Doctor Who: Take a Deep Breath
A new Doctor inevitably causes concern for every committed Whoovian. Jim Sangster takes a deep breath … which is followed by a sigh of relief.
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A new Doctor Who can be a very worrying thing for a Whoover. Like a fan with a beloved football team, we want to remain faithful through bad times and good. Every past Doctor has their fans but what if you really dislike the latest model? You’re stuck with him for a few years and it’s not like you can just not watch. I’m not mentioning any names, but some Doctors just turn out better than others.
I must confess from the outset, I already adore what Peter Capaldi’s doing in the role. After just one episode, I’m a gushing fan once again. He has the rudeness of Tom Baker, the breathless racing pitch of David Tennant and as if any of us needed convincing about his age (twenty five years older than his predecessor), he was more energetic in his debut than any Doctor ever.
The episode begins with two contrasting images: the Houses of Parliament and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Older fans may remember when Doctor Who first tried to do dinosaurs. In 1974, there was a dinosaur invasion of London that was not wholly successful; the rubbery, rather lifeless models never managed to convince. ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ (2012) showed just how far effects have come, where we can finally have a decent dino on a TV budget. They’re getting rather blasé about their monsters now though. They’re confident enough to include a shot of a character in front of a window where the T-Rex can be seen on the horizon, casually gambolling about. And while we’re perhaps noticing how real our scaly friend looks, we’re almost certainly not noticing just how much of the London skyline is also an effect. For this is a capital from the nineteenth century. And it looks magnificent.
To help the new Doctor ease in, he’s surrounded by the familiar. The Paternoster Gang – the lizard woman, her wife/maid and their potato-headed Sontaran butler have been regular guests in the show since 2011. The Sontaran, Strax, is a gift for much-needed comic scenes. The glee with which he imagines burning the Doctor with acid or throwing a newspaper full in Clara’s face had me hooting with laughter.
As the old friends get to know this new man calling himself the Doctor, we also learn more about them. There’s a beautiful bit of business involving Madame Vastra’s veil that manages to bring out the best in Clara. While Jenna Coleman has done an excellent job with the role, the unravelling mystery around her last year didn’t leave room for much actual character – after a whole series we still didn’t really know her – so it’s gratifying to see her finally developing a bit of a backbone and become more three-dimensional.
One other old friend we should mention plays a tramp in a back alley from whom the Doctor acquires a coat. Keen-eyed viewers may have spotted Brian Miller’s name in the credits – the husband of the late, much-loved actress Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith off and on for nearly forty years. Nice to know the Doctor’s extended family is near when he needs them most.
Every Doctor needs his villain and in the half-faced mechanical man we have one of the series’ creepiest ever ideas, a robot wearing a suit made from human skin. It reminds me of the old Steve Wright joke about the weird guy with wooden legs and real feet. The idea of tricking the mechanical butchers by not breathing is another classic from writer Steven Moffat (who previously gave us Doctor Who‘s first ever monster under a bed and the terrifying weeping angels). I wonder how many viewers held their breath to see if they could last as long as Clara.
So, back to the main man. He is instantly recognisable as the Doctor, despite being unlike any we’ve seen before. He pulls off the traditional ‘regeneration madness’ thing perfectly, disassociated an defamiliarised as he warns his friends not to look into a mirror because “it’s furious!” while expressing surprise at the new “attack eyebrows” that come with his new face. He makes the kind of leaps of logic we expect from the quirky Time Lord – pointing out to Vastra and Clara that they’re asking the wrong questions as they inspect the charred remains of that lovely T-Rex. He’s passionate, curious yet still possesses that youthful innocence (asking a robot waiter if they have a children’s menu). It feels like we have a Doctor who knows the entire history of the show and that we’re in safe hands. It’s a good feeling. And for a few children out there who are too young to remember David Tennant in the role, Peter Capaldi has just become their Doctor. I think he might be mine too.