ENTERTAINMENT
08/22/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2014

'Doctor Who' Season Premiere Review: The TARDIS Returns With A Pleasing Adventure

BBC America

With the launch of a season of "Doctor Who"-- complete with a new Doctor -- and the debut of the spooky drama "Intruders," things are busy over at BBC America this weekend.

First, the good news: Saturday's season premiere of "Doctor Who" is largely wonderful. (Below, I mention some familiar "Doctor Who" characters you'll see in the season premiere, but there are no spoilers in what follows.)

"Deep Breath" is a bit of an ungainly beast, but then, episodes introducing a new Doctor are always outliers. They've got to get newbies up to speed on who the Doctor and his companion are, they've got provide the usual interstellar or Earth-based adventure, and they've got to show what's new, different and (ideally) awesome about this particular incarnation of the character. Fans quite rightly loved Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, and it's a tricky balancing act to let a new actor bring his own flavor to the role while paying tribute not just to Smith's performance but the 51-year history of the franchise.

The new Doctor, veteran character actor Peter Capaldi, and the show's current executive producer/showrunner, Steven Moffat, appear to be keenly aware of these concerns, but the good news is that they don't let them bog the episode down. There is a welcome weighty quality to this week's adventure tale, but its sense of substance comes from embracing the rich potential of the character's depth, not from overstuffing the hour with an excess of "clever" meta-commentary.

The villains of the week aren't especially memorable -- they serve their purpose reasonably well, and that's about it -- but they aren't the reason fans will be tuning in, especially this week. The point of the season premiere, which functions as something of a reboot, is to give Capaldi a chance to show what he can bring to the role, and he rises to that challenge beautifully.

If you're not familiar with Capaldi's extensive resume, he's one of those quietly masterful actors who really and truly can do anything. Thirty-one years ago, he turned in a gently comic performance in one of my favorite movies of all time, "Local Hero," and his most iconic role may be that of the volcanically angry political fixer Malcolm Tucker in "The Thick of It," a caustic comedy from "Veep" creator Armando Iannucci. Over the years, Capaldi, a mainstay of U.K.-based TV and film, has popped up in everything from "World War Z" to "Torchwood" and "The Hour," typically playing intelligent, wily characters who don't suffer fools gladly but who also exude a palpable decency.

Those are among the traits he brings to the Doctor, as well as delicious comic timing. Despite the actor's facility with the lighter aspects of the show, the wisest thing Moffat has done is play up the subtle pathos Capaldi brings to the role. This is an older Doctor with more miles on him and a face made to display flashes of regret. All of the current-era Doctors have done a good job of hinting at the anger and darkness that lurks behind the Doctor's larky facade, but Capaldi brings a welcome element of yearning melancholy to the Twelfth Doctor. The Doctor has been around for 2,000 years or so, and Capaldi has the gravitas and the presence to remind us of that fact in almost every scene -- and to make us wonder just how far this Doctor is willing to go in his quest to help those who need saving.

One of the most surprising things about the season premiere is how emotionally direct it is; there have been some exceptions, but it's been Moffat's style to skirt around, deflect or outright avoid intense personal moments for the characters. Previous companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) allowed the show to occasionally let off steam in that direction, but Moffat's use of the couple (as well as of River Song and the Weeping Angels) ended up being case studies warning against the perils of diminishing returns.

Perhaps there's some intensely personal identification going on with this incarnation of the character: Capaldi is, like Moffat, a smart and acerbic fifty-something Scottish man. Will that similarity of outlook and attitudes allow the writer to give more depth and heft to the Doctor and his relationships? I certainly hope so; the thematic skittishness and manic nature of recent seasons has often been exhausting.

As a longtime fan of "Doctor Who" -- I've been watching it since I was 12 -- the sloppy and scattered nature of the show in recent years has been anything but encouraging. Sure, there were recurrent flaws in the previous regime, under showrunner Russell T Davis, but the Moffat era started out quite disciplined, only to notably devolve over time. There have been exceptions -- the 50th anniversary special was pretty terrific -- but the overall decline has been troubling.

Whether it's because his other show, "Sherlock," has distracted him, or because the British showrunner model, in which one person exerts far more individual control over a program, has allowed Moffat's blind spots to grow unchecked, the end result is a show that has gotten messier, more bombastic and more bloated over time. The hyperactive banter that Smith and Jenna Coleman were often forced to engage in set my teeth on edge, and in recent seasons, promotable episode titles seemed more important than episodes that made a modicum of sense. And I'm certainly cool with more people being aware of the show, but, as I wrote a couple of years ago, the BBC's ongoing attempts to position the show as a money-spinning global franchise has sometimes smothered the plucky, inventive, humanistic spirit built into the TARDIS' DNA.

Will the rest of the season reflect the intelligence, the restraint and the sense of fun that infects the season premiere? Or will "Doctor Who" revert to being a maddeningly inconsistent show that only occasionally connects with its strongest and most reliably entertaining elements?

I don't know, but I do know that "Deep Breath" is one of the best showcases Coleman has ever gotten on the show. I do know that it does a lovely job of calling back to recent and not-so-recent eras of "Doctor Who." And I know that it has a lot of fun showcasing three of my favorite recurring characters on the show. Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and their trusty butler, the squat Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey).

All three are enormously fun to watch in the season premiere. And the new Doctor is pretty cool too.

Now the bad news: If you awkwardly stitched together the first two acts of seven random "X-Files" episodes, you might get something like the first two episodes of the intensely frustrating drama "Intruders." It has a fine cast, including notable "Doctor Who" guest star John Simm, but it's one of those shows that thinks it's interesting to meander around and rarely provide any satisfying answers about anything. Unfortunately, heaping helpings of atmosphere do not make up for the lack of a strong narrative thread or the fact that the characters are so thinly drawn that it's hard to care about anything they do.

Suffice to say that if you like mysterious dramas like "The Returned" or even early-era "The X-Files," this new show may well frustrate you as much as it did me. Spooky elements and odd occurrences can be fine accessories to drama, but unless those things are put in service of a coherent story or compelling characters, they can become a drag on the proceedings. There are elements of a decent premise on display, but "Intruders" fails to deliver on them in any consistent way in the early going, and I was so annoyed by its intentional obliqueness that I didn't want to stick around to see if it improved past the first two episodes.

"Doctor Who" airs Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET on BBC America.
"Intruders" airs Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Ryan McGee and I discussed those two shows as well as "You're the Worst," "The Knick" and the importance of weirdness and secondary characters in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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