Like any good 21st century nerd, I have an affinity for the long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who. The 50+ year old television program has been shipped to our American shores since the days of Tom Baker on PBS, but when Russell T. Davies rebooted the series in 2005, that’s when it really took off in the US. We’ve gone through three Doctors since then, and now we stand at the dawn of a new era, as Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It, In the Loop) steps into the TARDIS for the first time. We got our first look at the Twelfth Doctor in the eighth series (they call them “series” instead of seasons across the pond) premiere, “Deep Breath.”
When we last left off, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) had just regenerated into his new form (I’m going to assume you guys all know the basics of Doctor Who, mostly because I want to get this done and then get to bed). In the ensuing moments the TARDIS get swallowed by a poorly rendered CGI T. Rex (Richard Attenborough deserved a better unintentional tribute than this), which accompnies the ship on its journey to Victorian London. The meat of the episode consists of the new Doctor and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) feeling out his new personality, while trying to get to the bottom of some mysterious claims of spontaneous combustion.
The Doctor’s slow realization of who he is represents the premiere’s strongest moments. Writer and showrunner (and newly christened Emmy award winner) Steven Moffat gives Capaldi a lot of fun moments, particularly a tour de force scene in an alleyway between the Doctor and a very disturbed homeless man. This scene drives home a little of the Doctor’s new personality. Capaldi is older than all of the other new era Doctors, and he uses that to bring a little weariness to the performance. The Twelfth Doctor isn’t as fun and playful and Ten and Eleven. In fact, he is kind of mean. And mean-spirited.
Of course it is only the first episode, so it is hard to tell exactly where the character is going. One thing that seems to be gone is the constant flirting with the beautiful young companions. Though Clara insists at one point that she is attracted to older men, for most of the episode the flirtatious banter is exchanged for a more familial bickering. After being kept apart for most of the episode, the restaurant-set reunion between Clara and the Doctor is one of the strongest moments of “Deep Breath,” just to see how the characters interact now.
We get a lot of alone time with Clara in the premiere, and most of it drags. Clara is kind of a relic of the last era (as is Moffat, but that’s a whole different issue), and her interactions with other Moffat creations like lizard-lady Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and their alien valet Strax (Dan Starkey) feel like unnecessary filler. In an episode meant to introduce us to the new Doctor, all of this meandering in the old status quo is kind of frustrating, regardless of how amusing it might be.
The second half of the episode does pick up, however. And much like in “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour,” the new Doctor does get a chance to assert himself. Capaldi brings a level of gravitas to the project that Matt Smith didn’t necessarily carry, and I will be very interested to see how Moffat and the rest of the team use that in the coming weeks. The future is hazy for Doctor Who, but that is oddly appropriate for a show about a time-traveling alien. Let’s see where he takes us.