Last week, I made a bold statement. This week, I want to double down on it. Doctor Who is the ballsiest show on television. And it has been for more than 50 years.
If I think about the sheer number of gutsy decisions the show has made since debuting in 1963, my mind reels. I’ve been watching since I was six years old, and Doctor Who still regularly takes me by surprise. It’s a show with an infinitely malleable format – misfit traveler from the planet Gallifrey flits about time and space in a machine that can go anywhere and anywhen, having adventures and basically being wonderful. The Doctor is a vehicle to tell stories, and with that setup, it can tell virtually any kind of tale.
Just take a look at the show’s first season. That first episode remains an all-time classic, introducing not only the concept, but the TARDIS, a stroke of absolute genius. It’s a time and space machine that is bigger on the inside, and disguised as a British police box on the outside. That first burst into the TARDIS, when Ian and Barbara can’t believe their eyes, is still one of my favorite moments of television. Once whisked away from modern-day Earth, our travelers visit, in order: prehistoric cavemen searching for fire, vicious mutant creatures in mechanical armor on a planet in the far future; Marco Polo on his travels to Cathay in the 1200s; five different locales on the planet Marinus; an Aztec tribe in 15th century Mexico; the Sense-Sphere, home to the mind-reading Sensorites; and France during the revolution.
Yeah, this all happens in the first season. Doctor Who never makes any attempt to ease the audience in. Companions come and go – the first to leave was the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan – and the locale and supporting cast changes every few weeks. But even all that could not have prepared audiences for the concept of regeneration. Put simply, when the Doctor dies, his body renews, in the form of a completely different-looking man. (Or woman, but we’re not there yet.) That means the lead actor also changes every few years. The first time they did it, they just did it – they didn’t explain it at all, just replaced William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton. Now it’s old hat, but can you imagine being one of the viewers in 1966, watching this happen?
Twelve actors have now played the title role (13 if you count John Hurt), and every one of them was a risk. The show has rarely gone back to the well – dandy James Bond type Jon Pertwee was as different from cosmic hobo Patrick Troughton as Troughton was from crotchety old William Hartnell. Tom Baker – he of the teeth, curls and scarf – brought an unpredictable madness to the role, while Peter Davison approached it with earnestness and dignity.
Poor old Colin Baker was saddled with a horrible costume and instructions to play the part as a loudmouth, cowardly bully, perhaps the riskiest choice of all. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor hid his manipulative nature behind buffoonery, Paul McGann’s was a romantic, Christopher Eccleston’s a brooding survivor, David Tennant’s a dashing nerd, and Matt Smith’s a goofy, glorious young-old man. Every incarnation is the same man, emphasizing different characteristics. But every interpretation has been dazzlingly different.
Which brings us to the Twelfth Doctor, played by the absolutely incredible Peter Capaldi. Talk about a risk, though. The so-called “new series” that returned to our television screens in 2005 has made its name by casting young, nerdy-cute Doctors. David Tennant was the first heartthrob Doctor, bringing the show to new levels of worldwide popularity by making goo-goo eyes at Billie Piper, and Matt Smith, all of 26 when he took the role, turned Doctor Who into a global phenomenon. I adore Smith’s version of the character, all gangly movements and alien reactions, but there’s no denying that he’s still young and adorable.
Had they done that again, cast a young man, they would have cemented the Doctor as a teen dream romantic lead. I’m so very glad they didn’t. The new Doctor is played by a 56-year-old Scot who is best known for portraying an unbelievably rude swearaholic in The Thick of It. He’s not cute, he’s not cuddly. He can certainly play warmth, but his natural state is somewhat cold and detached. Even in interviews, he comes off not as the excited fanboy that Tennant and Smith were, but as more of a stand-offish man, uncomfortable with the limelight. (He’d definitely better get used to it…)
A sizeable portion of Doctor Who’s new audience is made up of young people who responded to the charms of Tennant and Smith. For the past year, it’s been something of a pastime among old-school Who fans to wonder how they’re going to take to Capaldi. I definitely imagined his Doctor being more in line with the older ones – the difficult Hartnell, the imperious Pertwee, the often arrogant Tom Baker, the brusque Colin Baker. The Doctor is not cuddly. He can, in fact, be quite a dick, and it looked to me like we were heading back into that territory.
Well, now the Twelfth Doctor is here, and I am still not sure what I think. I saw the premiere episode, the 75-minute “Deep Breath,” four times before deciding that I largely liked it, painfully flawed as it is. It opens with a dinosaur tromping through Victorian London, and Capaldi’s Doctor in the throes of regeneration trauma. And he stays in those throes for half the episode, falling down and talking nonsense and jumping into the Thames. It’s a level of madcap lunacy I certainly wasn’t expecting, and Capaldi looked vaguely uncomfortable playing it. Lots of great lines, of course, but a lack of confidence and not much of a center, and it goes on like this for a long time.
About halfway through, the Doctor and Clara meet at a restaurant populated by clockwork droids, and “Deep Breath” comes to life. So, too, does Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor, though I don’t quite feel he had a handle on it before the end. No, the real work of the episode is to finally, finally give Clara Oswin Oswald a character, and Jenna Coleman shines. She’s never been better than during her spotlight scenes here, arguing with Madame Vastra, sparring with the Doctor and attempting a daring escape from the robot stronghold. I’m so glad we finally get to see what she can do with meatier material.
My biggest issue with “Deep Breath” is the lack of confidence it shows in Capaldi’s portrayal. It works overtime to ease the audience in. The entire episode is about wearing new faces – the villains are droids who steal faces from their victims and wear them, Vastra wears a veil in front of strangers, the Doctor has an epic rant about replacing parts of oneself until there’s nothing of the original left. Vastra scolds Clara for not immediately accepting the new Doctor’s face, saying that he trusted her enough to drop the pretense of youth in front of her. The whole thing is about helping the audience see Capaldi as the Doctor, and there’s a lot of hand-holding that I don’t think was necessary.
The biggest misstep, despite the emotions it brings up, is Matt Smith’s cameo near the end. As the Eleventh Doctor, he calls Clara from her past to assure her that the older man in front of her is still him, still the Doctor. He’s basically speaking to the audience, to the fans of Smith’s portrayal, begging them to give Capaldi a chance. I hope that’s not necessary. I hope it’s a gross overreaction to what I expect will be a pretty small backlash. But you never know. I’ve just never seen this before. No new Doctor has ever needed the previous Doctor to hand off the show in this fashion, and it hobbles Capaldi before he can really get going.
So with all that going on to detract from Capaldi’s performance in “Deep Breath,” I decided to hold off from writing about him until I had seen his second story, “Into the Dalek.” I’m glad I did, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that even with 30 fewer minutes to play with, “Into the Dalek” is a stronger and better episode. It finds the Doctor, Clara and a few interplanetary soldiers agreeing to be shrunk down and injected into an ailing Dalek to fix it. The twist is that this may be the first morally good Dalek ever, and if they can keep it alive, they can change the evil and twisted Dalek race forever.
But what starts as an examination of the Daleks turns into a treatise on the new Doctor. Is he a force for good? Even by the end of the episode, it’s hard to tell. The Doctor opens his mind to the Dalek, expecting it to find enough goodness to make the transformation permanent. Instead, it finds a burning hatred of the Daleks, and takes that on as its new mission. The Doctor has always defined himself in opposition to the Daleks, but this episode suggests that they’re the same – “You are a good Dalek,” the creature says to the Doctor at the end, echoing a similar line from the Ninth Doctor story “Dalek.”
And Capaldi? He earns every inch of that darkness. Those hoping for a bit of Malcolm Tucker in his performance must have been ecstatic. For my money, I’m still struggling with much of it. We’ve seen the Doctor kill before, but we’ve rarely seen him this callous about death. The demise of Ross, with the Doctor’s “trust me” before failing to save him and his subsequent quip about his liquefied remains (“Top layer, if you want to say a few words”), was genuinely shocking. I was not sure at that moment whether this guy is, in fact, the Doctor.
I think that’s what I’m supposed to be feeling right now. I don’t really trust this guy. Capaldi turned in riveting, fascinating work on “Into the Dalek,” essentially playing the Doctor as a more nimble Gregory House. I’m just having trouble seeing the Doctor sometimes behind his cold gaze. Of course, then he turns on a dime, and there he is, the Doctor. So it’s hard to say so far what I think of this portrayal. I do hope that by the end of the season we have a definitive handle on the Capaldi Doctor, and I hope we don’t toss out all the warmth, hope and whimsy of this show on the way there. Of course, the next episode is called “Robot of Sherwood,” and is about Robin Hood, so I expect that whimsy will be back in force.
Here’s hoping. It’s still the ballsiest show on television – what other show would completely transform itself this way, at the risk of alienating the fans that have brought it to new heights of popularity over the past nine years? No other show. This is Doctor Who, redefining itself once again. And that’s the most exciting part.
Next week, I choose from among these candidates: the New Pornographers, Counting Crows, Ryan Adams and Sloan. Be back in seven.Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.