Matt Smith was not a bad Doctor contrary to what some say. He did however suffer from some truly awful scripts, and his second series was frankly, a total bloody mess as the series showrunner (an awful American thing which doesn’t really work in the world of British television) pumped out one half arsed script which involved Smith’s Doctor standing around looking puzzled as all the characters Moffat seemed more invested in (Rory, Amy, River Song) pushed the programme along. Smith’s last series was better, but after an ok first series, and a pretty terrible second, he never had the chance he deserved.
This wasn’t to say Smith didn’t have some great scripts. The Doctor’s Wife and Vincent and the Doctor are splendid but most of the time Smith had to wade through some of the most awful twee nonsense and no more so in his final story, The Time of the Doctor, a story which took plotlines and developments which had been built up for three or four years and resolved in a sentence. It was a huge disappointment after the surprisingly good 50th anniversary episode.
So when Smith came to the end of his run, it seemed like a good point to reboot the programme as it has done so many times over the years, but Moffat was still in charge albeit with the BBC taking a more guiding hand to ensure they get a full series a year and of course a new Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi. Casting Capaldi was an instant declaration that things would change from the tone Moffat established during Smith’s run, but what exactly has changed in Capaldi’s first episode? After all the hints from the trailers are that there will be a massive change in tone?
Well Moffat has got a proper film director to direct it in the shape of Ben Wheatley. Wheatley is the director of the astonishing A Field in England which is one of the best films of this decade. The script however is still by Moffat, and in fact, the majority of this series is going to have Moffat scripts which is worrying based upon the evidence of the last couple of series. There’s also heavy use of the Paternoster Gang; fan favourites who are in serious danger of being overused, but clearly Moffat is trying to make things as safe as possible for all those fans still moaning about the casting of Capaldi as ‘too old’ , or an ‘old white guy’. Doctor Who now isn’t just a children’s programme & enjoyed by fans of different generations, but it’s a multi million pound moneymaking machine for the BBC popular around the planet, and with the BBC suffering from budget cuts and various scandals, they need something safe and secure.
As a regeneration episode, Deep Breath, follows the now well trodden cliches. A disorientated Doctor, his companion/s looking at him with curiosity, concern and alarm, not to mention very meta comments about what the new actor playing the Doctor looks like. There is a new title sequence and thankfully that horribly pompous version of the theme music has been replaced by something weirder and more electronic, but the most obvious change is that the pace is slower, much much slower so characters don’t just run around like lunatics. People actually stand around having conversations, which does belie the fact there’s a horrible amount of exposition in this episode, but Wheatley’s direction makes it interesting with some very good direction which is at times very avant garde which is what one would expect from the director but may well disorientate some people expecting straightforward action direction which has been the norm for the past few series.
It’s not just the direction which has changed the tone, it’s the script. Yes, at times it’s a bit too all over the place, not to mention it’s reusing Moffat’s previous ideas, but on the whole it’s the sort of standard that made Moffat’s reputation on the programme. However it does feel a wee bit too staid at times, but with the episode’s focus on Jenna Coleman’s Clara companion it does feel that Moffat is reacting to the criticism that his female characters are bland one-dimensional stereotypes. He’s beefed out Clara in this episode which gives Coleman a chance to show that she can indeed act, but Moffat does only drag Clara up to two dimensions. It is an improvement I suppose.
The main drive of the episode is Capaldi. He quickly makes the role his after the usual scrambled Doctor stuff, and even though Moffat does pander to a section of fans (something this programme is becoming too used to doing even if it’s not good for itself) by having Matt Smith pop up in a cameo to reassure Clara (who is effectively mirroring what Moffat thinks is going to be part of the audiences reaction) that Capaldi is the Doctor and she needs to stick with him. It’s a nice idea but it is pandering not to mention it’s not letting go. I’d have preferred Clara and the Doctor to bond without the reassurance as we’re never sure what Capaldi’s Doctor is going to do (at one point we think he’s left Clara to her death) which after a couple of fairly heroic and reliable Doctors is a refreshing change. Capaldi drags even the most average dialogue in this up and he makes the entire thing seem much, much bigger.
They’ll be a lot of talk about the darker tone that Capaldi brings, which will be new for people used only to the new series, but the Doctor being a bit of a bastard was established by William Hartnell from the start, and traces of that turned up with every other Doctor since, especially Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee who is where Capaldi seems to have drawn some inspiration from. His portrayal though is his own clearly from the off.
Overall Deep Breath is a promising start as it tells a reasonably good story featuring the return of one of the new series monsters which will also serve to ease veiwers into these new waters. People will talk about the interspecies lesbian kiss, and the change in pace but by the end of the episode Capaldi is the centre of the programme as it should be. The episode ends with a tease of what is going to be the series overarching story. Hopefully it’s not horrendously convoluted as the last two series, but ultimately enjoy this episode for the start of a promising new Doctor and for Peter Capaldi’s lovely performance.