Doctor Who: Deep Breath

“He is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.”

Doctor Who

Guess who’s back?

Oh, yes. Because yesterday was the day when Peter Capaldi sauntered Scottishly into the scene to replace Matt Smith, who has gone away to become famous in Hollywood or something, as everyone’s favourite Time Lord. Unless, of course, your favourite happens to be the Master, or Romana, or the weird Chaplin-esque one who turns up in Terror of the Autons.

I’m rambling. But, as it happens, there’s a good reason for my rambling. Thing is, I don’t really know how to talk about Deep Breath without falling into a kind of gravity well of fangirling which would completely destroy whatever desultory reviewerly coherence I have left.

Because Deep Breath is good. Really good, in fact. Clara and the newly-regenerated Doctor rock up in Victorian London in the jaws of a dinosaur which has swallowed the TARDIS and is thus miraculously transported unharmed through the time vortex along with the ship. (OK, this bit flatly contradicts pretty much everything we know about the way the TARDIS works, but I’m happy to gloss over it in the light of the rest of the episode.) Once there, they meet up with our old friends the Paternoster gang, who help the woozy and slightly bonkers Doctor recuperate from his stressful regeneration experience while Clara struggles with the notion that the Doctor is somehow simultaneously the same as her Doctor (she doesn’t actually use this expression, but you can hear her thinking it) and thoroughly, completely different. Then, however, the gang becomes aware of a spate of apparent spontaneous combustions happening across the city and…well, Doctor Who happens.

First things first: Peter Capaldi. He is simply terrific as the Doctor, Victorianly menacing, deep and dark and scared and angry, appalled at humanity and yet unable to let it go, impossibly distant and impossibly alien. He’s David Tennant on a bad day, with just a sprinkling of John Hurt. He is…

…well, he is the Doctor, more completely, more gloriously and more believably than Matt Smith ever was. He is, in fact, the very opposite of Matt Smith’s Doctor, and Deep Breath as an episode seems very invested in making this point. The Doctor, we are told, is not young. He is not human. He is, in fact, nowhere close to either adjective. And he is alone. No longer the sociable, childish, over-excitable Doctor of Smith’s reign, he harks back to Christopher Ecclestone and to William Hartnell as the unfathomable, fundamentally different alien being from the depths of space and time.

Deep Breath as a story is an interesting entity. For a start, it’s very...steampunk. And I mean that not only technically, as a reference to the clockwork cyborgs and aliens in period costume, but tonally or thematically; there’s a nostalgic quality to it, and a sadness too, full of cold, quiet echoes of what was and what could have been. It’s everything that Doctor Who should be, in fact: well-paced, funny in places but with a core of seriousness; fairy-tale-esque in shape (which doesn’t necessarily mean light and fluffy) and more than a little menacing. There’s a particularly good sequence in which Clara attempts to hold her breath long enough to escape the clockwork aliens; it’s claustrophobic and chilling, with Jenna Coleman, perhaps surprisingly, doing a performance convincing enough to have you holding your own breath in sympathy. In fact, Clara shines in this episode as she struggles emotionally to understand what has happened to the Doctor.

And, yes, there are occasional plot improbabilities, the time-travelling dinosaur being one; another is the fact that the sonic screwdriver has now apparently become a general-purpose magic wand. There are a couple of places where Strax’s humour drags irritatingly. But, on the whole, Deep Breath feels very un-Moffat-y; it feels, for once, like a proper story. I can’t wait to see where the Capaldi Administration goes.

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