Independent and intelligent Doctor Who publishing from I.B.Tauris. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 2010.
BBC1. 7.50 pm. 23.08.2014.
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Ben Wheatley
The start of a new season of Doctor Who always carries a weight of expectation, especially so when it also heralds the debut of a new Doctor. The debut episode represents a particular challenge for writers. Audiences need time to adjust to the new Doctor: he has to win our respect and loyalty at a time while memories of his immediate predecessor remain strong. There needs to be space for developing the new star’s quirks and eccentricities, and to allow him to stamp his own personality on the Doctor. This leaves little time for the usual business of plot development and obligatory ‘monster of the week’ story. Hence there has often been a tendency to surround the new Doctor with established characters and elements that need no introduction of their own: continuing companions and old monsters that need little or no exposition provide a sort of writers’ comfort blanket that allow them to focus on developing the character of the new incumbent in the title role.
Yet it would probably be fair to say that this strategy has sometimes been less than entirely successful – both in the classic series and in the new. We can’t properly assess the debut story of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton as ‘Power of the Daleks’ is a mostly ‘lost’ adventure accessible now only through the sound recordings. Nevertheless it established the strategy for new Doctor debut stories and played it safe by pitting Troughton’s Doctor against the series’ favourite monsters. Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s debut ‘Spearhead from Space’ had the novelty of being the first colour Doctor Who serial and set the formula for the Pertwee-Barry Letts-Terrance Dicks years with its Earth-bound invasion narrative – though even so it looked to the past in reintroducing UNIT which had previously featured in the late Second Doctor story ‘The Invasion’. It was successful enough that the following season-opener ‘Terror of the Autons’ was as near to a straight remake as any Doctor Who story. And if Fourth Doctor Tom Baker’s debut ‘Robot’ seems like a throwback to the Pertwee era, that may be attributed to the fact that it was written by outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks. It was a hangover from the past at a time when the new production team of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were about to take Doctor Who into its period of High Gothic.
In retrospect Fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s debut in ‘Castrovalva’ seems one of the more innovative new Doctor stories. Davison had an existing ‘family’ of companions and an old/new foe (Anthony Ainley’s Master) to ease the transition from the seven–year reign of Tom Baker, but script writer Christopher H. Bidmead had loftier ambitions for the series. He wrote ‘Castrovalva’ as a direct sequel to Baker’s farewell episode ‘Logopolis’: both stories were characterised by their intellectual imagination – though the longeurs in plotting left some audiences bewildered. Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s debut ‘The Twin Dilemma’ is by general consent one of the weakest of all Doctor Who stories and is perhaps best forgotten except by all but the most diehard fans. The botched regeneration sequence at the beginning of ‘Time and the Rani’ was forced upon the producers when Baker refused to appear for the changeover: otherwise it again adhered to the safety-first strategy by pitting Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy against a returning villain.
If we skip over the Paul McGann tv movie, ‘Rose’ was more than just a new Doctor debut episode but the premiere of an entirely new Doctor Who series. Even so Russell T. Davies included some fan-pleasing nods to the series’ past in borrowing motifs and villains from ‘Spearhead from Space’. David Tennant’s debut adventure ‘The Christmas Invasion’ was allowed a longer running time but kept the Tenth Doctor off screen for much of the time recovering from his regeneration. Otherwise the strategy was familiar from ‘Power of the Daleks’, as Davies focused on the Doctor’s companion Rose and her difficulty in accepting the man with the new face. I would argue that ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is the best-realised debut adventure of the new series – and possibly of all Doctor Who. Like ‘Rose’ it successfully introduced a new Doctor and a new companion but also due to its longer running time had space for character development and an interesting one-off foe (the Atraxi). And while it included a fan-pleasing montage of previous Doctors to assert its links with the series’ past, this was a brief moment that would not have deterred viewers new to Doctor Who.
All of which brings me to ‘Deep Breath’, the eagerly-awaited debut episode of Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi. (For the purpose of this blog I am following the traditional continuity that Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Capaldi are Doctors 9-12: of course the established continuity was disrupted by the appearance of the previously unknown ‘War Doctor’ in the fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ in 2013). On one level the episode asserts its newness with yet another stylistic makeover for the series: new title sequence (replacing the old ‘time tunnel’ effect with a pleasingly retro-styled clocks and watches motif), another new arrangement of the theme music, and yet another new TARDIS interior. (Ever since ‘The Eleventh Hour’ the Doctor must have been a regular customer at the Metebelis branch of IKEA judging by the frequency of his interior redecorations.) Yet these elements themselves are largely cosmetic. Otherwise ‘Deep Breath’ follows the traditional strategy of surrounding the new Doctor with established supporting characters – yet another turn for Silurian avenger Madame Vastra and comedy Sontaran Strax – and focusing on the reaction of regular companion Clara to the Time Lord’s regeneration. In particular Clara’s adjustment to the fact of an older Doctor not only acknowledges the age difference between Capaldi and Matt Smith but also suggests that Series 8 of Doctor Who is finally distancing itself from the possibility of a romantic relationship between Doctor and companion that has been ever present since the series returned in 2005.
‘Deep Breath’ opens with what we now recognise as a characteristic Steven Moffat trait. Rather than picking up from the immediate aftermath of the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration at the end of ‘The Time of the Doctor’, we find ourselves in Victorian London with a dinosaur on the rampage and panic in the streets. Of course dinosaurs on the streets of London are not a new thing in Doctor Who, though the CGI gigantosaurus here is rather better realised than the static puppets of ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’. This is a device that Moffat often employs: to grab our attention with a narrative hook that in the event proves tangential to the main narrative. The much–trailed return of the Zygons in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was another example: the real event there turned out to be the resolution of the Time War. Otherwise – and unlike ‘The Eleventh Hour’ – Moffat follows the safety–first strategy by bringing back a previous foe in the form of the clockwork robots last seen eight years ago in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. The Doctor was slow to recognise them – as he had been with the Great Intelligence in the 2012 Christmas special ‘The Snowmen’ – which may be a way of allowing the fans to work it out for themselves before the Big Reveal. This was never better done than with the revelation in ‘Utopia’ that the kindly Professor Yana was in fact The Master in a disguise so perfect that he had forgotten who he was.
Where ‘Deep Breath’ differs from previous new Doctor Who debut stories, however, is that it is not set in contemporary Britain – whether the council-estate London of ‘Rose’ and ‘The Christmas Invasion’ or the picturesque English village setting of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ – but rather in the past. The Victorian period has been a favourite for Doctor Who since ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, though it really came into its own during the Gothic period of the 1970s with stories such as ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock’. In new Who the Doctor has met Charles Dickens in Victorian Cardiff (‘The Unquiet Dead’) and has seen the Cyber King striding over the London skyline (‘The Next Doctor’). The Tenth Doctor and Rose even met Queen Victoria herself – and saved her from an alien werewolf (‘Tooth and Claw’). The Eleventh Doctor and Clara had already experienced two Victorian adventures in Series 7 (‘The Snowmen’ and ‘The Crimson Horror’) and in this sense the decision to revisit the period again so soon seems curiously unimaginative.
Yet there is also a sense in which the Victorian period is ideal for Doctor Who. Many of the series’ cultural influences are drawn from late nineteenth-century popular literature: the early Sherlock Holmes stories (referenced several times here including, most obliquely, the character of Inspector Gregson), for example, and the ‘scientific romance’ of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. And the Doctor himself has always had something of a Victorian gentleman about him. From William Hartnell’s First, there had always been a Victorian (or Edwardian) influence on the Doctor’s dress, and, while this aspect was downplayed in Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who, it began to re-emerge during Matt Smith’s tenure as he abandoned his original tatty tweed jacket for a resplendent velvet frock coat. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has retained the frock coat though in a more restrained and sober style that seems suited to his performance.
So what of Capaldi as the Doctor? My feeling is that while ‘Deep Breath’ may not have been quite so good a debut episode for Capaldi as ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was for Matt Smith – the presence of continuing companions and the return to a recently used place and period made it less of a fresh start than the opening of the 2010 series – nevertheless here is a Doctor who is going to take the series forward into exciting new areas. It was expected that Capaldi would restore a sense of gravitas to the role after the youthful zest of his two immediate predecessors. This he does – and also distances himself from the touchy–feely New Men characterised by Tennant and Smith (‘I’m not a huggy person’). Some commentators have compared his performance to Hugh Laurie’s Dr Gregory House – a character also partly inspired by Sherlock Holmes – though it seems to me that it is the acidic wit of Malcolm Tucker, Capaldi’s character from The Thick of It, that comes through more in the Doctor’s contemptuous put-downs of those less intelligent than himself. This was also a characteristic of William Hartnell’s Doctor and is another indication that Capaldi and Moffat are returning Doctor Who to its roots. It’s too early yet to say that Capaldi may be the best actor to play the Doctor since Patrick Troughton but he may well be the best since Christopher Ecclestone. He already seems assured and confident in the role. I look forward to the rest of the series with high expectations.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.