'Doctor Who' season premiere review: Out with the old, in with the older

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Image Credit: BBC

Peter Capaldi assumed the title of Time Lord in the 90-minute season premiere of Doctor Who, but we didn’t really meet the new Doctor until the final act. Fresh off a traumatic regeneration, the (debatably) 12th articulation of the 2000-year-old extraterrestrial hero spent most of his too-long, unevenly paced debut suffering from fuzzy memory, identity flux, and disorientation panic, much like that temporally displaced, discombobulated, TARDIS-snacking T-Rex that found itself chucked forward across epochs to Victorian London.

As a result, it was hard to draw a bead on the Doctor and how Capaldi’s take would differ from that of his predecessor, Matt Smith—beyond the fact that Doctor has been born again as Scottish, and older, too. (Capaldi is 56; Smith retired from the role last Christmas at age 31.)

But with personhood settled and mind fully restored by episode’s conclusion, the Doctor revealed himself to be a compelling creation worth following into the future. Capaldi’s incarnation of the sci-fi icon is a more mature, no-nonsense expression of Who-ishness, lacking the rubbery physicality of Smith but remaining as quick-witted and free spirited as ever. He’s a throwback to darker tones of the first few Whos—intentionally, per the behind-the-scenes feature that accompanied the episode. That modality is captured by the look he’s chosen for himself, a fitted long black coat streaked with crimson on the inside, suggesting power, danger, and a little whimsy. He’s a top hat and longer tails away from resembling an old-school stage magician. This is not another romantic, “boyfriend” imagining of Doctor Who, and it isn’t another reckless, rogue/borderline anti-hero version of the franchise, either. At least, not yet. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” he tells companion Clara (Jenna Coleman). “It’s time I did something about that.” We’ll see how that goes.

Admittedly, parts of the premiere were snoozy, and some of its tactics for making us appreciate Capaldi and the point of difference he represents were a little irritating. Still, “Deep Breath” was an effective and affecting opener. Among its many pleasures: The return of The Paternoster Gang, the Victorian-era investigators of the impossible, which included lady lizard Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her faux maid wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and their manservant/muscleman, the squatty, neck-challenged Sontaran warrior-nurse Strax (Dan Starkey). Strax’s opening blog-monologue was a hilarious survey of previous Doctor incarnations, tweaking everything from Christopher Eccleston’s ears to the franchise’s untidy mythology. (The Doctor would get back at Stax on behalf of his predecessors by confusing him for one of several Seven Dwarfs.)

The new class of villain was too familiar, but interesting enough: a collection of out-of-this-world androids long marooned on earth, typified and led by the so-called Half-Face Man. They had endured through their own grotesque form of regeneration—replacing obsolete clockwork components with human body parts. Over the centuries, Half-Faced Man acquired some very human ideas along with its very human bits and bobs—like a drive to reach the afterlife/paradise, and a willingness to get there by acting inhumanely.

Such ideas contributed to a thematically rich and self-aware story about identity, change, and the desperate compromises we’re willing to make for survival’s sake. It also went after lookism, ageism, sexism, and other forms of bias in a way that felt smug and self-serving. At one point, Madame Vastra challenged Clara—the audience surrogate—on her perceived disappointment with the Doctor’s new, older form. The reptilian E.T. asked the young lady to consider why the previous Doctor had taken such a youthful visage for himself. Clara was clueless, so Madame Vestra explained it was the same reason she wore a veil when engaging the bigoted humans around her: “To be accepted.” The line was admirable as meta-confession (it sounded like the franchise was shaming itself) but heavy-handed as social commentary.

I’m not sure the new Doctor has much chemistry with the companion he’s inherited—especially since it was made clear that their old way of relating, all flirty fun and unrequited crushing, was a thing of the past. “I’m not your boyfriend,” declared the Doctor. Clara held her own as the alpha characters insulted her and corrected her and set terms with her, but still: I thought she was poorly treated by the premiere and all of its agenda-pushing and point-making. It never really allowed her (and us?) to grieve the loss of the Who she knew. If anything, the episode made her (and us?) feel bad for missing him, implying that the only reason she couldn’t immediately bond with the new guy was because she couldn’t get past his gray hairs or wrinkled face. The story never took her experience seriously or properly affirmed it, instead insisting-—perversely, I think—that she buy into the Doctor’s demanding if not unfair desire to be accepted as both the man she always knew and as his own man.

The final scenes included a sweet beat that tied up a loose end from last season: Smith’s Old-Who called Clara from the past to exhort her to not quit on Capaldi’s New-Who, because he’s super afraid and needs her desperately. (This rang ironically, given published but unconfirmed reports that Coleman intends to leave the show after the annual Christmas special.) And with that, presto! Clara was motivated anew to play companion. (For now.)

A better beat might have had Smith phone Capaldi, pressing him to recognize the value of his companion. As bold and refreshing as this out-with-the-old, in-with-the-older regeneration promises to be, I resented the manipulative ways in which the premiere demanded we roll with things. The new era of Doctor Who should do the hard work of earning our affection and loyalty—not vice versa. B


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