Last night’s opening episode of Doctor Who’s eighth series was titled Deep Breath – an apt description given the breathless anticipation fans have experienced over the past 12 months as they await arrival of Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor.
Debates about the suitability of a 56-year-old Glaswegian for the role, the scandal of leaked scripts and footage – which prompted the #keepmespoilerfree campaign – and recent rumours that companion Jenna Coleman will be leaving the series have only made the wait more unbearable.
Thankfully, fans can now breath again safe in the knowledge that their patience has been rewarded with a triumphant introduction to the new Time Lord that zips along with a free-flowing pace and packs in everything you want from Doctor Who. The action is daring, the jokes are silly and the plot is an enthralling mix of sci-fi and Holmesian murder mystery refreshingly absent of timey-wimey brain teasers.
Moffat’s love of all things Sherlock shines through the entire episode as Capaldi’s Doctor is spat out into Victorian London dazed, delirious and unhinged, and once again ready to raise hell. The game is quickly afoot as the Doctor re-teams with everyone’s favourite same-sex, interspecies detective couple Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint (and of course their faithful comic relief, Strax) to investigate a mysterious spate of spontaneous combustions that will uncover a secret organ-harvesting ring hidden beneath the Thames.
Deep Breath also shows Moffat to be keen to explore the psychological impact of regeneration in more detail, as he douses the plot with themes of identity. From Madame Vastra’s pointed discussion about wearing a veil to be accepted to the Doctor challenging a robot infused with human parts for “replacing everything time and time again until there is nothing left of the original you”, it’s clear the Doctor has no idea who he is or what he is capable of.
This ambiguity creates an air of unpredictability not usually seen in the modern series but an open-ended final showdown leaves you in no doubt that we are dealing with an edgier Doctor who is more dangerous than he has been in a long while.
Life-long fan Capaldi slips effortlessly into the role and absolutely nails his first appearance, establishing the charismatic fierceness that makes the character his own whilst still possessing the mercurial enthusiasm for mystery and adventure that is an essential part of the character’s DNA. At the same time, the doubts he has about his own identity (“Who frowned me this face?”) lend the Doctor an intense vulnerability that softens his abrasive edges and ensures he is in no danger of alienating his fans.
The Doctor’s new personality also lays the foundations for a sparky, playfully tempestuous dynamic with companion Clara, which gives the episode its rhythm along with Moffat’s snappy script. It’s Coleman’s best work yet as a Clara who, angry, confused and grieving the loss of an old friend who has suddenly reappeared with a new face, no longer knows if she can trust the Doctor or if he even wants her anymore.
Capaldi isn’t the only new addition to the Doctor Who team, however. This episode is the first of two in the series to be directed by Ben Wheatley, the British director behind such weird, inventive and violent films as Kill List and A Field In England. Wheatley, as you’d expect, creates a suitably murky tone to match the Doctor’s new mood, and also equips himself well with the fantasy aspects of the sci-fi genre whilst also taking care not to let it overshadow a much needed sense of fun.
With Wheatley also set to direct next week’s episode, which boasts the return of the Doctor’s greatest foe, the Daleks, we can be sure that the eighth series will continue to push the show into creepier territory. “Am I a good man?” he asked Clara in a recently released trailer. It’s a question that remains thrillingly unanswered.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Deep Breath on BBC iPlayer