Faces of the Doctor: Peter Capaldi – the quixotic, unknowable anti-authority figure?
AS we finally approach the beginning of Series 10 and with the end of the 12th Doctor’s era now hard upon us, I thought now be a good time might be too reflect what he’s brought to the role, what he might give us for his final year as the Doc and where he leaves the show.
To use a current buzzword, Capaldi seems to have been ‘divisive’ as a Doctor. The Guardian is running the usual Moffat is awful/ratings are down/how can they stop the rot? articles that they tend to when a new series is nigh. I’m not going to dignify them with a link but I will point out the usual caveats that the TV industry has changed mightily in the past decade, that ratings are a much more complex business than they were – it’s no longer about who had their backside parked on front of the telly on Saturday evening – or that Who was much more a of global multimedia phenomenon than it was even at the time of the reboot.
However, there is one point that I suspect can’t be too quickly dismissed. Has Capaldi been a successful Doctor? He certainly doesn’t seem to have been as universally loved as his predecessors and one does get the feeling that merchandisers and perhaps the top tiers of the Beeb have been uneasy at having their flagship show being steered by someone, well, a bit old and unsexy.
And yet, it started out with such hope. The announcement of Capaldi’s casting seemed to be met with far more widespread approval than, say, Matt Smith’s. And yet, with two full series under his belt, there seems to still be some enduring puzzlement, if not ambivalence, to his Doctor. I’m pinning my colours to the mast and saying that I consider Capaldi to be a brilliant Doctor, easily surpassing Tennant and Eccleston and possibly tied in a dead heat with Smith. He’s been simultaneously confounding, endearing and exciting and I’m very, very sorry to see him go, although I suspect that he’s timed his departure correctly.
The Twelfth Doctor doesn’t seem to be quite what anyone was expecting but this in itself is a good thing. Capaldi was not exactly an unknown quantity than either Smith or even David Tennant were at the time of their casting. Christopher Eccleston was, of course, a bit more of a name but part of me thinks this did work against him in some ways. I enjoyed his brief tenure, but mostly because of the rush of having Who back on our screens. And I did like the deliberate rejection of typical Doctor-ish trappings — the leather jacket, the PTSD angst, the focus on Rose, all demonstrated a willingness to avoid what had by then become time-worn tropes of the series and the careless indulgence of which had strangled the McGann movie at birth.
Much of the press surrounding Capaldi’s casting demonstrated a key challenge the production team was going to have to overcome. It was next to impossible to find a story that didn’t have Capaldi’s name prefaced with the words ‘best known as foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker…’ The Thick Of It was going to loom large over his Doctor, at least initially. (Not unlike the comedic assumptions that were made about Jon Pertwee’s Doctor back in 1970.)
This assumption seemed to be one also held by the early writers for Capaldi, with even Moffat not immune. Both Into the Dalek and Robin of Sherwood suffer slightly from creeping (moderate) Tuckerism and it’s not really until Listen that we really see Twelve’s Doctor start to solidify into something much more unique. But you can understand the temptation. Tucker is Capaldi’s most known role and his clear ability with an acidic put-down is probably too tempting for many writers to resist. It still does surface now and again but it soon became clear that Twelve’s character is not half as ‘in control’ of himself or others as a Tucker-esque Doc would require.
Capaldi is probably the Doctor who has continued to raise and then confound expectations. This seems to at least be slightly deliberate. Some of the costume choices seem to deliberately flirt with a Pertwee look, which in itself is no bad thing, but which, going by the Guardian threads, led some of the more traditionalist Whovians to expect a more patrician Doc in the style of Pertwee and early Tom Baker. And this is what’s led to some of the more rabid gnashing of teeth from them later.
Personally, I don’t think an authoritarian, even one who is loosely so, Doctor is possible in this day and age. Our relationship with authority has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Especially in the current political climate, we challenge, we question. We are less and less inclined to automatically defer to a so-called ‘superior’. The gasping Jo Grant/Brigadier hanging on the Doctor’s every pronouncement trope has probably gone forever. And it’s possibly the reason why, at the moment at least, Pertwee’s Doctor to my mind is the one who has aged least successfully. (It is also perhaps the reason why Colin Baker’s Doctor did so badly. It was an attempt to recreate an assertive Doctor in an age that had lost its patience with such didacticism.) And I do think much of the criticism of both the Capaldi era – and Clara – particularly on The Graun, stems from (an occasionally suspiciously sexist) nostalgia for a subservient companion and a finger-wagging patrician-like Doc.
Certainly, I was no more immune to making assumptions about Capaldi’s Doctor than anyone else. Rather than Tucker, I think I was hoping for something perhaps closer to his portrayal of Uncle Rory in the TV dramatisation of The Crow Road. Every since seeing this scene:
I’ve been of the mind that Capaldi would make a great Doc, although his actual portrayal hasn’t approached the level of thoughtful wisdom that he brought to Rory.
Instead we get something else. Something actually quite difficult to get a handle on. Throughout interviews in his first series, Capaldi constantly reiterated that he hadn’t quite got a handle on his Doctor yet. It’s a brave admission and I think it showed somewhat in the stories. The throughline of Series Eight is a questioning Doctor — “Am I a good man?”. It’s not until the season finale that he gives himself a definitive answer. And indeed it’s not until Flatline, well into the series, that we get an assertive “I am the Doctor”. This was an interesting move, but I fear a possibly self-defeating one. I suspect both Tennant and Smith benefited from a strident declaration of ownership in their opening stories that set them up for whatever followed. Capaldi (like Davison) started on a more deliberately hesitant note and this has repercussions for how we view the character in the future. Maybe this kind of stridency is a necessary component of any modern regeneration.
You can argue that what we’re getting here is a series-long regeneration crisis. A long, dark night of the soul as to what to all intents and purposes is a completely new Doctor, and not just a new incarnation, undergoes a period of stark self-examination. It’s an attempt to do the regeneration crisis idea — surely a very tempting one for writers to tackle — but avoiding the ham-fisted failed attempt of the Colin Baker era.
But while I can understand the temptation to go down this road, on reflection I think it was a mistake. I have a theory that one of the most important aspects of a regeneration story is that it ‘imprints’ a new Doctor upon the audience. If you get it wrong and the Doctor comes across as weak, or unlikeable, or, worse, insane, then you’ve fumbled it and you don’t get a second chance. Neither Peter Davison’s nor Colin Baker’s Doctors really recovered from their bad regeneration stories. They were always thereafter the ‘weak’ Doctor and the wanker one.
The Eleventh Hour to my mind is the best regeneration story the show has ever done and by the end of it you’re in no doubt about who his Doctor is. He’s hit the ground running. From “fish fingers and custard” to the triumphant stepping through the hologram of previous incarnations, it didn’t set a foot wrong.
Deep Breath, by contrast, is deeply flawed. Not that it’s not entertaining. There’s lots of great stuff here, much of it featuring (apparently) the final appearance of the Paternoster Row Gang. But there is to my mind just a bit too much ambiguity in the portrayal of the twelth Doctor.
This is not necessarily in the portrayal of regeneration trauma. Both Smith and Tennant had their moments of post-regeneration vulnerability but the prevailing note of their first stories is still the sharp definition of who their Doctors actually are. In the BG show, both Davison and Colin Baker suffered from being hobbled by their post-regeneration angst. (And similarly both McCoy and McGann became successful Doctors because their essential characters were foregrounded from the start, despite their regeneration stories being essentially duffers.)
Deep Breath’s problem is also one of its most distinctive aspects — that it leaves us with a Doctor who we don’t really trust or know. It’s not an error, of course. We’re being put into Clara’s position — and Clara’s arc from here to her departure is her learning to put her trust in this new Doctor. This journey is not one I dislike. I’ve very much enjoyed the ride of the last two series but it is one that creates a definite ambivalence and which altered the essential dynamic between Doctor and audience.
This ambivalent relationship is not wholly new, however. If anything, it’s perhaps reminiscent of the very early Hartnell Doctor, before he was made a bit more bumbling, cuddly and trustworthy. And for all the Pertwee assocations, I’d argue that Capaldi is to Hartnell what Smith was to Troughton. This, I think, is reflected in everything from Capaldi’s costume to some of his performance choices. (And the return of the Mondasian Cybermen this year also seem to bear that out.)
So, interesting choices abound in Capaldi’s first series but not universally popular ones, I suspect. It seems the production team felt the same way because the following year we had what seemed to be a soft reboot of the 12th Doctor. Gone was the austere, buttoned-down Doc, who seemed to me to have a slightly funereal air about him, and instead we had a be-hoodied Doc, replete with sonic shades and electric guitar.
Again these trappings were met with howls of protest in some quarters. (It strikes me that there’s a mercifully small contingent of Whovians who only seem willing to tolerate the character when it doesn’t veer from an unambiguously Patrician figure, dressed in pseudo Edwardiana, and wagging an arrogant finger at stupid (often female) humans.) Personally, I really liked this looser Capaldi look — and have adopted the hoody and Crombie look myself. (Eminently practical for Scotland and not as conspicuously hipsterish as a bow-tie and tweeds.) And Who works best when it’s riffing off current trends — you have to define Pertwee against Jason King and John Steed, Troughton against the Beatles, Tennant against Cocker-esque geek-chic, Smith against hipsterdom etc. The most successful Doctors are not out of time, as some might argue, but offer a commentary on the time in which they are (originally) broadcast. And the hoody-and-guitar works because it is modern and yet anachronistic because we’re now (just) living in a time where the rock star has become a historical out-of-time figure. It wouldn’t have worked giving even Eccleston or Tennant an electric guitar, for instance, but it does now.
All this chat about costume might seem a little frivolous and Hadley Freeman-esque but I think it’s an important aspect of the show. The wild speculation about costume — and the rise of cosplay make this clear. But its significance can only really be understood when it is handled incorrectly. The textbook example of this is the JNT years. Casting a merciful veil over the Colin Baker atrocity, JNT’s main error was removing the organic nature of the Doctor’s costume and turning it into a uniform. It was, in the end, too restricting for the character, with Davison’s Doctor especially suffering the cricket-jersey straitjacket. And this is not something confined to the BG series. Matt Smith, I felt, started off with a great costume, with suggestions of Indiana Jones’ academic clobber, and perhaps a touch of Bletchley boffin. It was also organic enough to evolve (coloured bow-ties anyone?) but by his final year that had been ironed out for a stylish but overly co-ordinated burgundy outfit (possibly reminiscent of Tom Baker’s final outfit?) that looked spiffy but rather than looking like something thrown together from a hospital changing room looked as if it had originated nowhere but a TV costume department.
It’s a wise move that Capaldi has a series of interchangeable looks — hoodies, straight Crombie, Doctorish velvet jacket. It helps emphasise how complex his character is. He’s the hardest to pin down of any Doctor since the first. The 12th Doctor of the just-ended series was, I think, significantly different than the one of Into The Dalek, say, especially by the time you get to the two-part finale. I’ve noticed recently that Steven Moffat has been rather down on the series’ opening two-parter too but I did and still do think it’s probably the strongest series opener of the show and a bold statement of intent.
But we’re no closer to answering our initial question. Who is the 12th Doctor exactly? I’m not sure that I’m any the wiser than I was in Deep Breath. That ambiguity is built deep into the character. But I’m also not sure it’s altogether a bad thing. We’re approaching his third year but by that time both Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors were starting to feel played out to me, and that I was ready for them to move on. I don’t feel that with Capaldi’s Doc. Rather I feel that there’s still quite a bit of journey to go with this midlife-crisis unreliable Dad of a Doctor. Now that we know that he is going, and we know (roughly) how many episodes he has left, I’m very much looking forward to see how this journey ends and whether we will (or even need to) come to some conclusive ideas about this fine, memorable Doctor.
Perhaps Capaldi will, in the end, be remembered as the one who put the Who back in Doctor Who.