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DOCTOR WHO: Comparing Deep Breath to previous debuts

How did Deep Breath, Peter Capaldi's first episode of Doctor Who, compare to some of the previous Doctor's debut adventures? Tom Pheby investigates.

At 7.50pm last Saturday evening Peter Capaldi staggered out of his smokey TARDIS slightly bemused and not knowing what to expect, like the majority of us watching one assumes. The hype was always going to be difficult to deal with, and the expectation levels were probably unreasonable. There were a few things I wasn't sure about, and parts that didn't get me overly excited but I took it on the chin, it's Doctor Who for God's sake - change is inevitable. 

It's a bit like having your favorite dish served up at your favorite restaurant only to learn that the Chef is not the regular chap. For some it detracts, others enjoy the change - an extra ingredient or a variation on a theme isn't going to alter the dish too dramatically. Let's not forget that no one has been tricked here, change was announced long beforehand so those who were still hoping for a serving of 'The Matt Smith Dish' were just never going to be satisfied.

Deep Breath did however feel like a bigger and bolder production, drawing on a bigger budget, from it's Victorian setting to it's outdoor scenes. It's certainly the largest scale debut adventure gifted to any Doctor yet, and likely the biggest change in the show's history. Discounting 2005s Rose as there was no previous season for 16 years, you'd probably have to go all the way back to 1970s Spearhead From Space to find such a change between seasons, and that one benefited from the extra enhancement of colour broadcasts.

Doctor Who does tend to borrow from the pages of its own history. Tom Baker's debut in Robot borrowed a little from Pertwee's 1970 debut. In that the regenerated Time Lord found the TARDIS key in his shoe. These little nods to the past are often welcomed in the world of Who, gentle reminders of its long rich history, and Deep Breath made sure to include many of them.

The Paternoster Gang were on hand to offer support. Unlike Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith in The Christmas Invasion, Vastra was unphased by the Doctor's change in appearance, even echoing the Brigadier's "here we go again" - spoken when he witnessed the third Doctor becoming the Fourth. Plus, not long before Lethbridge-Stewart had seen the arrival of another "splendid chap", he was there to assist the Third Doctor with a dinosaur rampaging through London. Sound familiar?

One of the first very big changes on show in Deep Breath was the new title sequence - and what a change! Visually very interesting, musically though you'd be forgiven for thinking that Peter Howell was back as composer. Just swap out those 'attack eyebrows' for a stick of celery and we're off to Castrovalva with Peter Davison. 

After a slow start to the character there was fun to be had with the Victorian vagrant and the brilliance of the Doctor started to shine through...eventually. But that surely is the case after most, if not all, regeneration stories? Tennant went to sleep for what felt like days before he was battle ready, Capaldi it seemed just needed a little nap before he began to show promise and prove that he is the right man for this series of darker tales. He dealt with all the changes (including an ambivalent Clara and some less than menacing foes - we'll get to both soon enough) with ease. He will get even better, I have no doubt about that.

Much was made about the Doctor's accent, "I'm Scottish!" he proclaimed, but clearly he's still Gallifreyan. Did this even need to be pointed out? It never harmed Sylvester McCoy, did it? Capaldi even noted "I can complain!" - thank God those comments were scripted by a fellow Scot or the BBC may have got a stream of nonsensical complaints.

Peter Capaldi harks back to the previous earlier incarnations, such as Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee. He's a more assured and mature Doctor, and it adds a little more depth. If anything he's probably leaning more towards Pertwee, in both his attire and that he seems to not be afraid of a little action. In Spearhead From Space the Third had a wheelchair chase, our new Doctor went galloping off on a horse.

Often it's only when we hit the middle of a new Doctor's first season that everything settles down, at least that's the way it has always appeared to be. When David Tennant took control of the TARDIS it was The Girl In The Fireplace where he really started to own the role, coincidentally also featuring those Clockwork Droids, but from the early reviews of Into The Dalek it may be that Peter Capaldi has hit his stride a lot earlier. But wouldn't we expect that from such an accomplished actor?

The threat posed by the Clockwork Droids was reminiscent of the Weeping Angels in a way. Instead of blinking it was breathing that was the issue. Hopefully Moffat wont inflict a story on us where the Doctor mustn't sneeze for fear of annihilation! The problem with Deep Breath's villainous creations though is that they looked like they could easily be pushed over or run away from, and even intellectually they seemed less of a challenge than some of those that have terrorized us in the past. However the effects were on point, I strangely enjoyed watching the mechanisms in the Manbots head, twisting and moving. For me that was probably the best bit of these villains, which says it all.

It's unlikely that anyone thought the automatons would return, especially in a new Doctor's debut adventure - I expect with hindsight the same was true for the Autons in Christopher Eccleston's first outing. It could be argued that you don't necessarily want a very strong or major villain in a debut adventure, because you don't want their baggage to take the focus from the new Doctor. Apart from a brief squeaky noise in the TV Movie, The Daleks only faced off against one newly regenerated Doctor, Patrick Troughton. We've seen the Master show up for Doctor's 5 and 8 and McCoy also faced a familiar Gallifreyan renegade, but a newly created foe like the Atraxi, or even the Sycorax, arguably work better for these episodes.

Of course, crafting new memorable villains is not exactly the easiest of pastimes, even for the creative minds of writers and costume designers working in tandem. But fear doesn't necessarily need a physical form, it can be realised through possession (as in The Impossible Planet) or it could be viral (The Waters of Mars). I've always thought this type of writing proves to be the most successful in the absence of a snarling alien with teeth and tentacles, and stories like this could be where the new darker series really excels. They linger in the memory and play havoc with the imagination, something Hinchcliffe and Holmes tried hard to incorporate into the show during their time in charge.

Once again, like Rose in The Christmas Invasion, it was left to the Doctor's assistant to carry the majority of the show and provide the viewers perspective of the yarn. I'm happy with all of that but it wasn't radical enough for many, it seems for all those that loved it as many took to the internet and had a moan about it, and I can certainly understand why. Dealing with regeneration can cause a story to shudder and plod along, with confusion on all sides. We have to spend the majority of the time dealing with 'the change' and it's left to the last third of the episode to find its rhythm. It worked in The Eleventh Hour but in Deep Breath it didn't, not really.

Back to the chemistry between Clara and The Doctor. Obviously with snogging firmly off the menu I expected a certain amount of aloofness between the pair, but it generally didn't work. Often when you think back to previous companions you initially associate them with their Doctor. It's interesting to think back to the ones who present for a regeneration because you tend to associate them with the newer Doctor; the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, the Fifth with Adric & Tegan, the Sixth with Peri and the Tenth with Rose. I know that in some of those cases the companions were bought in knowing the Doctor was about to change but that's not always the case, as Rose and Sarah Jane prove. It's early days right now but it will be interesting to see whether the Twelfth and Clara get to establish something tangible enough so that she becomes forever associated with Capaldi's Doctor. Although perhaps the lack of chemistry is an indicator that Clara will soon be on her way, allowing the new incumbent of the TARDIS to explore a fresh relationship with a new companion.

Then there was that phone call. Did Moffat really include it to help Clara come to terms with her new Doctor or was it to pander to the legions of new fans the show had picked up during Matt Smith's run? He'd never admit to it if he did, but I'm not sure it was necessary. If ever a companion needed help adjusting to a new Doctor then surely it would be poor Peri in The Twin Dilemma. If Peter Davison took 5 minutes out from Androzani to phone ahead and let her know "Look, I'm sorry if I attempt to strangle you but stick with me, we'll become good pals. Brave heart Plus you'll be getting an 18 month extended vacation soon." Clara had been in the Doctor's time stream, she'd seen the First, she was there pre-An Unearthly Child. She had to know that aging was an option, right?

Overall Deep breath was OK, enjoyable without being totally absorbing. There were highlights, like the restaurant scene, but the fear factor was sadly lacking. The script meandered at times, the chemistry between the Doctor and Clara was not there and I'm still asking myself "Why the Dinosaur?" Visually spectacular I guess?

When comparing it to the more recent debut adventures, Deep Breath wasn't as memorable as Smith's debut in The Eleventh Hour, however it wasn't as disappointing as David Tennant's Christmas Invasion. It sits firmly between the two, which is fine by me. Peter Capaldi is a fine actor and he will go on to establish himself as a fabulous Doctor, perhaps one of the best. That old Type-40 is in very good hands.

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