Who’s Back? Who! That’s Who!

Last night (Saturday, August 23, 2014, for those of you reading this in the fuuuuuuture) was the long-awaited season premiere of Doctor Who.  For Who fans, this is the end of a long drought.  It’s been 15 months since the finale of the previous full season (which itself was cut into two sections with a break of several months in between), and eight months since the Christmas episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” in which Matt Smith finished his tenure in the role and handed the TARDIS over to the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

But our patience has finally been rewarded.  We have a full 13 hour season to look forward to…well, 11 now, since the premiere, “Deep Breath,” was two hours.  But that should last us into November, which means we’ll have less than two months to wait until this year’s Christmas special.  Compared to the sparse quantities of Who available to us over the last couple of years, (As I pointed out in THIS post, between the end of Season 6 in May 2011 and last night’s premiere, we only had 17 new episodes, which works out to less than six per 12 month period), this is an embarrassment of riches.  I’ll enjoy it while I can because who knows what the scheduling situation will be like next year.

What about the premiere itself?  Other than a fleeting appearance at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” this was our first real look at Peter Capaldi’s take on the Time Lord.  At 56, Capaldi is thirty years older than the previous Doctor, Matt Smith, was when he was announced in the role.  For the character, this isn’t a big deal.  He’s been an older man before (William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor, was 55 when he started in the part but played much older), and Matt Smith was the youngest actor to ever take on the part.

The real issue will be how the fans take to this sudden turn toward an older actor.  Since the series returned in 2005, the actors playing the Doctor have been getting younger and younger.  Christopher Eccleston (the Ninth Doctor) was 41 when he started, David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) was 35, and Matt Smith was 26.  Capaldi is a definite departure, and one person in my house is not happy about the change. 

As soon as Smith regenerated into Capaldi, my nine-year-old daughter (Who had no idea that the regeneration was coming, by the way.  Her daddy is sneaky like that) was upset: 

“He’s the Doctor now?” she asked in disbelief. 

“Yes,” I replied.

“I don’t think he’s going to be very good.  He’s old.”

Some time has now passed, and my daughter has reached the ripe old age of ten.  Her feelings on the subject, however, have not changed.  Just a few days ago, she told me that she missed “the pretty Doctor.”  Honestly, I had no idea she thought of Matt Smith as pretty.  She also misses Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond terribly (and spent the entirety of Guardians of the Galaxy rooting for Gillan’s character, Nebula).  She likes the current Companion, Clara, played by Jenna Coleman, but she’s no Amy.

It’s safe to say that my daughter is skeptical about this new season.  As she is away this weekend, though, I was able to watch the premiere episode without her non-stop scowling at Peter Capaldi.  So how did he do? 

(WARNING: Mild spoilers to follow.  I will be talking about specific moments in the episode in vague terms, but I will avoid a full recap.)

Despite a lot of talk in interviews that Capaldi would be a much darker Doctor, I found him to be very funny in the role.  I particularly loved his realization that he now has a Scottish accent and his comments about his eyebrows.  This is not to say that there isn’t a bit of darkness in his portrayal.  Both his dialogue and his actions during his final confrontation with the episode’s antagonist show that this Doctor is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect his friends and the innocent.   

Capaldi also has a lot of physicality in the role.  We have not gone back to the days of the First Doctor standing back while his companions handle the rough and tumble stuff.  He also doesn’t have the near-manic energy of Smith’s Doctor, but during the premiere Capaldi is jumping out of windows, riding horses, leaping off of bridges, and wrestling with robots.  He’s also able to be still and yet still commanding in a way that Smith did not (I won’t say “could not” because that just wasn’t his take on the Doctor.).  By the end of “Deep Breath,” I was absolutely ready to accept Capaldi as the Doctor.

The premiere also gave us Jenna Coleman’s best performance so far as companion Clara Oswald.  I have enjoyed her in the role since she first appeared in “Asylum of the Daleks” (I’m using Clara to cover all Claras.  Regular watchers know what I mean by that statement.), but I did not feel that most of the 7th season episodes gave her much to work with.  I would say that, outside of “Asylum,” “The Snowmen,” “The Day of the Doctor,” and “The Time of the Doctor” were her best work until last night. 

“Deep Breath” puts her in much more dire circumstances, not just in terms of physical peril, but also in terms of her relationship with the Doctor.  The man she knew and had such easy banter with (and kind of controlled, if we’re honest) is gone, replaced by someone who, at first, doesn’t seem to know her or care if she lives or dies.  Coleman gets to play all of Clara’s confusion, hurt, fear, sorrow, and anger while still showing her comedic chops and her ability to go toe-to-toe with Capaldi.  The restaurant scene between the two of them and the subsequent descent into the antagonist’s ship is really a long showcase for Coleman, and she is wonderful.

While the episode’s title, “Deep Breath,” has significance in the episode’s story, it is also relevant to the episode itself.  As the Matt Smith era progressed, episodes would fly by at a quicker and quicker pace.  Showrunner and Head Writer Steven Moffat could easily blow through ten amazing concepts in a single episode, any one of which could have been expanded into an episode of its own.  The pace was frantic, the dialogue passed by so fast that I’d occasionally have to rewatch scenes just to catch the explanation of what was going on, and the stories could feel rushed and incomplete.  The final two episodes of the Smith era, “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor” were improvements in this area, but “Deep Breath” really gave the story time to…well…breathe.  This isn’t to say that it’s a slow episode.  It’s definitely not.  From the appearance of a dinosaur in Victorian London in the very first scene, the episode moves right along, but it does so while still giving the characters moments to develop and deal with what’s happening around them.

“Deep Breath” was a fun and successful launch of Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, and I am looking forward to the rest of the season.  Next up, though, he faces his toughest challenge.  No, not the Daleks.  My daughter.

- Alan Decker

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