To say that I’ve been looking forward to Peter Capaldi’s debut as eccentric box-based time traveller the Doctor is a bit of an understatement. Those with a keen memory may remember that when Matt Smith announced his departure, my favoured choice was the enigmatic Iain Glen.
Despite this, I felt that Capaldi was an inspired choice, ticking many of the boxes I outlined in my plea for Glen. Older, with a sense of gravitas. Even if I was half-hoping for Malcolm Tucker in space (on which note, his first line on the show back at Christmas, morphed in my mind into “Do you know how to fly this f***king thing?”).
I was never much of a fan of Matt Smith’s tenure, if I’m honest. What seemed fresh about him at first pretty quickly felt like David Tennant on too much sugar. The series has been crying out for a lead with a shade more seriousness; a return, perhaps, to the Doctors of yesteryear.
So with the above weight of expectation on Peter Capaldi’s shoulders, how did he perform?
Well, Capaldi was excellent, even despite a flawed episode.
The basic premise of the episode is that the freshly regenerated — and suitably confused — Doctor and Clara pitch up in Victorian London along with a tyrannosaurus rex. Which isn’t actually the mystery or conflict of this episode; rather we have a creepy cyborg stealing body parts. And, since it’s Victorian London, we have the paternoster gang — Silurian detective Madame Vaster, her maid/wife Jenny, and the Sontaran butler Strax.
Capaldi is, of course, the star of the show, but regeneration episodes are usually equally focused on the assistants, as the entire show changes direction slightly. When Christopher Ecclestone regenerated into David Tennant, he spent most of his first episode in a coma, whilst Rose, Jackie and Mickey came to terms with it.
This, I suspect, is the reason why we have the Paternoster Gang in this episode; because frankly, Clara isn’t interesting enough to carry this episode herself. She was introduced as a plot device for Matt Smith’s last season, and sadly never really seemed to rise beyond that as a character. This is underscored with the reappearance of the woefully under-explained “Impossible Girl” tag.
So the Paternoster Gang are the lifeblood of the one strand here. Strax is hilarious (the “dissolve him with acid” exchange had me sniggering), and the relationship between Vastra and Jenny is both beautifully progressive and a breath of fresh air.
But what of Capaldi? His gruff, slightly ill-tempered beginning is exactly what I was hoping for. I am also liking the strain of self-rediscovery which he is setting up, directly tackling the question of who this new Doctor is head on. I can believe better the dark strain which this episode offers us when Matt Smith did the same; I feel like there is truly a sense of ambiguity over whom he is shaped into. Which is exciting, you know.
But where the episode falls down is with the pacing. It feels like two different episodes glued together; one the one hand a slow-burning journey of discovery, in the wake of great personal change, and on the other a steam-punk romp of dinosaurs and clockwork robots. It was a little jarring, and perhaps not the best way to introduce a new lead actor, but hopefully the series can go on to more stable ground from here.
Overall this was a success, I feel. Capaldi gave what I wanted from him, and he slipped into the mantle of the Doctor well. At this point, there is so much potential that making a judgement about his future in the role is a bit pointless, but that he could give a performance which overrode the inconsistency of the episode itself bodes very well.
- I liked the continuity nod to David Tennant’s tenure, with the reference to the SS Madame de Pompadour from “The Girl in the Fireplace”. But the fact that the meaning seems to elude Capaldi’s Doctor suggests that perhaps some of his memory loss will stick a little longer.
- The Doctor makes a comment of his new face that he recognises it, and wonders what he was trying to tell himself through it. This is presumably a reference to Capaldi’s guest appearance in “The Fires of Pompei”. We had been told that this would be somewhat reconciled, but hopefully this isn’t the extent of that.
- I thought that Moffatt had pledged an end to grand story arcs this season, but apparently not with the appearance of a minor character from the previous season’s “The Bells of St. John” (about whom I had completely forgotten…). Apparently Michelle Gomez “features heavily in the season finale” so I guess she may well crop up in the shadows throughout this season.