DOCTOR WHO (2005) series 8, episode 1
WRITER: STEVEN MOFFAT
DIRECTOR: BEN WHEATLEY
AIR DATE: August 23 2014
In Victorian-age London, a fearsome dinosaur materialises and spits out the TARDIS onto the banks of the River Thames. The Paternoster Gang – comprised of Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her human maid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and her Sontaran butler Strax (Dan Starkey) – race to the scene to find Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) emerging from the TARDIS. The Doctor is in a state of confusion, suffering from post-regenerative amnesia. Vastra helps the police contain the dinosaur before taking the Doctor and Clara back to her home where the exhausted Time Lord is sent to bed.
On awakening later, the Doctor hears the distress call of the dinosaur and races off in the night to its rescue. But before he can get to the creature and restore it to its proper time, it spontaneously combusts. He sees a man by the river behaving in an odd manner and runs off to investigate, while the friends of the Doctor who followed him return to Vastra’s home. The next morning, the Doctor scours the back streets of London searching for answers. Both Clara and the Doctor see a message in a newspaper, under the title of “The Impossible Girl”, which directs them to a restaurant. On reuniting, they learn that neither wrote the message as they had assumed and, horrified, realise that the other customers in the restaurant are not people but robots. The pair are apprehended and taken to an underground lair where they meet the mysterious man from the river who turns out to be a long-lived cyborg (Peter Ferdinando). The cyborg has been trying to make itself human through replacing its mechanical parts with the harvested body parts of humans and other living creatures, and using “spontaneous combustion” to dispose of the remains and keep its plan hidden. With its mission not yet complete, the cyborg’s face is only half covered in skin, revealing its inner workings.
A dinosaur rampages
When an opportunity arises the Doctor escapes, seeming to abandon Clara. Recalling earlier advice from the Doctor, Clara holds her breath to conceal herself from the robots and tries desperately to find her way out of the lair. Unable to hold her breath indefinitely, she is recaptured and taken back to the cyborg, who informs her that the drive to prolong its life through parts replacements is a quest to reach “the Promised Land”. The Doctor, disguised as a robot, comes back for Clara, just as the Paternoster Gang arrive and begin attacking the robots with relish. In the ensuing chaos, the Doctor chases the cyborg back up to the restaurant where the cyborg deploys an escape pod, a hot air balloon made of human skin which lifts the restaurant into the sky. As they soar above London, the Doctor taunts the cyborg, reminding it that nothing of its original form is left, bringing its identity and mission into question. He gives the cyborg an ultimatum – jump or be killed. Meanwhile underground as the robots close in on Clara and the gang, they suddenly stop and become lifeless. The cyborg is then shown to be impaled on the spire of Big Ben.
The Doctor comes back for Clara in his TARDIS, revealing a new control room and a new outfit. He invites Clara to continue travelling with him, but she is unsure about the new Doctor's character and morality. However, a phone call from the Eleventh Doctor to Clara, made moments before his regeneration, convinces her to stay. Meanwhile, the cyborg awakens in a beautiful garden and meets Missy, a mysterious woman who claims to know the Doctor. She tells the cyborg that he has finally reached the Promised Land.
The Doctor watches the dinosaur
go up on flames
For this episode, Steven Moffat didn’t have to prove that he can impress with the first outing of a newly regenerated doctor – he’d already achieved that with Prisoner Zero, the full debut appearance of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. The relevant question here was, “Can he do it again?” Well, I’m glad to say that he can and he did. Though not quite as brilliant as Prisoner Zero, it was nevertheless a highly entertaining effort from start to finish. Our first glimpse of a disoriented Doctor anxiously trying to recall Clara’s name and insulting her in the process with a heavy Scottish accent was hilarious. Only a few minutes in and I was already falling in love with this new Doctor. In fact, there were so many good moments in this episode that it’s hard to choose which to talk about, but I’ll highlight three in particular that stood out. Interestingly, all three moments were not action scenes but rather exchanges between characters which were lively and memorable. This is not to say that there was no decent action to be found in this episode, only that the superb moments were found in character interactions, a feature typical of so many Moffat-written episodes.
First, a tetchy exchange between Clara and Madame Vastra over Clara’s struggle with the newly regenerated Doctor’s physically aged appearance was enthralling. When Vastra has a go at Clara for being prejudiced and starts pushing her buttons, an indignant Clara hits back with a fiery display of conviction, scolding the Silurian and prompting Jenny to excitedly approve, Vastra herself to grin with respect, and this viewer to mentally applaud and cheer. This exchange was quite simply a masterclass of good writing and impressive performances all round.
Another scene in the back streets of London when a confused and ranting Doctor encounters a homeless man also deserves a mention. The sight of the Doctor flailing around in a night gown, talking to his own reflection in a mirror and unconscious of the unsettling effect of his manners on the homeless man, who progressively shrivels in the face of the Doctor’s unhinged behaviour, made for some laugh-out-loud viewing. It also highlighted that Capaldi, a serious actor who brings a certain gravitas to the role of the Doctor, is also capable of turning up the comedy factor and making people laugh. His clever use of Scottish vernacular combined with a mercurial performance proved effective in that particular scene.
The Half-Face Man joins Missy in Heaven
Also of note was a scene at the end between the Doctor and the villainous cyborg. ‘Villainous’ is perhaps not the right word since it was revealed that the cyborg was only trying to survive and reach the Promised Land, although its murderous methods for doing so were clearly barbaric. When the Doctor told the cyborg that there was nothing left of the composite creature to truly call an identity and therefore to justify its ongoing existence, the sense of menace oozing from the Doctor was palpable, coming from some place deep within him that felt scary, unfamiliar and morally dubious. And when he instructed the cyborg to jump or be pushed, it was genuinely chilling. That we don’t know which path the cyborg ultimately took – we only saw his lifeless form after the fact - left us as unnerved and unsure about the character of the new Doctor as Clara also appeared to be. Brilliant stuff!
Add to these great moments a welcome and pervasive sense of darkness, a great looking new interior design for the TARDIS and a strange and interesting new character Missy, and what we had in our hands was a sure-fire winner. However, I think that Capaldi still has to find his feet a little, because although I enjoyed his performance a lot, it was clear that he was still finding his way around the role of the Doctor and not yet fully inhabiting it. This is not a serious criticism, however, because it means that there is still room to grow. Thus I look forward to watching him evolve in future, confident from what I’ve seen so far that he may yet become the best Doctor. Only time will tell, but for now I can say that this was another rock-solid Time Lord debut.