Normally with a series premiere of Doctor Who I find myself reiterating “another year, another season” but this time it’s different. After a rather inconsistent season previous year that made me question the show’s ability to stay fresh, Doctor Who has returned with a new lead and a new and rather dark direction. The bright and at times light hearted fairytale aspects of the Matt Smith-era have been replaced with a return to the old guard of having our hero being unpredictable, unreadable, and even dangerous. Make no mistake folks, the charm and twinkle in the eye is still there from our favorite Timelord but the Series 8 premiere “Deep Breath” sets up what could possibly be one hell of a season that will thrill and most likely frighten (in a good way) established viewers.
In many ways some of the storylines and themes in “Deep Breath” could read like responses to a comment board on a fan site. Unlike the “Empty Hearse” episode of the most recent series of Sherlock, Moffat has embraced fans’ concerns by utilizing Clara as a means of addressing fears of a grittier and more mysterious Doctor. The scene in which The Doctor accosts a drunk about his appearance is both funny and sad all at once. He muses greatly about being able to properly complain as a Scot but dwells greatly on the familiarity of his face, its age and why he chose it. The Doctor has tended to go with the flow with his new appearance but for the first time, his new body feels like an internal reminder. For critics ready to pounce on his age this clearly isn’t an issue here as we see the new Doctor leap from roof top to roof top in pursuit of a T-Rex and engage in several bouts of hand-to-hand combat.
The initial jumbling of the mind and motor skills that tend to come with regeneration are there and that is where much of the humor is provided. However, eventually, a clearer head prevails as he becomes more accustomed to himself and that is when we see the shade of dark come into play. The Doctor’s final confrontation with this week’s baddie feels more like a last chance saloon; someone who must kill if necessary and is letting him know with confidence that this will happen. It’s questionable for fans of the series but it’s something that is worth exploring have a Doctor beaming with consequences. A returning villain in the clockwork androids from “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a nice little touch that adds some proper menace while at the same time avoiding a lot of buildup and explanation. The Doctor’s inability to remember this particular adventure is brilliant and Moffat has said that he wanted the Doctor to have an almost Columbo like quality in his first outing because after 2000 years he is bound to forget the occasional encounter.
Despite some fans’ fears, Capaldi’s knack for performances with a nervous and spastic edge plays out well here and you can tell this is exactly how he will play it from here on out. All the humor and frantic energy meshes greatly with the action and balances out well with the darker and often suspicious moments that invoke the Doctor’s true alien nature. Bottom line is: don’t let the lines in the face and the main of grey hair fool you; Capaldi may lack the youthful glow of his predecessors but his sense of grandeur along with his boundless energy keeps in line with those who have come before.
The somewhat bloated 80 minute run time provides the episode the chance to explore each character. Not all of the run time is necessary and it could have been trimmed by about 10 minutes if anything but being an episode with such spectacular cinematic value I guess it was needed for all those cinema screenings going on this week. Despite being about a new Doctor this story is Clara’s and Jenna Coleman is provided much to help develop her “Impossible Girl.” Since her debut the Clara character has taken flack from fans for being a Mary Sue and not being as engaging or as strong as she could be. Her unwillingness and caution in accepting The Doctor as older and often unreadable makes Madame Vastra question her judgment of people around her. But, Clara is quick to denounce that showing some fire and self-sufficiency that has never been on display till now. In the absence of The Doctor she asserts her independence even conning her way out of the grips of the androids. The Paternoster Gang is also given time to flesh out their story with Vastra taking on much of her own detective work and Strax of course providing some killer lines and moments. For the first time in forever we have a rotating band of support characters that have personality and purpose behind them and I can only hope we see them again down the line.
There are many changes present right from the start particularly the pacing. After so many years of rushing to set up the plot and engage in the action the show has slowed down allowing for scenes to last much longer than they use to. The exchange in the restaurant between The Doctor and Clara is a solid 10 minutes of talking, something Quentin Tarantino would be proud of, but it allows the characters time to develop themselves without having to rush onto the next clue in the mystery. Visually it was clearly a smart move to go with the effects company who worked on “Day of the Doctor” because after 8 seasons there is almost a movie like quality to the visual elements and overall production. Of course I would be remised if I failed to mention the surprising yet kind of expected cameo from one Matt Smith. His conversation with Clara about her fears of a new Doctor acts as a reassurance to the audiences still reeling from his departure and was a nice added bonus.
“Deep Breath” is quite a crisp and often engaging episode; it still packs the action where need be but is more of an episode catered towards character development. For the first time in ages Doctor Who has begun peeling back the layers of the onion but not too far that the mystery is in plain sight. For Capaldi it’s a fine debut, sometimes padded a bit too much, but nonetheless a fun and hopeful installment that shows that Doctor Who is still very smart, and very original after so many years.
Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.