Since last we spoke, loyal readers, it’s been eight months of equal parts anticipation and dread. The former because it’s a new Doctor played by an enormously talented actor whose TV résumé dates all the way back to the time when Peter Davison was still playing the part. The latter because the head writer and lead creative mind on the show is still Steven Moffat, who last time we checked in with him at Christmas proved that even he can cock-up the end of an era that he spent four years shepherding. Would he actually be able to deliver on all of the promises he’s made in the intervening months that we’d be getting a new, reinvigorated version of Doctor Who?
With only one episode down, it’s impossible to answer that question, but based on this 80-minute opener, the future looks tight. To rework some classic dialogue from the Master, an entire season of this level of quality scarcely bears thinking about. Here we’ve been blessed with an episode of Doctor Who that feels like cinema. The scenes play out for four and five minutes at a time. The script isn’t in a rush to get to the end. The performances feel as though they’re building toward something fresh and new, rather than being built upon something that previously existed. The amount of quotable dialogue could make up its own recap. And yet it’s never, ever an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of affair. It has to be one of Moffat’s finest, most restrained and well thought out Who scripts.
These are also, it seems, the sort of results you get when you hire a flashy movie director (Ben Wheatley, whose movies have made a bigger splash in the U.K. than they have over here) to helm Doctor Who. No doubt, after the theatrical success of “The Day of the Doctor,” this episode was explicitly crafted to be cinematic, as it’s also showing in cinemas, and the screener made available to critics was presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It must also be the longest single episode of the new series yet.
In Victorian London, a T. rex has mysteriously appeared in the Thames as the Paternoster Gang is reintroduced, and a more qualified expert on all things Cretaceous than Madame Vastra you’d be hard-pressed to find. Soon enough, the TARDIS pops out of the beast’s throat, and the Twelfth Doctor steps out from the old girl, dazed and confused. There’s poignancy to the missing bowtie, too. It really tied that costume together, did it not? In addition to setting up a steampunk mystery, the bulk of Act I features both the Doctor and Clara in states of confusion, for almost precisely the same reasons: Neither knows who this new Doctor is.
From a continuity standpoint, Clara’s arc throughout the episode doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. She is the Impossible Girl – versions of her have seen all of the Doctors that have ever existed. This version has met at least three of them, including the oldest one of all, Hurt’s War Doctor. So if continuity matters above all else, you may find some fault in the core ideas of this episode. Me? I’m moving on, and embracing this story as one that hasn’t really been told on this series before. Davies told a version of it via Rose in “The Christmas Invasion,” but not nearly as effectively as what Moffat weaves here – an exploration of what it’s like when the person you’ve come to know and trust is suddenly a completely different individual - body, mind, and spirit. That would take a period of adjustment, and the episode is about Clara searching for those things that define the Doctor, regardless of incarnation; recognizing the stuff that’s central to his very being, while learning to accept the new wrapping paper.
That process begins thanks to a mysterious newspaper ad, which brings the pair back together again at a restaurant after the Doctor has disappeared for a bit. At first they believe that each other has placed the ad, but it soon becomes apparent that neither has. The revelation that nobody else in Mancini’s is human is a great one (go back and listen before the reveal; the ticking sounds were there all along), and soon enough the duo are taken deep below into the bowels of an ancient spaceship, where Clara’s belief in the Doctor is tested more than any other point in the story, when he runs away, leaving her to be menaced by organ harvesting androids.
That first breath-holding sequence with Clara is quite the stunner, especially when it morphs into a hazy dream state of memories of what appears to be her first day of teaching at Coal Hill School. Perhaps the only thing scarier than body snatching androids is a classroom full of unruly, disrespectful children (I subbed for an elementary school art class once; this may be true).
A moment of true faith on Clara’s part is the same moment where this new Doctor springs truly to life. He reappears on command, piercing eyes ablaze, to save the day. It is eventually revealed that the ship is the SS Marie Antoinette, the sister ship of the SS Madame de Pompadour from Moffat’s own Season Two script, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” although the Doctor remains addled, and never seems to make the same connection as the hardcore fans who are viewing his adventure. The return of the clockwork droids is most certainly a welcome one, and the “How long can you hold your breath?” gag feels like Moffat 101. (Hopefully there are no playground incidents on Monday.)
In one of the most striking moments, the Doctor faces off against the Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando), and quite calmly says, “I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you. Thought you might appreciate a drink first. I know I would.” And then he pours himself a scotch. Bold (though it would have been bolder if he’d taken a drink)! Either the Doctor pushed the Half-Face Man, or he manipulated him into jumping. Either way, this psychotic robocreep had it coming, so let’s not declare that the Doctor has gone to his darkest place yet.
Speaking of evil, note that the very moment Clara realizes she’s back home and no longer in Victorian times, she turns on the Doctor and appears ready to leave him (some of that egomaniacal gameplaying coming through?). And then her phone rings, and it’s Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor dying on Trenzalore, using precious final moments of life to place a call to his own future. It was a lovely little bit that made it momentarily easy to forget about how wrong so much of “The Time of the Doctor” felt. Early in the episode, Vastra explains to Clara that the Eleventh Doctor wore his particular face to be accepted. The action immediately cut to the new Doctor’s face, indicating that he is perhaps disinterested in such matters…though as was revealed at the close, the new Doctor desperately craves Clara’s acceptance, so perhaps, in her eyes, there’s a fair amount of the old Doctor still left in him after all.
There will be plenty of time to wax rhapsodic about Peter Capaldi and his Doctor in the coming weeks, but I think it’s safe to say that he’s dazzling right out of the gate; also forceful, aggressive, and dangerous (those are some of the words I wrote down in my notes). This new Doctor runs such a gamut of emotional states and attitudes throughout the course of the 80 minutes, it isn’t so much confusing, as it is a sight to behold. You genuinely never know what he’s going to do next. Add to that Capaldi’s own assertion that it will take a half a dozen episodes for viewers to really figure out who his Doctor is, and it feels presumptive to say much of anything else beyond “expectations exceeded.”
One thing I tend not to do with Doctor Who is speculate about where things are going, mostly because I’m always wrong. So I’ll probably be wrong about this, too, but the female character seen at the episode’s dreamlike post-script set in the mysterious Promised Land, played by Michelle Gomez, is named Missy — which could be short for Mistress, which is the feminine form of Master (press materials refer to her as “The Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere”). There’ve been plenty of rumors about the Master’s return for this season, but no confirmation and no casting news. Perhaps, in light of all of the calls for a female Doctor, Moffat has compromised and made the Master a woman. It seems unlikely that Missy is truly the Doctor’s girlfriend, as that would be River Song all over again, and that horse has been beaten to death. (Or maybe I just hope she’s not.) But a playful, devious new female Master? Maybe. Just maybe. And it could work splendidly.
Can the series continue to deliver this level of quality with episodes that are half the running time? That remains to be seen, and even after this exhilarating opener, it’s far too early to call it. But with a lead actor this talented and versatile and in tune with the concept, it may not even matter. Capaldi could probably carry the moon.
Odds and Ends
- The exchange between Jenny and Clara - “Where’s the Doctor?” “Right here. That’s him. That’s the Doctor” – is almost verbatim to an exchange between Mickey, Jackie and Rose in “The Christmas Invasion.” Vastra’s reply, “Here we go again” is lifted from “Planet of the Spiders,” where the Brigadier said it.
- Capaldi’s eyes in the credit sequence; hell, Capaldi’s eyes in general! They are his defining trait. And those eyebrows. “These are attack eyebrows! You could take bottletops off with these.”
- It was very cool to see Clara looking nearly identical to her counterpart from “The Snowmen.”
- The Doctor’s connection to the T. rex was beautiful. And when he was translating its groans and growls in his sleep, it seemed as though he saw himself in the creature. That was a classy touch.
- The Doctor’s concern over having seen his face before, and his failure to recall where he has seen it worked much better than expected. I’m eager to see where that goes. In that marvelous scene where he pondered such matters, the homeless man is played by Brian Miller, aka Mr. Elisabeth Sladen. The moment is eerily reflected back at him later on during his battle with the Half-Face Man.
- “I am Scottish. I can complain about things now.”- The Doctor
- Who placed the message in the paper? Missy? The Doctor also referenced the phone call from “The Bells of St. John.” (Was that mystery never resolved? I don’t recall.)
- It was a bit of a cheat with the Doctor hanging on the bottom of the restaurant booth, as it was never shown how he was able to climb through solid matter to emerge in the higher sitting room. In any case, it was another nice touch to see him struggle a bit with being a “physical” Doctor in an older body.
- Paul Hickey’s Inspector Gregson previously appeared uncredited in the short “Vastra Investigates.” I like him and hope we see more of him.
- Clara’s line “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it” is lifted from “The Three Doctors” where it was said by Patrick Troughton.
- A hot air balloon made out of human skin? Masks crafted from human flesh!? Mercy. It’s as if Tobe Hooper is in charge.
- I continue to love, love, love Strax. The show is able to do such broad comedy through him that never feels even remotely forced. The medical exam on Clara was classic. Dan Starkey, you rock.
- The way Capaldi slowly stalks his way around the TARDIS interior is a direct contrast to the frenetic, wild energy of the last few Doctors.
- The choosing of the new costume has long been a Doctor Who tradition. It was refreshingly abandoned here in favor of the Doctor already wearing his new duds when the TARDIS reappeared at the close.
- Typically it takes a while to warm to a new credit sequence, but this one’s an instant classic, with its gears and planets and icons of Who. Likewise, the new arrangement of the theme is equally effective, and I am wondering if I was alone in hearing a Theremin accentuating the proceedings?
- “It’s times like this I miss Amy.”- The Doctor, recalling her long legs, as opposed to Clara’s short ones.