Whenever the time comes (pun intended) for a new Doctor, there’s always anxiety. But rest easy that Peter Capaldi, known as the foul-mouthed political spin doctor on “The Thick of It,” is no Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS in “Deep Breath,” the first episode of Season 8.
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Capaldi ends the trend of younger actors in the role — the previous Doctor, Matt Smith, was only 26 when he first donned his iconic bow tie. Though it's not established why the Doctor has “chosen” this particular face, perhaps it's a nod to finding a measure of peace following the saving of Gallifrey last season. Unfortunately, his new black and red ensemble makes him look like a Dracula-era vampire.
Costuming aside, “Deep Breath” tried much harder than it needed to get viewers onboard with the new Doctor. With a face like a wise Disney vulture and manic energy he withholds or unleashes to equal effect, Twelve remains affable and compassionate but can be abrasive, though largely as a response to feeling vulnerable. This Doctor is a bit like a cat: charming but moody.
Plenty of fun
To lighten the mood, we get some familiar faces returning for a fun Victorian London-era caper that begins with a T-Rex stomping through the Thames River, though the villain ends up feeling redundant amid the Doctor’s search for his new identity. The requisite gags are all there, especially as Twelve takes inventory of his new form (watch for a new hair-related bit).
Credited as sole writer on the episode, Moffat keeps the tone light, the jokes sly and the references plentiful, both to past canon and Doctors. But because the nods don’t inform the plot, they end up feeling like the easy way to curry favor with fans - this is still the show you love, remember?
Where does Clara stand?
Especially after the events of last season’s finale, companion Clara Oswald has many perfectly good reasons to be cross at the Doctor. And companions have been left reeling after regenerations before. But her ambivalence about Twelve no longer being the man she chose to see the stars with doesn’t make sense. Since jumping into his timeline on Trenzalore, she’s known every incarnation of him. This Doctor, if anything, is a chance to get to know him better than any before because she’s been there from the beginning.
As for their dynamic, Moffat told SFX magazine earlier this month that the relationship between Clara and the new Doctor would change fundamentally, shifting from being able to manipulate Eleven because he had a crush on her to dealing with Twelve who “barely registers at all that she is a girl.” But it ends up feeling a bit like reality (Coleman is 28; Capaldi is 56) intruding on fantasy to draw that line when you're dealing with a being to whom time is fluid. The episode makes clear that the Doctor still needs a companion, but their dynamic is yet to be determined.
Episode rating: B
Watch Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat discuss the episode after last week’s fan screening in NYC.
“Deep Breath” premieres this Saturday at 8 p.m. on BBC America.