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"I've made many mistakes and it's about time I did something about that."
Doctor Who has always been an interesting beast. On second thought, perhaps it's never been quite interesting enough as character profiles go for such a long-running series (the longest-running in science fiction TV history). Maybe it has lacked a maturity or seriousness too often for it to retain this sci-fi fanatic's attention.
Like James Bond, a variety of performers have played a personality, but rarely do we find enough meat on those Dalek-sized bones. For those looking for a quieter, emotional submersion Doctor Who may not be the animal for you even if it does have its moments.
And after all this time, why not make the Doctor a female. Whatever. Well at least she has a gender. Of course, it's 2021 and the entertainment industry along with just about everything else is a slave to anything woke and non-traditional purely for the sake of some kind of irritating phantom cultural acceptance. Do people have nothing better to do nowadays? These are indeed preposterous times. Deep breath now.
But if you can make Scotsman Sean Connery 007 then why not Scotsman Peter Capaldi as the Doctor (a point with which Capaldi has some fun with in Deep Breath) and then why not a woman (it's science fiction I guess). A big biological leap of course. One could argue the Capaldi effort was the last gasp (or breath) attempt at Doctor Who capturing the iconic character when men were men, and sheep were, ... err or rather Doctor Whos were men. Ah well, there are plenty of ships that need course correction in this world. There's no shortage of pushing the envelope for mere virtue signaling no matter where we turn today.
All of the noise aside, here we are at a second viewing of Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 1, Deep Breath and one very significant, momentous introduction to the Peter Capaldi years (2013-2017). Not since Tom Baker was this writer and casual fan of the franchise more excited to welcome a new Doctor into the fold than with the arrival of Capaldi.
Tom Baker was special. Christopher Eccleston was a stunning, professional and a terrific table setter for a new era in Doctor Who. David Tennant was overly manic, but delivered a signature performance. The equally beloved Matt Smith was probably excellent too, but in fairness I simply never watched his run. The series suffers from a degree of sameness after awhile. There's a certain established expectation for the character and the adventure at the heart of the show which can leave one fatigued. I've always willed from the sidelines for something more dramatically nurturing and compelling that thrilled me and surprised me in ways yet to be explored. There's always a tease of those possibilities.
So Capaldi was a bit of a bombshell surprise when they had landed the gifted thespian. My interest in the actor dates back to Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983). It was by all accounts Capaldi's second film opposite Peter Reigert and it was and still is a fine, charming, memorable film at that.
So it pleased me to no end to see Capaldi land a TV role of some acclaim and notoriety after what felt like an interminable career in film and TV obscurity though massive and impressively vast and varied just the same. This is a man with charisma in front of the camera to spare and the camera seems to adore him equally for it.
Through Capaldi's three series run as the good doctor (the twelfth) this fan was curious if he could impart or would imbue his incredible talent upon this fairly enigmatic character in unique ways and more critically would the writers allow it to happen? This was to be determined, but I can report that Deep Breath is a brilliant start and a winning opener for the actor and the series.
Deep Breath gave me a doctor that seemed to breathe new life (don't they all) into the franchise and that left me wanting more. A second viewing of this fairly cinematic debut demonstrated a really shining star in Capaldi as the Doctor. And for fans of Doctor Who who perhaps remembered their doctor from days gone by as an elder alien with a touch of the mad might have seemed a welcomed return to the concept with its nod toward the traditional in this way after several series sporting younger men in the lead.
Furthermore, not to sound like the grumpy old man, but in my day it was okay to root for and be a fan of older actors in film and television. Remember Olivia Newton John in Grease (1978)? Yeah, she was still the hottest high school student at Rydell High at the ripe old age of 30. Don't get me wrong Jenna Coleman is a smoke show as Clara Oswald and not to mention a fine, young actress here, but there's something special about watching a veteran performer like Capaldi or a Max Von Sydow or a Stellan Skarsgard and so on. Each and every facial line through Capaldi's countenance, across his eyes and around his smile signals and marks a certain world weary depth and credibility to the adventure. No ageism here. He was and is a pleasure to watch on screen. So it was a real joy to discover he would be in command of the Tardis and at the helm of exploring the character.
There are nods to the Doctor Who past cleverly written into the entry from writer Steven Moffat. Capaldi's Who scoffs at the idea of a scarf (shots fired at Baker's fourth doctor) and other fan service darts across this fine opener.
Whilst he may not have pushed out the boundaries of the character, Capaldi does however deliver just the right amount of needed emotional subtext here delivering precisely the kind of weight and depth I'd hoped for. As a casual fan of the franchise I've been hungry for it. Experiencing this kind of control one hopes it doesn't all just run over the top. Would we see a deeper exploration of the doctor?
For starters Deep Breath actually delivers a splendid opening salvo. Capaldi spends much of the entry coming to terms with his regeneration as does Coleman's character and Moffat handles this aspect of the story with confidence. Too often Doctor Who is a nice, light, bouncy, pouncy bit of sci-fi alien escapism and not enough of the darkness and depth is there to be mined. It's all quite superficial. When Sam Mendes dug a little deeper for James Bond in Skyfall (2012) he delivered the goods in spades for the character and made it the kind of 007 film with which a fan could return to find other layers with which to enjoy.
Writer Steve Moffat does it here with Capaldi and company along with director Ben Wheatley (High Rise). Moffat pens in bits of mythology, cleverly handled nonsense and sharp wit alongside some wonderfully dramatic and thoughtful scenes. Wheatley wraps his directorial qualities and cinematic eye in the style and sweep of Deep Breath, which actually saw release to theatres for Capaldi's introduction. The Moffat/Wheatley would return teaming for the next episode Into The Dalek.
Deep Breath is a dark and creepy little alien story with Peter Ferdinando as The Half-Face Man. The antagonist is a symbol for the theme of changing faces and a theme that asks us what's behind our own appearance just as the regeneration game always poses the question of our own changing faces and who we want to ultimately be. Can we ourselves ever really change?
In a random footnote, Ferdinando is the cousin of singer-songwriter Matt Johnson of alternative band The The. I miss The The like I miss Tom Baker. Those were the days.
So when Capaldi isn’t performing the doctor at a seemingly breathless pace of perfection, he slows things down with delicious and devilish relish using his intellect in a kind of chess match with The Half-Face Man. Those kinds of moments beautifully cultivate that much needed emotional subtext for which the series is sometimes starved and absent of. Again, no knock on Matt Smith, but Capaldi was a big draw for me. His work opposite Clara further illustrates the many layers of Capaldi as a performer promising real potential in the role. Scenes are nailed flawlessly and straight out of the gate underscoring what a gifted actor Capaldi has become at his craft stepping into the series. Kudos to him for jumping at the chance to play the legendary Doctor. It’s a thrill to see the gifted Capaldi have fun with the iconic role. Let's hope the twelfth doctor makes for an extraordinary three series run.
It's entries like Deep Breath that give one solace and comfort and faith that Doctor Who, with Capaldi in the driver's seat, could be in good hands. Ultimately it all comes down to the writing if the series is to succeed in bigger and bolder ways. For starters, Deep Breath was a welcomed burst of fresh air holding promise the series wouldn't settle into its comfortable routines.
Writer: Steven Moffat. Director: Ben Wheatley.