Given that just the other day I argued that we needed to wait and see before passing any real judgment on Capaldi’s brand-new Doctor, I’m going to dig deep and try to find nice things to say about yesterday’s premiere episode instead of just ranting on ad nauseam.
And the only real way I can think to do that is by making sure to weigh down every positive with a negative. Hence, pros and cons.
I don’t think you need much more of a primer than that, so let’s get to it.
PRO: Capaldi’s Acting
This was never going to come as much of a surprise, but it’s an easy plus to start with: Capaldi did a good job. Particularly in his quieter and more sinister moments, which comes as no real surprise, but he was also much better at slapstick than I expected him to be.
Among those quiet moments, I think he nailed two key scenes that helped save an otherwise horrific first episode: his showdown with Robot Two-Face and his final moments with Clara.
If there was one theme that the episode got across well, it was the question of masks and veils and the idea that the Doctor is never completely sure how much a regeneration is just a new suit, and how much it actually changes him until there’s nothing of the original him left. This question echoes a fairly routine fan concern: how can it be the same man when they’re all so different? As a result, it’s somewhat reassuring to establish that the Doctor himself isn’t completely sure of the answer. While the question — did the Doctor push Robo-Face or did RoboFace jump — was hanging in the air for a moment, Capaldi’s dark, defiant look straight into the camera put it to rest. Would his predecessors have done that? (Actually yes, that scene was almost identical to the final climactic moment in The Christmas Invasion where Tennant’s Doctor basically does the same thing, but the episode wants us to say no, so let’s say no).
But the final moment where he pleads with Clara might be what sold me, particularly because it gave us the first glimpse of who our new Doctor was: someone scared and needy and, because of both of those things, much more walled-off and inaccessible.
CON: That Fucking Dinosaur
If there’s one thing that Moffat has always been bad at, it’s understanding the consequences of his writing decisions. On a basic level, the T-Rex stalking around Victorian London was a perfect example of this. There is no suggestion that it has impacted anyone’s daily life, nobody’s really panicking too much and the T-Rex seems content to kind of just wander around the Thames. Did anyone evacuate the city? Where was the police presence? Why were there plenty of people gathered around the Thames when he caught on fire?
Apparently in Victorian times, a living T-Rex would have been no big deal, but a fire is big news.
I could go on, but let’s be real: the T-Rex was there because T-Rexes are fun. And because at its worst, Moffat’s Who has all of the depth and logic of a Saturday morning cartoon. But even acknowledging all of that, the opening was lame and pointless and the reactions to it were too underwhelming and generic to get the audience caught up in the fun of the spectacle.
PRO: The Comedy Elements
If there was one part of this episode that didn’t feel like a chore to watch, it was all of the little moments where Moffat just decided to have some fun. I don’t know why seeing Clara getting smacked in the face with a rolled-up newspaper was funny, but it just was. Strax mournfully agreeing that they couldn’t dissolve the Doctor in acid? Funny. 12 informing the homeless man that he had attack eyebrows? All good stuff.
These lighter moments made what was otherwise a seriously lagging middle act a little more fun.
CON: Enough With the Paternoster
Sure, Strax provided most of the laughs in last night’s show, but the Victorian monster detective gang’s presence in the show has always been awkward. Where having Mickey or Jack occasionally tag along with Rose and 9 was fun because they had developed a relationship with the characters and with the audience, this random trio that pops up now and then still feels under-explained and ultimately pointless. Who are they again? How did the Doctor meet them? How are they able to go around London without being noticed?
If they genuinely came with the Doctor a few times, or developed some kind of kinship with one of his companions, then Moffat might be able to make them work. But instead they’re parachuted in at random and then tucked away when they’re no longer of use.
Part of me was hoping for a while that Clara would eventually be left with them for good at the end of the season — that she would decide that solving mysteries in the 19th Century would be more fun than returning to her life as a harried schoolteacher. And then Paternoster and Clara could be tucked away together, having served their dual purposes. But I doubt that now — I think we’re going to keep being subjected to them at random.
Oh, and are Jenny and Vastra married? I feel like they’re being coy on that point.
PRO: Clara’s Flirtation with the Doctor is Over
I want to call this a pro, because I am genuinely glad that Capaldi and Coleman won’t be asked to share any longing glances across the TARDIS. And that’s a good thing — Moffat’s insistence on pretending that the 11th Doctor was some kind of bumbling, accidental sex object was always weird.
CON: But the Way the Episode Presented that Decision Was Terrible
First, the idea that Clara’s entire motivation the whole episode long was to decide if she still wanted to hang out with the Doctor now that he looked old and wrinkly was clearly a slap against the handful of female fans who pouted that they’d lost their young Doctor. But they were in the minority, and devoting nearly all of Clara’s screen time to dressing down a group of immature teen girls was patronizing and dull.
While I do understand that companions have always been stand-ins for the audience, at no point does anyone remind Clara that she has literally seen every incarnation of the Doctor. So it makes no sense that she moans aloud for hours on end about how 12 can be “new” and yet old. I could sort of buy her wondering why this particular regeneration chose to go so much older, but I definitely can’t buy how they expect us to believe she didn’t think it was possible.
The lecturing on the part of Madame Vastra telling her to stop being so superficial was uncomfortable. And then Clara needing to prove to her (but really us) that looks didn’t matter was more uncomfortable. The final insult, though, was having 12 literally say, “I’m not your boyfriend” with the unspoken “anymore” following it.
At least they addressed the fact that the crush wasn’t entirely her fault, but all the same, having Capaldi sternly inform Clara that her schoolgirl crush must come to an end was… well, honestly, it came off as weirdly manipulative. “When it worked for me, it was fine. Now it doesn’t, so stop it. But please still travel with me — I’m lonely.”
PRO: The Callback to The Girl in the Fireplace
Let’s agree to call this a pro. Let’s hope that Moffat has decided to weave his stories better and that maybe we’re getting some kind of further explanation for the Madame de Pompadour episode with the clockwork clowns.
I like the idea that it will build to something greater, provided it can be executed well.
CON: Not Sure if Callback or Rip-Off
I touched on this a little earlier, but 12’s skewering of the villain was almost too similar to 10’s showdown with the Sycorax at the end of his first episode. Battling high above London in a space ship? Tossing the foe overboard? Declaring that this is the moment that makes him different from his predecessor?
Then there was also the “should we get coffee or chips” moment at the very end, which I want to say was a callback to the end of The End of the World, the 9th Doctor’s second episode. It could’ve been.
Both of these scenes could’ve been references to the way that the 9th and 10th Doctors were introduced and established. But it seems like Moffat has spent so long trying to distance himself from the Davies years that they would be odd things to just throw out.
The first is very likely an accidental coincidence. The second sort of has to be a wink. Right?
CON: The Final Phone Call
I really tried to think of another pro, but let’s just wrap things up on the most disappointing part of this episode.
The final phone call was cheap.
Part of the hard part with a regeneration is that you don’t get to see your old Doctor again (until a special, of course). Instead, you kind of have to get on with just accepting the new person and learning to like them. But here we get a scene where 11 bizarrely wingmans 12 from beyond the grave. Does that show a lack of faith in Capaldi, or does it just reveal that Moffat wasn’t himself ready to say goodbye to Smith?
Either way, the idea that Clara needed one last goodbye (after already getting that last goodbye in the finale — although I guess he saved the good stuff for Ghost Amy) was odd. And in terms of what effect the call had for the audience, Capaldi’s speech to her after the call was much more convincing than, “Come on, Clara, he really needs you.”
PRO: I’m Still Optimistic
Not so much a pro for the episode, which I can now just come out and say was God-awful, boring, stilted, uncomfortable and poorly-written, but I still hold out hope for the show as a whole. I think Capaldi has the ability to inspire better writing and elevate what he’s given, and while I hate how they went about it, I am glad that they won’t persist with a romantic relationship between the two leads.
Will this actually lead to Clara being taken seriously as a character? Probably not, but again — we’re still in the early days of optimism and hope.
What did you think of Capaldi’s first outing? Are you feeling more generous than me, or less?