DOCTOR WHO: “Deep Breath”

Peter Capaldi lives up to the hype, even if the rest of this super-sized premiere is not exactly a classic.

I’ll blow this room if I see one thing I don’t like, which includes karaoke and mimes, so don’t take any chances.

–The Doctor

Welcome back to Doctor Who! This season Rachel, Chase, and myself will rotate on recap duty, and I’m up first, because I said I was. But you look good! Healthy! A bit older, obviously. Those eyebrows are intense, aren’t they? I also see you’ve redecorated, again. Very nice. Love the color palette. Reminds me of a submarine. Sorry, what was that? I can’t quite understand you…must be the accent. Boy you really are very Scottish. That’s exciting–

Sorry, forgot who I was talking to. This episode left me about as confused as Doctor Twelve, who stumbled out of the TARDIS as tipsy as Malcolm Tucker after a particularly painful Town Hall. Whether it was the regeneration, or the fact that he and Clara had just been down the gullet of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (don’t ask), the Doctor is less sure of who he is and what’s going on than Ten and Eleven were in their first episodes. David Tennant, memorably, spent “The Christmas Invasion” mostly lying in bed before swaggering into the episode’s climax in the nick of time, saving it from being dominated by Rose’s screechy mother. Matt Smith, on the other hand, was given as perfect a debut hour as any Doctor ever has, turning “The Eleventh Hour” into a Moffat-y blend of strong characterization and zany fun.

Today, of course, “Moffat-y” is almost a pejorative, and the writing of “Deep Breath” doesn’t go far to clear the showrunner’s name. The good news is that just about everything directly involving Peter Capaldi works like gangbusters (“Don’t look in that mirror–it’s completely furious!”), fully justifying the excitement that followed his casting. I’ve been on board the Capaldi train since even before Day 1, and I am thoroughly pumped to see where he’s going to take the role. His Doctor is just the right mix of crazy and melancholy; he has to spend the episode becoming comfortable with his new face and new, highly irritable personality, but there’s enough here to not only showcase Capaldi’s talents and range, but wash away some of the liabilities the show acquired during the Matt Smith era.

No disrespect to Smith, of course. He did everything he was asked to do, and did it with gusto — but the show is very eager to acknowledge the now-vast age difference between the Doctor and his companion, and how it, for a time, let itself forget that no matter what his face looks like, the man is still over 2,000 years old. The admittance by the Doctor at the end of the episode, that he was the one flirting with Clara and not the other way around, is hopefully the beginning of a turnaround for Clara’s character entirely — for too long she has been a puzzle to be “solved,” and now that we’ve moved on from that, we have several scenes here that place her and the Doctor just about on equal footing.

Take, for example, this week’s standout scene — the two of them in the creepy restaurant of creepy robots, bickering about who’s responsible for placing the newspaper ad that brought them there, and how they can get away. The dynamic already feels a bit like Ten and Donna, which — if you ask me — is something we’ve desperately been needing for a little while. Because of Matt Smith’s youth, it was impossible not to see romantic possibilities everywhere he went. Clara is forced to confront that dissonance head on when Madam Vastra provokes her to anger: the Doctor is practically a stranger, no longer a charming romantic, and she’s devastated and confused by the sudden change in him, and how he sees her. But it pays off underground, when she finds herself praying, simply, that the man now called The Doctor still has her back. Capaldi is more than just a brilliant actor and an exciting Doctor — he’s a return to the show’s roots, back when the TARDIS was piloted by a crusty grandfather.

Not that Capaldi is grandfatherly in the slightest; he has a similar manic energy to Tennant and Smith, but channels it into an acidic sense of humor: “Planet of the Pudding Brains,” he calls the Earthlings after someone sets the Rex on fire. Later, while bantering with a tramp: “I’m Scottish! I can really complain about things now!” Capaldi’s comedic timing is razor-sharp, honed by years hurling poisonous invective on The Thick of It. Most refreshing of all, he doesn’t have all the answers, and he doesn’t seem bothered by that at all. When he and Clara are investigating the million-year-old spaceship under the streets of London, she tries to look to him like she looked to Eleven, who had a solution for everything. But when Twelve openly admits he has no clue what’s going on, it accomplishes two things: it means the show has remembered that the Doctor, while brilliant, is not a superhero, and it lets Clara hang at his level.

Yet, there’s an underlying streak of darkness and despair more reminiscent of Chris Eccleston’s run. When he’s done lashing out at the stupidity of humans, the Doctor turns most of his fire on himself: “Look what I did” is a revelation Ten and Eleven rarely had. He is hounded by deja vu from his own face, though Moffat cleverly sidesteps around how Capaldi could have also appeared in “The Fires of Pompeii” — that face has come back for a reason, and now we have another mystery to add to the pile. Once he has earned Clara’s allegiance, he makes it clear he wants to “do something” about his past mistakes. But just who is this new Doctor? The kind of man who would push a killer cyborg out of a skin balloon?  (There’s a sentence I never want to type again.) Even when Capaldi looks directly into the camera, we are no closer to knowing the truth.

That shot is one of a few odd directorial beats from Ben Wheatley, known more for his work in the horror genre than Doctor Who’s brand of family comedy — and it shows. Much of the episode’s first half is disproportionately weighted toward the Paternoster Gang, and it isn’t until the Doctor and Clara reach the restaurant that it seems to hit any kind of rhythm. For every gag that works (for example, the Doctor’s sudden appearance in Clara’s booth, thanks to a well-timed swish pan) there are a couple that are complete duds: there’s too much awkwardly-staged slapstick, too many bizarre sound effects, and needlessly extended scenes (this episode nearly made me tired of Strax, which I didn’t think was possible) for this episode to have much rewatchability. Any time Capaldi himself isn’t on screen, infecting the others with his daffy intensity, the episode suffers.

And then there’s the central mystery itself, which is another example of Moffat, as our own Chase Branch puts it, just “playing the hits” — did the villains really need to be the clockwork robots from the all-timer “The Girl in the Fireplace,” especially if the explanation was going to be so convoluted? The sequence that gave the episode its title — as Clara must hold her breath until she nearly passes out to avoid detection, a gambit that fails anyway — was appropriately tense, even if the flashes to her memories at Coal Hill School were devoid of connection, and the episode’s climax got us one or five too many shots of the Half-Faced Man’s inner computations. But just when it seems like threads are being stitched together, we end on a deliberately opaque coda, where a woman and apparent acquaintance of the Doctor (Michele Gomez) welcomes the cyborg to “paradise,” and we’re left wondering why Moffat couldn’t just let us settle in a bit before throwing this kind of mystery box nonsense at us.

Eh. I’m not going to give that much thought right now. Instead, I’ll leave off with the pleasantly surprising cameo from Matt Smith, whose Eleven makes a phone call to his future, begging Clara to help his regenerated self: “The man you’re with is more scared than anything. He needs you.” That’s just so Eleven, demanding so much from his friends, while petulantly complaining (“Please tell me I’m not old…anything but old!”) But it has the desired effect on Clara, who is reassured enough to go out for tea with Twelve. Not in a romantic way, of course. Thank God.

So despite Moffat’s commitment to his tangled web of questions, we did get some very important answers in this premiere: the new Doctor has a purpose, even though he has yet to share it; Peter Capaldi is as brilliant as we hoped, and Jenna Coleman is a better match for him than she was for Matt Smith (at least, until she leaves the show in this year’s Christmas special). That’s going to have to be enough for now. It’s no “Eleventh Hour,” but it’s also no…well, it’s no “Time of the Doctor.”

Grade: B

One thought on “DOCTOR WHO: “Deep Breath””

  1. I’m going to have to disagree with you on the “too much intricate web, question nonsense” that is Moffat. It’s not the questions that ever bother me — I’m all for them, and usually they’re very interesting when presented. My problem comes from the weak payoffs. See: the Silence, the Pandorica, River Song. Also, I think the whole idea of retracing his steps: his face, the Clockwork Men…is hopefully a nod to the Doctor exploring his past, just like he said, righting mistakes. Exactly like: Gallifrey Falls No More. Again, this is a hope, however slim.

    Also, (surprising no one more than myself) Smith’s cameo was sweet and perfect.

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