If you’ve been reading my blogs these past few years, you’ll realise I am not a casual Doctor Who viewer. Recently, to my amusement, a dear RT colleague dubbed me “our mega-Whovian”, but that doesn’t mean I’m indiscriminate and lap up every single morsel of Doctor Who with slavering chops. Of course, I’m not among the small minority chomping and gnashing to dentally separate Steven Moffat from his testes, but nor am I part of the throng eager to perform Cleaner Wrasse services on his backside. (Surely by now Steven has the shiniest undercarriage in television drama.)
In general, I enjoy and admire what he’s done with our hoary old Time Lord. He’s now created three superb Doctors (if you include John Hurt’s, which you must), a feat none of his predecessors managed. And I welcome the change in tone present in Deep Breath. But I come to each new episode with baggage – a lot of it – having watched almost every instalment on its first transmission since 1968, and I emerged from the BFI premiere earlier this month feeling… well, the word that formed was “nonplussed”. Neither over- nor underwhelmed.
It’s blessed with a feature-length running time, which gives the drama room to stretch and breathe, yet there’s not quite enough story to warrant it. For me, Doctor Who is always worth seeing on a big screen (even the earliest, creakiest examples) but I wonder if Deep Breath will be cinematic enough to satisfy the average punter going to their multiplex on the opening weekend. When asked at the BFI if there’d ever be an actual movie, Steven was adamant that Doctor Who is foremost a television show. Rightly so.
I never had any doubt that Peter Capaldi would be brilliant. He is. On the evidence of Deep Breath, he’s the Doctor I’ve longed for since the series came back in 2005 – quite frankly, since 1981 when Tom Baker’s Doctor plunged to his demise. For many I’ve spoken to, he’s the perfect choice. They’re already convinced. But, in Deep Breath, the programme itself seems overly anxious that its now global audience won’t take to an older, craggier Time Lord. It is willing those millions attuned to, nay moistened by, the geeky good looks of Messrs Tennant and Smith to have faith in Capaldi.
Forget the window dressing of the dinosaur and clockwork zombies. The prime directive of Deep Breath is to adjust the world to the 12th Doctor, via the vessel of Clara, who needs time to mourn the loss of her best friend, and really isn’t sure that she likes his replacement. Can she ever befriend him? Trust him? Know him? It swamps the drama – until, late in the day, Matt Smith’s Doctor phones in a postmortem performance to seal the deal. Did you blub? Or did you feel, as I did, that this moment subtly renders Smith the interloper, the old man, yesterday’s Doctor?
It’s clear to me that Clara is better suited to the new Doctor, and Jenna Coleman proves she’s a natural, with impeccable comic timing, great at chippy dialogue – although I’m not convinced that Clara is a control freak or egomaniac. Where did that come from? She also slips in well with the Tipping the Velvet milieu of Vastra and Jenny. (Is Sarah Waters on a minute percentage?)
I applaud Moffat for putting lesbian wives centre-stage as heroines, as role models in a family TV show. For someone who grew up in the 1970s, that is the stuff of science fiction. I know they irk many but I haven’t yet tired of Vastra and Jenny, or Strax the light-entertainment Sontaran. They’re today’s equivalent of Unit, a ground base for the Doctor, a haven to retreat to in crisis. Vastra even re-uses the Brigadier’s line “Here we go again” from the Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker changeover of 1974.
That’s the year when the term “regeneration” was first applied. And when Vastra says, “He regenerated. Renewed himself,” Steven is looping Who right back to 1966, when Patrick Troughton’s Doctor told his companions Ben and Polly: “I’ve been renewed, have I? That’s it. I’ve been renewed.”
The most obvious nod to the past is to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Tom Baker classic from 1977. That too had a late Victorian setting, a disfigured villain lurking in a crypt who was repairing himself from victims pulled off the street. And like Weng-Chiang, the Half-Face Man comes from the 51st century.
It’s remarkable that a fleeting reference in a Robert Holmes script 37 years ago has captured the minds of his successors. In 2005, Moffat made Captain Jack a Time Agent from the 51st century; he set Silence in the Library (2008) and The Time of Angels (2010) in that period too.
Curiously, Moffat is also mining his own now dim and distant past, referring back to The Girl in the Fireplace from David Tennant’s first series – re-using the clockwork droids and establishing the SS Marie Antoinette as the sister ship of the SS Madame de Pompadour seen in 2006. Eight years is a long time in television; in Doctor Who terms, that’s like Planet of the Spiders alluding to The War Machines.
I’m afraid I can’t muster a scintilla of interest for Michelle Gomez’s ludicrous Missy – latest in a conga line of Moffat’s mysterious women. So, moving swiftly on…
The art direction and lighting, costumes and sets, prosthetics and CGI are all classy, occasionally beautiful, and seamless – we don’t pause to question how the Half-Face Man has been realised on screen. The dinosaur is splendid, too, even if the budget doesn’t quite run to showing it sploshing about in the Thames (not even a sound effect). Surely, the image of the T rex by Big Ben is inspired by this 1976 book jacket.
But back to the star attraction. Peter Capaldi! He’s terrific throughout. Fiercely intelligent. Acerbic. Bonkers. Haunted. Vulnerable. Not a hugger. Defiantly, refreshingly Scottish. I won’t be the first to suggest that Moffat has fashioned a Doctor not unlike himself – just as producer John Nathan-Turner did with Colin Baker, disastrously, 30 years ago. But this is no disaster. It’s brilliant. Have I used that word enough? Am I in danger of becoming one of Moffat’s bottom-feeding cleaner wrasse?
Odd to think that I first met Capaldi in February 2013 on the set of An Adventure in Space and Time. We stood transfixed while, a few feet away, David Bradley played William Hartnell playing the first Doctor at the controls of the Tardis. We chatted briefly about the perils of long-running characters such as Doctor Who. I was unaware then, as I’m sure Peter was, that he was the Doctor of the future.
An observer on set, a fan longer than I have been, Capaldi was polite but taciturn, a touch forbidding. What a difference 18 months make! At the BFI this August he was the life and soul, overjoyed to have landed his dream role, tireless in greeting fans young and old and indulging a room full of tipsy media types.
As I shook his hand in farewell, I gushed something to the effect of: “You’re going to be brilliant as the Doctor. And please do one thing for me – stick with it for many years.” He looked at me askance but I meant it. Let’s hope I feel the same at the end of this season.
The Doctor Who issue of the new Radio Times iPad and iPhone edition features an exclusive animated cover and photo galleries, a 68-page bonus magazine looking back at the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who, an interview with Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s series-eight episode guide