Monday, 25 August 2014

“Eleven’s hour is over now, and the clock is striking twelve”, as the unusually appropriate Christmas cracker exclaimed back in December. And on Saturday, as 6:50’s hour became over and the clocks struck 7:50, the Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi made his debut proper. 

There are two distinct ways to do a Doctor’s first story – making a fresh start entirely, such as Rose and The Eleventh Hour (which I love and will reference throughout this review), or bringing in some old friends to smooth the transition, such as Spearhead from Space and The Christmas Invasion. Deep Breath, written by showrunner Steven Moffat, was firmly in the latter camp, with the Doctor and companion Clara crash-landing in Victorian London and immediately joined by the recurring Paternoster Gang – Silurian detective Vastra, her wife Jenny, and Sontaran butler Strax. There was also an inexplicably big T-rex and a series of spontaneous combustions to be investigated.

First things first, I’ve not heard a bad word said about Capaldi. As we’ve been told countless times, he’s ‘a darker Doctor’ and the intensity of his performance really carries this. He’s a Doctor we don’t always trust, at one point seemingly abandoning Clara without so much as a ‘good luck’, and he’s a Doctor we can believe would kill – and thankfully, the ‘Doctor as killer’ aspect is being explored rather than nonchalantly glossed over à la Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But just because he’s ‘a darker Doctor’ doesn’t mean he has no lightness – Capaldi’s a talented comic actor and delivers his wittier lines with charmingly furious flair – “Look at these eyebrows! They're attack eyebrows. You could take bottle tops off with these.”

But how can we get used to such a different Doctor? This was a question explored through Clara, who didn’t impress Madame Vastra with her inability to accept the older-faced Time Lord. While Vastra wrote her off as vain, Clara’s arc through this episode was learning that her disbelief was perfectly natural and that she should accept the new Doctor as well as mourn the old one, topped off with a push from the Eleventh Doctor himself. Matt Smith’s cameo was a lovely moment, reassuring Clara that this new man is indeed the Doctor, and doing all but winking at the camera to tell us at home that we should run off with him too. It was an interesting way to smooth the transition into the new Doctor and felt like one of Clara’s best episodes too, though I’m not over her terribly inconsistent characterisation over the past series. Maybe now that the ‘Impossible Girl’ bollocks is out of the way and Moffat seems to be going down a more character-oriented route, we could get to like her. Fingers crossed on that one.

The Paternoster gang, meanwhile… well, as ever, they made some people angry because there are lesbians on family telly, and they made some people angry because there are lesbians who have no character depth beyond gay jokes on family telly. While it is nice to note that we do have a female same-sex couple as the modern equivalent of the Brigadier, they are indeed pretty depthless, especially compared to the much more connectable side characters written by Moffat's predecessor Russell T Davies. On the other hand, I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed at Strax knocking Clara out with the newspaper.

The real problem with Deep Breath is the plot and its pacing. With a leisurely eighty-minute running time, you’d expect a meaty mystery for the Doctor to flex his new brain over, but it’s incredibly thin – one easily-found lead brings him and Clara to the villain’s lair, they’re captured, they escape, Doctor kills villain. That’s basically it. Meanwhile, there are scenes entirely irrelevant to both the plot and to the character development – what purpose does Strax examining Clara serve, other than a cheap sex joke? Don’t get me wrong, after having criticised much of the later Matt Smith era for being far too fast, I like the extra running time and the calmed-down pace, but I would have liked that running time to be used for story rather than sketch comedy.

A related problem is that, when the plot does develop, it isn’t our heroes moving it forward. The Doctor sets out to solve the mystery and then sort of stumbles into the solution, being led from set piece to set piece by forces outside of his control with no real problem solving on his (or Clara's) part. Which is not how to write a murder mystery story – the detective should solve the mystery! Compare this to The Eleventh Hour, where the Doctor notices Rory on the green and deduces the location of Prisoner Zero, then comes up with a complex plan to trap Zero and tell off the Atraxi to boot.

And, while the Doctor wasn’t really being very clever, nor were the villains. The clockwork robots had a brilliant body horror concept, and some great costume design plus a great performance from the guy playing Half-Face Man made the mix of robotic and human damn creepy, but what exactly were they up to? Building a hot air balloon out of human skin to go home, which was on a different planet in the 51st century? Huh? And how could they recover the dinosaur’s optic nerve when they’d burnt the shit out of it?

Ah, well. Despite the stupidity of his plot, Half-Face Man did eventually reach the Promised Land, in an intriguing coda scene, and came face to face with Michelle Gomez’s Missy, the Mary Poppins of Heaven. While it is annoying that we have yet another mysterious female claiming to be the Doctor’s girlfriend, one of Moffat’s more notably overused tropes, I am intrigued to see where this storyline goes…

On the visual side of things, this was the first of two episodes directed by Ben Wheatley. Yes, Ben ‘Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England’ Wheatley. Which I was very excited about. But, as it turns out, this wasn’t even a particularly well-directed episode. He did a fine job with the slower, character-focused scenes, but the action scenes were… well, awkward. The Doctor riding a horse that’s consistently just out of shot, with a joke about him directing it the wrong way that clearly worked better in the script because on screen it doesn’t actually change direction. And the climactic Paternosters vs. droids battle felt that bit too constrained, sticking to tight shots so as to avoid being clear as to what’s actually going on. Hopefully, Wheatley will do better next week, but I’d like to see more of the energy and inventiveness that director Adam Smith brought to – yes, it’s that comparison again – The Eleventh Hour.

This review may sound harsh, but there were a lot of enjoyable moments in Deep Breath. The Doctor contemplating his new face while confusing a tramp. Clara struggling not to breathe while escaping the activating robots, terrified and alone. Strax’s newspaper antics. The Eleventh Doctor’s cameo. I just wish all these moments had been placed within a more coherent narrative. Deep Breath may not be a patch on The Eleventh Hour, but it introduces a fascinating new Doctor, may lead to an interesting new direction for Clara, and sets up a story arc that I’m excited to see more of, so I’m awaiting with bated breath my next appointment with the Twelfth Doctor.


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