So here we are. Doctor number twelve. Peter Capaldi. He totters uncertainly out of the Tardis, disorientated and confused. He manages to insult several people before promptly collapsing on the banks of the Thames without another word, a brief taste of what is to come. As far as introducing the new Doctor goes, this episode played a very audacious, very risky game. The Twelfth Doctor’s first scenes aren’t the most flattering. The viewer can’t help being taken aback, and just a bit repelled, as the Doctor is given the part of the senile, confused old man in his post-regeneration trauma. Gone is the familiar face and voice of Matt Smith, in their place a total alien, something entirely different. We’re unsure of him. Some of us might be daring to entertain the thought, “Is this guy really the Doctor?”, and the characters onscreen helpfully vocalise our uncertainties and insecurities.
But surely that was the point. It’s made clear throughout the episode that the Doctor isn’t even sure of himself; even after he recovers, he isn’t sure who he is. If the Doctor doesn’t know who he is, we certainly can’t expect to. And that’s what makes it interesting. This episode isn’t trying to do what previous new Doctor introduction stories did in showcasing the new Doctor, making us fall in love with him and forget all about the previous Doctor. It’s deliberately wrong-footing us and making us unsure. By the end of the episode we’re not supposed to be completely taken and convinced by Capaldi. The episode establishes that the new Doctor is something completely different to what we’ve seen before, but tries to reassure us (that phone call), and says “Just trust us. Bear with us. We know you’re unsure, but trust us. It’s going to be a whopper.” It’s a risky game the show is playing; it could have gone the safe route, à la The Eleventh Hour, but what it’s doing here has great narrative potential. The only consequence are the viewers whom the change alienated too much, like a good friend of mine who, at the time, was probably a bigger fan than I was, and who has since given up on Doctor Who.
Nothing but praise should be given to Peter Capaldi himself, though, who held himself in his first stint in the role superlatively. He’s easily, by a good length, the best actor ever to inhabit the role (apart from John Hurt). That’s not to diminish the contributions and the talents of any of the previous incumbents at all, but, even from this episode alone, it’s clear that Capaldi’s acting is noticeably on another level to any of his predecessors. That’s why, despite my own initial uncertainties about Capaldi, I was really excited to see what he would do with the role in the series to come and into the future. He’s too good an actor not to prove to be an amazing Doctor. It’s one of the reasons I’m positively gnawing at the bit to see what Series 9 brings us. I mean, just watch the scene in the alley where the Doctor contemplates his new face (and ends up nearly assaulting a tramp). Capaldi is a positively hypnotic presence there. As in the scene he faces off with the Half Face Man in the balloon. He’s captivating throughout the entire episode.
There’s another sense in which Deep Breath is very different from The Eleventh Hour. The latter was focussed predominantly on the introduction of the new Doctor and companion, and with the wholesale revamping of the show that it represented. Plot was a subordinate consideration, as it rather used the hi-jinks of Prisoner Zero as a narrative device to carry the character introductions, which were its overriding purpose. Here the plot is fully fleshed out, and could even stand as a brilliant story in itself, shorn of the burden of introducing the new Doctor at the same time. The freaky clockwork droids from The Girl in the Fireplace return almost unrecognisable, and they’ve opened up the diner from hell. They even serve as an intelligent allegory for the Doctor’s own constant change and reinvention. “There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.” There was some wonderful scary fun to be had with these dreadful droids, like the Half Face Man’s interrogation of Clara, which was genuinely suspenseful, gripping, edge-of-seat stuff. And the Doctor’s rescue of Clara was one of those amazing, fist-pumping “Doctor” moments on par with Matt Smith’s confrontation with the Atraxi in The Eleventh Hour, or Eccleston’s “Everybody lives!” moment in The Doctor Dances. I did think, though, that the episode took too long to get to the substance of the story; it meandered a bit in the first half as it followed the Paternosters around. Although, I have to admit, I am actually warming to the Paternosters; they’re actually quite enjoyable to watch here (especially Strax).
The only major thing I’d be critical of in this episode was the way Clara was portrayed. She’s written fairly disagreeably for most of this episode, judgmental and put out about the Doctor’s change of appearance. What annoys me about this is that Clara, of all people, should be understanding about the Doctor’s regeneration. She’s seen all his faces, she understands the nature of regeneration, she knows he’s not really the handsome young man she knew. She’s met him as an old man before in the War Doctor, and arguably in the First Doctor (depending on whether she actually remembers her other lives), and literally, only moments before, saw “her” Doctor as a decrepit, wizened old man on Trenzalore. I know that Clara’s insecurities over the Doctor’s change are supposed to be an analogue for the feelings of the audience, but from an in-story perspective it really makes no sense at all. Colour me baffled. This is no reflection on Jenna Coleman herself, though, who carried her part superbly, especially in Clara’s interrogation by the Half Face Man. Jenna did the best she could with what she was given, and it at least says something about her performance that she managed to evoke the reaction she did in me to her character.