Madame Vestra, Jenny and Strax are on hand to aide the transition with a Victorian adventure involving lost dinosaurs, clockwork robots and an intriguing setup for the rest of this series.
While I found some of the comedy moments misplaced (particularly a jarring cartoon sound effect) there is plenty of magic to be found in the new relationship between Clara and the Doctor, with some very creepy moments.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN!
We’d long suspected that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor would be dark (if based on nothing more than those glaring eyes in ‘The Day Of The Doctor’). His initial scenes, confused and disoriented, had an edge of menace as he fails to recognise his friends recalling Colin Baker’s first scenes in ‘The Twin Dilemma’.
This establishes Clara’s own dilemma throughout the episode. She doesn’t know who this man is and, despite the reassurance of the Paternoster Gang, can’t accept that he is the Doctor.
The audience goes through the same process whenever a new actor steps into the role of the Doctor. Will we like them and by extension the show? Can they be different but still be the Doctor?
The new Doctor is put through his paces as the dinosaur he accidentally brought to Victorian London is burnt alive and the race is on to discover the culprit. During these early scenes the two time travellers are mostly separated, as the Doctor plunges into the Thames to solve the mystery on his own.
We see something of the Doctors turmoil, grappling to accept his new features. The fact that he won’t let a poor tramp go while he rants shows that he still dependent on having a companion to listen to him. We also see a ruthless streak that’ll resurface later as he demands the tramp give him his coat. He knows that whoever is without the coat will be cold but he doesn’t see why that person should have to be him.
Meanwhile Clara is interrogated by Vastra, where the Silurian accuses Clara of judging by appearances. Jenna Coleman plays the scene well, putting fire into her performance as she defends herself and points out Vastra’s own hypocrisy.
By the time the Doctor and Clara are reunited at the restaurant Mancinis they have more confidence in their own identity to stand their ground, airing their grievances with each other and both accusing the other of being egotistical.
This humorous scene neatly becomes very creepy when the penny drops and they both realise that neither of them sent the invitation that led them to the restaurant. The other diners are flesh covered robots, blocking their every move to escape on the chess board floor.
Beneath the facade of the restaurant is a crashed spaceship, containing the clockwork robots from ‘The Girl In The Fireplace’ (which the Doctor continually fails to recall). There are real elements of body horror here as it is revealed that they’ve spent centuries killing others for replacement parts.
Just when Clara needs the Doctor most, he abandons her, reasoning that there is no reason they should both be captured. Here we are introduced to another monster who has a rule you must follow in order to survive (much as not blinking will protect you from a Weeping Angel), namely that by not breathing you can fool the robots into thinking you are one of them.
This leads to an incredibly tense sequence in which Clara takes the titular deep breath and attempts to make her way past numerous flesh covered robots. She doesn’t make it and is soon dragged before their leader, the Half-Face Man (played by Peter Ferdinado).
The interrogation is a highlight of the episode. You can see the Half-Face Man calculating his next move even without the visual of the clockwork computer in his skull. Clara is terrified but uses her own experience dealing with an unruly class (an indicator that her home life isn’t perfect) to undermine the villain and extract valuable information.
Just as she proves how vital she is to the Doctor he rewards her faith by revealing he’d been with her the whole time, disguised as one of the robots. The fact that he had willingly worn the face stolen from another man speaks volumes about the lengths he will go to.
The Paternoster Gang (literally) drop in to save the time travellers, which the Half-Face Man makes a quick exit, only to find that the Doctor has followed him for the final showdown.
Here we see the personality of this new Doctor, finally stabilised. Capaldi is riveting, filled with anger, rage and a dread at what he has become. He knows that it has to end in the villains death but it is not something he relishes.
This scene sums up the crisis of the Doctor, as he uses the analogue of replacing the brush and handle of a broom so many times it is no longer the same broom and realises that it applies equally to him as it does the droid.
They are both the same but different, as the droid finds the big picture beautiful (as they float above London in a balloon made of skin) while the Doctor finds the beauty in the detail, the people.
It is deliberately left unclear whether the droid jumped (sparing Clara and the others from a gory death) or whether he was pushed. The steely visage of the Doctor gives nothing away.
With the menace averted Clara’s joy is shattered when she finds that the Doctor has left without her. There is still uncertainty in their relationship and it feels like he could leave her. After all she would be in safe hands of the Paternoster Gang and it wouldn’t be the first time the Doctor has abandoned a companion.
Thankfully the Doctor does return, in his new costume and redecorated TARDIS. Taking her back to the modern day Clara is still unable to reconcile her memory of her Doctor and this new version. That is until she receives a phone call from the 11th Doctor.
This delightful and emotional cameo from Matt Smith helps ease the transition. Both versions of the Doctor are worried about who this new incarnation is. The 11th Doctor, Clara’s friend, asks her to look after this new Doctor because he knows he will be scared.
Their relationship has changed and both are still trying to establish who and what they mean to each other. For the moment Clara will help the Doctor find that out in the memory of the man he was.
This reminds us that while this is a new chapter it is still part of a larger story. Dangling plot elements from the past are yet to be resolved, such as who gave Clara the Doctors number and who put the ad in the paper that drew them to the restaurant.
Part of this is hinted at as we find the Half-Face Man awakening in the promised land of Paradise that he hoped to reach, greeted by the mysterious Missy (played by Michelle Gomez).
This sinister, vaguely Mary Poppins-esque, character claims the Doctor is her boyfriend (shades of River Song) but there is something very unsettling about her introducing a villain into what she claims is heaven. This is an intriguing mystery to explore in the coming season.
There are missteps along the way (primarily early cartoonish comedy) and some scenes that could have been trimmed or removed (such as Strax’s medical exam whose purpose only seems to be to setup a similar examination at the restaurant).
While the Paternoster Gang might be overstaying their welcome, particularly when they belittle Clara or seem more familiar with the Doctor than the viewer, they have enough redeeming features to justify their presence.
Peter Capaldi does a great job in the role. He makes this Doctor his own (although I frequently saw traces of the 6th Doctor in the characterisation). We feel his compassion and guilt when the dinosaur dies. We see his intelligence, anger and darkness but also his vulnerability.
This was also a much stronger episode for Jenna Coleman and I liked this version of Clara more. She felt more fleshed out and realistic. Clara is stronger and can now take more of a lead in her relationship with the Doctor.
Moffat keeps the plot moving and is still able to juggle tonal shifts. While drawing heavily on elements from the past it still feels exciting. The strongest part of this is the uncertainty.
This Doctor is still unpredictable. That makes me want to see what happens next week even more.