The sun was blazing in Cardiff for the opening event in the world tour that will take Doctor Who into such previously unheralded territories as Brazil and South Korea, and so Series Eight got off to the perfect start. St David’s Hall was (more or less, there were a few empty press seats) packed out, and the crowd couldn’t have been more receptive, cheering any and all mentions of Peter Capaldi’s name as well as, well, just about every mention of anything else, too.
The episode itself isn’t without problems, though, not the least of which is the running time. 75 minutes or so might be a perfect length for a premiere of this kind, especially one which comes with around an hour’s worth of Q&A afterwards, but you need to fill those minutes appropriately and I’m not sure that was achieved here. Steven Moffat has a habit of creating 45 minute shots of Doctor Who that are light on genuine story but laden with plottiness, filling the running time with razor-sharp dialogue and quirky narrative beats that serve to bulk out what are in fact deceptively straightforward episodes. If Deep Breath is any indication, then the approach Moffat has adopted in order to revitalise his take on Doctor Who hasn’t been to eschew the “fairytale” elements so despised by many (both the fairytale and the emotional core of the modern series are not just present here but absolutely front and centre), but to pare back the over-detailing in the storytelling, and leave us instead with something that no longer deceives the audience into thinking it’s more convoluted than it really is.
Deep Breath isn’t remotely over-elaborate, and in fact tells a story that is perhaps too simple for its own good; for all the world it might have been an interesting take on the sort of copycat Jack the Ripper killer that modern versions of Victorian murder thrillers are so fond of, with an only-in-Doctor Who conclusion that would have been its salvation. Rather than go down that particular path, Deep Breath instead launches straight from the beginning of the investigation to its conclusion (via the kind of Moffat-esque intervention that’s tremendous fun in the unfolding but will no doubt become frustrating in the three months leading up to the series’ finale), and in this manner it is reminiscent of Russell Davies’ The Runaway Bride, in that the final confrontation arrives two-thirds of the way through the episode and thus unbalances the flow of the story. When a single scene takes up a huge percentage of your screen time, it needs to be pretty damn good for the audience not to notice. And of course, no Steven Moffat-penned exchange will ever be dull, so Deep Breath just about manages to get away with it. But the big difference is, The Runaway Bride was a 45-minute episode stretched to sixty, while the Series Eight opener is 45 minutes stretched 25% further and it tells. Deep Breath feels like nothing so much as an episode that’s had all the deleted scenes that were excised for pace and relevance edited back in. Fortunately Moffat’s dialogue trips so delightfully off the characters' tongues that you barely notice, and then, of course, there’s the real reason we have the extra half an hour of screen time (well, other than to justify the cinema screenings and a standalone Blu-ray release, that is).
Peter Capaldi is absolutely wonderful.
I must admit to having been a little worried, after his announcement, that he and Steven Moffat would take the expected “dark Doctor” route just a little too far, but my inner voice was telling me – particularly in light of Paul McGann’s short outing in The Night of the Doctor – that the differences between Capaldi and his predecessor were likely to be in the performance rather than in the writing. I’m happy to report this is indeed the case. Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor has every bit the same turn of memorable phrasing as his immediate antecedent, and his relationship both with Clara and the rest of the world around him – while channelled here through the prism of the post-regeneration crisis – is just as eccentric and every bit as otherworldly as Matt Smith’s was. This is resolutely not the Malcolm Tucker Doctor, and decisively the successor to the Moffat-shaped eleventh, with a couple of tweaks that will keep long-term fans happy and more recently arrived ones satisfied enough to stay on board. Essentially Capaldi is a match for the War Doctor in personality but approached from the opposite angle. There’s undoubtedly just a little more steel when called for in this new Doctor. The question of his having aged as part of the regeneration is addressed in an idiosyncratic way that only a combination of Steven Moffat’s dialogue coming out of Peter Capaldi’s mouth could achieve, managing to be both hilarious and rather moving, while also setting up a character development for the series ahead that will lead no doubt to a kind of bitter-sweet re-engagement between Doctor and companion. Already the seeds are here being sown for the relationship between Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to become more interesting and more involving than Moffat (and perhaps even Davies) has previously managed. One to keep an eye on.
This is perhaps also the episode’s biggest flaw, however. There are a number of different ways in which to introduce a new Doctor to an existing companion, and the one chosen here belies the series’ immediate past. Clara Oswald may not remember being or understand why the Doctor calls her The Impossible Girl, but it’s a basic element of her character that she has that capacity within her, and in choosing to show her rejecting – or at the very least struggling to accept – the new Doctor, what Moffat is essentially doing is betraying his characters for the sake of the bigger story. That this bigger story is a new, global audience of 70 million people who might need bringing up to speed on the concept of having a new Doctor perhaps excuses the choice, but it still feels inherently wrong – and the way in which this subplot concludes feels rather like disloyalty towards his new leading actor too.
Overall, then, while Deep Breath is neither as sharp nor as breathless as The Eleventh Hour was, it nevertheless manages to introduce Peter Capaldi’s new incarnation of the Doctor in a relaxed and entertaining fashion, and although it’s unlikely to set pulses racing nor to assuage the doubts of those who wanted a fundamentally new vision for the series, what it will do is reassure all viewers that Capaldi was not only the right choice, but the only sensible one. If this new pace is any indication, then the ride ahead of us is unlikely to be as wild as the one we’ve just experienced, but with Moffat at the tiller there’s no doubt it will be just as diverse and unpredictable as we’ve come to expect.
As previously mentioned, the screening was followed by quite a substantial Q&A session, the questions almost exclusively fielded from the members of the auditorium, and which was almost as enjoyable as the screening itself. Steven Moffat as usual played up very amusingly to the role of the curmudgeonly Scot, and while this is evidently something of a mask (he would appear, like many writers, slightly uncomfortable in such public situations), what it does enable him to do is embrace a level of honesty in his responses – albeit heavily disguised under the humour – that a more PR-speak savvy individual might avoid. It’s always refreshing to hear Moffat talk about writing because you actually feel you learn something, even as he’s making you smile – and it’s possible to read his answers as suggesting a Paternoster Gang spin-off series could well be on the cards (I still think the name of such a thing ought to be Menagerie a Trois), along with an Easter Special next year marking the tenth anniversary of the series’ return to our screens. Or was it just me who took that away from the conversation?
Jenna Coleman was as lovely as ever, but the real revelation was Peter Capaldi. Charming, affable, intelligent, generous, great with kids, everything you’ve read about his personality from the filming reports is true. He’s a far more easy-going presence in interviews than Matt Smith was, and his in-depth knowledge of its first fifteen or twenty years of the series is going to be an invaluable asset in Doctor Who’s attempt to conquer the Earth (we even had Danny Pink on hand in the audience in order to to reassure those who feared an older Doctor might alienate a certain segment of the audience; not so anyway, if the reaction of that portion within St David’s Hall is anything to go by). Like Moffat, there’s an authenticity and a love for Doctor Who couched within the humorous responses, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch their collaboration unfold.
Deep Breath might not be quite as dynamic and as wonderfully stupefying as Doctor Who can be when it’s on really top form, but it’s as satisfying as anyone might have hoped given the expectations laid upon it, and there is every indication that the forthcoming series might just see Doctor Who entering its most interesting and popular era yet.