Peter Capaldi makes his eagerly-awaited debut as the Twelfth Doctor in an episode about… Um… Organ harvesting robots? Spontaneous combustion? The importance of being able to hold your breath for a long time? The dinosaur was a MacGuffin, of course, but aside from an Italian restaurant full of automata and some genuinely unnerving scenes involving body parts, “Deep Breath” felt a bit cobbled together.
The whole thing felt like a tacit acknowledgement that we’re not watching for the plot, we’re just waiting to find out what kind of man this new Doctor is. Sadly, we’re not given a chance to find out. Compared to the gleeful mania of Matt Smith in “The Eleventh Hour,” or David Tennant’s self-examination in “The Christmas Invasion,” this introduction was a damp squib. He’s Scottish, he’s grumpy and he doesn’t like karaoke or mimes. It’s hardly fish fingers and custard.
Capaldi’s Doctor is supposed to be dark and menacing, and his first episode should play to his strengths. Instead his introduction is high-octane, full of robots and explosions and quips. He should bestride the screen like a Colossus, not dash about trying desperately to prove he’s still an action hero. It’s one of the few shows where casting a middle-aged white man opposite a twenty-something woman is seen as a rash decision, and Moffat’s script spends most of the episode alternately apologizing and lambasting the audience for liking the geeky-hot pretty boys who have come before.
While Capaldi stumbles around performing his best King Lear audition, Clara is struggling to come to terms with the fact that her best friend is a) suddenly old and b) rambling like a lunatic. Jenna Louise Coleman has suffered from inconsistent writing since taking over for Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond, but she brings a spiky warmth to the part that keeps the audience rooting for someone who is essentially more of a plot device than a character.
“Deep Breath” allows her to shine — she is brave, wise-cracking, resourceful and loyal even in the face of serious doubt, and delivers a stirring speech about people underestimating her. But she really should have been giving it to Stephen Moffat, whose misogyny is at its worst here. The Doctor sees Clara as a control freak and Strax the Sontaran butler examines her subconscious to find that it’s full of “deflective narcissism, traces of passive-aggression and a lot of muscular young men doing sport.” Given that this is an episode where Clara really shows her mettle, it’s a staggeringly unfair criticism even if it is coming from a psychopathically violent alien butler shaped like a lumpy potato.
However, it was really Madame Vastra’s episode — and the Paternoster Gang’s appearances are starting to feel more and more like a backdoor pilot for a spin-off. Neve Mcintosh has a wonderfully mobile face, even beneath several inches of scaly green prosthetics, but her upstaging Capaldi, a fellow Scot, doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.
The final nail in the coffin is an unexpected Matt Smith cameo – just as Clara is about to walk out of the TARDIS for good, the Eleventh Doctor calls her, mid-regeneration, to make sure she takes care of his future self. It’s clearly supposed to be a sweet moment, but it undermines the whole premise of the episode. The wonderful thing about a new Doctor is that moment when you realize you’ve put your doubt aside and you’re ready to follow him into space and time. If he can’t convince you that he’s the real deal, then why should we care? Capaldi is an excellent actor, but despite Moffat’s fanboy-ish excitement over the casting, the script doesn’t quite have the same confidence.
Also disappointingly underwhelming is Michelle Gomez, who pops up at the end as the Big Bad of the season. These two giants of Scottish acting were so grossly underused that if Scotland were to vote on independence tomorrow, it would be divorced from England by tea-time. References to the Doctor as her “boyfriend” suggests she’s either being set up as another River Song or is simply delusional and obsessed with him, neither of which are particularly appealing motivations for a villain (unless you’re the Master).
The plot is patchy, the new credits are horrible and the lead actor seems to get less screen time than everyone else. As a mid-season filler, “Deep Breath” could have been an enjoyable romp – as an introduction to a new Doctor, it fails horribly. At least it showcases the talents of one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets, giving a wry, witty performance in what should be a break-out role — even if she is buried under several layers of lizard make-up.