Monday, 25 August 2014

Catching Breath

In the reversal of a theme much-used by Doctor Who in recent years, the young man in an older man's body is back at last.

I haven't written about Doctor Who in ages.  Last year, or specifically its last couple of months, was a very special time to be a fan (who but the media ever calls us Whovians?), and I certainly thrashed that particular drum on this blog.  The fiftieth anniversary of a programme which forms my very earliest memories and has provided landmarks for my life ever since will do that to you. But since February, and the amazing Symphonic Spectacular, things have gone very quiet.  I must confess I hadn't even watched any Who since last year's Christmas special - unheard of!

The post anniversary wait for the new series has been the longest since the programme returned in 2005, and probably quite necessarily so.  Barely any news for months, the TARDIS standing dark and still, but beneath this dormancy was always an inextinguishable ember of excitement - that when our programme returned, the Doctor would be Peter bloody Capaldi!

I've already written that I've been a fan of his for decades, and I quickly found I wasn't alone. This was a new situation to be in - the new Doctor was already an internationally-recognised star, and an actor experienced, respected and quirky enough to have no detractors, certainly none that I've ever met or heard, at any rate.
Capaldi's from Glasgow, he's a star of my own favourite film of all time (Local Hero), he's already given brilliant guest performances in both Doctor Who and Torchwood and been a fan of the Doctor all his life. For the first time I had absolutely no doubts or anxieties about this new Doctor - he was going to be brilliant.

The first publicity shots of Capaldi in costume pack a hefty wallop of deja vu.
So the first spoiler in this review of his first episode is - yes, of course Peter Capaldi is a fantastic Doctor, the whole world knew he would be.
I saw Deep Breath at the movies; the completely full but delightfully cosy Lighthouse cinema in Petone (the capacious seats even have cushions!) on a grey, wintery Sunday afternoon.  Whole families took up the better part of entire rows and once again several generations were represented from greying veterans to excited nippers.  Somehow it felt like being in the biggest living room ever, an extension of the 'safe' room that we all used to watch Doctor Who from with our own families, when we were little.

The new Doctor goes fourth!
To begin, I'm going to skip to the end, and the brief 'making of' documentary which screened immediately afterward the episode itself (such amazing value!)
In a clip from an interview, writer Steven Moffat confesses anxiety about a particular scene.  His concern is that the new Doctor and companion Clara are in quite a long sequence where they are just sitting and talking.  Fret not, Mr Moffat, to me, this very scene signaled a refreshing gear change which is both welcome, and probably necessary.
Whereas Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman would have played it all quick-fire quips with frenetic music and rapid editing, Capaldi actually uses this time to gradually present his character: a look, phrase and, most welcome of all, pause at a time.  This is a process which actually isn't even over by the time the episode ends, Capaldi is an experienced and accomplished actor who can afford to leave something in the tank for later, but still meet and exceed high expectations.

The trailer highlighted something else which seemed to harken back to the third Doctor's era.
The programme makers seem well aware that this is no 'soft change', as it could be argued the transition between the last two floppy-haired nerdy-cool young Doctors was, but a serious wrench for Clara and the audience.  In addressing this there is a triple-pronged strategy to ensure acceptance:
 In reverse order, there is an unprecedented and well-kept surprise which I'm obviously not going to spoil here. (you'll know what I'm referring to when you see it)

Secondly; Jenna Coleman gives perhaps her best performance yet, conveying the sense of loss, anxiety and even anger which some of the show's massive (and similarly young and female) audience might also feel.  "How do we change him back?" she asks in all seriousness. An examination of human superficiality and the shameful folly of judging by appearances is threaded deftly into this story.  The Doctor and Clara both wonder where the lines on his brand new face can possibly have come from.

And last and foremost, Capaldi gives a magnetic performance, taking us through the initial post-regeneration skittishness (or is that Smith-ishness?), to darker, scary mood swings (" don't look in that mirror - it's furious!") before finally settling into a foreshadowing of the formidable authoritarian Doctor he is to become.  He pours his adversary a last drink (surely single malt) before a taking a much-missed physical approach to their final confrontation. Of course there is humour as well and Capaldi even subtly, but heart-breakingly conveys the Doctor's own sense of loss and fear of potential abandonment, while also concealing it behind a markedly sterner and gruffer exterior than we've been used to recently.
His frank statement, "I'm not your boyfriend, Clara", lays to rest the flirtatious antics of his previous two selves, with perhaps some regret at misleading his travelling companions over that time.  "You might as well flirt with a mountain range" observes Madam Vastra as she strives to remind Clara that this new Doctor might look older but in reality the Time Lord has always been ancient.

It's a startling effect, and this chap probably adds thousands
to the effects budget every time he turns to the right.
As I feared, this post has turned into more of a review of Capaldi's debut than the episode itself, which contains many wonderful, funny, exciting and scary moments, to say nothing of the programme's possibly first-ever gratuitous cleavage shot.
However, I'll be blunt and suggest that the story itself strains a little to justify it's running time. Although not actually earning disappointment, the pacing seems disjointed, the nature of the threat somewhat unfocused and low-key, and, for once, there are scenes which could have been trimmed.

Defining moments: "No second chances...basically; run."
 There are no exhilarating, defining "No second chances, I'm that kind of a man" or "I'm the Doctor. Basically; run" moments which his predecessors got in their introductory stories. But then again it might be argued that those Doctors were not often quite as good ever again.  I suspect Capaldi is playing the long game, taking his time as an experienced Pro would.  This Doctor's defining moments are yet to come, and I can't wait.

Things to come...
I was able to adapt this blog post as a 'preview' for the Dominion Post,
which devoted close to a half page, and a page 2 'pointer', to the feature. 

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