventh Hour” when Matt Smith took over the role, so let’s see how he did the second time around with The Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Three of our resident Whovians (Kayleigh Hearn, Sam Paxton and Dominic Griffin) weigh in on “Deep Breath.”
The New Doctor
Kayleigh: Peter Capaldi is a great actor and should be a fine Doctor. I don’t really have a feel for his character yet, since “Deep Breath” lacked anything as instantly memorable as the 11th Doctor eating fish fingers and custard with little Amelia Pond. My favorite Twelve moment of the premiere is when he promises the dinosaur he’ll protect her and keep her safe from harm, and she spontaneously combusts. That was perfect “Doctor.” Once the writing gets past the “no really, please give the new Doctor a chance” stage, I can get a better impression of what Capaldi brings to the role.
Sam: Peter Capaldi is pitch-perfect, in my opinion. He’s the breath of fresh air I needed after Matt Smith’s Doctor devolved into a cutesy caricature of himself. I love Capaldi’s madcap delivery on the front end of the episode and his gradual morph into a formidable foe by the end (“I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you.”) It’s reassuring to see that Capaldi will be able to easily handle the inherent drama and comedy in Doctor Who. He also strikes me as considerably more “alien” than previous Doctors–his mannerisms are very odd and his whole monologue about his angry eyebrows was excellent. He carried an episode that had an otherwise fluffy plot by worming into the nuances of his character much more quickly than his predecessors.
Dominic: Going in, I had anticipated Capaldi to hew more closely to the characterization Christopher Eccleston brought to the Ninth Doctor, which would have been fine, but he exceeded my expectations, shattering them. The performance standard of this premiere raised the acting bar for the entire cast and I can’t help but feel everyone is trying to be on Capaldi’s level. The darker, angrier take on The Doctor belies the true heart of this iteration, a more passionate and sensitive figure than any that have come before him. He burns with a fire that at once frightens, but also endears. His speech rhythms and mannerisms are suitably quirky but he never once devolves into the more esoteric, cloying speechifying and peacocking of his predecessors. Watching his and Clara’s Doctor/Companion relationship move on from His Girl Friday, hypercommunicative flirt banter to a more confrontational but engrossing Angry Dad thing is progress, but only if Clara is given as much to do, otherwise she’ll continue being the well placed, charming prop she was last season. Something about the glow we see in this episode’s second half (particularly once she’s been captured) makes me optimistic, but we’ll see.
Capaldi won me over on the bridge, as the dinosaur burned, and his visage felt brittle, devastated. He broke my heart and I was grateful.
The Moffat Situation & The New Direction
Sam: Moffat is at once both clever and “too” clever. There’s a lot of quick wit to be had in the script, and there’s quality material for Strax, Jenny, and Vastra (though I’d have to write a completely separate article to address how Moffat handles portraying their lesbian relationship) as well as Capaldi’s meaty bits. Moffat suffers as soon as he gets too self-congratulatory, and I winced a couple times at the obvious digs at the English with Twelve’s relief at being Scottish (there’s an upcoming referendum vote on whether Scotland should be independent of England and some of that stuff seemed overtly political). I was pleasantly surprised that Clara actually got some real characterization beyond the “Impossible Girl” stuff–she was so defined by that mystery that she never got much of a chance to be her own person.
The extended bickering between her and the Doctor in the restaurant was the highlight of the episode for me. Moffat said somewhere that they were planning on adopting a slower pacing this series to let scenes develop more naturally, and it worked well here. Also I’m glad to see them directly deal with and move past the flirty stuff; I was never too bothered by Clara and Eleven flirting (they’re both beautiful people, it’s not unthinkable) but I’m glad to see what looks to be a totally different dynamic in the TARDIS. Hopefully they dig into some of the tension created by the distrust of this mysterious new Doctor.
Dominic: There is no reason for this premiere to have run 76 minutes. I like the “big fight feel” of an extra long episode, but not so much when it feels hopelessly padded by bland comedy (Strax repeatedly calling Clara “Boy”) and the somewhat needless subplot of Clara not being able to handle an “older” Doctor. I think it diminishes her as a character to be painted as that shallow. More troubling, still, when you realize this is Moffat the writer talking to his audience and seemingly admonishing them for missing the pretty boy Matt Smith, but, like, they haven’t even seen the episode yet, you son of a bitch. Maybe don’t add a meta side story talking down to the viewers who’ve made your childhood obsession a household name again and assume they’re not sophisticated enough for your gloomy new direction, ESPECIALLY if you really haven’t changed all that much.
The real MVP in terms of the shifting tone in this premiere is guest director Ben Wheatley, whose cinematic staging and clever shot composition, coupled with Murray Gold’s eerie, unsettling score, really make it feel like a new show. This is particularly notable in The Doctor’s final confrontation with the baddie of the week, a makeshift cyborg that both calls back to one of Moffat’s best Who episodes (“The Girl In The Fireplace”) as well as the premiere’s overarching theme of The Doctor’s new form and the mystery of whether he is the same man.
Kayleigh: Maybe BBC America’s commercial breaks are to blame, but the first half of the episode felt very dull and lumpen. My biggest problem with the episode is the characterization of Clara Oswald, who is, at this point, still more gimmick than girl. It’s worth acknowledging that we’ve just switched from the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor to one of the oldest, but Clara’s discomfort and inability to accept the new Doctor didn’t make any sense. She worked with three Doctors in the 50th anniversary special, and as The Impossible Girl she has interacted with all of the Doctor’s past incarnations, so she should be more equipped than anyone to accept his regeneration. (Not even touching the “Clara and the Doctor used to have little crushes on each other” stuff—good riddance.) Nothing against Jenna Coleman, because she’s perfectly able with what she’s given, but I’m glad this is Clara’s last series.
As for Strax, Madame Vastra and Jenny, they’re always bright spots whenever they appear and I’m glad the Doctor has a bit of a supporting cast.
Baseless Theories On The Epilogue’s Mystery Woman
Kayleigh: I have no clue who the mysterious woman is. I’m pretty lousy at predicting season finales (I was wrong about Legend of Korra Book Three. So very, very wrong), so what’s the popular theory? The Rani? Okay, I’ll say she’s The Rani. (She’s not The Rani.)
Sam: The mysterious woman at the end says her name is Missy. Missy = Mistress = Master??? I would love to see the Master regenerated as a woman. Some of her animalistic behavior reminded me of John Simms’ portrayal of the character at the end of Tennant’s run, plus rumors had been swirling during filming that the Master would return for a cliffhanger ending. Yes please.
Dominic: I’ve learned not to get excited about a Steven Moffat-penned mystery arc. His love for cyclical storytelling, paradoxes and dei ex machina means Missy could turn about to just be The Doctor cross-dressing to tell himself the answer to a riddle or some shit. I hope she is a real character with some real consequence and not just a River Song retread.
Where To Next?
Kayleigh: After eight seasons (or “series”) of any show, it’s hard not to feel a bit of fatigue–“The Daleks? AGAIN?”–so I hope Doctor Who can break free of some of its more tired tropes and patterns. (Jettisoning the Doctor/Clara flirtations is a good start.) I’m really excited to see Samuel Anderson as new companion Danny Pink, and I hope he adds a new dynamic to the show.
Sam: A darker, brooding Doctor might be the shot in the arm this series needed. Capaldi certainly seems like the man for the job. The best aspects of Doctor Who are those that dig into the philosophical questions that are raised by the existence of a Magical Crazy Space Man in a Time Travelling Box. The teasers have a lot of Twelve asking “am I a good man?” and I’ve always thought “yes, but there’s a hard argument to be made for ‘no,’” so I hope we get to explore a little bit of that. Daleks are coming back next week, which at this point, I could take or leave, but it’s always exciting to see the first time a new Doctor faces off against his worst enemy. I’m excited to see Clara bring a boyfriend into the crew. I’ve seen some of the synopses for upcoming episodes and it looks like they’re tackling some fresh plot points.
Dominic: Having read some of those leaked episode scripts from last month, I will say that there are at least two upcoming stories to be excited about (especially next week’s Dalek episode, also lensed by Wheatley) and at least one boring, groanworthy example of the worst of Moffat-penned Who. That said, Peter Capaldi is reason enough to stick with the new series. The engine this car runs on might still need some fine tuning, but I won’t deny a real fondness for that fresh coat of paint.
What’d you think of the premiere? Sound off in the comments!
You can watch Doctor Who on BBC America Saturdays at 9/8c.