Sunday, 24 August 2014

DOCTOR WHO: DEEP BREATH review, 23 August 2014


Peter Capaldi is Dr. Who. Things will never be quite the same again.
The 12th Doctor shows where he fits in. (Image: Radio Times)


'Deep Breath' is Breaking Bad good. Is Ian Holm in Dennis Potter's Moonlight on the Highway good. Is Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man good. Is 'The Deadly Assassin', 'The Robots of Death', 'The Invasion of Time', 'The Caves of Androzani' and 'Blink' good. It's also the first time I've ever applauded the title sequence of a TV series in a pub.

It's hard to believe that 'Deep Breath' has been made by, essentially, the same production team that in 2013 gave us such lazy fare as 'The Rings of Acton', 'Cold War' and 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS'. With the benefit of hindsight, the way forward can be seen in the last three stories of the 50th anniversary year - 'The Crimson Horror', 'Nightmare in Silver' and, most importantly, 'The Name of the Doctor'. Peter Capaldi is playing it down in interviews, but the change in style, pace and, frankly, the standard of writing is SO great from last year that, as a writer and director himself, I think he must have had considerably more input into the series than simply taking over as the leading man. Significantly, 'Deep Breath' has the latest transmission of any Doctor Who story, concluding after the 9 o'clock watershed.

The new adult tone is a deep breath by the production team (which no doubt partly inspired the title). Right from the start, the cuddly Matt Smith gloves are off. The story continues the mature consideration of the Doctor's motivations and the development of his character that began in 'The Name of the Doctor' and carried on through 'The Night...', 'The Day...' and 'The Time of the Doctor'. In many ways, 'Deep Breath' is the fifth and final story in this saga, as the trauma of the Time War, the Doctor's guilt over surviving it, ruining Amy and Rory's life, together with his exile to Trenzalore, have moulded a startlingly dark, unpredictable and compellingly watchable new man.

This new Doctor's character is forged in the stinking gutters of Victorian London, so perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that the 12th man in is very different from the Doctors we've seen so far in the 21st century (the closest equivalent being Christopher Eccleston's moody, haunted ninth regeneration). Starting off with some Matt Smith-style arm waving and the eleventh Doctor's ability to communicate with animals, Peter Capaldi's Doctor quickly matures into a mercurial, year zero mix of sardonic wit, intensity and righteous anger. Quite literally, he's a man who doesn't take prisoners; you could hear the gasps at the scene where it's heavily implied that the Doctor had thrown the 'Half Face Man' to his death.

Surprisingly, 'Deep Breath' is only the fourth regeneration story not set on contemporary Earth. The Victorian setting tells the audience exactly what the touchstones of the new approach are going to be - gothic novels like Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street and - most identifiably for long term viewers - Doctor Who circa 1975 and 1977, the highly revered 'gothic' era of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his script editor Robert Holmes. If the latter was still alive today, I'm convinced he would have absolutely loved 'Deep Breath'. A hot air balloon made out of human skin? That'll do nicely.

Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, the deux ex machina of pressing a button on the Sonic Screwdriver so the end titles could roll has been so overdone that comedians on 8 Out of 10 Cats make jokes about it. This failure of imagination reached its absolute nadir during Matt Smith's tenure, but was happily recalibrated from 'The Day of the Doctor' onwards. In 'Deep Breath', the Screwdriver is used just twice: to open locks. Like everything else in Doctor Who now, it's back in it's proper place.

Some people have complained that Deep Breath's story is thin. It might be simple, but like 'The Face of Evil' all those years ago, it's beautifully metaphorical; almost poetic. The Doctor, an alien who looks like a man, and the Faceless Man, a machine who looks like a human, are both caught up in the process of renewal. The point is that the Marie Antoinette robots have been rewriting themselves for so long that they no longer know why they're doing it, while the 12th Doctor struggles to make sense of his new identity with the most important things in life - the love of friends and family. The Doctor's wonderful speech about pieces of a brush being repalced so often that it's no longer the original brush, is already one of the most quotable pieces of dialogue the series has ever offered.     

Jenna Coleman finally proves her worth, partly because Clara is now a real person, not a concept. The scene where she's threatened by the Half Face Man with a flame-thrower - a flame-thrower! On Doctor Who!!! - is completely sold by her portrayal of a woman who's brave and frightened at the same time. Peter Ferdaninado, who I've never seen before, is terrifying; underplaying every line, he shows how to make a Doctor Who villain menacing and memorable. And as for dear Matt... it's his best performance.

A word about Catrin Stewart, who plays cockney sparra Jenny Flint - in a playfully sapphic relationship with the Silurian warrior Madam Vastra - with a lightness of touch and a big heart. Sometimes overlooked in favour of the commanding Vastra (the excellent Neve McIntosh) and the always quotable Strax (Dan Starkey having the time of his life), Stewart has the same allure as a young Diana Rigg; all she has to do is walk across a room and grown men swoon behind her. If this trio of Victorain Avengers ever get their own series - and they're far more deserving of a spin-off than Captain Jack ever was - I'd love to see how Jenny and Vastra's relationship began.

Symbolic of the big changes is witnessing everyone's favourite comedy Sontaran Strax so terrified he's willing to blow his brains out, rather than be eviscerated alive by a pack of zombie androids. That scene tells you all you need to know about how much Doctor Who has changed with the arrival of Peter Capaldi The best show on British television is now edgy, dangerous and controversial. Just like old times, really.

Elsewhere on the production, Ben Wheatley, a highly regarded and innovative feature film director - never seen Kill List (2011)? You must - has made a feature length Doctor Who story, which today was shown in cinemas worldwide. Just think about that for a moment... Also coming up this year, we've got long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Frank Cottrell-Boyce writing a story and, so Steven Moffat says, Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson directing an episode next year. I sometimes feel like weeping with joy at how the tatty little TV series I’ve loved since I was a child has become a world conquering multi-media sensation. Quite right, too.

"James Bond? Really?" The Doctor, 'The Lazarus Experiment', 2007

The ambiguous moral ground the new Doctor walks places him in the same territory as Walter White, Ray Donovan and Idris Elba's Luther on television and Daniel Craig's James Bond in the cinema. The movie OO7 began life in the 1960s - just like Doctor Who - and in the last ten years has gone back to the conflicted character Ian Fleming wrote in his books. Just like the stereotypical view of the Doctor as a nutty professor, Bond's portrayal as a 'weaponised lounge lizard' (copyright Nick Setchfield, 2012) is long gone.

Clothes are imporatnt to the Doctor and OO7. Key moments for both characters are the moment when a regenerated Doctor appears in his complete costume for the first time, or when a new James Bond actor initially dons the three-piece or the tux. Think about the scene in 'The Eleventh Hour' where the Doctor steps through the Atraxi projection, complete with bow tie and braces. From then on, we know our favourite Time Lord is complete. The scene at the end of Casino Royale (2006) where Daniel Craig walks slowly past a wounded Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and turns to face him, suave in a serge three-piece with a f**k off assault rifle, is telling the audience the same thing in the same way. In 'Deep Breath', when the Doctor meets Clara in his sharp, severe new threads, despite all the sea changes we've seen in him, from that moment on the audience knows Capaldi is the new captain of his ship.

You know, you could make Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name', the theme to Craig's Casino Royale, the new Doctor Who theme and you wouldn't have to change one word of the lyrics:

"Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.
The odds will betray you and I will replace you.
You can't deny the prize it may never fulfill you,
It longs to kill you, are you willing to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins -
You know my name."

I'll be watching the Doctor battle the Daleks again next week with, I very much suspect, the majority of the viewing nation.

There's no going back. Exciting, isn't it?

Yesterday, I put the free poster of Peter Capaldi given away with the latest Doctor Who magazine on my bedroom wall. I don't think I've put up a poster since I was 26.

"Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven."

Thank you, Doctor. I feel young again.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I agree with much of this. I think he was utterly fantastic and it's finally made something of Jenna…very excited for the rest of the series. Can not believe that some people are bitching and whining about it…I guess these are the same folk who chanted 'bring back Tennant'…when the next chap comes along I expect these same folks will chant 'Bring back Capaldi'…change is good, and in this case brilliant.