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.

blackboardThe 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.

costumePersonally, 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.

smith 2The 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.

gallifreyAll 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.

Doctor-WhoBut 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.


58 comments

  1. @nick @jimthefish @Ichabod @pedant

    I think an excellent dictionary definition stating exactly how the original word came into being is helpful. Of course words require definitions but concepts require a whole different set of measurable availabilities in order to proscribe the paragraph; flow chart; script or editorial. In music and History we would look at exemplar and non-exemplar models to define the term “ennui” or “sonata” or “pause”

    How to define the Doctor requires similar patience but it’s often worked best when using a comparative model amongst companions/friends/mates and then separating that Doctor out from the ones before or after him. It’s a flow of change and interruption isn’t it? For what it’s worth my first introduction to B&W Doctor Who was via Pertwee. He reminded me of my own father (but more fun) but I found him a tad condescending and rude oftentimes.

    I just personally didn’t find Mat Smith behaving this way -nor PC.  A sense of superiority doesn’t ‘hit’ me when I watch those episodes compared with earlier decades during Pertwee’s time.

    Puro

  2. @thane 15 @jimthefish @ ichabod @pedant

    I suppose my view is ultimately, that you can pick and choose elements of each Doctor’s character that you like or dislike, but overall the core character principles essentially remain the same.

    Pertwee’s Doctor was certainly bossier and condescending, but he also had good points. I think its hard to separate the time when the stories were written (and from when the writers grew up). Don’t many Doctor’s reflect the society the society they appeared in. late 60’s counter-culture with Troughton, early 60’s post war straight jacket society (Hartnell, Baker and late 70’s punk/alternative/anarchy ? Not much of course, but I think there is a little reflection of British society in each Doctor of that time.

    The early 1970’s wasnt a great time to be British in many ways (unemployment, collapse of nationalised industries, super high inflation, the beginnings of Thatcherism, excessive union power, endless strikes, energy crisis, 3 day week, power cuts, endless strikes, Belfast, the beginning of the mainland IRA bombing campaign).  So Pertwee dresses like something from glam rock (without the make up), Jo was a dolly bird (I’m just about old enough to know what that meant), Sarah-Jane was a proto-feminist, The Doctor was an action hero in the Bond sense, sexist, patronising and authoritarian to an extent. Racism was widespread (but not so much in Who). And yet, Pertwee’s Doctor’s 5 years and 24 stories contained much more than that.

    It would be impossible to write Capaldi’s Doctor in that way today, even if you wanted to. It represents a culture that has gone (in some ways).  The Doctor as leader, fixer, doer, hero is still there, but toned down into a non-sexist, less direct leadership style, in a more personally flawed interpretation. Things are better for it, just as British society is better in a huge number of ways. Contrast Roger Moore’s Bond (who sadly died today) with Daniel Craig’s. Both were mostly good for their time, but are in no way interchangeable. Craig’s interpretation could never be a 1970’s Bond, just as Capaldi couldnt replace Pertwee.

    I think the point is that you have to accept the past as it was (not as you’d prefer it to be), notice the bad points, but dont dwell on them. It was throw away TV, on a 5 pm Saturady, with tiny budgets and an indifferent BBC, never meant to be watched more than once on a 19 or 21 inch TV screen with 525 lines definition. But it still managed to leave a legacy – it gave us the Autons, Sontarans, The Master, The Silurians, Giant Maggots, Dinosaurs as well as some classic stories.

  3. @Nick

    its hard to separate the time when the stories were written (and from when the writers grew up). Don’t many Doctor’s reflect the society the society they appeared in.

    That is true to a certain extent, but I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s and experienced Doctor Who  as an adult from its beginning, seizing on it as something experimental and tangentially related to science fiction, never mind that it was aimed primarily at a much younger audience, and seeing it as superior to Star Trek despite the lack of comparable production values.

    I loved Patrick Troughton’s quirky, slightly impish Doctor but, although I continued watching whenever I had access to a TV set, I never warmed to Pertwee’s portrayal.  I enjoyed programmes such as The Avengers for what they were, but Pertwee’s Doctor was in some respects too close to the Avengers model and it didn’t fit my perception of what the Doctor should be.  I would also stick with the descriptions of his Doctor as patrician, in the sense of someone who believes themselves essentially superior, and ‘authoritarian’ as it applies to an individual who assumes the automatic right of a superior being to order others about and expect compliance.  It was tempered, of course, because the Doctor has never at any time in his lives been an absolute dictator, but I do not recall  there being much evidence of self doubt at this point. In my view Tom Baker’s Doctor was far more in tune with the times.

    For the record, the picture people now seem to have of the 70s in retrospect doesn’t entirely accord with my recollection. Overall  for me and most of those I knew it was a fairly happy and fulfilling time, despite financial constraints and one or two blows in my personal life.  I read somewhere very recently – I can’t recall where – that contemporary surveys indicate that this was the decade in which people in general registered as happiest, despite the economic and social stresses, and that was certainly my impression at the time.  The 80s were far worse in that respect.

  4. @mudlark

    My point of contention is principally that Pertwee wasnt as bad as some of the adjectives used suggest and that better terms  are available. For that I reason I disagree with the terms most often used as they are a used too lousy and overstate the adverse element in Pertwee’s portrayal. Putin, Trump, Erdogan are authoritarian; Pertwee wasnt that extreme. How often did those in real Power ignore his advice ? The Silurians, Inferno, Claws of Axos, Frontier in Space all certainly have this element.

    The reason I’m interested, is that Capaldi’s Doctor seems to have something in common with Pertwee on one level. How we might think Pertwee should have been in some ways.

    He was also my first Doctor (although I almost certainly saw Troughton first), but Tom Baker was always my favourite and cast a very long shadow over those that came afterwards.

    I grew up in the 1970s (5 at the beginning 15 at the end), I can remember decimalisation, the three day week electricity cuts, the beginning of mass unemployment, strikes. We rented and moved to smaller cheaper accommodation across the decade. There wasnt much cash to spend on luxuries and I remember being reluctant to talk about Christmas presents at school as it certainly marked me out as relatively poor (it was a grammar school that went private the year after I joined and the council – I guess continued to pay the fees until I left at 18). We were certainly happy, even if things were probably much harder than in the 1960s. I agree the period 1979 to 1985 was much worse. We are still paying, in many ways, for the economic mistakes made in 1979/80 and subsequently today.

     

  5. Thanks @JimtheFish for your appraisal of Twelve. I agree with a lot of it, but for me Capaldi did hit the ground running, I loved him as the Doctor from Deep Breath on. I did think they might have been trying to revisit C Baker’s run in that they were showing an (even more than usual) unknowable (and even unlikeable) Doctor and then mellowing him as the series progressed. But trying to do it properly. I think that in S8 Capaldi (with his extensive knowledge and love for the show) is channeling ALL the previous Doctors, particularly from BG times, whereas now he seems to have really found his feet and is sticking with a bit of Hartnell and T Baker underpinning his own interpretation (that thought in retrospect).

    The Doctor as a character is essentially unknowable. He looks human, but he’s not, and sometimes he shocks us because his actions are influenced by a completely different perspective from ours. I liked Clara and I strongly identified with her S8 arc of juggling an impossible number of things and lives (though it didn’t necessarily fit quite so well after her “impossible girl” arc), but I agree that Capaldi’s chemistry with Pearl is much stronger, possibly because of her character’s lack of baggage with the Doctor. And there’s also Nardole, the first alien/cyborg companion. I didn’t expect to like him but Lucas has been great and works well with them both.

    S8 had probably more “weak” stories than S9 or S10 (so far) but it had the standout Listen, which is one of my favourite Who episodes ever (and one I’ve watched a few times).  Moffat (and the other writers) have written some great speeches for Twelve and Capaldi delivers them amazingly well. This Doctor is not authoritarian but he has authority in bucketloads when required. eg his “at the end of the day you have to do what you always have to do – sit down and talk” moment in the Zygon Inversion and “you judge a species on how it treats its most unimportant lives” speech in Thin Ice. Perhaps Capaldi is feeling less pressure from the sheer responsibility of being his own favourite character now. He’s dug into the dark depths, and also seems comfortable with the lighter side. And there’s a good touch of Hartnell’s Doctor’s sheer irresponsibility!

    I know Moffat’s stories aren’t to everyone’s taste but I love his take on Doctor Who. I like his bonkers timey wimey ideas that turn your brain inside out, and the apparent loose ends that actually tie up when you think about them a bit more deeply. I like that he’s experimented with the show and found new ways of approaching it, when I would have said it had tried pretty much everything genre and story wise over its nearly 54 year history. Sometimes the ideas work better than others but there’s a lot of fun and freshness in the trying.

  6. Oops, sorry, that was a bit of a ramble.

    Quick thoughts on the outside pressures of producing Dr Who – I think there will be a lot of pressure from the BBC “suits” to deliver, but as various people have pointed out, it’s a huge money spinner, especially in overseas sales, for them. Viewer number ratings are down a bit (but still more than respectable – S8-9 averaged 6-7m/episode), but audience share is keeping up, the important AI is around 83 each week, and overall it’s a massive flagship for them. I suspect there may be a lingering touch of embarrassment (from the 80s) that one of their biggest sellers and most high profile drama shows is a “kids’ fantasy show”. But I think they’ve also taken it for granted a bit as well – all that shunting around the time schedules for S9 (even Capaldi put his head above the parapet about it). There’s also clearly been a massively reduced budget spend on its marketing since the 50th anniversary when Doctor Who was absolutely everywhere.

    On the other hand it’s as popular as ever as clickbait in the media – hence all the snarky articles in the Graun and elsewhere. Provocative articles about the show are unfortunately guaranteed to draw in lots of readers and comments – great for advertising.

    On a side note – I’m delighted to see that my ARSE acronym is still in currency in this forum (and co-credit to @JimtheFish) *proud*

  7. @scaryb

    Great to see you back. You’ve been missed.

    This Doctor is not authoritarian but he has authority in bucketloads when required. eg his “at the end of the day you have to do what you always have to do – sit down and talk” moment in the Zygon Inversion and “you judge a species on how it treats its most unimportant lives” speech in Thin Ice

    Without wishing to re-enflame the whole patrician argument, I think you’ve hit on the essential difference between AG and BG Doctors. Capaldi Doc certainly has moral authority but its notable that his speeches (and I think he’ll go down as the Doctor who gave the best speeches — I do hope someone asks Capaldi to do the Pandorica Opens speech at some point) you cite are entreaties, pleas almost, rather than the demands that I think almost all of the BG Docs would have made them (especially Pertwee and T Baker). Even Davison could be imperious when the occasion demanded it.

    The AG Docs almost never swan in and take charge in the ways that the classic docs did and I think as @nick pointed out above, this is because our essential attitude to authority has changed (and with good reason when you see the quality of our current leaders). This was another trope of the BG gap that hasn’t aged well (along with the ‘why do people always forget about the gazillion other invasions they’ve seen before?’) and I suspect was the reason that the psychic paper was introduced, to shortchange that credulousness from supporting characters you used to see in BG serials.

    But this is the true key to Who’s longevity, it’s pliability, it’s willingness to change. As I said above, each successful Doctor is very much plugged into the times in which his show is being aired (ironically enough). This I think is the reason that the show floundered in the 1980s — Doctors were being cast on the whim of JNT rather than serious thought being given to the wider framework in which the show was operating, with McCoy just starting to reverse the trend, probably because other creative voices were starting to reassert themselves again.

    A great many of the ARSE brigade clearly wanted Capaldi to be a Pertwee surrogate and bemoan his hoodie and shades Doctor but I’d argue that it’s this very approach that is keeping the show fresh, guaranteeing its survival, even despite any perceived dips in ratings.

  8. @jimthefish

    fantastic as ever.

    I think the physic paper and ever increasing use of the sonic screw driver is a manifestation of the change in the nature of story telling between (classic) BG and AG Who. The latter, especially in 1970s, was much more of an action movie scifi (or betty Flash Gordon from the 1930s) to one that places much more emphasis of relationships and ideas (but not particular sci-fi concepts). In an action story, arrests, escapes, cliff hangers, imminent death are important parts of the story. In today’s AG Who, these aspects mostly get in the way of the story.

    Whilst I believe the change in attitude to authority is an important factor, the change in the nature of many AG stories is also a very important. If you take the Pyramid/Lie of the land stories and transposed either into Pertwee/Baker era (quite easily done), the Doctor would have taken charge supported by the UN (the Brig of course) and Pearl. However, perhaps only the final scene in the London pyramid would have needed to have been significantly different. Some sort of sabotage and explosion ending (with the Doc using his time as an unwilling collaborator to learn more about the Monks, their technology ant motivation).

    The other thing which I’ve thought for a long time, although it was never scripted this way, was the Doctor’s ability to talk his way into places and into a position of trust (with a certain sort of person) was a type of corollary to the Master’s mind control hypnotic power, but used for a different purpose. Not as obvious as Obiwan and the Storm Troopers at Mos Eisley in the original star wars, but along the same lines.

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