‘Doctor Who’ Kicks Off Series 8 With More of a Theme Than a Plot

By  · Published on August 24th, 2014

BBC America

Would a Doctor by any other face smell so sweet? Not if he’s wearing a tramp’s coat, apparently. With the first episode of Doctor Who’s Series 8, Peter Capaldi is a jarring presence as the Twelfth Doctor, mainly to companion Clara “Impossible Girl” Oswald (Jenna Coleman) but also to an audience used to younger actors in the role since its reboot almost a decade ago. It’s not just because he’s older, though; the thick, sometimes hard to understand Scottish brogue is as rough as his new “attack-eyebrows” appear to be.

And maybe it’s an odd appearance because we’ve seen Capaldi on the show prominently before. Does the Doctor acknowledge this deja vu? Has he seen this face before, as he says in the alley to that tramp, in the same place we have? Is it just a coincidence that Capaldi played Caecilius in the 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii” and this new episode, “Deep Breath,” debuted on the same date as that earlier one took place, only 1,935 years earlier? This is one of the many things we’ll have to wait to see as the series continues.

I also look forward to seeing if the show can quickly get over Capaldi’s distinction and offer up some truly entertaining installments. “Deep Breath,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ben Wheatley (Kill List; Sightseers), was not very interesting plot-wise. For one thing, there was the matter of Moffat bringing back the Clockwork Robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” one of his great early scripts from before he took control of Doctor Who as head writer and producer. Such a reminder of much better storytelling.

But the question is whether he was even concerned with telling a story, or if he wanted instead to simply play with a theme and then threw a plot together as an afterthought. And the Clockwork Robots were the best fit for an adversary in dealing with that theme, because like the Doctor, the Tardis and Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Jenny (Catrin Stewart), they are masking themselves in order to fit in better. More so, they have in common with the Doctor specifically a quandary similar to the “Ship of Theseus” paradox. Are they still the same thing or person if all their parts are replaced with new parts? Or is it the more directly referenced “Trigger’s Broom” paradox now? Also, what is this, the Fargo TV series?

There are some who think the episode was even more about theme than that, employing a forgettable story and villain while mainly presenting a reflexive piece dealing with Capaldi’s casting and the increased new-generation fandom of the show (read Ryan McGee’s take at Screen Crush). I don’t think Moffat is aiming for that much meta beyond the re-casting thing and the occasional internal wink, like one alluding to the Fourth Doctor’s “stupid” scarf, and external wink, such as a reference to the Scottish independence referendum. But considering how overstated he is with the broom paradox and Vastra’s veil and closeted homosexuality analogies, Moffat was clearly going for layers of deep thought here.

As for deep breaths, I am able to hold one for a long time regarding this show, especially after how convoluted the last series wound up being. And I could appreciate and enjoy any episode that begins with the Paternoster Gang, even if it still had us waiting a little too long for the first dialogue from Strax (Dan Starkey), not to mention one that includes a sexually objectified Tyrannosaurus rex, a hot air balloon made of human skin and an appearance, albeit very brief, by Tony Way (who you may have recognized from Game of Thrones). Plus, it must be said that Coleman has an immediate rapport with Capaldi that is a hundred times greater than her chemistry with Matt Smith (maybe I was the only one who didn’t need that phone call at the end). A shame if her rumored imminent departure from the show is true.

“Deep Breath” was far from the worst episode in recent years, but for its length and the length waited for it to arrive, I found it to be on the disappointing side. Capaldi brings a gruffness that I figured might be paired up with a creepier tone coming from Moffat and Wheatley. Yet it’s fairly goofy, especially the early moment where the Doctor makes his way through the branches of a tree and onto the back of a horse. That so many critics are referencing the brilliantly creepy and dramatic “Blink,” another classic early episode from Moffat, in reviews is absurd and further reminder that the writer isn’t what he once was.

Good on him, though, for giving us a little epilogue to bait any disappointed fans with an intriguing new character who’ll surely be a connecting thread for Series 8. Not only am I curious about who Missy (Michelle Gomez) is, but I’m dying to find out why her “Paradise” is the same garden we saw Amy Pond discover on the planet Apalapucia in the 2011 episode “The Girl Who Waited.”

BBC America


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.