Sunday, 24 August 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-1) Deep Breath

There's a moment in Deep Breath where the Doctor, still settling into his new body, faces down the sinister Half-Faced Man and questions its continual replacement of body parts. The desperate droid has maintained its existence for millions of years, but every single part of its body has been replaced, time and again. “There's not a trace of the original you left,” says the Doctor. “You probably can't even remember where you got that face from.” Realisation dawns on the Doctor's own face, the thirteenth he's worn and one that looks strangely familiar to him. He might as well be talking about himself.

The Doctor's comparison of the Half-Faced Man – and by extension, himself – to a broom that has had its handle and brush continually replaced is an apt one, albeit one that brings to mind a classic scene from another long-running BBC series, Only Fools and Horses. The Doctor has changed so many times that it's hard to see how much of the original character is left, even though, in age and character, Peter Capaldi's version is closer to William Hartnell's than any of the eleven in-between. While it can be argued that the Doctor remains the Doctor, underneath the surface trappings, it's harder to say the same about the series itself. In its thirty-fourth season and approaching its fifty-first birthday, Doctor Who has moved far beyond its original conception. There are, however, always links to the past, tying the long history of the show together.

Deep Breath is, simultaneously, a restating of the series' goals and a reassurance to fans of Matt Smith's episodes that this is the same show. Much has been made of this being Capaldi's version of Robot, and much as Tom Baker's first episode reassured viewers by essentially having him guest in Jon Pertwee's series, Deep Breath provides the same service for Capaldi. As well as carrying over Clara as the Doctor's companion, the subsidiary team of Jenny, Vastra and Strax are there to underline the point that yes, this is still Doctor Who, and that strange, angry man is still the Doctor. In fact, Deep Breath goes considerably further than Robot in this regard, providing viewers with something of a greatest hits catalogue of Moffat tricks. The tyrannosaur in the Thames is a visual treat to open the season, and brings to mind the similarly visually rich 2012 episode Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, even up to the scene of the Doctor mourning the senseless death of animal. The villain is a rejigged version of the clockwork robots from The Girl in the Fireplace, Moffat's celebrated 2006 story for David Tennant, simplified to become a straightforward monster for the Doctor to square up against. Favourites like Amy and Handles are mentioned.

Most significantly, there is the special cameo from the previous Doctor himself. Clara receives a phone call from the Doctor during their previous adventure (literally so, since Matt Smith's scene was recorded during the filming of The Time of the Doctor). While for some this may feel like shoe-horning in the series' previous star, for others it is a reassurance that this is the same character and series. There's a touching video that has spread across the web, in which Capaldi speaks to a young girl and lets her know that Matt Smith has said it's alright for him to be the Doctor. Smith's appearance in the episode does the same, settling the many children who will have watched the episode unsure what to make of this grey-haired Scotsman who has replaced their hero. That is comes after Capaldi's similarly unannounced appearance in The Day of the Doctor is perfect. As fans, we're used to the series having clearly demarcated eras. These days, eras overlap.

However one takes the familiar trappings of the episode, Capaldi's performance can only be praised. This odd, spindly man, stalking around on wobbly legs like a newborn gazelle, arrives in a wave of manic post-regenerative confusion. So far, so familiar, and while it's easy enough to imagine the previous couple of Doctors speaking these lines, Capaldi does something quite different with them. His bitching at the terrestrials as “pudding-brains” and gawkers comes across not as mild irritation or eccentricity, but genuine, fiery anger. The mania is there, but it's an ill, tired mania, the madness of a distressed mind. He dismisses his friends and escapes into the wilds of London's alleys. The Doctor terrifies a poor homeless man with his ramblings, before persuading him to part with his coat. He's wonderfully, vehemently Scottish. This is our third Scot in the role, of course, but while Sylvester McCoy's accent was barely commented upon in the series, and David Tennant disguised his, Capaldi and Moffat, proud Scots both, celebrate it. “I'm Scottish, I can complain about things!” Just like his weathered face, the accent is a mysterious acquisition that the Doctor cannot explain, but one that he revels in.

Once he's settled down, of course, the Doctor gives us a much better idea of what he will be like from now on. While Capaldi definitely has the comedy chops for the silly parts, his real skill is at the angry, the mysterious, and the unnerving. His scene with Clara in the restaurant sees him at his best, inhuman, bizarre and inquisitive. It's distinctly Sherlock-like, with Moffat crossing his style fro series to series; it's very easy to imagine Cumberbatch and Freeman reading Capaldi and Coleman's lines. Indeed, with the Victorian setting and Vastra's “The game is afoot!” line, there's a definite Sherlockian vibe to the whole episode. While the episode takes much of its material from its Matt Smith precursors, the style is slowed down considerably. Scenes are longer and wordier, giving the actors time to truly impress us with their performances. The aforementioned restaurant scene in particular is one of the longest we've had since the series returned nine years ago. Combined with the longer running time of this opening episode, this more sedate style is a benefit. It allows the manic parts to truly stand out, and the plot to take a breath between.

As much as I love both Tennant and Smith in the role, there's a feeling for me, as an old-school fan, that the Doctor is finally back. Capaldi has a gravitas and severity that we haven't seen in the Doctor since Christpher Eccleston's series. While The Day and The Time of the Doctor both allowed Moffat to play with an older Doctor, these were very much a warm-up for the new incarnation. Yet, both from Capaldi's peformance and Moffat's script, there's a more alien feel to the Doctor now. This Doctor thinks nothing of slipping a severed human face onto his own or his companion's, and when the Doctor abandons Clara, we can believe he really isn't coming back. Sure, we know that Clara will be OK and that the Doctor will save the day eventually, but for a moment we can honestly believe that the Doctor doesn't give a damn about his companion.

For her part, Clara comes into her own here. Finally she has begun to feel as if she really has some character of her own. Seeing her square up to the Doctor, Lady Vastra and the Half-Faced Man shows that she has some real spirit and conviction, and finally given some strong material, Jenna Coleman shines. There's the feeling that, given a less cuddly Doctor to work with, Clara has a chance to be more interesting. Smith's Doctor liked her too much; Capaldi's version keeps her on her toes, and forces her to be more independent as a character. One of the most interesting parts of a regeneration is seeing how the companion reacts to the new Doctor, and this is something that was missing in the complete revamp of the series that accompanied Smith's debut. While Clara has some experience dealing with other and older Doctors, her handsome young Doctor always came back, even after he'd grown into an old man on Trenzalore. This time, he's gone, and the old man is here to stay, and the only female he's flirting with is a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The supporting cast all do well. It's gratifying to see Catrin Stewart get some stronger material, since Jenny has previously felt somewhat overlooked in favour of Vastra and Strax. For their part, Neve McIntosh and Dan Starkey have so completely settled into their characters that they can't put a foot wrong. Brian Miller has a lovely scene as the tramp, and it's a nice touch having him in the series again. Quite exceptional though is Peter Ferdinando as the Half-Faced Man, quite terrifying and convincingly inhuman. His scenes with Capaldi are electrifying; two alien beings with steel wills and no idea of compromise.

Equally worthy of praise is the work of the effects team. While the Half-Faced Man is a reuse of the clockwork droids from the Madame de Pompadour, the effects used to create it are far in advance of what we saw then. The villain is a quite astonishing combination of performance, prosthetics, propwork and CGI visual effects. And the exposed eyeball is just revolting. It's not only the professionals who deserve praise however. The fans have been more involved than ever in this new series. The new title sequence is marvellous, created by Billy Hanshaw and discovered on YouTube before Moffat employed him to recreate it professionally. Also wonderful are the sonic devices used by the Paternoster Gang, designed by young Blue Peter contest entrants and realised by the talents of the visual effects team. Not only are these elements beautifully visualised, but they also feel perfectly fitting in the episode and, if it hadn't been publicised before, there would be no way of knowing that they were children's fan designs.

After the climax of the episode, the Doctor has fully arrived. He's settled on a new outfit and revamped his console room. He is ready to adventure and Clara is finally fully on his side. It's not quite business as usual, but it is time for adventure again. Moffat, of course, can't leave it at that, and for better or worse there has to be a mystery. Michelle Gomez is a favourite, quite wonderful at kooky and disturbed performances, and having her on board as a new villain is exciting. Quite who she is, of course, is subject to wild speculation. My own completely unfounded suggestion is that she's the ghost of Cameca from The Aztecs.

As with the fiftieth anniversary special, Deep Breath was simulcast into cinema theatres worldwide. It was shown in 450 theatres throughout the United Kingdom and more besides. On the big screen it is quite astonishingly effective, especially the displaced dinosaur (the lesson is: if you can have a dinosaur, do so. Always). Cinema-goers were treated to a special introduction by Strax himself, giving us a rundown of the Doctor's previous incarnations that was quite hilarious. (“The first Doctor, as you can see, was a woman.”) The main feature was followed by the first edition of Doctor Who Extra, the new, shorter, breathless replacement for Confidential, which was quite pointless but mercifully brief. Then we were treated to a live feed from a post-broadcast Q&A session with Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat. While Zoe Ball is a student of the shouting-and-pulling-faces style of presenting, this was an entertaining and interesting meeting with the people behind the series. And, when it comes right down to it, I'm with Capaldi on the ongoing argument about the Mondasian Cybermen.

And so, the first episode was a resounding success. The Doctor is on a mission to solve his mistakes and Daleks, Cybermen and Robin Hood await. A whole series of adventures are coming. Deep breath everyone.

Doctor Data: He doesn't know where he gets his faces, and although he does recognise this one, he can't place where from. He accepts that he wanted to be Clara's young, handsome boyfriend but that this isn't him, and thinks his subconscious is telling him something by giving him an older body. He can't quite rememebr where he's seen the clockwork robots before, and even the name SS Madame de Pompadour doesn't tip him off. I doubt Reinette would take kindly to that, but it has been 1200 years for him since that adventure.

Links: Vastra says, "Here we go again" when she sees the new Doctor, just like the Brigadier did after his third regeneration in Planet of the Spiders. Strax's thorax comment brings to mind Linx, Sarah-Jane and The Time Warrior. Clara gets to use the old "You've redecorated. I don't like it," line. She and the Doctor go for chips at the end, much like he did with Rose at The End of the World. The Doctor's appearance and collapse bring to mind the post-regenerative opening of The Christmas Invasion. The last time we saw a T. rex in London in Doctor Who was 1974's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Moffat claims in the post-broadcast interview that no other series can do that. Well, no other series except Primeval, maybe.

Threads: The Doctor is, naturally, in his predecessor's clothes to begin with, and despite the fact that the waistcoat is too short, he suits them better than Smith ever did. After that he spends much of his time in a nightshirt, before acquiring a stinking old coat and fingerless gloves from a tramp. He looks just right in the Victorian funeral clothes that he steals from a droid, even if he is covered in dust. Finally he wanders off and returns in his new modern retro ensemble. For her part, Clara changes into her green Victorian dress, although who laces her up and does her hair is anyone's guess. Strax wears a beret when he's driving the coach.

Hanky Panky in the TARDIS: As mentioned above, the only recipient of the Doctor's eye this time is the dinosaur. Jenny and Vastra flirt both with each other and with Clara to an extent. Jenna Coleman and Catrin Stewart are both very beautiful - as is Neve McIntosh, although it's harder to see that through all the latex. I also have a big crush on Michelle Gomez, but then I've always liked funny women.

Best Line: "Who frowned me this face?"
"Don't look at that mirror, it's absolutely furious!"

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