Doctor Who (8×01) Deep Breath – Review
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and the fact it's all changed!
The pacing, Matt Smith's ill-judged cameo
Doctor Who has crash-landed back onto our TV screens! It’s all change for the Doctor, but is it a good change, and is he a good man…?
A new Doctor is all about change – and whatever resistance we as viewers may initially have to that change, change is a good thing. Matt Smith’s boyish Doctor has regenerated into the darker, fiercer Peter Capaldi… and how refreshing is that?
This is a unique show, in that it just swaps its hero for another actor and breezes onwards. It’s a huge risk and a lot of the reason it gets away with it this time are because of the two central, flawless performances: Jenna Coleman as Clara, and Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.
Jenna Coleman is amazing. Here she is given the best material she has had since joining the show, as her character is finally fleshed out and given an emotional life. The scene in which she stumbles, tears rolling down her beautiful cheeks, desperately trying to hold in that breath is incredibly affecting. Who wasn’t holding their breath with her? I am in awe of Capaldi’s performance, but I loved Coleman’s.
Now, in Britain, Peter Capaldi is an established actor. Across the pond you may recognise him from World War Z or as the villain in The Musketeers (which I’m also reviewing on this site!) He is praised for nearly every role he takes on… and Doctor Who will not be an exception. Capaldi owns the screen. He is a powerful actor, jumping from mirth, to hatred, then recklessness. He is riotously funny, especially in that wonderful scene with Brian Miller’s tramp. Writer Steven Moffat ensures he has lots of scenes in which to shine, whilst not being afraid of pushing him off-screen for large swathes of the action to preserve the gulf and mystery that exists between the viewer and the new man. He’s a man I would get into the TARDIS with – is there a higher compliment?
And he is a darker Doctor, but in the subtlest and best ways. When he can’t remember Clara’s name in his opening scene, it is heart breaking for her and for us. He’s not a reassuring presence anymore, he’s wilder and less predictable, but still captivating. That was utterly the right direction for the show.
There is far too much to adore in this episode to fit into a review. The clockwork droids, the Half Face Man, the body horror all works extremely well. These are simple, old-fashioned scares, not complicated enough to distract us from the real business: the new Doctor. Victorian London is gorgeously evoked, and the mad gang of a lizard woman, a potato-shaped dwarf and a serving girl are starting to gel with the show. Plus – a dinosaur!!! That was an amazing addition to the episode, and gave it real size whilst helping the story along.
But there is a serious misstep in the episode that threatens to counter all that: Matt Smith’s cameo. I simply don’t believe that the best way to get people to buy into a new Doctor is to have the old one tell you he’s all right. It’s never been done before when introducing a new Doctor, and although I admire writer Steven Moffat’s game-changing, it is ill-judged. By the end of the first episode with a new Doctor, if everything has gone to plan, you should barely be able to remember the last one’s face. Here, we were shown his face again. It was like putting a big sign up that read “This production team believes Matt Smith to be The Definitive One. Everyone afterwards is forever in his shadow.” It upstaged all the great work Capaldi did in winning us round. Of course we all want to see Matt Smith back – he was brilliant. But this is the time of Capaldi now, so we (and the producers!) have to move on.
And don’t get me started on the new theme tune – my ears are still bleeding a little bit… I never said all changes are good…
Obviously the Doctor has regenerated; that is what this premiere is all about, fundamentally. But actually the biggest change in the show is the tone and structure of it, not the leading man himself. This is certainly the change that is felt most keenly anyway. Doctor Who has always been a show on the go, but Matt Smith’s era took that to a whole new level. Plot was waded through, exposition babbled and set-pieces leapt to and from like never before. Sadly, in that heady mix, a lot of things got lost. Characterisation, emotional intelligence and plot explanation are the main three. That’s actually a very serious problem – that’s the point at which a show stops being a drama.
And then you get this: the pace has been properly slowed down… but now I think it’s too slow. Deep Breath was shown in cinemas, but it fundamentally isn’t a film, and it was made like one. Ben Wheatley directed the episode fabulously – the visuals were shady, lavish, stunning – but he directed a film. It is nice to linger on Capaldi, and any drama needs to pause for breath, but here we got dialogue in which the same point was made over and over again. Like the Madame Vastra “when did you stop wearing your veil?” scene. Lovely writing… until it keeps going and going!
However, I have unfairly focused on the negative. This new pace has great potential, it’s just a case of finding the balance between showing us the emotional truth, and throwing the fun action sequences at us as well!
The new darker tone of the series is basically brilliant. It is tastefully-handed darkness, so it doesn’t feel out of place in Doctor Who: an ultimately optimistic show. The ending: ‘Did he jump or was he pushed?’ is a dark climax. But what a glorious climax. It works because the Doctor has always had to make tough decisions and do morally dubious things for the morally right thing – to save the majority. That is what the show has to be, what hero narratives have to be. What an iconic shot: the villain impaled on the top of Big Ben, his top hat fluttering down to London town.
The story ends exactly as it should: with the TARDIS team spinning off to new adventures! Unlike too many Matt Smith stories, the plot is tied up relatively well, and the Doctor and Clara’s final scenes are lovely.
And then we get a Big Surprise (which are so frequent these days they are at risk of becoming expected and therefore no longer surprising, it must be said). We’re in Heaven – literally! What does that mean?? Excellent! It really does pique our interest, and highlights a clear overarching story for the rest of the season. Can’t wait for the finale already!
Reviewing a TV show straight after it airs is a bit like the first impression your mother has of your new boyfriend or girlfriend. She’ll look them up and down and probably be more critical of them in that instant, but she will soften later on. That is what happened to me with the last Doctor, Smith’s, debut. I looked the show up and down and was unsure, but three years later I was crying as much as the next man when he left last Christmas (you can find that review elsewhere on this site). This is very much an instant reaction to what was a brash and visceral piece of television, and maybe that will change. It’s too soon to tell the full extent of Peter Capaldi’s reception over here in the UK, but I’m unsure as to whether the US audience will warm to him as much as Matt Smith. And I’m unsure as to whether this new pace will feel as befitting American TV as the old show did. But this is just episode one. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands to decide – we’re with a time traveler here, don’t forget!