This past Saturday, the world got its introduction to Peter Capaldi’s as the 12th Doctor on the legendary British series, and the Internet’s Favorite Show*, Dr. Who, with the Series 8 opener “Deep Breath”. The extended first episode (roughly 104 minutes with commercials), attempts to balance asserting its mission statement and telling a rousing sci-fi adventure, and largely succeeds. “Deep Breath” is an excellent first episode, declaring its differences from series passed while staying true to the show and its central character.
The episode opens with a T-Rex stomping through the river Thames in Victorian-era London, which – let’s be honest here, Rooster Illusionists—is a pretty great way to open a season in general. While the Doctor would usually be springing into time travel action the moment the dinosaur touched down in the river, the recently regenerated 12th is having a bit of an identity crisis, struggling to not only figure out who he is, but who his companion is as well. From here the intro is admittedly a bit of a slow, oddly paced burn. The urgency of dealing with a giant, carnivorous lizard in one of the most densely populated cities in the world is put on hold while Clara and Madame Vastra (a character I had to look up; there are admittedly holes in my knowledge of the Matt Smith era) discuss the Doctor’s new face and Clara’s hesitance about it. The plot moves at a much brisker pace once we are introduced to the real threat of the episode and Clara’s reticence about the newly old Doctor is put to the task when they are actively working to save London from organ-harvesting androids. From here the mixture of plot and character work are more neatly and fluidly integrated, culminating in some excellent character defining work for Capaldi’s Doctor as he faces the Big Bad in the episode’s climax. Once it gets going, the episode has the tension that’s integral to so much classic Who (even if the resolution to the business with the T-Rex is underwhelming).
Thematically, “Deep Breath” is all about identity. Clara’s fears that she is now travelling with a stranger aren’t helped by the Doctor’s own slow coming to terms with his identity. Several sites have made note of how this regeneration is a more angst-ridden affair than previous ones, and this rings true. While the Doctor and his companions have pondered the consequences of the Doctor’s regeneration before (such as the opening of the Tennant era), there’s darkness to it this time around that is informed by Capaldi’s performance. The older actor, famous for impressively foul-mouthed characters is a definitive step away from Smith, a step that the Doctor is trying to understand as well as the audience. There’s a ton of references to mirrors and a neat bit of literal and figurative reflection going on in this episode, particularly with the aforementioned showdown with the episode’s main baddie (spoiler: he’s misunderstood). The episode’s central question—whether or not a being that is constantly changing or replacing itself is truly the same being it once was—looks like it might be one of the defining concerns of the new series and will hopefully develop in interesting ways.
If “Deep Breath” is trying to change the way the Doctor views himself this series, it’s also significantly changing the way he views his companions. “Clara, I’m not your boyfriend” is easily the Doctor’s boldest statement in this episode and is perhaps the one that made me let out the biggest sigh of relief. Too many of the modern series’ companion’s have suffered from what I will from here on out call Infatuated Companion Syndrome, restricting the role that the Doctor’s companions play instead of finding new, interesting things to do with the characters. You can only watch women fall all over a magical space man so many times before it gets problematic for the portrayal of women. Capaldi has decisively declared for a new kind of partnership to develop and I’m looking forward to it. It appears Clara is going to have to take a more direct role, as she helps this new Doctor figure himself out. I’m curious to see how this will play out given Jenna Coleman’s alleged departure from the series with this series’ Christmas episode. I’ll be anxious to see what this means for Moffat’s next choice of companion moving forward.
The audience is introduced to a new Doctor marked by contradiction. Capaldi is a physically harder man who exudes gruffness and—as the episode tactfully leaves unclear—perhaps even violence that is markedly different from past incarnations, yet at the same time he is able to joke just as ably as past Doctors and has a vulnerability, especially in the episode’s closing minutes, that is in an altogether different vein than what’s come before.
“Deep Breath” is good Dr. Who and just lain good television. If this episode’s to be taken as an omen, good things lie ahead in series 8.
Look for “Deep Breath” On Demand or presumedly airing on BBC America nonstop this week.
*Supernatural excluded, I guess.