Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1 “Deep Breath”

I finally got around to watching Season 8 Episode 1 (“Deep Breath”) of the revived Doctor Who.   It’s the first one with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  (What do we call him, anyway?  Is he the 12th Doctor, even though we know that Matt Smith‘s 11 was really the twelfth?)  So it’s probably worth a few words.

Warning: This will be rife with spoilers for which there will be no further apology.

Overall, it was a strong if not spectacular episode.  Post-regeneration episodes are always tricky, because they have to show you the new Doctor, make him distinct from the old one but equally likable or at least engaging, and tell a coherent and interesting story.   This episode does better on the former than the latter — the clockwork androids were OK but a bit of a retread.

First off, before anything else, best character of the entire revived series: Strax.  I know he’s a bit cliche, but I have never found this Sontaran anything less than hilarious.  I don’t want them to overuse him but with that in mind — more Strax, please!

How about the new Doctor?  A success, I think.  Capaldi is clearly an accomplished actor, better than the others (possibly excepting Christopher Eccelston).  Don’t get me wrong.  I really like David Tennant and Matt Smith, but I think Capaldi has already shown himself to be of a different league.  I like what they did with the Doctor’s character.  He’s always the most interesting when he’s slightly mad — or more than slightly, in this case.  The new series seems to make regeneration much more traumatic than the original series did, and post-regeneration amnesia and dementia seems the norm now.  That’s probably pretty clever: It allows an abrupt change and reintroduces the audience to the character.

Capaldi’s Doctor is manic (which isn’t new) and Scottish (which is).  In fact, the scene where he discovers his Scottish-ness is outright brilliant.  I love that entire bit as he ponders his new face (“These are attack eyebrows!”).  But the culmination is genius: “They probably want to cede from my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows — that’s Scot!”).  And of course “I’m Scottish — I can complain about things!”  Here especially but throughout the episode, Capaldi is engagingly comedic.  He makes the character genuinely funny:  Not in Matt Smith’s slapstick way or David Tennant’s confused puppy way, but as a comic.

Capaldi also does a good job capturing the other side of David Tennant’s identity crisis at the moment of his regeneration.  Number 10 didn’t want to go; Number 12 doesn’t seem to want to be here.  Regeneration is more than a little bit like death, and the character has begun to recognize it as such (or maybe just show it to us better).  But it is also something like birth, a painful and lonely process.  The Doctor’s dementia here is a little analogous to the state of a baby: unable to distinguish people; unable to express his thoughts or needs in a way people can understand.  Heck, he even goes from full-on to full-stop asleep in an instant, like a baby. 🙂  By the end of the episode, it seems he’s moved past the trauma and settled into his new body, but I hope not.  It’s a fascinating way to go, if the writers are brave enough.

Vastra and Jenny were fine.  Unlike Strax, they’re starting to wear a bit thin for me.  I sometimes feel like the BBC is pushing hard to spin them off into their own show, because they keep getting lengthy episodes full of independent adventures.  Or maybe Moffat just really like them.  Either way, they serve well enough in the role he continually carves out for them.

And then there’s Clara.  What can I say about Clara?  Meh.  It’s about all I’ve ever been able to say about her.  I just find the character flat and uninteresting.  Moffat has spent considerable time and effort to make her intriguing, but he just doesn’t pull it off.  Even while Vastra is dissecting Clara’s problems with 12, all the interest lies with the lizard person and none with the so-called Impossible Girl.  The show so desperately wants Clara to be the ultimate companion, but really, she remains just… meh.

I did like the bit with the final phone call from 11.  I hadn’t recalled the off-the-hook TARDIS phone, but it worked nicely.  Moffat does seem — much more than Russell T. Davies did — to remember that it’s a show about time traveling, and preordination paradoxes are going to abound.  Also, it was nice to see Matt Smith take the old body around for one more spin.

So… who is the mysterious Missy and what is “the Promised Land”?  (And how exactly does she resurrect a clockwork android?  And does this mean the other droids start moving again?)  It seemed a bit overplayed to me — the actor painted her character in very broad strokes. (As opposed to Peter Ferdinando, the “Half-Faced Man”, who absolutely excels at his role, with a believable clockwork mannerism and real pathos in his performance.)  She sounds like a punch-clock villain. Maybe they’ll flesh out her motivations in the inevitable future appearances.

There’s always a bit of trepidation at the post-regeneration episodes, as fans wonder if the writers will manage to once again finesse the change and preserve the magic while refreshing the character.  All in all, Steve Moffat and Peter Capaldi manage quite capably.  The Doctor may have changed; the show remains.

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