When speaking of ways of instantly grabbing the viewer, there are probably few more effective than an episode immediately starting with a Godzilla-sized T. rex thundering along the bank of the Thames in Victorian London and then spitting out the TARDIS. It is from here that a reasonably straightforward plot about robots harvesting human organs is taken into weird and wonderful territory in a story that has to deal with the most radical reformatting of the title role since the Ninth Doctor nine years ago. Although a bit frayed around the edges, Moffat’s script is as scary, intriguing and funny as ever, the story feels different - slower, with longer scenes and a lot of sitting down and talking. All this is done in a script that is still full to the brim with great lines and gags.
I was initially a bit apprehensive about both David Tennant and Matt Smith – they were pretty much unknown to me before their announcement, although they won me round pretty quickly. The same cannot be said of Peter Capaldi. As I said when he appeared in "The Fires of Pompeii", the man’s range is formidable and he has charisma oozing out of every pore. My expectations were high and he had no problem in exceeding them, whether squeaking ‘You’ve got a dinosaur too!’, or mumbling the creature’s thoughts in his sleep, whether calmly asking his adversary to join him in a Scotch or baring his teeth in fury when giving his adversary in ultimatum, this new face with old features and attack eyebrows is, without doubt, the face of our favourite Time Lord. The Doctor’s associates carry more of the story than ever before – if you ever wondered what a Paternoster Gang spin-off series would be like, this episode would give you a pretty good idea and our favourite multi-species Victorian gang is on fine form as support. However, it is Clara who helps us truly love this new Doctor. Clara here is portrayed, for the first time, in terms of her life and reactions as a normal human being, rather than as a plot device and Jenna Coleman shines in showing Clara coming to terms with an unfamiliar face on her best friend.
We have a very familiar group of monsters for the story, and the viewer needs no prompting to recall "The Girl in the Fireplace" but with clear differences. The clockwork droids from the SS Marie Antoinette have been trying to repair their ship for tens of millions of years longer than those from SS Madame de Pompadour and they have developed some odd beliefs – perhaps the fact that Marie Antionette’s head became readily available was not the panacea that they were hoping for. The lead droid, the ‘half-face man’ is menacingly portrayed by Peter Ferdinando, who also brings out the desperation and sadness in the character.
The story is directed by Ben Wheatley, one of the most promising new British film directors – I can highly recommend the genuinely unsettling Kill List, in particular (if you have the stomach for it!) Wheatley gets very nuanced performers from all the actors and makes the slower scenes contemplative or tense or menacing as required. However, he is out of his comfort zone when it comes to the fight between the Paternoster gang and the droids, which is a disappointment after the wonderful scenes of Clara holding her breath trying to escape. The whole production is very assured, with a real Talons of Weng-Chiang feel to it (although there is a whopping continuity issue when the Doctor drops out of a tree onto a horse – that is in a courtyard with no trees in sight!) The effects are great throughout, with the outsize T. rex an obvious highlight and it has the depth of a feature film and would work well in a cinema.
Although it is my least favourite debut for a Doctor this century, Peter Capaldi makes the role his own with little effort – whilst it was wonderful to see Matt Smith again, there was no need for him to validate a new Doctor that needed no help to gain our attention. We are left, therefore, with the unexpected revelation that the half-face man found his Promised Land –the maitrêsse d’ of which, ‘Missy’ (sparkily portrayed by the inimitable Michelle Gomez) is a bit too familiar with the Doctor for comfort...
NEXT: "Inside the Dalek"