After last year’s exhilarating 50th Anniversary Special and then lackluster by comparison Christmas Special, Doctor Who needed a fresh start to recapture its previous momentum. One surefire way of re-energizing your property is to switch out for some new parts, but with only a change in Doctor can Series 8 continue to hold good favor?
When Matt Smith took over for David Tennant (a tough transition given Tennant’s mega-popularity at the time), Doctor Who began its fifth season with all new parts. New Doctor, new companion, and as writer Steven Moffat took over for Russel T. Davies, a new showrunner as well. It gave the series a different outlook, a fresh feeling. This was a new era of new Who and one that invited everyone to jump on board – practiced Whovian or not. The accessibility of Series 5 is in part why under the Eleventh Doctor the series reached a zenith of popularity the quirky, British sci-fi show had never achieved before. Series 5 was a much needed palette cleanser.
Series 8, however, is still holding on to many of Series 7’s used parts. Clara has remained on as companion and so has The Doctor’s quasi-companions, Madama Vastra, Jenny and Strax. To boot, its premiere episode is set in Victorian London, a location in space and time I’d be quite glad if The Doctor never set foot in again.
“Deep Breath” comes across like an Eleventh Doctor episode, only with that incarnation of The Doctor swapped out for Version 12. On top of that, it’s a rather hum drum adventure with a limited sense of danger from clockwork robots we last saw in the Series 2 adventure, “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Yes, sadly “Deep Breath” is only another example of Moffat overreaching, trying to recapture the magic of one of his previous episodes, and it falls flat.
With so much of last night’s premiere feeling very much the same, the bright spot of “Deep Breath” is new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. When unrestrained by his Victorian companions and allowed to run free simply being The Doctor, Capaldi is a delight! A grumpy, terse, aggressively Scottish delight with eyebrows so independently cross you could pop off bottle caps with them. Indeed, the two times “Deep Breath” feels as if it’s beginning to pick up steam are when The Doctor is having his “new face” moment in the alleyway, terrorizing that poor hobo, and later in the restaurant when he and Clara finally begin acting like Doctor and companion.
And perhaps that’s the root of my problem with “Deep Breath,” so much of it is forced to feel familiar for the sake of easing the adjustment to a new Doctor. Why are we in Victorian London with Vastra, Jenny and Strax? So that Clara – and therefor the audience – can have familiar faces in familiar places and not freak out over young, spry Matt Smith being gone and the old and grey and cranky Capaldi there in his place. It seems too much like hand-holding, as if Doctor Who‘s audience aren’t capable of dealing with a regeneration.
Speaking of, does it not come off as odd for Clara to be having such difficulty accepting that The Doctor has changed his face but remained the same man? I mean, she was the companion who traveled back through his timeline and saw all his previous regenerations! I’m not saying she should be unfazed, but it seemed out of character for her to be grappling with it for the entirety of the episode.
That said, the few times Jenna Coleman is allowed to actually play companion to Capaldi’s Doctor are wonderful. Their chemistry, while still formulating, will undoubtedly be much different from her’s with Smith. There’s a moment in the TARDIS that is very telling, when The Doctor retorts to Clara, “I’m not your boyfriend,” yet it’s more for his sake than her own. The Doctor is done being smitten with his young lady companions (lady dinosaurs are another matter) and I’m hopeful this signals their companionship will be more of a partneship, something akin to what Ten and Donna shared.
Once the dumb clockwork villain is vanquished and goodbyes are made to Vastra, Jenny and Strax (characters I initially adored, but after this episode are really beginning to wear out their welcome), the show begins to right itself . Capaldi is now firmly in his Doctor persona and ready to embark on whatever direction Series 8 will take.
Except–we’re still not through with rehashing the past because Clara receives a phone call from her Doctor moments before he regenerates, coaxing her – and obviously us – into trusting this new, weird, and old-looking Doctor. And while I did genuinely enjoy getting to see just a tad more of Eleven, I didn’t need it or want it in this episode. The series is now Capaldi’s, go home Smith.
“Deep Breath” is by far the shakiest season premiere for Doctor Who that I can recall, and even moreso when you consider it’s supposed to be setting up the series’ post-50th era. Yet, if you can manage to see through its faults there are trappings of a new beginning for the series. One that is no longer trying to win you over with kindness (or flirting, there’s no more flirting – except with dinosaurs) and that’s something worth being excited for.
Doctor Who airs Saturday at 9pm on BBC America.
Watch a preview of next week’s episode – “Into the Dalek”: