Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and have somehow avoided the massive publicity blitz that the BBC has carried out over recent months (including organising a world tour, ubiquitous advertising on BBC One (even during half-time at the World Cup final), several articles about the show appearing in every major newspaper and online publication, choosing to air the première in cinemas nationally, and putting Peter Capaldi’s face on as many billboards and magazine covers as humanly possible), you’ll probably know that Doctor Who is back.
It’s no surprise that the BBC is promoting the hell out of it, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest cash cows (rivalled only by Sherlock), and after the 50th anniversary special it’s more popular than ever.
In much of the pre-première hype, the writers and the cast kept emphasising how ‘mysterious’ and ‘dark’ the new guy was, and how different he’d be, and how jarring this different Doctor would be, both to his companion Clara and to the viewers at home.
The promotional images emphasised this change to a new moody, brooding Doctor. Instead of the cheeky-chappie face and mischievous grin of Matt Smith, there’s an angry, bushy-eyebrowed Scotsman glaring at you. Instead of a bright purple jacket and goofy bowtie, he’s wearing a plain waistcoat and trousers, all black.
In the trailers, he wonders whether he’s a good man and contemplates his past mistakes, while Clara looks on confused and wonders if she even knows who he is any more.
The message is clear: This is going to be very, very different.
And, for much of the super-long episode, which was even longer than last year’s Day of the Doctor anniversary special, it was quite different to anything from Matt Smith’s years.
The bombastic music was toned down to a bare minimum. The colour scheme was dark and washed out. The tone is noticeably different. The 79-minute running time allowed many scenes to be much longer than they would normally be, giving the episode a slow, leisurely pace. There was a general lack of of scenes featuring the Doctor running around frantically and shouting expository technobabble while the music loudly drowns out his dialogue that normally fill an episode of Doctor Who. Instead, there were plenty of long, quiet conversations with the music little more than a whisper.
Many of these dialogue-heavy scenes were spent giving Clara Oswald some much-needed character. When she was introduced last year, Clara was regarded by the Doctor, and the audience, as more of a mystery than a person. He didn’t know who she was and what she was like, so neither did we, and after he did figure out who she was, he was then preoccupied with other matters, like revisiting the Time War (Day of the Doctor) and fighting a centuries-long battle on a distant planet to keep Gallifrey safe (Time of the Doctor), so Clara got sidelined and, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, was still quite boring and bland.
Here, she finally gets some personality. Struggling to cope with the Doctor’s new face, new personality and new, well, everything, she panics and complains and, in her chats with Madame Vastra and the new Doctor, is established as a bit of a passive-aggressive control freak with a fierce inner strength. The scenes with her and the Doctor arguing with each other are highlights of the episode, as is the scene where the Doctor talks to a homeless man about his new face, which is where we get our first real impression of what the new Doctor will be like.
The new Doctor is grumpier, quieter, he has a more abrasive personality, angry eyebrows and an intensely Scottish accent. Ten and Eleven had a nasty side. They could be really cruel when they wanted to be, but they hid it under a cheery smile and a friendly face, so we only got brief glimpses at their darker nature. The change into Twelve got rid of that friendly face and now he doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he’s capable of being mean, angry and unlikeable. This is most clearly shown in two stand-out scenes.
The first is when he abandons Clara and leaves her alone with the clockwork droids that want to harvest human organs, forcing her to try to escape by herself. This is a genuinely tense sequence, given a visual flourish by director Ben Wheatley, and when her attempt fails she is left at the mercy of the droids. This is where Clara really gets to shine, as she desperately tries to negotiate with the mechanical monsters for a long, long time. The camera never cuts away, and often chooses to linger unsettlingly on the eyeball wedged on a metal spoke that is part of the head villain’s face.
The second is the Doctor’s climactic confrontation with the head villain, a robot with half a human face (and that eyeball) plastered over his metal framework. The two talk over drinks, the Doctor rarely raises his voice and doesn’t run around bragging about how he’s cleverly figured out the robot’s plan. He just speaks to the droid with a clear undercurrent of menace and threat, and suggests that, though he doesn’t normally kill, he would if it would stop more innocent people being slaughtered.
Capaldi is excellent as the new Doctor. He’s particularly good at being exasperated and annoyed and doing a dramatic monologue or three, but he can also do humour and eccentricity, though his humour is considerably drier and more low-key than his immediate predecessors. He’s more like Nine, but without the guilt of the Time War hanging over him, since that was dealt with in the anniversary special. So now he’s less guilt-ridden and more confident, more accepting of his dark side, but still perfectly capable of being aloof.
The darkness may be dialled up, but there’s still plenty of room for silliness and whimsy. Doctor Who is inherently and joyously silly, after all, but the promise of the wackiness being balanced with more serious moments and introspection this season is welcome.
However, for the first twenty minutes, as if to compensate for the rest of the episode’s darker tone and murky morality, the silly-serious balance is completely off, and the wackiness is cranked up to 11. A dinosaur stomps through the Thames near Big Ben in Victorian London, then spits out the TARDIS. Vastra, Jenny and Strax go to investigate. The new Doctor wanders out, his mind frazzled and confused in a post-regeneration haze, forgets everyone’s names, rambles for a few minutes and faints. When he wakes up, still yelling and ranting, Vastra sends him back to sleep with a comedy ‘BONK!’ sound effect (honestly). When he wakes up, he climbs out of the window, runs across rooftops, shouts at the dinosaur, which then spontaneously combusts, then he falls into a tree and steals a horse to ride to the dinosaur’s corpse and figure out what happened.
There are some good bits in this early section (the scene between Vastra and Clara that I mentioned earlier, for example, and the Doctor gets a few great lines), but it’s easily the weakest part of the episode.
It doesn’t help that the rooftop and horse sequences have some noticeably terrible CGI, which is odd considering the effects in the rest of the episode are fine. When the scene with the Doctor and the homeless man arrives, the episode improves immensely and manages to balance silliness and serious moments far better.
Overall, I’m quite excited to see the rest of the series. After a not-too-promising opening, the episode really picked up and had plenty of great moments. Peter Capaldi is great, Jenna Coleman has finally been given something to do, and the new Doctor-companion relationship looks like it could be a lot of fun.
I haven’t yet mentioned the episode’s closing moments, which set up the series’ new Big Mystery, but that’s because there’s not much to really say about them. Let’s see where it goes first.
Next week, the return of the Daleks. Again. Personally, I’m getting a little bit tired of the Daleks. It feels like they show up just to get inevitably defeated again and again. Their appearance in Day of the Doctor was different, they were effective and threatening and actually winning, and winning so decisively that the War Doctor felt that he had to blow up Gallifrey and kill off the Time Lords to stop them. Most of the time they don’t feel like a threat. However, I am looking forward to seeing how this nastier, darker Doctor deals with them.