Saturday night saw the start of a new season of Doctor Who on BBC One in the UK and BBC America stateside from show runner Steven Moffat, and a new Doctor in the person of Peter Capaldi.
The last time the new Who graced our television screens was eight long months ago where Matt Smith handed over the reins at the end of the 2013 Christmas Special. Since then, fan expectations (and anxiety) have run high: would an “older” actor work in the role of the Doctor for the revived show? Would Jenna-Louise Colman leave? Is Moffat up to the task of re-making the character of the Doctor again or has he just gone bonkers?
While it will likely take a season or more for all those questions to be adequately resolved, the show appears to remain in capable hands. Capaldi acquitted himself brilliantly as a more mercurial and sometimes prickly sort of Doctor. Moffat supplies some occasionally brilliant dialog and a few really interesting set pieces that allow Mr. Capaldi to show his full range from manic pratfalls to dramatic gravitas to fragile vulnerability. As stories where the Doctor regenerates go, you can’t ask for much better and the show has sometimes delivered much worse.
Looking a little deeper, Mr. Moffat made a rather interesting choice regarding how to structure this particular Time Lord regeneration episode: he made it about Clara and her reaction to the change in the Doctor. There have been a number of different approaches to handling this sort of story over the last 50 years of Doctor Who. Clean break stories like “Spearhead From Space,” the 1995 television movie, and “The Eleventh Hour” represent complete changes in cast and show format that allow all the characters to build relationships from a total beginning. There are also “carry on without the Doctor” stories like “Castrovalva” and “The Christmas Invasion,” where regeneration leaves the Doctor incapacitated for much of the plot and we see the Doctor connect with an existing network of supporting characters during the last act. There are also stores like “Robot” and “Time and the Rani” that appear effortless, at least as far as character relationships are concerned.
We only see something resembling this sort of choice in two other stories: “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Twin Dilemma.” In the former, the Doctor’s companions Polly and Ben actively question whether this really is the Doctor for a substantial part of the story until his identity is confirmed by the Daleks (an idea borrowed and inverted decades later in “Victory of the Daleks”) The Doctor actually tries to strangle his companion Peri in the latter story, in an attempt to create a dark Doctor that would only gradually become more likeable. “Power” worked, and let the show continue past the departure of original Doctor William Hartnell. “Dilemma” failed, setting the stage for a troubled period in the show’s ratings that eventually led to cancellation in 1989. Yet, in neither of those cases did viewers necessarily see the kind of shock straight through to the final minutes that Clara has when the Doctor’s appearance changes.
It’s an approach with strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it almost required the appearance of a group of characters who are starting to wear out their welcome with some fans: the Paternoster gang. If you drive a wedge between the Doctor and Clara, you need one or more supporting characters to help heal that rift. Regeneration stories (and those that immediately follow) are also helped if the Doctor and his companion are doing something familiar. The Doctor, Clara, and the Paternoster gang have two recent adventures already under their belts in some form (“The Snowmen” and “The Name of the Doctor”). Madame Vastra can also be an unflappable center that navigates and tolerates the change, much like Nicholas Courtney did as the Brigadier in both “Spearhead From Space” and “Robot.” Mr. Moffat seems to drive home this point by giving Vastra the same line that Terrence Dicks gave the Brigadier when Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker: “Here we go again…”
It also allows the telling of a story very much from a companion’s point of view. The modern series started with Rose, a story that was as much about Rose Tyler figuring out if she liked this Doctor fellow as it was about saving the planet. Here, the same sort of conflict erupts. The regeneration brings a much older sort of Doctor, the oldest in fact, in nearly half a century. Just as if Russell T. Davies wanted to re-introduce the Doctor and the show to a public that either hadn’t seen Doctor Who for 16 years (if at all) through the eyes of Rose, Steven Moffat is taking the show back 25 years or more to its roots and eliminating the Doctor as a romantic lead through the eyes of Clara. Where Clara goes, he hopes, the audience will follow.
So what do we make of Mr. Capaldi as the Doctor, as seen through Clara’s eyes? We see a fascinating range. He starts as manic, deadpan comic: confusing Strax and Clara because of their height, flirting with a dinosaur, and making a pratfall on the supposed shore of the Thames. Later, there is a very traditional first glimpse of the new face that turns quietly comic and ends up referencing the past: first with asking for a big long scarf, then commenting “no, I’m over that… it would look stupid,” and finally showing a brief Pertwee-esque affinity for eyebrows. As the action of the plot starts to really rev up, the comedy fades in favor of drama. In one key sequence, the Doctor sits down, pours whiskey out of a crystal decanter, and says “I have the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you.” It’s a line that could have been given to David Tennant or Matt Smith and delivered with Shakespearean drama or sardonic pathos, but here it’s given a quiet, weary intensity that shows a Time Lord of substantially different stripe. The episode ends with fragile vulnerability: as a very uncertain new Doctor tries to find common understanding with Clara and convince her to remain with him in the TARDIS. Capaldi generally pulls all of this off, and frequently seems to enjoy doing it.
This likely bodes well for the show. Jenna Coleman is an actress of obvious talent that always seemed a little confined by the “are we or aren’t we” flirty relationship with the Doctor established by Billie Piper and Karen Gillan. By creating a little distance between her and the Doctor here in “Deep Breath,” we see her start to break out of that mold. Clara stands on her own two feet, to the point that we see a sequence where she is able to use her own experiences outside the TARDIS to find the emotional upper hand while threatened with harm by the Doctor’s adversaries. Likewise, the Doctor in the hands of Mr. Capaldi has more than a few rough edges. It’s difficult to think of Matt Smith calling Clara “an egomaniac, needy game-player” with such deadpan seriousness, for example. That approach could turn off fans raised for the last ten years on a more dashing, younger-looking Doctor, if not placed in the hands of the right actor. Mr. Capaldi seems to be more than capable of handling it with a grace and vulnerability that should have no trouble winning over fans.
In the end, does it all still work? Ignoring some rather substantial elephants in the room (like the fact that Clara has met multiple incarnations of Doctor yet is freaked out by the regeneration of “her” Doctor), I think it does. “Deep Breath” may not enjoy the near-universal acclaim that an episode like “The Eleventh Hour” enjoys, but it’s not a “Twin Dilemma” or “Time And The Rani” either. It keeps the “regenerative trauma” to a minimum, clothes it in some very traditional “Robot”-like garb, and offers some interesting opportunities to show how the fixed points of Doctor Who now relate to one another. It shows promise. There is little more that is important when seeing a new Doctor for the first time.