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Doctor Who complete reviews: Deep breath

by Shadow LockedAugust 31, 2014

2014. After the celebratory shenanigans of 2013, this year so far has been something of a head-scratching enigma in the land of Doctor Who. Whereas 2013′s Psychic Paper showed up a balloon-doffing, missing episode recovering party animal, 2014′s Psychic Paper draws a blank. The endless Missing Episode Omnishambles trudges wearily on, a bleary, pointless mess of internal politics, bickering and question dodging worthy of Chancellor Goth. Brand new episodes mysteriously leak online, prompting the question as to how it was so easy to shove them into the public domain in the first place. Even The Underwater Menace DVD has seemingly sunk without trace – look at that, I’m pining for The Underwater Menace, so obviously these are murky times.

Not even a brand new Doctor Who series can put paid to this unsure fog. Deep Breath is the first bid for new Doctor Peter Capaldi, who may be the 12th Doctor. Or the 13th. Or the 673rd – who knows? Following the misguided fairytale japes of the past four years, Steven Moffat has promised the viewers big changes. The papers, magazines and websites have been stuffed to the gills with reports of Moffat promising darker times, new starts and the dawning of a new era for Doctor Who. The man would make a great spin doctor if ever he decides to give up Sherlock.

So my expectations were mixed for Deep Breath. Could this really be a renaissance for Doctor Who, or was it just a case of ‘Same old dregs’? For me, the end result’s a mish-mash of both – actually, renaissance is probably too strong a word, but there’s quite a few glimmers of hope for the future. I’ll get to ‘em later. That’s a great trick for any reviewer – leave the good points till the last minute, so you don’t look like a great big killjoy.

“For an episode that’s supposed to herald in a new phase of Doctor Who, Deep Breath isn’t exactly brimming with new ideas”

Signalling this lack of self-belief is yet another change to the opening titles and music. Back in the day, the titles and music seldom changed, allowing for some degree of consistency. These days, it feels like a change comes every season. While the fan-inspired titles aren’t too bad (although the floaty TARDIS looks a bit amateurish and it’s a bit too similar to the Eccleston/Tennant titles in the way it hurtles back and forth), it’s the new, shrill theme arrangement that really grates on the ears. Ugh. It’s the sort of theme arrangement that would make Vincent Van Gogh cut off his other ear and use it as a novelty bath plug. It sounds like a high-speed recording of a tone-deaf drunk let loose on a Wurlitzer and is completely and utterly horrible. Keff McCulloch’s arrangement sounds like Brit Award winning material by comparison.

If you can put up with this musical fiasco, then a barrage of clunky lines seems like a breeze. It’s just a shame that so many of them seem to come from the mouth of the new Doctor: “Oh, you remember, er. Thingy. The, er, the not-me one.” or “Why can’t I meet a decent species? Planet of the pudding brains.” or “Bitey. The air, it’s bitey. It’s wet, and bitey.” Perhaps the main problem is that they’re indistinguishable from the past three Doctors in their Moffat-penned adventures (see also “Mr Thick Thick Thickety from Thickania” or whatever). It’s a Moffat voice bellowing at you through his latest metaphorical ventriloquist’s doll, and the dialogue comes off as too forced and laboured and heard it al before.

“It’s questionable as to whether this episode should have made such a big deal about the Doctor’s age”

For an episode that’s supposed to herald in a new phase of Doctor Who, Deep Breath isn’t exactly brimming with new ideas. At least Steven Moffat’s doing his bit for the recycling cause by again mixing together lots of past elements from recent times. We’re back in Victorian times – yet again. The Paternoster lot don’t really serve up anything that we haven’t seen or heard before (and Strax The Comedy Sontaran is starting to try the patience a wee bit – Linx is probably spinning in his grave). There’s another dinosaur who gets unceremoniously bumped off. The droids from The Girl In The Fireplace, obviously. And the most heinous of these crimes is yet another smug, brash, over-confident woman seen gurning and babbling nonsense in the unwelcome heaven coda. Insert your own freeze frame emoticon of The Mighty Trout rolling his eyes at the Time Lord trial in the last episode of The War Games.

One thing that Wheatley does do very well, however, is to summon up a suitably dark atmosphere. Victoriana London hasn’t felt as misty and ominous for a long time, and there’s signs that Moffat might well be upping the scare factor, which is never a bad thing. The idea of the Half-Face Man roaming the streets for spare body parts is a suitably ghoulish one, and in the scene that we see, he goes for the most grisly target of the lot: the eyes of bowler-hatted Redshirt, Alf. The Doctor later notes that the “eyeballs look very fresh” when scrutinising the Half-Face Man at a closer range – and we even get a grisly close-up of the eyeball to ram the point home. The fate of the Half-Face Man is also memorably dark, as he ends up impaled on the cross of Big Ben (although, perhaps inevitably, he later wakes up in what the gurning Mary Poppins woman claims is heaven). It’s a sign that just maybe, Doctor Who is looking to explore its roots again by sending kids behind the sofa. The right-wing papers agreed in true, over-reacting style, although given that a melting Baked Alaska seemed to be the height of controversy this week, this is no surprise.

“While Clara still isn’t the easiest of companions to like, at least she’s showing signs of actually having a personality”

And once The Doctor calms down, he’s far more of an interesting proposition than the generic post-regenerative loon. While this new Doctor isn’t quite the Dark Overlord Of Doom that some have speculated on, there’s times when he certainly doesn’t pull any punches. The end confrontation with the Half-Face Man has already become a much-debated scene in its own meagre lifetime. “I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you,” he gravely warns Half-Face. “I thought you might appreciate a drink first.” Following the shot of Half-Face impersonating a kebab, we cut to a close up of The Doctor staring at the camera with a look of a horse trying not to look too shifty at a pile of pooh about two trots behind.

In actual fact, the darker Doctor is nothing new. On the subject of the booze, good old Doctor Number 3 enjoyed the odd slug of wine in between yelling at countless bureaucrats and occasionally giving The Brig and Jo short shrift. Doctor Number 1′s age resulted in a similarly crabby temper. Perhaps the nearest contrast would be the 6th Doctor. Like Peri, Clara isn’t too sure after a younger, unassuming Doctor has been replaced by an older, less forthcoming model. Like Doctor Number 6, the new Doctor is not interested in social niceties, and this looks set to be an interesting character trait for the future.

“Capaldi is an inspired choice, and it’ll be interesting to see what the future brings for this harder-edged incarnation”

But whereas the concept of the 6th Doctor didn’t quite work out (thanks to heavy-handed scripting and dialogue), there’s more to the 12th Doctor than just bombastic dismissal of social etiquette. He’s certainly got a good line in droll humour (“I think there should be more round things on the walls. I used to have lots of round things.”), but beneath the tough exterior, there’s something far more vulnerable. It’s best summed up in the concluding scenes in which he wants Clara to accept him for who he is now rather than the guy he used to be. “You can’t see me, can you?” he says. “You look at me, and you can’t see me. Have you any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone, I’m right here, standing in front of you. Please, just, just see me.”

It’s nicely written dialogue, but what really makes the scene is Peter Capaldi. He plays the scene with an understated vulnerability, and it underlines how he was ideally suited to play a part that he wanted since quaking behind the sofa at Patrick Troughton doing battle against Cybermen. Although he’s stuck with some over-egged dialogue in the first part, he manages this very well, and from there, builds his Doctor into a quietly commanding presence. Although the 12th Doctor isn’t quite the finished article, Capaldi’s compelling performance makes the viewer eager to see what’s around the corner. Tom Baker once said that there’s never been a Doctor actor who’s failed, and Capaldi’s excellent debut underlines that point. An inspired choice, and it’ll be interesting to see what the future brings for this harder-edged incarnation.

Other good points about Deep Breath. The high production values, particularly the make-up/prosthetics for the Half-Face Man. Brian Miller’s brilliant cameo as the tramp. Matt Smith’s epilogue. Maybe it’s a blatant case of saying to the audience “Please stick with the show”, but it’s a nice touch to have the 11th Doctor be one step ahead of the game when looking out for his friend.

While the weary Moffat tropes prevent Deep Breath from being a stone-cold classic, it emerges as a cautiously optimistic tale that suggests that maybe there really could be a new leaf about to be turned. The characterisation and interplay between Clara and The Doctor is well done, full of razor sharp wit and an edge that hasn’t been seen for some time. It’s darker in tone – the droids make for a welcome return, and their method of barbecuing and salvaging body parts of victims is exploited more than in The Girl In The Fireplace. And let’s not forget Peter Capaldi’s spellbinding turn as The Doctor – with the right scripting, he could turn out to be one of the all-time greats.

Hope for the future or a false alarm? I’ll let you know over the coming weeks.

Previous: The Time Of The Doctor

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