Doctor Who Review:  Season 8 Episode 1 — Deep Breath

DW-12_Ep1_00557_BBCAbuggedThe episodes that intro­duce a new Doctor to Doctor Who carry some addi­tional weight and chal­lenges with them. While there have been a few clas­sics (The Power of the Daleks, Spear­head from Space and The 11th Hour spring to mind) there have also been well… less memo­rable ones (I’m looking at you Robot, The Twin Dillema and Time and the Rani).
In the modern era with a more knowing audi­ence the chal­lenges have possibly multi­plied. Certainly Deep Breath is the most self-aware intro­duc­tion to the Doctor that we’ve ever been given. In some ways that is good, in others not so much.Ground It In The FamiliarOne of the tricks Moffat pull out of his bag here is to surround Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor with lots of familiar faces and places. So we get the Pater­noster Gang, Jenna Coleman’s Clara and another visit to Victo­rian London. I’ve lost count of the number of times the Doctor has landed there now. Even the villains are familiar with the clock­work robots from a previous Moffat episode (The excel­lent The Girl In The Fire­place) showing up.

That’s a smart play. It reas­sures the more conser­v­a­tive portion of the audi­ence who don’t handle a change in the actor well. I’m not sure what percentage that is (not the kids I’m certain) but they are quite vocal so it’s a measur­able number of the adult viewers.

Post Regen­er­a­tion Trauma

It’s also become a tradi­tion in Doctor Who for the Doctor to undergo some level of confu­sion after regen­er­a­tion. Over the years this seems to have become a bigger part of the plot for the opening stories. If you’ve been watching for a long time that’s an element that does get a bit repetitive.

Here Capaldi initially plays it for laughs but then morphs it almost seam­lessly into pathos. This is why Peter Capaldi is going to be awesome in this role. Certainly Steven Moffat’s script gave him the beats and the lines, but it’s Capaldi who can sell it. And that switch from funny to serious and then to dangerous (more on that later) is not an easy one to pull off.

Green Screen

One of the nega­tives that cannot be avoided is that Doctor Who is a science fiction show produced on a BBC budget. While some stories work around that limi­ta­tion Moffat has a tendency to just go for broke with grandiose scenarios. The advances in modern CGI help a lot here. But the opening sequence with the dinosaur in London just screamed green screen to me.

For my tastes this is not a deal breaker, but it may stop some people from fully getting into the story.

The Darker Doctor

Much has been made in the press and online of the idea that Peter Capaldi would play a darker version of the Doctor. And oh boy does he.

Our first sign of this change is his casual dismissal of everyone else as idiots. Planet of the Pudding Brains as he puts it. His sense of supe­ri­ority and his lack of concern for the feel­ings of others is not some­thing we would have seen in recent incar­na­tions of the character.

But then it gets really inter­esting. This isn’t just an arro­gant Doctor, this is a dangerous Doctor. He leaves Clara. Sure, he has a plan and he’s not just completely aban­doning her. But he walks away.

And just what did happen in his final confronta­tion with the clock­work android? That there would even be a doubt in our minds shows how effec­tively Capaldi has cemented the notion that this Doctor is dangerous.

I hope that’s some­thing we see throughout the season because it adds a great bit of tension back into the show. The verbal spar­ring between Clara and the Doctor is one of the high­lights of the episode

Knowing… Oh So Knowing

Much is made about the way that social media allows fans to connect with their shows more closely. But that’s not entirely a good thing. It could certainly be argued that the Doctor Who audi­ence is too aware of the behind the scenes elements by this point.

Whether it’s overly person­al­izing their rela­tion­ship with show runner or worrying far too much about when certain actors are going to leave the show, fans are focussing more atten­tion on the making of the show rather than what’s actu­ally on screen. This isn’t a new phenom­enon, but the level of access and speed of infor­ma­tion is exac­er­bating the problem. And now it seems to be happening from the other side of the camera too.

When I watched this episode the things that stuck out and annoyed me were not spoilers, but rather stuff that screamed to me of being put there in response to fan commen­tary. Whether it was the multiple refer­ences to Capaldi being Scot­tish, endless talk of flirting, this is stuff that did not feel organic to me. It felt like the writer talking to the fans through the characters.

It’s unrea­son­able to expect a show to be made in a bubble in this day and age… but I sort of wish it was.

New Doctor, Same ShowPeople tuning in to this episode of Doctor Who hoping to see a radi­cally different show are destined for disap­point­ment. This is not Classic Doctor Who, it’s nuWho, and that isn’t going to change in the fore­see­able future. Partly because tele­vi­sion has simply changed since Doctor Who’s orig­inal run and partly because… this format is highly successful.What we did get is a clever tweaking of the existing formula. Some­thing that I think and hope they will build on as the episodes progress in this season.  Peter Capaldi is as promised a different Doctor to any of the preceding ones and over time that differ­ence should bleed into the stories and char­ac­ters that surround him.

But this is still at its heart a fast paced romp where action is more impor­tant than sophis­ti­cated plot­ting and where the science takes third place at best.

Overall I’d say that Deep Breath is a work­man­like episode. It achieved its aim and it’s laid foun­da­tions that can be built on. But judged purely on its own, it’s okay but unex­cep­tional episode.

Capaldi, on the other hand, is brilliant.

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