I’ve been here before – five years ago, was it? A new Doctor, Matt Smith, the Eleventh. What would he be like? Would the show be better under Stephen Moffat than the turgid treacliness of the last half hour of David Tennant under Russell T. Davies?
Funnily enough, those weren’t the questions in my head. The only question I had was: did Karen Gillan look as good onscreen as her photos suggested? To which the answer was a decided yes, plus I loved the accent, and that Matt Smith seemed interesting in his own right.
After not having watched the series regularly since the days of Baker (C), I found myself back with Doctor Who. And, with a few reservations here and there, usually in the places where everybody else was cheering, I’ve enjoyed the ride, none more so than in that final sequence of stories: The Name of the Doctor,The Day of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor.
So here we are, with another new Doctor to assess: Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, the oldest Doctor, a reversal of New Who policy, an experiment in changing more than just the face of the Doctor. And unlike five years ago, I was watching the start of this new series for the Doctor himself, and not his companion. Though they are both Scots, so I suppose the difference isn’t that great.
Well, I could start by saying that they had me at the moment the Dinosaur wading down the Thames hacked, and coughed up the Tardis. Then Strax knocks on the door, and the Doctor pops his head out and says, “Shush!” and shuts the door again (and when are we going to get the Madame Vastri, Jenny and Strax soin-off, Moffat? Come on, we will not be patient forever). And they did. I was on the hook and ready to be wound in.
But by the end of this extended introductory episode, things were different. By then I was no longer roaring with laughter, and fully into the swing of the old madness once more. Because, as the episode deftly progressed, that was the madness of Matt Smith, of Number Eleven. There’s always a perod of unsettlement with Re-generations, as the Doctor’s new form shapes his mind in the new direction it will take, with the old self acting as a conduit. Capaldi made an excellent job of hosting the spirit of Smith, especially in some of the early boasts he was making, ruffling the startled Clara’s feathers.
And this section of the programme confronted explicitly some of the questions about Capaldi’s appointment, the abrupt (and chancey) reversion to the Doctor as an adult, almost grandfatherly figure. From Clara’s doubts, her instinctive shying away from the stranger, her unconcealed distaste for the lined face and the grey hair, her conviction that she didn’t know the Doctor any more, to Twelve’s own confusions about himself and how he looks.
Adroitly, given that Capaldi has already twice appeared in the series with other Doctors, this was dealt with by Twelve trying to recollect where he’d seen his face before, and asking himself the rhetorical question about why he’d chosen this one? Interesting word, ‘chosen’. But did not the Curator himself all but state outright that he had chosen to return to a favourite face, or were our nostalgic tears brimming too much at that moment? I’d like to see that investigated a little deeper, Mr Moffat, the extent to which a Re-generating Doctor can choose his new incarnation.
But once he began to concentrate, Capaldi’s Doctor began to take on gravitas. The Smithian flipness dropped away, the confusion realigned itself, and the new Doctor, a more serious, and darker version, began to take shape. With age, Capaldi brings gravitas back to the role. What’s more, he’s set a theme for this series: he’s lived for over 2,000 years, during which time he’s made mistakes: it’s time to go and sort them out.
I’ve not really discussed the plot, as it wasn’t really what mattered in this episode. It was just a vehicle for Twelve to emerge, just as the Victorian setting was a welcome excuse to have the Paternoster Gang around (spin-off! spin-off! spin-off!) as well as a basis for Capaldi’s ‘costume’ as Twelve. Though it can’t be completely ignored: the Doctor persuades the big bad villain, the Half-Faced Man to accept death, though we are left ignorant of the final detail of jump or push. But it leads to a beautiful moment at the end, when the Half-Faced Man finds himself taking tea in a delightful garden, with a familiar dark-haired woman, talking of her ‘boyfriend’: if I say she’s an uncredited Suranne Jones, would you recognise her?
Boyfriend. That’s a loaded word now. Clara, 27 years old and looking pretty darned pretty in her twenty-first century cardigan/blouse/short skirt/opaque tights ensemble, is very unsure about continuing her journey without Eleven’s youthful buoyancy. Twelve solemnly tells her, he’s not her boyfriend (but we know whose he is, don’t we?). And then, in an unheralded cameo, we get Matt Smith on the line, moments before Re-generating, basically pleading the Impossible Girl to stay with Twelve and help him.
It’s a bit weepy and manipulative, and it’s the one thing in the whole episode that I found to be a bit dodgy, and a bit of a nervous let-down: did we really need a bit of Eleven just to buttress things? Are we that nervous about the new direction?
On the whole, I think I’m going to enjoy this new incarnation, and I’m certain the series needs to row back a bit on the daffiness of Smith. In the end, though, Deep Breath was a transition episode and we haven’t seen all that much yet of what it’s transitioning into. It took me three weeks befoe concluding that I really did not like the Davies/Eccleston Doctor. We’re on the brink here, but I think the balance will tip the right way.