TV Review: ‘Doctor Who,’ Season 8

doctor-who-Peter-Capaldi-jenna-coleman

Introducing a new Doctor is always something of a gamble in the “Doctor Who” universe, but producers have made a savvy choice in Peter Capaldi as the 12th incarnation of the iconic time (and space) traveler. Already a seasoned pro and recognizable smallscreen star in the U.K. thanks to Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick of It,” Capaldi couldn’t be more different from the star-is-born discovery of predecessor Matt Smith, rendering comparisons between the two futile at best. This strategic about-face proves its worth in the season premiere — titled “Deep Breath” and written by showrunner Steven Moffat — especially in the immediate rapport Capaldi strikes with sparkling cast holdover Jenna Coleman. Fans shouldn’t fret, the TARDIS remains in good hands.

As risky as it sounds to swap out a lead actor on a successful series, the built-in reset button isn’t just a part of “Doctor Who” mythology (the character can “regenerate” when his current form sustains a mortal injury), it has emerged as the key to keeping the BBC franchise continuing for more than five decades. Exempting a 15-year hiatus that spanned all of the ’90s (an attempted American revival via a backdoor pilot at Fox in 1996 fizzled), “Who” just keeps going and going. Capaldi is now the fourth actor to lead the show in the past decade alone.

Still a mega-hit across the Pond, the current run has cultivated a growing fanbase in the U.S., boosting BBC America to multiple ratings highs in recent years. One modest concern Stateside may be what those relative newcomers make of Capaldi, especially given that he’s the oldest actor ever to take on the role (at 56, he has a year on the original Doctor, William Hartnell) following the youngest (Smith).

It shouldn’t really be an issue. What Capaldi lacks in youthful energy, he more than makes up for in gravitas and wry eccentricity, whether marveling at his “independently cross” eyebrows or gleefully embracing his Scottish accent as a license to complain. And, since being fiftysomething isn’t what it used to be, Capaldi eagerly throws himself into the action, confirming his Doctor won’t miss a beat when it comes to a smashing fight or chase sequence.

As if to underscore the point, “Doctor Who” proves plenty frisky itself in the wake of its own 50th anniversary last year. After years of speculation, the Doctor unceremoniously outs himself as an atheist in the premiere, though a creepy epilogue suggests the reveal is part of a larger arc for the season.

That provocative nugget aside, Moffat’s script emphasizes storyline continuity and easing faithful viewers into the regeneration transition (if you’ve never seen an episode, it’s probably not the best entry point). The narrative wisely pivots on the Doctor’s companion, Clara (Coleman), struggling with whether or not this seemingly new man truly is the same person she’s grown to love on their adventures together.

Consequently, the plot runs secondary to the emotional throughline here, but its melange of robots, spontaneous combustion and a dinosaur in Victorian London provides ample opportunity for meta references to transformation and evolution.

Feature helmer Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”) establishes an eerily menacing atmosphere for the robo-adversaries (even if the conceit of characters holding their breath to escape detection feels derivative of another Moffat creation: the “Don’t blink” defense against recurring villains the Weeping Angels).

Everyone involved can take particular pride in the centerpiece restaurant tiff between Clara and the Doctor, which cements their new relationship and showcases the instant chemistry between Coleman and Capaldi — built on the ability to push each other’s buttons rather than underlying sexual tension. (Clara will get her own age-appropriate love interest in a subsequent installment.)

Fittingly, “Deep Breath” opens and closes with tributes to bygone Doctors. The first plays strictly for laughs as recurring comic-relief character Strax (Dan Starkey) delivers a condensed (and slightly repetitive) regeneration timeline in the style of a roast. By the kicker, the mood has shifted to a more sentimental and highly effective passing of the figurative baton.

It’s a skillful tonal balance that defines the best of “Doctor Who,” and exemplifies the ethos that keeps the series going strong, nodding to the past with all eyes on the future.

TV Review: 'Doctor Who,' Season 8

(Series; BBC America, Sat. Aug. 23, 8:15 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in the U.K. by BBC Wales for BBC One.

Crew

Executive producers, Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin; producer, Nikki Wilson; line producer, Tracie Simpson; director, Ben Wheatley; writer, Moffat; camera, Magni Agustsson; production designer, Michael Pickwoad; editor, Will Oswald; music, Murray Gold; casting, Andy Pryor. 105 MIN.

Cast

With: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, Dan Starkey.

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  1. Enough already! I’ve given the new show enough time and it doesn’t work! No relief from the dark, dire plots. Where are the refreshing touches of humor … the sophistication … the flirtations … the fun, interesting characters? So glad Clara has gone, but let’s get rid of Capaldi now!!

  2. Blah says:

    Not a big fan of Capaldi. He’s just so bland and unentertaining to me. No spah-zaz. I also can’t wait till Clara moves on or dies and we may finally get an alien companion, which I have been hoping for since the second episode of the 2005 reboot (tree lady). Or I can settle for a Martha with more charm but after the master incident. (Kinda like that one episode post-Donna where the bus goes through the tear in the universe or w.e)

  3. A big test of Dr. Who-manship coming up , I am about to watch this years Holiday Dr. Who titled
    “Last Christmas” , always one of The Wizard’s favorite episodes since The Doctor’s return .I agree , some may not be connecting with the doctor due to age and scripits that are somewhat very different , we need a dash of River thrown in to the Mix to shake it up a bit , I do love when she appears !

  4. Sean says:

    Peter Capaldi sucks as the new Dr. Who. The story lines have really gone downhill. What is Moffett thinking!!! The show was evolving into something great, I was watching enthusiastically and now I won’t watch it until we get a new Dr. who

    • Suzych says:

      Loved it! Capaldi is splendid, and gets into unusual depths around issues of appearance and reality — faces, masks, and sight vs. actually seeing. Funny stuff, emotional stuff, altogether a satisfying and provocative start to the new season. BUT I am not a young person (not for some time now), and it may well be that some of the series’ younger fans will be put off by exactly what has delighted me. Stretching a bit to make a less easy connection to an older Doctor could be a healthy approach; and listen hard — the jokes are good.

  5. Michael Panagiotis says:

    the new Doctor Who stuff sucks I’ll never watch Doctor Who again

    • Suzych says:

      By all means, don’t watch again — not til you’ve grown a few years, anyway. This is a more mature, deeper character, and his first season of adventures is more about finding his balance and figuring out what kind of a person he is than chasing bad guys around. If character isn’t your thing, the new Doctor probably isn’t either. Thankfully, he’s arrived just in time for fans eager to see more depth of character and story than running and jumping.

  6. Sarah says:

    I came into the episode after the dinosaur part, I started watching at the restaurant, anyway apart from some good scenes and the speech from the previous doctor I didn’t really like the episode, could not really get into it and was not really taken in with the new doctor to be honest, to state I am not being biased a new doctor is fine, I just don’t happen to like this one at the moment, I may change my mind :)

    • Could it be that he seems to old to be your kind of Doctor? After all , since this series returned in 2005, all the Doctors have been much younger men ! Peter Capaldi is more the age of the Doctors in the earlier incarnations of the show.I agree first episode was not one of the best ,but it was a setting-up
      of how the new Doctor was troubled by his new face, and coming to grips with the realization of that he still was The Doctor !

      • Sarah says:

        No I don’t think it was his age that was the problem, how do you say… His character did not connect with me at all, I liked the old doctor on the time of the doctor :).

  7. Who Lover says:

    too much clara loved the doctor

  8. I think Peter Capaldi is perfect playing the new re-incarnated Doctor ! Love what he’s done with his Home aka The Tardis ! So on with the show ,I do hope River might be in the cards to appear again !

  9. james says:

    Capaldi is a return to the older, professor-types of the original actors–Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee. Whether this will fly remains to be seen after the chick-heartthrobs of the past 9 years. For me, Tom Baker and Peter Cushing were the ultimate Doctors.

  10. Greg Skorich says:

    i’ve been watching dr who since i was a kid. was very excited as an adult when the series was rebooted on 2005. what i don’t understand about this reboot is the need to make the doctor into a sexual being. the companions except for donna noble and a few others have all had a thing for the doctor. which confuses the story line. clara is confusing at best, does she really help him or is she out for a roll in the hay? the other confusing thing is this man can travel through space and time, go any where and any time but he continually ends up in victorian england usually fighting the daleks whats up with that? lastly, i know moffat likes his angels, they were really good in blink but please, please, they weren’t that interesting after that, not even in the final matt smith episode.

  11. Ann says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the premier on BBC America, and will go see it in theaters on Monday. Thanks for the review. Will watch for the atheist reference, which I hadn’t caught.

  12. Al says:

    I need to make a correction to the review. Several reviewers have mentioned the Strax introduction. It should be noted that this was NOT broadcast. This is a bonus feature that is being shown with the theatrical release of the episode only (and presumably it’ll be on the DVD). People watching on BBC America,or BBC One for that matter, never saw it.

  13. Janet says:

    I really enjoyed Matt’s performance because he easily brought that child/stubborn child and a grandfather/grumpy grandfather personalities. And by the looks of the previews, I’m very excited to see Capaldi bring that kind of magic to the Doctor.

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