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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath Review

Source: Life, Doctor Who & Combom
Our verdict on Peter Capaldi's fully-fledged début as the Twelfth Doctor.
For this reviewer, the prospect of analysing and evaluating "Deep Breath", the first episode of Doctor Who starring The Thick of It's Peter Capaldi as the remarkably brasher and more unhinged titular Time Lord, brought about an odd sensation of nostalgia at first, since my review of Matt Smith's own debut episode, "The Eleventh Hour" (2010), was one of the first articles ever published here at On-Screen. Despite executive producer Steven Moffat's claims to the contrary, the instalment in question seems to take inspiration from the past too, returning to plot threads established in the Smith era and plot tropes established long beforehand with simultaneously beneficial and detrimental consequences.

On the occasion of this largely victorious season première, it seems only right that we deal with some of the least successful elements of the episode first so as to allow us to spend a substantial enough amount of time praising Capaldi and the production team for what they got oh so right. Somewhat unsurprisingly, many of the issues which did present themselves came about not as a result of our new lead star's pitch-perfect delivery, Wheatley's characteristically intelligent direction of proceedings or Murray Gold's familiar yet oft-haunting score; instead, Moffat's scripting of the piece was at fault in this instance, his tendency to focus on long-dismissed arcs - the mystery of the woman in the shop which was raised back in "The Bells of Saint John" (2013), for instance, was hardly one which the majority of fans were begging to be resolved - and, worse still, on storytelling approaches which we've seen employed time and time again on Who - from the newly-regenerated Doctor noticing an individual who wasn't bothered by the present crisis in the distant (see Rory in "The Eleventh Hour") to the more explicit reprieves such as the return of the infamous Clockwork Droids from "The Girl in the Fireplace" (2006) and the Doctor's recognition of his all-too-familiar face - ultimately coming into conflict with his (and the rest of the production team's) overtly-expressed efforts to provide those Whovians who found themselves bogged down by the show's reliance on past continuity in its 50th Anniversary year with a clean slate (however minimal, given that the show-runner is justifiably opposed to the notion of a full-scale reboot).

What's more, in spite of the fact that long-running fans of the series have called for extended running times ever since the programme's revival back in 2005, with hindsight, 75 minutes might actually have been slightly too generous an upgrade to the usual 45-minute format. True, the extra half-hour enabled Moffat to write longer scenes, with the restaurant-turned-larder-house sequence representing a particular highlight in this regard (not least thanks to the increasingly enviable performing abilities of both Capaldi and Jenna Coleman), yet it also resulted in the increased presence of the Paternoster Gang and therefore, more importantly, Strax. What can we say about Strax that hasn't been expressed by reviewers (myself included) a thousand times before, save for that - in spite of his unquestionable ability to open proceedings with no small amount of hilarity (those such as myself who were lucky enough to attend a cinema screening of the episode saw him introduce "Deep Breath" by recapping each of the Doctor's regenerations, leading to some inspired comedic moments such as his recognition of the fact that the Ninth Doctor was "all ears") - his sustained presence in a scene can often rob of it any lingering dramatic tension, and not in the purgatorial (i.e. eventual relief from tension and fear through humour or a consoling denouement) manner which Aristotle once argued to be a defining element of the theatrical genre of tragedy. Had "Deep Breath" been cut down to an hour or 65 minute, we'd wager that this would have been far less of a problem, but instead, anyone who had previously expressed apathy towards Strax in particular was forced to endure physical and gender-themed gags in abundance, for better or (far more likely in this instance) for worse.

Thankfully, however, Strax's comrades fared far better this time around, with both Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart taking the opportunity to lend their characters much-needed emotional depth afforded to them by Moffat's screenplay with both hands. McIntosh in particular did herself proud as Vastra and Clara sparred verbally on the matter of the Doctor's newly-aged face over tea, the former character's veil acting as a worthy metaphor for the manner in which the eternal Time Lord changes his face every few years (or, in the case of the Eleventh Doctor, centuries), suggesting that as he does so, he adapts himself in order to suit the needs or desires of the world around him, hence why he transformed into a remarkably elderly fellow before Clara's eyes - what better way could there be to remind her that he could never be her "lover" (as Vastra so adequately put it)? Whilst many viewers doubtless assumed that the aforementioned ongoing plot thread of the pair's now-stunted romance was done and dusted at this point, Matt Smith's long-speculated appearance in the episode's closing moments was a work of sheer genius on the Moff's part (even if it didn't exactly help his case with regards to the script's reliance on the past - so much recycling was done here that we'd be amazed if the fictitious environment wasn't improved tenfold as a result!), serving as a fitting farewell for one of the most beloved Doctors in the show's history and a necessary moment of reassurance for any younger viewers who wondered if Capaldi's Time Lord was truly the same man as his predecessor.

Speaking of which, PETER CAPALDI IS THE DOCTOR! As was the case with Peter Davison, Matt Smith and several other incarnations of everyone's favourite time traveller, it's difficult to gain a firm hold on precisely the kind of Doctor which the Twelfth is going to be in episodes to come here, yet there's no doubting that he'll be as fierce, unpredictable and dangerous as everyone had originally hoped (although the former attribute may need to be dialled back at times if the show is to hold onto the easily-intimidated members of its supposed youthful target audience). In all honesty, though, "Deep Breath" seemed to be as much dedicated to enabling Jenna Coleman to shine as Clara Oswald - free of the constraints of last season's Impossible Girl mystery - as it was to showcasing the potency of the new Time Lord, a trait which certainly worked in its favour on numerous occasions (not least the aforementioned romance-themed exchange between her and Vastra and her closing exchange with the Twelfth, the latter of which beautifully echoed Christopher Eccleston's second episode in the role of the Ninth Doctor, "The End of the World" (2005)) to the extent that she proved to be just as compelling a construct to watch develop - if not moreso - than the 'man' who gives the programme its name. Peter Ferdinando's take on the so-called Half-Faced Man, meanwhile, was just as stoic and chilling as was presumably asked of him when he was cast in the role, while Michelle Gomez's Missy exuded eccentricity (and, to some extent, restrained insanity) as she welcomed the supposedly-deceased Clockwork Droid to the Promised Land (more on that later, we're sure - could this realm be intended as a wink of sorts by Moffat to the haters who call him up on his tendency to resurrect the dead after a short period of time? Quite honestly, we'd put nothing past the man at this point in time).

With "Deep Breath", then, we find an episode which is wholly the sum of its parts as opposed to one which successfully strives to be something more. For every chink in the armour such as the overly nostalgic screenplay, there was a metaphorical silver lining (we'll try to lay off the metaphors, though, since Capaldi's Doctor seems none too keen on them, and we wouldn't dare incur the wrath of his "absolutely furious" eyebrows, let alone his character as a whole) such as the accomplished performances of virtually everyone involved and vice versa, but the overall finished product was still a competent enough season opener to ensure that it'll be remembered fondly by long-term followers and newcomers alike. Teething problems such as those mentioned above can easily be forgiven at this point of time, not least as there were more than enough perks on display here to compensate, yet if they're not dealt with further down the line, then Season Eight (and Doctor Who as a whole, for that matter) may run into unprecedented trouble. Let's not concern ourselves with the future of the programme for now, though - instead, we'll close this review by commending everyone involved with Episode 1 on building solid foundations for what promises to be an ambitious and subversive run of time-travelling adventures.

Is the Twelfth Doctor a good man? It's difficult to say for certain one way or the other right now, but one thing's for sure: finding out the answer could be amongst the most exhilarating televisual experiences of 2014...

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