doctor who peter capaldi 9x4

Watching Doctor Who as a non-Whovian is a fish-out-of-water kind of experience.

PROLOGUE

Okay. So, the premise here is that I’m watching the season (and “New Doctor”) premiere of Doctor Who without actually being all that familiar with Doctor Who, the idea being to see how a show with such a long legacy (that part I already knew) whose modern iteration is built so much on self-reference (I’ve been told) plays to someone who’s coming to it fairly cold. Alright, I’m game for that — even though it likely means the beginning of being endlessly inundated with “Now do one for _______!!!”

Now, to be clear: I’m not exactly ignorant of Doctor Who. Lack of exposure does not, in this case, correlate to a lack of interest or appreciation. Nerd culture didn’t always have the same level of instant cross-pollination as it does now, and Whovian fandom fell mostly outside my immediate circle of acquaintances in that regard. As geek niche-cultures go, I mostly ran with the video game playing, comic-book collecting, anime-seeking, movie-junkie crowd that grew up to work in video stores and comic shops, while the majority of Doctor Who aficionados I ran into tended to be of a slightly older vintage, had strong opinions of various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, referred to golden age sci-fi authors by their first names, could marathon-quote Monty Python routines from the show instead of just the movies, and had jobs in libraries or record-stores. By the time I was old enough to be hitting the convention circuit in any real capacity, the show was off the air and hovering (even further) on the fringes of nerd ephemera.

BUT! to borrow a reference from that one Robot Chicken sketch, I feel pretty confident that I’ve absorbed the gist of it through nerd osmosis. Suffice it to say:

I know that the main character is just called “The Doctor,” in spite of the title.

I know that he’s an alien called a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey (fray?) and that he’s exceptionally long-lived, partially due to an ability to regenerate in a new body at “death.” And I know that in these new forms he tends to have a new personality and what memories/traits/etc remain is nebulous at best.

I know that the last few incarnations were of the boyishly-handsome variety while the new one being (officially) introduced tonight in the person of Peter Capaldi is on the older side and that not everyone is thrilled about this.

I know that he travels through time (and also space) via a vehicle called a TARDIS that looks like a (now doubly-anachronistic) blue police call-box on the outside but a spaceship/command-center on the inside.

I know that he has two sets of enemies who are robots, called Daleks and Cybermen, and that the ones who look fairly useful and threatening are somehow not as dangerous as the ones who look like slightly less-effective versions of those things from Chopping Mall.

I know that he has a weapon/tool called a Sonic Screwdriver, which is functionally a magic wand except full of science.

I know that the modern incarnation of the show is technically in-continuity with the original 60s — 80s seasons (and a bad TV movie from the 90s, which I have seen), but uses “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” quantum-theory business (yes, I’ve seen the one with the Weeping Angels because apparently that’s the one fans have agreed is best to show to non-fans as an enticer) about infinite possibilities, timelines as a license to reintroduce, reinvent, revive and discard classic/fan-favorite characters, locales and storylines from the good old days.

As such, I also know that it’s an aesthetic conceit of the modern series that while much of it looks up to date and “current” design and FX-wise, recurring elements from the old shows tend to preserve their kitschy look/feel for charm’s sake.

I know that he’s frequently accompanied by a sidekick or two, but that we’re to refer to them as “companions.”

And I’m tangentially given to understand that the wrap-up of the previous incarnation’s last season apparently brought to the forefront a bunch of questions about the relative good/evil of The Doctor’s actions throughout the series.

Is that enough to appreciate (or even understand?) what’s going on in this premiere? Well, I’m going to watch it and find out. And then I’ll report back after… without looking up anything that might have confused and/or piqued my interest in between, since that would defeat the purpose of this thing.

105 MINUTES LATER…

Well alright then.

So, the first thing we see is a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping around Victorian-era London. The creature’s arrival draws a crowd, which includes a pair of gleefully curious women (an aristocrat and her servant by their dress, though their interplay immediately suggests a lesbian couple), the apparent leader of which pulls back a veil to reveal that she’s some kind green-skinned sauroid alien (or one of David Icke’s reptoids?) who offhandedly mentions having seen dinosaurs before in their natural time/habitat. I’m guessing established characters, because the two of them have a fantastic chemistry/rapport that suggests a lot of prior “working out” of the routine. Since nobody on hand seems all that concerned about the lizard-woman in their midst, I’m assuming these must be either previously-established characters or a shortcut to informing us that this version of Victorian London is “different.” Either way, this is an awfully promising combination of Stuff That Will Make Bob Watch a TV Show frontloaded into the first minutes of a broadcast, so there’s that.

The T-Rex coughs up the TARDIS onto the shore of the Thames and Interspecies Sapphic Investigation Duo I Haven’t Thought Up a Better Nickname For Yet go to check it out, accompanied by a short alien (?) guy who sort of looks like Max the Butler from Cats Don’t Dance. His makeup doesn’t look as convincing or elaborate as Lizard Woman, so I’m assuming either he or his look are a reference to something from the earlier history of the series.

Anyway, The Doctor emerges seemingly confused about his surroundings but claiming to be able to “speak dinosaur,” along with a cute brunette who identifies herself as Clara. I’m aware, at least, that Clara is the most-recent Companion. I’m given to understand from friends that I’m supposed to dislike her and hope she departs the series at some point soon, but since it turns out she’s a spunky brunette with a British Schoolgirl/Zooey Deschanel thing going on I’m gonna make my own mind up on that.

So they take The Doctor back to Lizard Woman’s (I said I wasn’t going to look anything up after watching, which includes any names I didn’t catch) flat so he can sleep off what I’m going to guess are side-effects of generating a new body (do they go through this routine every time he changes?) and L.W.’s partner confirms to Clara that they are in fact a married couple (this means they also don’t spend all their time in this particular era either, yes?) Meanwhile, out on the street the dinosaur is still just chilling near the river because of a barrier L.W. set up somehow and a guy gets murdered and has his eyeballs stolen by what can most-accurately be described as a Steampunk Terminator. Okay then.

Clara gets called in for a lecture by Lizard Woman (the wife has said her name a few times, but she has a heavy accent and a lisp so I’m not catching it. Spectra?) on the subject of not being so visibly bothered that The Doctor is no longer a handsome young dashing hero type for her to crush on. Oh. I get it — we’re actually talking to the audience here. Ha ha. Cute bit. Kind of hope it’s not stretched over the whole of the episode though. Clara gets really catty about the whole thing and straight-up accuses Lizard Woman of checking her out (is this sort of thing why I’m not supposed to like her?) right in front of her wife, which is somehow the magic words that indicate to L.W. that she can be trusted.

doctor who clara 350

In any case, the dinosaur spontaneously combusts and The Doctor (who was awake doing Beautiful Mind chalk-drawings) runs off to investigate, which means Clara and the girls and the lumpy guy (whose dialogue suggests I’m meant to recognize him as a Classic Who nemesis) get to launch a similar investigation of their own. For The Doctor, that somehow means wandering into an alley and getting into a mumble-off with a hobo intersped with in-jokes about the costuming of past incarnations and his joy at realizing that he’s Scottish this time and “Can really complain about things!” (Heh!) For the ladies, that means having more witty banter while Lizard Woman appears to be painting her wife’s portrait… only to turn the canvas around to reveal it’s an evidence board and she just asked her partner to pose artfully because… well, why not?

Okay, show? I get it. These two are adorable. Perfect double-act, great routine, appealing actors. Sold. I’m onboard. Can we pick the main story back up? Because it seems like there’s a lot of extra business crowding-out the main “What exactly IS these people’s relationship now that one of them is literally a different person?” story that feels like it should be at the forefront, though granted I don’t know the history well enough to know if it’s an unusual turn for a companion to still be hanging around during/post a regeneration.

Clara’s investigation means finding lunch invitation in the newspaper that used the previous Doctor’s nickname for her (“The Impossible Girl,”) and heading to a restaurant. She meets The Doctor there, but both of them each think the other planted the clue. Okay, that’s cool, and it unravels into a back and forth between the two of them where they both think the other’s criticisms are self-criticism. I’ll be honest: The stagey banter is a little bit tiresome, but they’ve got good chemistry.

The “restaurant” turns out to be populated entirely by automatons who won’t let them leave and send them down to a dungeon in the lower level — like a Roach Motel for humans operated by a “sleeping” Steampunk Terminator, who turns out to be a cyborg — or, at least, a robot who’s been building himself into a human over the centuries by stealing parts. Given how matter of factly this is presented, I’m guessing this guy (and this scenario) are a either an homage or straight do-over of something from the earlier seasons.

In any case, Steampunk Terminator wakes up and The Doctor appears to abandon Clara to escape which is clearly supposed to make us wonder if he’s really so different a guy now that he’d actually do that… which really doesn’t work dramatically. I get that The Doctor is different and more “alien” now, but since he’s chasing this mystery in the first place because he’s upset about the T-Rex getting killed “callous” doesn’t feel like a plausible trait. Sure enough, moments later he turns up “disguised” as one of the automatons that’s been there the whole time (Good! I like it when time-travel actually gets used to do things other than set up what era a story is taking place), thus revealing that briefly stranding Clara served mainly to set up the trick to outwitting these automatons: If you don’t breath, they think you’re a robot, too, and stop advancing. Is the obvious similarity to the Weeping Angels (frozen when looked-at) supposed to be self-satire? I’m not sure.

doctor who s8 ep1 madam vastra

This is getting a little long, so: Victorian Interspecies Xena & Gabrielle come crashing in ninja-style (swords, even!) on Cirque du Soleil ribbons to help fight the robots. Steampunk Terminator deploys a giant balloon (made of skin?) to take his base airborne over London, and he and The Doctor chase each other upstairs to have it out like gentlemen. We learn that the villain is trying to become human so he can die (?) and “go to paradise,” which The Doctor concludes is a delirium he’s absorbed into his now-mangled programming from all the humanity he’s tried to graft onto himself over the centuries (okay, that’s an interesting idea). They seem to arrive at a stalemate because Steampunk Terminator isn’t programmed to kill himself and The Doctor is similarly disinclined to kill an enemy.

Down in the dungeon the good guys are being overwhelmed (I’m not sure how, since their attackers seem to made mostly of brass and dead people) and have to do the no-breathing thing, which Lizard Lady and wife are able to accomplish handily through some sort of “kiss of life” move the mechanics of which I’m still unclear on. Good tension builder, though, cutting off when the robots stop because Steampunk Terminator has been impaled on the spire of Big Ben. Ah! Okay, I get it: We’re supposed to wonder if The Doctor actually did talk him into stopping his insane schemes or if this new Doctor actually is willing/capable to play judge, jury and executioner against his foes. Good angle. I like it.

As we wrap up, The Doctor and Clara have it out once and for all re: him venting about how he’s upset that she doesn’t seem to want to accept his new form/personality. Question: I get that this is still meta-on-meta talking to Clara but really talking to the audience stuff, but do they really feel that’s necessary? I get that people historically get really attached to their first/preferred/favorite Doctors, but are they really expecting that there are enough fans devoted enough to be included in this lecture to actually need it? Is there really a reasonable worry that Matt Smith’s departure is going to take that much of the audience away with him?

I’m asking sincerely, because otherwise this angle feels a bit like overkill at this point — The Doctor even explicitly tells Clara “I’m not your boyfriend,” which struck me as something like a middle-finger to the show’s famously-devoted female fanbase. Anyway, it gets resolved because Clara gets a phonecall from the past: It’s the prior Doctor, and he says his big goodbye and tells her to give it the old college try helping the new guy — who, a scene later, shows off his new duds (he looks sort-of like a stage magician who lost his hat and rabbit), a redecorated TARDIS interior and drops the new mission statement: He wants to go about fixing a history of mistakes… his own. I like the sound of that.

As a final coda, Steampunk Terminator wakes up seemingly unscathed in a posh English garden with an unnervingly-upbeat matronly woman who assures him he’s reached “heaven,” twirls an umbrella around and seems to refer to The Doctor as her “boyfriend.” I have no idea who this is, and no idea if my reaction is meant to be “Who are you, now?” or “Oh no, not her!” But okay, I’m keen to find out.

VERDICT:

I liked it… with reservations. The plotting is sort of messy, in that the B-story about teaming up with Lizard Woman’s crew to fight Steampunk Terminator was so busy it kept overwhelming the main “meet your new Doctor” stuff, which as a result seemed to exist mainly (apart from some fun physical comedy as he dashed off toward the suddenly-burning dinosaur) as a series of meta-self-reference routines instructing the audience to get over Matt Smith already. Not to start lecturing myself, but maybe a better way to get the audience onboard with the new guy is to have him do more cool/fun/interesting stuff?

On the plus side: It was a lot of fun. Capaldi is an interesting presence — capable of being silly, serious and at a few points a bit on the frightening side — and his Doctor has a likable rapport with Clara (who I’m still not sure why people are so bothered by?). Lizard Woman & Wife were a consistent delight as supporting characters even if I still don’t know what their “deal” was (they announce themselves like government agents of some sort when they attack the robots, I think?) so I’d hope to see more of them.

What I can say for sure is if I’d just happened upon it without intending to (and likely being even more unfamiliar than I am) I’d probably be compelled to find out what the hell this is and where I can see more of it. Make of that what you will. Now, to go look all this stuff up and see how wrong I got everything…

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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