Ever since his eyebrows first filled our screens, Peter Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor has jarred us. Far from the swoon-inducing flirty charm of predecessors David Tennant and Matt Smith, Capaldi’s don’t-hug-me, acerbic Doctor told Clara (and all of us) last year “I’m not your boyfriend.” And yet, we’re all still in love with him! There’s a million answers to the question of why we still love the Doctor, but I believe there’s one basic reason for Who’s continued success that trumps all others.
Doctor Who has figured out how to stay relevant by continuing to define and redefine its own definition of “cool,” and by occasionally being very intentionally “uncool.”
A few years back, when I still was on staff at Tor.com full time, a bunch of us took temporary leave of the Flatiron Building and headed to certain spot on the east side of Manhattan where scenes from the then-forthcoming Doctor Who episode “The Time of the Angels” were being filmed. When our little gaggle arrived we were floored to discover that we were outnumbered 10-to-1 by a clutch of high school teens camping out, all waiting for a glimpse of Matt Smith’s chin and tweedy elbow patches. Most of us 30-somethings all looked at each other like we’d just time traveled or hopped dimensions. When did the cool kids get hip to Doctor Who?
At the time, I theorized that Doctor Who had gone mainstream because it dealt with ordinary people doing extraordinary things thanks to their friendship with an alien who is basically a superhero. I think I’m still right about that, but in thinking about the Capaldi era, there’s something more going on, on a much simpler level. There’s this great moment in the 2012 film version of 21 Jump Street where Channing Tatum’s character—posing as contemporary teenager—pretends to act “cool” by not caring about anything and making fun of the “nerds.” He rapidly discovers this is not what is considered “cool” anymore by the actual cool kids. This is was the Matt Smith era was: a guy declaring previously uncool things—bow ties, fezes, whatever—were, in fact, now cool. In his final full outing as the Doctor, Smith leads a group of children in chanting “cool is NOT cool!” And then, in a pop-culture instant, Capaldi—looking like our crazy confused uncle or grandfather—bumbled out of the TARDIS.
At first glance, the fashion sense of Capaldi’s Doctor is old-school suave: a Crombie jacket, waistcoat, and button-up shirt which is buttoned all the way up. And yet, almost immediately, this Doctor sort of started mocking his own new “look.” In “Time Heist,” he bemoans that he didn’t quite get what he was going for and his new look turned out more like a “magician,” and not in a good way. In “Listen,” the Doctor has lost the button-up and is rocking a cruddy-looking old sweater. He’s also frequently doing some kind fingerless glove thing with his sleeves that makes him look like a Dickensian urchin or a vagrant. In “Last Christmas” he’s straight up wearing an ordinary hoodie with his longish coat. And now that we’ve seen the previews, it’s safe to say that this who-gives-a-shit-what-I’m-wearing trend has increased exponentially. The Doctor is now sporting outrageous checked pants, the dorky sweater is clearly back, and his hair is now officially a mad scientist’s rat’s nest.
Much has been made of the fact that the Capaldi Doctor’s aesthetic is very much in keeping with early Doctors from the 60s and 70s. His gruff, grandfather-esque tone is similar to First Doctor William Hartnell, his new dorky pants are in line with Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, while the coat with the red lining is a very loud shout-out to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. And while picking up on these homages is certainly correct, I think this is more of a cursory/surface observation. What’s really going on is this: Capaldi’s fashion hammers home the overall aesthetic intent of the show since its return ten years ago in 2005. The show is cool because it’s intentionally uncool in style. In other words: Doctor Who has slowly been going normcore.
The basic definition of “normcore,” according to the trend forecasters who coined the term a few years ago is this: “finding liberation in being nothing special.” Conventionally, this manifests itself in 20-somethings wearing chunky sweaters or ill-fitting “ugly” pants on purpose. In a sense, this kind of fashion is an immediate descendant of what would broadly be called “hipster fashion,” which for our purposes can simply mean appropriation of retro styles or unique mash-ups of conflicting styles—power clashing, if you will. For example: the Tenth Doctor wears formal suits with informal Chuck Taylor sneakers. Both the suits and sneakers are retro, but not indigenous to the same era of “retro.” At the time of Tennant’s debut, there was a dig calling his style “Jarvis Cocker in space,” a comparison which is now retro, too, since most 20 year-olds reading this probably have never heard of Jarvis Cocker or his band, Pulp.
But, if David Tennant’s fashion style and character style mirrored hipster aesthetics of the early 2000s, then Matt Smith’s bow ties and suspenders directly parallel the hipster fashions of the next decade, too. Proof: during the Smith era, I had a roommate in Brooklyn who dressed like the Eleventh Doctor who had NEVER seen Doctor Who. Meanwhile, Moffat and Smith even admitted that some of Smith’s style was loosely based on what Indiana Jones wore while he was teaching college. This move is triple-strength nostalgia, because biting on the retro style of Indiana Jones is not an homage to the 80s, but more specifically the nostalgia the 1980s had for the 1930s. And, when you think about it for a second, for a time traveler, these various layers of nostalgia make perfect sense.
It’s not all about image alone, however, but what the overall tonal aesthetic of that image conveys. Tennant’s sneakers and Smith’s bow tie are simply a shorthand for a certain tone, and Capaldi’s catch-as-catch-can style is the same. If hipsterdom is about retro authenticity (or the desperate pursuit of it) then normcore is about achieving authenticity by intentionally not caring. How can you intentionally not care? Well, that’s the arch irony of Capaldi’s Doctor. He claims that Clara is his “carer”—implying that her job is to care so that he doesn’t have to—but that is just bullshit. Capaldi’s Doctor cares even more about people and the small things in life then perhaps any other Doctor before him, precisely because he’s been through more than Tennant and Smith’s Doctors. This makes his grumpiness sort of earned, and Capaldi wears that grumpiness the same way he wears an ugly sweater: he acts like he doesn’t care; he finds individuality in pretending like he’s nothing special. In last year’s series finale, “A Death in Heaven,” he said: “I’m not a good man. I’m not a bad man. I’m not a hero. And no, I’m not an officer. I AM an IDIOT.” Saying you’re an idiot when you’re actually a brilliant hero? That’s ironic normcore! And not at all in a bad way.
Peter Capaldi’s brand of heroism is refreshing because it’s got more of a “yeah, so what?” kind of vibe than a “look at me I’m amazing” thing. This Doctor may be a little damaged (like always) and harboring secrets (who isn’t?) but Capaldi isn’t playing it too heavy. In the trailer for the imminent new season, he growls “I’m the Doctor and I save people!” which comes across not so much as a boast as it is a badass shoulder shrug; like the Doctor is saying, “Who were you expecting? Christopher Nolan?” The Doctor isn’t the hero we deserve at all. He’s not even the hero we want or need. Instead, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the hero we just have to fucking deal with. Dorky outfits and all.
Ryan Britt is the author of the essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths out from Plume (Penguin Random House) on 11.24.15. He’s written for The Morning News, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Awl, Omni, Clarkesworld, and The New York Times. In one capacity or another, he has also now officially been writing essays and articles for Tor.com for five years.