Peter Capaldi is over halfway through his first season, so now is a good time to talk about what kind of Doctor he’s going to be. Or not.
Our season opener showed us a Doctor that was, if possible, even more messed up from regeneration than he is normally. Usually he can sleep it off – but not this time, it seems.
There are some very nice lines – where he’s examining the door in Deep Breath – “Not Me!” and the window “Me!” – and there is some definite navel gazing going on, but we don’t get that much of a sense of who he is, limited by the strange post-regeneration hyperness.
He steals a coat from a tramp – treating him quite nastily as he does so. He walks away from Clara while she is in a life-threatening situation, not even giving her the sonic screwdriver to help get her out – giving her one the lamest lines a Doctor has ever given his companion – “But I might need it.” I think we can all agree this is lame lame and lame some more.
And then he proceeds to persuade a robot into committing suicide – or so we are lead to believe – and it seems that the regeneration is done and he’s supposedly ‘fully baked’.
Next up, we see him curious about the inside of a Dalek, and the great conversation he has with the damaged creature, attempting to make it understand it’s own motivations, and in doing so, revealing some of his own. And it’s not pretty listening. But then the Doctor has always been damaged, right? That’s OK; it’s fine to be damaged, it’s what you do about it that counts, and the Doctor has Always Done The Right Thing so far, sometimes only because of the baggage he’s carrying around. Which is essentially, the entire message of the 50th anniversary episode.
In terms of us understanding who this Doctor is, we don’t get much from Robot of Sherwood. Just cynicism and sarcasm.
Then the Doctor gets thrown into a confrontation with a fictional character – who seems way too groomed to really be running around Sherwood Forest – and there are some definitely amusing scenes. The one-upmanship, and the Doctor’s flat refusal to believe that Robin Hood is real. Again, some great lines – “Do people tend to punch you in the face when you say that?” “Not really.” “Good thing I’m here then” – very… Scottish. The entire premise is more farce than anything, with some interesting nods to the swashbuckling genre, but in terms of us understanding who this Doctor is, we don’t get much. Just cynicism and sarcasm.
Listen gives us more – a Doctor who is bored, and basically inventing things to be worried about. His relationship with Clara starts to become clearer – he’s definitely now a patriarch figure rather than potential love interest, and that’s fine. We’re back to what the Doctor has always been and it’s clear Mr. Capaldi wants to go down that road, and probably rightly so. I’m not sure that 7pm on a Saturday evening is quite ready for a May/December relationship of Clara lusting after Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, or worse still, the other way around. But what’s less clear now is the attitude the Doctor is displaying toward Human Kind. His apparent lack of concern and complete un-awareness of some of the social niceties doesn’t really ring true. The whole point of regeneration is to bring a new body – and some new attitudes – but it’s still the same character and same memories.
The Doctor has always understood social situations before – witness the Third Doctor dealing with a wake in Frontier in Space or the Tenth having Christmas dinner with Rose. He at least understood and could and would fake it if he didn’t totally believe it himself. This Doctor does not, and it doesn’t really ring true – where did his memories go? Why is it that he used to be able to see, recognize and take part in social interactions, and now, all of a sudden, he can’t? How far can he go in acting completely differently but still purport to be the same person?
The Doctor knows what rudeness is, and now he just doesn’t seem to care. This is so contrary to what the character represents in recent years that it seems quite a departure. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is behaving like an ADD child with some Aspbergers symptoms – eager to please but fundamentally doing the wrong thing on an emotional level. And even when it’s explained – when the opportunity for the viewer to go “ooohhh, I see. He was doing this because of that…” comes around and we can all nod and say “He’s not a jerk, he just looks like one”, it’s not taken. We are just left with a socially clueless, sometimes angry but always rude Doctor.
For someone who spent an entire second part of the regeneration episode asking Clara to stick around, because he was afraid and needed her, he sure doesn’t seem to be taking anything she has to say to heart. He’s ignoring her, doing things to actively piss her off and never really explaining himself. After eight episodes, it’s becoming clearer why he needed to make such a big deal of asking her to stay because she clearly wasn’t going to, based on his basic behavior, unlike Rose and the Tenth Doctor.
So we move on to Time Heist, which again, is more about the story than the characters. We do at least get the whole “Wait wait wait…” thing, where the Doctor works out what is going on (as originated by David Tennant). At least some things are the same. But this is okay. It’s nice to see the Doctor being the Doctor instead of Emo Confused Time Lord, and the adventure as a whole is pretty fun.
And then along comes The Caretaker. Pretty much the first episode where you couldn’t see how the story would have progressed, had any other actor been the Doctor. For the first time, we see Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as his own, rather than amalgamations of other actors Doctor – responding in ways that, even if they aren’t the best, they are at least understandable. We see him actually trying to do what the Doctor does – sort out tricky and potentially dangerous situations.
He’s trying to go incognito and getting things wrong, but in charming ways and above all, he’s not trying to be nasty to anyone. Oh, PCap’s Doctor is still in evidence. Quick to be annoyed, treating humanity more like a pet than a species, and generally marginalizing anyone else’s abilities or needs and being very pissed off when his carefully laid plan to deal with the villain of the week is upset by Clara’s new boyfriend. But at least he’s not actively being an ass for the sake of it – his responses are, at least, believable (and explained), if not totally agreeable.
For this author, it’s at this point that I think we’ve all begun to see that some of the aspects of this Doctor really are facets of a couple of the life facts of the actor who plays him. He’s an angry, sarcastic Scotsman with a superiority complex and a total disregard for other people’s feelings. In a word, a misanthrope.
He’s an angry, sarcastic Scotsman with a superiority complex and a total disregard for other people’s feelings. In a word, a misanthrope.
That’s not to suggest Peter Capaldi is personally those things – just to point out that he does come from Scotland, and if you spend anytime in Scotland, you’ll see a lot of older men who display behaviors very like this. It’s definite and very specific throwback to Hartnell’s Doctor, and an interesting/scary avenue to take, given he’s a) a new Doctor and b) not young or cute like David Tennant or Matt Smith. They, at least, had the eye candy aspect going for them in terms of being initially accepted. Peter Capaldi does not, and he’s also coming on board right after people who did, so going off into the Angry Older Man territory is a huge risk. If you are going to have an older man in the role, at least give him something for the audience to want to relate to. Not doing so takes a risk of a new Doctor and doubles it. But The Grand Moff is nothing but a risk taker, that’s for sure. Sometimes it works – New TARDIS Interiors for example – and some times it doesn’t.
New iDaleks, anyone?
Then we come to Kill The Moon, and we are right back to Deep Breath Behavior. Marginalizing the other characters, working things out from first principles (apparently) and then running away the moment an actual decision needs to be made, leaving Clara in the lurch when she needs him most. Again.
Now there are arguments to be made that the Doctor already knew the outcome, he just needed the women to come to that conclusion themselves without his interference. And that’s a valid point of view, although it’s also worth asking “Why?” – just because those three women came to the decision they did by themselves doesn’t actually mean that much in terms of humanity going forward. It wouldn’t really have mattered if the Doctor advised or not, in terms of the ultimate result. Whether or not he decided, or they did, the creature would have been born and humanity set on it’s way, regardless. So the whole “Not My Planet” argument doesn’t hold as much moral weight as it otherwise might.
But I guess my personal point is less what he did and more how he did it. He was, frankly, an ass about the whole thing. I know that’s how Hartnell was, but this isn’t 1963, and you cannot get away with a lead character who is based on actor who reportedly called Indian food “Foreign Muck” any more. If I was Clara, I would have said exactly the same thing to him at the end of the episode, and got as angry with him as she did.
Lastly – to date – we have Mummy on the Orient Express, in which he appears to be channeling Tom Baker again, down to offering Jelly Babies. Mummy is more of a romp, but we are also back to the almost cavalier disregard for Human Life. Instead of truly trying to stop the mummy killing people, he’s more interested in what there is to be learned while it’s doing it. Again though, while it’s scientifically justified and required as a plot device, he never really shows that much remorse or concern for those who’ve just died.
So, at this point, what have we got?
We’ve got a Doctor who does active research, which we’ve seen little of before. He’s got blackboards everywhere and he’s actively thinking about things – Listen is a good example of that, even if what he’s thinking about turns out to be bogus.
We’ve got a Doctor who apparently appears to have lost pretty much all knowledge of social niceties – or if not, simply doesn’t care about them, and they don’t appear to occur to him until pointed out. He’s very unafraid of being rude to people – not caring or in some cases, knowing he’s doing it and doing it anyway.
We’ve got a Doctor with a decidedly superiority complex to Humanity – we got hints of it with Chris Eccleston, but the exact opposite of what we got with Tennant and Matt Smith.
We’ve got a Doctor who can still make the big decisions, but is often more interested in making this some kind of learning experience rather than just swooping in and solving everything for everyone. This is interesting behavior, since the Doctor has always made people more than they were, but usually it was in terms of example rather than forcing them into it. It looks like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is going for the same effect but going about it in a radically different fashion.
We’ve got a Doctor who has redefined his relationship with Clara in a rather blunt way – and left her to come to terms with it – and since then, has not really reached out to her emotionally, apart from showing up and saying, “Off we go then!” What she has to deal with now is not interaction, but lecture. He’s telling her “This is who I am, deal with it or not”. There’s little back and forth any more, and what is there indicates a man misreading emotional cues to a degree that character hasn’t for quite some time before. Yes, Matt Smith’s Doctor did it in The Lodger (and to a lesser degree, in Closing Time), but in those cases it was little amusing mis-reads and fish-out-of-water examples – not situations where he was genuinely pissing off the people that are supposed to be the closest to him. Having a character mildly annoyed because the Doctor is the better footballer is one thing, leaving your companion at the crucial moment to make an unknowable decision about the future of mankind is quite another.
We’ve got a Doctor who behaves in some very un-Doctor ways – leaving his companion in the lurch in terrible circumstances more than once – something not even Colin Baker’s Doctor would have contemplated.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t know quite what to make of him. He’s very unpredictable, he’s rude and frankly there’s not that much to aspire to or relate to. That may well be the point Moffat is trying to make – this man is an Alien who lives far longer than we do, has a huge brain and can think thoughts and sense things we cannot. By definition he’s not as relatable as you’d think he should be, even if he does look human.
But it’s also a tightrope of creating a character that most of your current viewership simply doesn’t like very much. And from where I am sitting, he’s right on that cusp. It’s one thing to get away from what has been done for the past few years, and quite another to take it in a direction where you actively don’t like the character particularly, and it’s fairly clear to me that we are getting precipitously close to that right now.
This Doctor, it has to be said, is interesting, with a capital I. But there’s only so far that you can go with dismissive attitudes as he’s currently displaying. While, as mentioned earlier, this is how the Doctor started out, it’s coming on the heels of eight years of a very different take on the Doctors character, and it’s quite jarring and, dare I say it, upsetting in terms of “This is who he his now?” In the words of my twelve year old daughter – who has followed Doctor Who since it’s return – “Why is he so angry and rude, and why does he feel like he’s going to tell you to get off his lawn all the time?”
It feels very much like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is getting away with this behavior – for now – more because of audience history with the show and the desire to watch the idea of Doctor Who, rather than any degree of empathy or relating to the actual character any more. And that will only succeed for a limited amount of time, but perhaps that’s part of the story arc for this season we are seeing? A molding of the angry older man into a more agreeable character over time and by his interactions with Clara.
I’m really curious about where this Doctor is going, and when we are going to see more of what the overall Doctor’s character – as defined by years and years of story telling – revealed. If at all.
Time will tell.