As ever, there were a lot of questions to be asked as we welcome a new actor to the title role of Doctor Who. Few, however, questioned whether Peter Capaldi could deliver the goods. Unsurprisingly, he's excellent. He slips into the role with ease and just like Matt Smith was, he's instantly The Doctor.
"Deep Breath" has far more in common with "The Christmas Invasion" (David Tennant's first episode as the Doctor) than it does with Smith's debut though. It's not so much another pilot for the series as it is an episode that requires a bit of knowledge about where the characters have been and what they've experienced.
We're thrown straight into things with the arrival of an enormous dinosaur in London, which soon spits out the Tardis and gets us on the way with the new Doctor's first adventure. Like Tennant's Doctor was, he's disoriented and confused at first. Some of the early humour doesn't land, but Capaldi pulls off the trademark manic energy with aplomb, and he adds a level of gravitas that makes his Doctor a little different. Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax try to get him to rest so he'll get used to his new body, but he's soon up and about trying to solve a mystery.
The mystery itself isn't exactly compelling, and it struggles for thematic relevance. For one episode, though, we can probably forgive that. This one isn't about the plot, as it mounts a real exploration of what it's like to watch someone you know become somebody else in a way I'm not sure the show has done before. Credit has to go to how convincing Jenna Coleman is in her reaction to the new Doctor, and it's interesting to see the show tackle concerns about his more aged appearance (and the fact that Capaldi's been on the show before - referenced in a brief line, "I never know where the faces come from. They just pop up...") in such a head-on way.
I still have concerns about whether Who is attempting to go darker than it can really pull off. The question that it poses as to whether the Doctor would kill to protect humanity doesn't feel like what the show should be about, as he's meant to be capable of solving problems with his intelligence and wit. I expect we'll get some more clarity about that ambiguous climax soon enough, although I'm not convinced something so dark needed to be dealt with in the first place. Sadly, It's unlikely that Doctor Who will shake off its dark edge for something more hopeful while showrunner Steven Moffat remains in charge.
There's still a lot to enjoy with "Deep Breath", though. The premiere makes great use of Victorian London, and has a steampunk style that is reflected in the brand new opening credits. Jokes from Strax are beginning to feel a little worn out, but seeing Vastra and Jenny again is always worthwhile. The crime-solving couple are on great form here, stealing many scenes while scoring the big laughs and a couple of strong emotional beats (Jenny's line to Clara about her marriage - "I don't like her ma'am. I love her" - is all kinds of wonderful).
The direction from Ben Wheatley is very effective when it comes to conveying a tense atmosphere, and there's definitely something a little more unnerving and unpredictable about Capaldi's Doctor that is conveyed by the visuals. Flimsy plotting aside, this is a hugely confident introduction to the new Doctor that showcases some really brilliant performances. Its ambition isn't always realised and many of the jokes fall flat, but when the show relies on Capaldi or Coleman to sell either the quieter moments or the more hyperactive ones, it's a delight.