VOD TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 1 (Deep Breath)
Scared of the villains8
Scared of the Doctor9
Scared of the direction the show is heading in4
Simon Kinnear | On 25, Aug 2014
Warning: This contains mild spoilers
It’s the perfect title, of course. Every X number of years, Doctor Who fans gather, breath held, to find out if the new guy is going to match up to the standards set by previous incarnations of Gallifrey’s most famous Time Lord. “How long can you hold your breath?” Peter Capaldi asks – only this time, the Doc isn’t going to make it easy for us to exhale.
This is the first time in decades that Doctor Who (the programme and the character) has been so disinterested in being loved. No more pretty-boy romantics aboard the TARDIS; this time, it’s all about hard-earned respect. Only a show wielding remarkable longevity and fan loyalty would even attempt to introduce a surlier, less certain Doctor – and the last time it happened, in Colin Baker’s 1984 debut The Twin Dilemma, the result paved the way to near-cancellation within a year, and a story still deemed to be the worst ever by fandom.
We’re in safer hands here, admittedly, amid the incredibly confident, polished, globe-conquering era overseen by show-runner/writer Steven Moffat. Deep Breath, while still a gamble, is more calculated risk than hopeful flutter. It’s a mission statement for a colder, cleaner era based on the angular lines of its new star – “You could take bottle tops off with these eyebrows,” Capaldi insists – and a harder, crisper visual palette that accentuates the furrowed ridges of his forehead. A surprise cameo, shot in the warmer tones we’ve become accustomed to during the past few years, makes the distinction tangible.
New Doctor stories often use returning elements, and Deep Breath remains true to that tradition as not only Clara but the Silurian/Sontaran/human Paternoster Gang figure out how to deal with this weird, wandering interloper. And sure, for its first act, as a dinosaur lumbers about Victorian London, Deep Breath feels like by-rote Moffat… until the dinosaur is slaughtered by unknown forces. Familiarity will no longer reassure; instead, this episode prefers to unnerve. Accordingly, while the story is a sequel to one of Moffat’s most revered episodes, the Doctor, somewhat worryingly, can’t quite recall the original. Meanwhile, his friends are divided, as Vastra turns on Clara – and Clara, in turn, can’t quite relate to the Doctor.
A distrustful companion? What a great idea, and about time, too; even Peri Brown was kinder to the Sixth Doctor in The Twin Dilemma, and he tried to strangle her. Instead, Clara Oswald steps back warily from Capaldi, prompting Jenna Coleman’s best performance yet because, at last, there is character development beyond all those contrived Impossible Girl plot mechanics. It’s a shame, though, that Moffat’s script goes to town on assassinating Clara’s perceived egomania and control freakery; that kind of cynical, quasi-screwball quipping is a mainstay of Moffat’s career but feels wrong here, a hangover from the Amy/Rory years that a more judicious script editor might have cut.
In other choices, however, Moffat nails it, especially in the decision to set Deep Breath in Victorian London. That era has long been Who’s spiritual playground and, in recent years, a literal one, too – modern Doctors have paid more visits to the 19th Century since the show returned in 2005 than the first Eight managed in forty-odd years. But here, the reference points have shifted: this is no longer the adventurous, romantic Victoriana of H.G. Wells but the seamier side of Sweeney Todd and Burke & Hare, both of who are namechecked in Deep Breath as horrific forebears to what is occurring here.
In this context, the hiring of cult film director Ben Wheatley makes sense. It’s been a while since a Who helmer stamped such personality on their work, from casting (Wheatley alumni include A Field In England’s Peter Ferdinando, deeply unsettling as “Half Face Man” and Down Terrace’s Tony Way as a hapless victim) to his watershed-threatening use of the visual grammar of horror. In the sequence that gives the title its most literal meaning, Wheatley captures Clara’s terror in uncomfortably intimate close-ups: the scariest the show has been since 2010’s The Time Of Angels.
Having scary villains also makes thematic sense in a story teasing the notion of a “scary Doctor”. The bad guys here are robots who are harvesting human organs so assiduously in an attempt to fit in that they have lost their identity. As the Doctor ponders, is a broom still a broom when it has repeatedly replaced its brush and handle? The metaphor couldn’t be plainer: how much of William Hartnell’s, or Tom Baker’s, or even Matt Smith’s DNA still resides in Peter Capaldi? Even when the Doctor promises the work of sweeping the floor will still get done, there’s no doubt that a new broom is in town – and it bristles.
But what of Capaldi himself? It’s a good question, and one that is far too early to answer. Comparison with previous debuts is instructive: in The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant slept for two-thirds of his episode only to wake up fully-formed in time to save the day. In The Eleventh Hour, Moffat subverted expectations by presenting Smith in character from his very first minutes. Here, Capaldi creeps in and out of the story in a brilliantly modulated performance that becomes more Doctorish in increments without fully resolving into any sense of where it might settle.
Even as the episode ends, there’s still a hint of madness and danger here, the sense that the Time Lord chooses his face to fit his mood. That idea was first teased last year with John Hurt’s War Doctor, and Capaldi looks at this stage as if he will fulfil the unquenched desire for a combat-ready time traveller, ready to cut his opponents in half with one glare. Why this face? Why Capaldi? There is the vaguest of hints that the Doctor is reacting to Clara’s respect for Romans by donning the mask of Caecilius (the character Capaldi played in his Who debut, 2008’s The Fires Of Pompeii). But there’s a simpler explanation: Capaldi is a vital, vibrant actor – and this Doctor might need such a complex, uncompromising performer to power a journey to the darker sides of Doctor Who’s psyche.
Next week, Capaldi takes on the Daleks: time to take another breath…
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers