Peter Capaldi makes a magnificent debut in the title role of “Doctor Who.” While predecessors Matt Smith and David Tennant, and to a lesser extent Christopher Eccleston, hid their menace behind cheerful, boyish faces, Capaldi lets his rage and anguish boil right on the top.
The departure is wonderful. Capaldi’s Doctor is fierce, feisty and quarrelsome. He calls Earth the “plant of the pudding brains.” His catchphrase seems to be “Shut up!” He isn’t afraid to be harshly critical of dainty Clara (Jenna Coleman), who had a flirtatious relationship with Smith’s Doctor.
The story, “Deep Breath,” is more character building than adventure. The straightforward approach, though, is welcome. The Doctor is discombobulated after his regeneration. The TARDIS crash lands in Victorian London, accidentally dragging a Tyrannosaurus Rex into the future.
The trio of detectives — ancient Silurian lizard Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and the dim-witted, dome-headed Strax (Dan Starkey), a Sontaran warrior turned nurse and carriage driver — arrive to find the Doctor confused and helpless.
Clara is angry with the Doctor because he can’t remember her name and has somehow turned into an older man, with gray hair and a wrinkled face. Vastra confronts Clara on her vanity and suppositions about the true nature of the Doctor.
Vastra supposes the Doctor has worn the face of a younger man to gain acceptance in a world that would reject him. Clara rumples at this, but the truth of it damning. Clara is just as shallow as the rest of us humans.
And the boyish face of the Doctor made her feel beautiful and wonderful as they shared adventures. But the face of a codger throws off the dynamic and the bubbling romantic feelings she denied having now have nowhere to go.
“Deep Breath” is excellently written by show runner Steven Moffat. He and Capaldi have a delightful time describing his new face, in terms both sad and farcical. Capaldi delivers a rant about his own eyebrows that is uproariously funny. He follows that with a delightful celebration of his own Scottish heritage. It’s a high point in the episode.
Another great moment comes when Clara and the Doctor meet in a restaurant and bicker over who is vain, manipulative and self-centered. The back-and-forth is, at times, harsh. The Doctor uses a hair he rudely plucks from Clara’s head to discover they’re surrounded by killer robots. Clara protests. The Doctor snaps, “Sorry, it was the only one that was place. I’m sure that you would want it killed.”
I think that was the moment I fell in love with Capaldi’s Doctor.
The new Doctor is rougher. At one point, when he and Clara attempt to escape killer robots, she is trapped. The Doctor attempts to raise the door she’s stuck behind but stops. “Sorry, no point in us both getting caught.” She pleads with him to give her his sonic screwdriver. “I might need it.” Then he wanders off, leaving Clara to fend for herself.
It’s a cruel act and my heart sank when he did it, but it was yet more beautiful writing. Our hero is the same hero, only completely different. Clara, left to fend for herself, learns lessons taught her by the Doctor and her own life as a schoolteacher to keep the villain at bay and doling out information.
The Doctor, of course, rescues her with the help of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. And he is beginning to sound like he knows who he is, threatening to destroy the robots’ power source if he sees “one thing I don’t like. And that includes karaoke and mimes, so take no chances.”
The Doctor goes to confront the villain, a robot who has become more man than machine. And a cold, calculating moment, the Doctor sits at a table and pours two drinks. The machine man asks what he’s doing. The Doctor replies, “I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first.”
The villain is defeated, of course. The day is saved.
Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor admits he’s made many mistakes in his 2,000-year life. “Clara,” he says directly, “I’m not your boyfriend.” She protests, as women do, that she never said he was. The Doctor, politely replies, “I never said it was your mistake.”
Clara decides she can’t handle the new, darker Doctor. But she receives a phone call on her mobile. It’s Matt Smith’s Doctor moments before his regeneration on Trenzalore. He pleads with Clara to help his future self.
The Capaldi Doctor is saddened that Clara cannot see him for the man he is beyond his features. She softens and hugs him. She decides to stay, at least for now. And the two friends go off for coffee.
Capaldi’s delivery is wonderful. He fully and masterfully embodies one of the biggest characters in all of television and genre fiction. He is what the Doctor always needs to be: the most interesting man in the universe.