Peter Capaldi begins his time as the Doctor by returning to Victorian London in a specially extended episode. A new era begins with a new leading actor but not without revisiting what has gone before.
The story replicates a tried and tested formula for debut stories, introducing the new Doctor by surrounding him with already established elements. The return to that particular time period means bringing back the popular semi-regulars Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. This allows viewers to see other characters interact with the new Time Lord, Vastra being the mature voice of reason and wielding her intellect in a memorable scene confronting Clara about her attitude towards the Doctor’s new appearance. Strax is once again great value, a comedic foil with some very witty lines, which has sadly tarnished the image of the Sontarans, but he is one of the best characters of modern Doctor Who. Jenny is once again overshadowed by the two other much stronger characters but adds balance to complete the trio.
A returning villain to do battle with the new Doctor has been done before in The Power of the Daleks (1966), Time and the Rani (1987), New Earth (2006) and is another example of combining the new with the familiar. However, the clockwork droids are largely unrecognisable from their first appearance in The Girl in the Fireplace (2006), during which they are seen in beautifully classical and ornate costumes. This appearance, however, sees them more graphic, in keeping with the more adult direction which the programme takes in this season. The Half-Faced Man is an incredible creation, raising the bar to new heights for effects work seen in a television programme. London based VFX company Milk delivered a thoroughly convincing hollow structure and the visible internal mechanics of rotating cogs. Also of note is their work on the Tyrannosaurus dinosaur in the opening sequences, just imagine how good Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) would be if remade today, stomping around London.
Peter Capaldi is, as expected, breathtakingly brilliant in the role he had coveted since childhood, delivering a layered performance which cements his position as one of the top Doctors. Debut stories can be challenging because of the need to combine a number of different elements but the journey the doctor ventures makes this story one of the most enjoyable debuts ever. Stumbling out of the TARDIS confused and suffering from post-regeneration amnesia proves that Capaldi can be humorous as well as serious. The key to this incarnation of course is those serious moments and the turn to a darker doctor, starting with the demise of the dinosaur which makes him angry, triggering that turn and self-discovery. During that process there is wonderful scene with Capaldi and Brian Miller, husband of the late Elisabeth Sladen, in an alley where the Doctor postulates about why he has a face he’s seen before, a thread we have still to discover. There are also brilliant lines about his ‘attack eyebrows’ and being Scottish. Following this we get the first proper scene between the Doctor and Clara, a relationship which develops very quickly and in no time they are investigating the larder beneath the restaurant. However, in a shocking turn the Doctor abandons Clara, leaving her with the Clockwork droids. Jenna Coleman is phenomenal when confronted by the Half-Faced Man, floundering under her fear before rediscovering her inner strength and more importantly her faith in the Doctor.
Sadly the phone call from the previous incarnation, Matt Smith, is a transparent attempt to convince younger members of the audience to accept the scarier and intimidating new Doctor. This is perhaps wise when you consider the implication of the Doctor having pushed the Half-Faced Man. But still it does seem to overshadow the work already done during the episode; Clara found her faith in the Doctor only to lose it once again because she didn’t know him. This misstep is quickly rectified however when Clara realises that the Doctor needs her because he is just as scared as she is.
Overall, the story is superb, introducing Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to the world in a perfectly structured adventure. The plot concerning spontaneous human combustion and the clockwork repair droids is intriguing but the focus is rightly on the new Doctor. The character begins to find himself gradually over the course of the story and more importantly his companion, friends and the audience accept him.
Tomorrow, I will be venturing ‘Into the Dalek’!