I'm not sure if "Doctor Who" showrunner Steven Moffat is worried fans are not going to like Peter Capaldi's new Doctor, or that they'll miss former star Matt Smith so much they don't give the older actor a chance. But he seems preoccupied with the Doctor's age in the Season 8 premiere (7 p.m. Aug. 23, BBC America; 3 stars out of 4).
"Deep Breath," written by Moffat, is the 56-year-old Capaldi's first full episode as the Time Lord. William Hartnell, the first Doctor and up to now the oldest, was 55 when he debuted as the Doctor. Smith, who ended his run last season, was 27 when his first episode aired.
But enough "Who" history—Moffat gives viewers plenty of that in the opening bit of "Deep Breath" courtesy of a certain Sontaran named Strax, who rattles off a hilariously misspoken review for anyone who isn't familiar with the show's 50-year-plus history. So all you folks who always have wanted to join the "Who" universe—now's your chance for a speedy catchup.
The opening is like a "previously on" with enough in-jokes to fill a TARDIS. Strax even teases about how many times the Doctor has regenerated into a new version of himself—a conundrum raised in the 50th anniversary special last year when Moffat introduced the "War Doctor," who seemed to mess up the long-held numbering of Doctors.
Once the real story of "Deep Breath" gets going—and I won't spoil with details—it's vintage Moffat, jammed with clever dialogue, references to past episodes and a sinister new villain (or possibly two). Scenes flip from suspenseful to silly to scary as director Ben Wheatley injects a dark, mysterious tone and cinematic scale to the 90-minute tale. Still, Wheatley wisely slows things down, giving all involved a chance to catch their breath as companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) and viewers get to know the new Doctor.
And what a Doctor he is. Much of the episode has the Doctor coming to grips with his new age and identity, as well as those remarkably dexterous eyebrows. It's early goings, but Capaldi seems to be building a quieter and quietly broken Time Lord—more mysterious and serious than any in the recent past. Not that he can't bring the funny; the new Doctor makes us laugh, too.
Coleman's rich performance matches Capaldi's as Clara struggles with the regeneration of her Doctor. She's confused why the Doctor is now older when he's "brand new." She's obviously serving once again as the audience's proxy—but she and Moffat needn't worry. The Doctor may be different, but he's as entertaining as ever—and fans are going to love him.
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