Half a century is an incredibly long time in television terms. When many shows fail to even have their pilot episode broadcast or struggle to be granted a second season despite critical acclaim and core audience devotion when the background noise of makeovers, game shows and reality television suck up viewers averse to the intellectual investment that quality entertainment demands, that Doctor Who returns for its eighth full season since it’s return in 2005 almost fifty one years after the broadcast of An Unearthly Child in November 1963 is astonishing.
The show has ceased to be a cult entertainment and has become not only a part of the British consciousness but a global touchstone, and with the requirement of the anniversary celebrations that it be marketed to a global audience now lessened, it is hoped that the focus of the show will now return to the strengths which allowed it to survive so long in so many incarnations as a new Doctor is launched in the form of veteran actor Peter Capaldi who at 56 is the oldest actor to take the role, with William Hartnell only 55 when the show first broadcast.
This is not only a new Doctor but a whole new era for the show following the last two broadcast episodes, The Day of the Doctor with the revelation that Gallifrey had not burned on the last day of the time war and The Time of the Doctor where the Time Lords sent a message through the crack in the universe which had plagued the Doctor since The Eleventh Hour then granted him a whole new regeneration cycle, the implication being that the running theme for this season would be the quest to locate Gallifrey and release it from the pocket universe where it had been sequestered. Carried for centuries, the burden of knowing that was responsible for the death of his whole planet and its people has been lifted; despite being an older face, the Doctor has been fundamentally reborn and given a reason to go on.
There are those who felt that Matt Smith’s Doctor was too much of a clown, though certainly there was precedent; Jon Pertwee mugging it up as a charwoman in The Green Death, Sylvester McCoy’s juggling and spoons, but certainly he was the most overtly emotional Doctor. Aware he was on his last regeneration and that he had nothing left to lose, he was unafraid to be demonstrative of his deep love, his hurt and with his huge rage at injustice wherever he found it, he sometimes acted with a ruthlessness his predecessors lacked.
Where the episodes Steven Moffat wrote while the show was under the tenure of Russell T Davies were always tinged with darkness his own reign as executive producer has been marred by inconsistency, frivolity too often outweighing strong storytelling, too many resolutions based on hokum (the nanogenes which resolved The Doctor Dances had been foreshadowed in The Empty Child but from Time Crash onwards a last minute big red button is often all that is needed, most egregiously in Stephen Thompson’s script for Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS), with every season closer having to outdo the previous with the entire universe having been threatened with destruction on at least a further two occasions since Davies first presented the threat with the Dalek reality bomb in Journey’s End.
A symptom of that inconsistency was Jenna Coleman’s companion Clara who was used as more of a plot device upon whom much of the anniversary season was hooked rather than a person, and as a consequence of the failure of many of these episodes, billed as mini-blockbusters with all the inherent shallowness of that remit, she has struggled to become more than a gimmick in a season as fragmented as Clara herself when swept through the Doctor’s time stream.
Even as the new season starts with Deep Breath, written by Moffat and directed by A Field in England’s Ben Wheatley, his first of two episodes, the continuity of Clara Oswald is apparently insufficient, and similar to the companion heavy introduction of Peter Davison’s Doctor in Castrovalva accompanied by Nyssa, Tegan, Adric and the Master to ease the transition from the incalculably popular Tom Baker, Peter Capaldi is supported by the popular supporting characters of the Paternoster Gang, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and manservant Strax (Dan Starkey), a stark contrast to the launch of Matt Smith’s era which saw a new Doctor, new companions and a new TARDIS, both interior and exterior, a hint that confidence does not run as high this time around.
As the TARDIS arrives in Victorian London with a shaken Clara and a confused Doctor on board, it is Madame Vastra who counsels that “This is not a day for jumping to conclusions,” a warning not only to Jenny and Strax but perhaps to the audience that Moffat would like the new season to be given a chance to establish itself before lasting judgement is made, though he is unable to resist then giving her the line “Here we go again” as she realises the Doctor has regenerated, words once spoken by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart when UNIT’s scientific advisor collapsed in front of him upon return from Metebelis Three.
Like The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor is largely absent from the events of Deep Breath, but while Rose and Jackie Tyler, Mickey Smith and Harriet Jones (Prime Minister) were on the front line defending London from the Sycorax while the Doctor was incapacitated, here the episode too rapidly devolves into At Home With The Vastras, an entertaining diversion but inappropriate for a season opener, certainly one which not only launches a new Doctor but is being feted with cinema release as though it were a major event, a conceit unjustified by what is offered.
Given seventy six minutes, too many scenes are drawn out and indulgent, the running time seeming to be in service to the marketing campaign rather than the story as were the “mini-epics” of last year. If anything, with the romance of the gas lit Victorian streets stalked by a grumpy dinosaur and sinister cyborgs, Deep Breath feels more like a Christmas confection akin to The Next Doctor with the expectation of forgiveness that comes with the season of goodwill.
Clara’s reaction to the regeneration is wildly inconsistent with “the impossible girl” of the previous season; as the only companion who ha
s knowledge and personal experience of each of his incarnations, she should have the least difficulty adjusting to another change, leading to an extended scene with her and Vastra where McIntosh reminds why her irregular appearances are one of the highlights of recent years but which ultimately only serves as yet another attempt to establish the character of Clara, in many ways her fourth introductory episode following Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen and The Bells of St John.
That Moffat still feels the need to sell Clara to an indifferent audience after so long confirms what many have realised all along; she’s okay, but she ain’t no Pond. Where Karen Gillan matched Matt Smith’s intensity from their opening scene and kept pace with his breathless performance, Coleman has always been overshadowed, not helped by a character who was deliberately kept unfocused as the running theme of the last year; it is to be hoped that given proper development perhaps this year she may finally deserve the honour of companion that has been bestowed upon her.
Unfortunately it is apparent elsewhere that history is repeating itself; despite Capaldi’s mature presence, the Doctor is once again subjected to slapstick pratfalls and Moffat tiresomely recycles ideas from previous stories to diminishing returns as he did in Flesh and Stone when the Weeping Angels spoke with the voice they stole from the soldier they murdered in the same way the environment suits looped the voices of their dead passengers in Silence in the Library.
This time the threat is taken wholesale from one of Moffat’s most beloved episodes (plus one moment repeated from Neil Gaiman‘s The Doctor‘s Wife) and even if the amnesiac Doctor cannot place the specifics the audience most certainly can, and minus the exquisite design and chilling body horror of the original it is unlikely it will win a Hugo on this second outing, and it is only when Clara receives a most unexpected plea to take care of the new Doctor that it achieves the emotional impact that the show could once generate so effortlessly.
The TARDIS interior is more beautiful than before; substantially the same as the Michael Pickwood’s hard metallic console room which debuted in The Snowmen the lighting is more dynamic, particularly during dematerialisation, and the library has moved in; one hopes that the swimming pool will not follow suit.
The new main titles are perhaps the greatest surprise in that the premise has long circulated on the internet in a fan made video, now adapted and given the official endorsement of the production team, but the new arrangement of the main theme, entirely synthesised and overly processed, is an unpleasant reminder of the era of John Nathan-Turner and hopefully not an indication of the future of the show.
But who is the Doctor? Now over 2,000 years old, that remains to be seen; he still understands every language, even dinosaur, and it still pains him to break promises, even to a lonely dinosaur. He is delightfully Scottish, his realisation carrying the best line since Amelia Pond was instructed to “Fry something,” but his personality is so far ambiguous indicating that Moffat is once again wisely playing the long game, a hope supported by evidence that an external presence is manipulating events to their own ends. His true test will likely come in the following episode where Wheatley once again directs from a script by Moffat and The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Phil Ford as the Doctor goes Into the Dalek.
Doctor Who – Deep Breath broadcasts and is screened in cinemas on Saturday 23rd August