Take a deep breath and count to 12 (or 13), it’s my review of Doctor Who Series 8’s first episode…
Take a “Deep Breath”, we’re about to begin. Post-regeneration stories are always a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do: setting up the new Doctor, giving the general tone of the new era (although this usually only kicks in by the second or third adventure) and they need to restate the basic premise of the series to act as a ‘jumping on point’ for potential new viewers. Plot often takes a back seat and the villains tend to be disposable one-shots (unless there is a concern that the series needs a boost from a returning villain). The second Doctor faced none other than the Daleks in his first adventure, but they’d never done a regeneration before so brought out the big guns to ease the transition. When it came to replacing the toweringly iconic Fourth Doctor, they brought back the Master and did a whole trilogy. They were more confident when it came time for the Sixth Doctor, facing him off against some rubbish space slug in one of Who’s worst-ever adventures and having him strangle his companion. When the Seventh arrived, the show was in turmoil and so a familiar villain, the Rani, was brought back, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the utter train wreck that was “Time And The Rani”.
Modern Who has tended towards marquee monsters being involved in the cause of the regeneration and low-key opening foes, so maybe there’s a hint of wariness around the choice to make the bad guys of “Deep Breath” an indirect return of the monsters from “The Girl In The Fireplace” – a kind of confidence that the show is in robust health but a little note of caution that something calling back (notably to Tennant’s time on the show) might be beneficial.
Of course, the Victorian London setting, while handily allowing the recycling of music cues from “Ripper Street” also allows the welcome return of the Paternoster Gang: Strax the friendly Sontaran (who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and gags this time round), Madame Vastra (a Silurian) and Jenny. In case there’s any remaining uncertainty, Vastra and Jenny are married. It’s not really relevant to the plot but it is mentioned a lot. The attention grabbing, gimmicky appearance of a gigantic dinosaur quickly gives way to a deeper mystery of a series of spontaneous combustions, a conundrum which eventually shakes the Doctor from his confusion and has him sharpening his skills once again.
Fans of Nu-Who might have found this feature-length opening a tad frustrating, maybe even boring, and slow but for someone who’s been with the show for many, many years there was a lot here that will feel very familiar. At 80 minutes, “Deep Breath” is only a few minutes shy of what the old series would have considered a four-part adventure and the storytelling structure is very similar. The pace is leisurely and allows us a lot of time for character moments which, while they don’t move the plot forward, make the storytelling richer. Whether you enjoyed them, is another matter. Some were good, some were padding and overall, there’s a feeling that there just wasn’t enough story to fill the extended running time. Presumably, the feature-length opener was why we are only getting twelve episodes in this series rather than the customary thirteen – although that might well be a meta-joke on Moffat’s part about the Doctor numbering controversy.
The only aspect of the story which really doesn’t work is Clara’s extreme discomfort with the Doctor’s regeneration. Of course, it’s hugely traditional for the companion to be confused and upset by the change of Doctors because they act as the audience’s proxy but for Clara it just doesn’t make sense. She’s ‘The Impossible Girl’ – she’s been scattered throughout the Doctor’s time stream and has seen all his faces, young and old – even the faces he hid from himself – so her being upset with this change seems like a massive betrayal of her back story and her importance to the Doctor.
But what of Capaldi’s Doctor? A Doctor’s first appearance is always a tricky one to judge as they are still finding their character but there’s a lot to like here. He brings a manic energy and dark intensity to the role, wrapping the curmudgeonly bluster around a complex, vulnerable core and although the story is good but not great, Capaldi finds every single note worth playing in “Deep Breath” and gives it his all.
We were promised a darker Doctor, which Moffat and Capaldi have delivered here in spades. In our introduction to this new incarnation of our favourite Time Lord, we see him talk an enemy into committing suicide while floating in a hot air balloon made from human skin. That’s dark dark, not just BBC1 Saturday prime time dark. The cosmic unpredictability of the Doctor is back and whimsy is giving way to gravitas. I loved the 11th Doctor’s time and it was a lovely touch to see him pop into his successor’s adventure near the end to give Clara the nudge she shouldn’t have needed but the future belongs to the 12th Doctor and that future is bright (but, you know, in a dark way). If you’ve been holding that “Deep Breath”, you can exhale now.
And if you weren’t won over? Give him another couple of episodes. By “Robot Of Sherwood”, I bet you’ll be on board. On the other hand, though: WORST. THEME TUNE. ARRANGEMENT. EVER.