Doctor Who on Tor.com

Why Peter Capaldi is the Über-Doctor

In Paul Cornell’s recent comic book series Doctor Who: Four Doctors, he has the 12th Doctor saying: “Posh Doctor and Baby Doctor seem to think I’m Scary Doctor.” The fact that this dialogue is in a Doctor Who comic book and not on the actual show is totally a crime, but it’s also immediately recognizable as being a legit Peter Capaldi quip—something he would definitely say if he was faced with both Matt Smith’s (Baby) and David Tennant’s (Posh) Doctors. But, with the ludicrously awesome one-two punch of this season’s finale—“Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent”—Peter Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t just Scary Doctor or Angry Doctor or Aging-Rocker-Who-Wears-a-Hoodie-Doctor. Instead, he is the Every Doctor, all the Doctors all the time; the über-Doctor!

A recent Radio Times interview with Steven Moffat finds the showrunner revealing that Peter Capaldi intentionally wanted the Doctor this season to be an all- encompassing iteration of the character’s various personalities and histories: “I don’t just want to be the 12th Doctor, I want to be all the Doctors,” Capaldi said, “Every Doctor coming in a mix.” Glancing at superficial evidence alone, this is totally true insofar as this season seems to have the most overt and obvious references to the character’s immediate history. From the name-checking of Amy, Martha and Rose in “Before the Flood,” to the actual visual flashbacks of Donna Noble and the 10th Doctor in “The Girl Who Died,” to Matt Smith/David Tennant action in “The Zygon Invasion,” and even the utterance of Captain Jack Harkness’s name in “The Woman Who Lived,” this 9th season of Doctor Who has been somehow more fan service-y than anything in 2013’s 50th anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor.” Things even kicked-off this season with a plot twist that was also a reference to the ongoing mythology of the show: Davros is back! Davros is a little kid! Who is the Phantom Menace? Who—through action or inaction and wibbly-wobbly time-travel—actually created the Daleks? If you had never seen Doctor Who before the two-part opening of this season, then “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” were probably incomprehensible. Why is the Doctor sitting around with this weird gross old monster who loves his evil robots like little babies?

But if you are a longtime fan, you’ve probably loved all the treats we’ve been given in this reference-lousy season. It seems to me that perhaps since 2005, Doctor Who has been trying to convince casual viewers (maybe Americans?) that they should give a shit, because hey, this show is super fun and funny, and don’t worry—we get a new set of actors every few years so you don’t really have to keep track of anything! Remember when Vincent Van Gogh was like part of the Doctor’s army of awesome buds? Yeah, I barely do. A show about time-travel with a renewable lead actor and interchangeable supporting actors shouldn’t need to be beholden to continuity, and often times when we get a new Doctor, some of the baggage of the previous iteration is jettisoned and everything you thought you knew about the Doctor (and what’s important to him) seems to be downplayed.

This was particularly true of the Matt Smith era: the Doctor went from being depressed (Tennant) to spitting on the floor and yelling “Geronimo!” and basically didn’t stop pulling faces and being over-the-top happy throughout his whole run. This isn’t to say Matt Smith’s Doctor didn’t have angst and loss. He certainly did. It’s just that there was a sense that like David Tennant before him, this Doctor didn’t look back. Even in “The Day of the Doctor,” Smith and Tennant are almost let off the hook of having to cope with their own dangerous past-actions because the blame is laid at the feet of a one-off secret Doctor in the form of John Hurt. Bottom line: David Tennant’s Doctor wasn’t constantly reminding you he was Christopher Eccelston, and Matt Smith wasn’t constantly referencing David Tennant.

Capaldi’s era however, from “Deep Breath” until “Hell Bent,” have constantly reminded you this is the same guy who used to say “Fantastic!” “Allons-y!” and “Geronimo!” even if he doesn’t say those things any more. His costume and style are more reminiscent of pre-2005 Doctors and even when you squint it sometimes feels like you’re watching a Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker episode. Moffat and Matt Smith always claimed Matt Smith embraced Patrick Troughton Doctor. Peter Capaldi does Troughton, Baker, Pertwee, and even some Colin Baker! It’s not that he just channels them, but truly seems to mix up their various quirks and turns into something brand new. Colin Baker’s Doctor did used to be rude to people, so is Capaldi. Dressing like a bit of a magician? The velvety coat? Check and check for third and fourth Doctors. David Tennant told the 5th Doctor that he was his Doctor, but Peter Capaldi has just taken it all. In “Hell Bent” he even acts a little like Jon Hurt and Paul McGann.

The fact that Matt Smith appeared in “Deep Breath,” as the Doctor, pleading with Clara to accept this new Doctor is telling. At the time, it felt like hand-holding for the contemporary audience: please accept this older guy as the same character who, for the past nine years, has been relatively young and conventionally sexy. But now, this doesn’t feel like hand-holding at all—it feels realistic. The Doctor has often been an older person, because the character is very, very old. The 11th Doctor said this particular regeneration was “going to be a whopper,” and that’s true, and not because of the way Capaldi at first seemed so different, but something a little more complex.

Leaving behind fan-service and continuity references for a second, there’s a deeper more important reason that Capaldi is the the über-Doctor. And that’s because what Capaldi said about trying to bring all the Doctors “in a mix” is totally accurate: at this point the 12th Doctor’s personality can almost be described as being all the other Doctors, turned up to 12 on a scale that should only go to 10. Having some criteria for what I’m talking about will probably make this easier. And in the interests of creating a bit of circular time-loop style argument, I’ll phrase my criteria in the style of Capaldi-Doctor so you can have his voice in your head, convincing you I’m right.

Question: What are the four properties that make the Doctor the most Doctorish?

Answer(s):

  • He gets himself out of narrow scrapes with wit and cunning.
  • He’s funny, quick with a one-liner.
  • He’s got a bunch of angst at being nearly immortal/a perpetual hero
  • He gives really awesome stirring speeches.

Going out of order in fulfilling these criteria is also fine, because the Doctor’s a time traveler—and that’s how he rolls!

So, Capaldi is obviously funny. I actually think he’s hilariously, somehow, way funnier than Matt Smith and David Tennant. It’s a totally difficult thing for me to say (and if anyone has read the essay in my book about David Tennant, this must seem like blasphemy) but it’s just true. Capaldi’s timing is hysterical and the way his humor can undercut a scene completely makes this show the goofy sci-fi romp it’s supposed to be. From fencing with a spoon against Robin Hood to his befuddlement as to how people would think Clara was his daughter (“we look exactly the same age!”) to even his rant against gardeners in what was otherwise a bleak episode, Capaldi’s wit is unbelievable.

I’ll spare trying to stack up a bunch of proof that outlines that Capaldi is good at getting out of scrapes. All you really need for evidence here is that Missy’s story to Clara about how the Doctor approaches conflict serves as a kind of framing mechanism for the whole season, a meta-narrative construct: the Doctor always expects to win and this season is the story of how that attitude manifest itself.

Angst? Holy crap. Capaldi is now ANCIENT compared to his predecessors, and unlike Matt Smith’s Doctor aging a few thousand years randomly on Trenzalore, there’s something about the Doctor now that feels straight-up eternal. We’ve seen this guy head to the end of the universe before, but never by basically living until the end of the universe. A billion is a lot different than a couple thousand.

Which takes me to the most important reason why Capaldi is the Doctor for all seasons, subsuming all other Doctors. That’s right. It’s the speeches.

Charlie Schneider, of the popular YouTube channel Emergency Awesome said this effectively in his a recent review of “Heaven Sent,”; that Doctor Who was often at its best when it was somehow talking about itself. In speaking out loud in this episode the Doctor wonders how often he can continue to “burn himself,” in order to make a new version. Naturally, this references the actual events of the episode, but also the regeneration process and how the viewers constantly are dealing with it. “Heaven Sent,” then, is the ultimate meta-Doctor Who episode because not only does it seem to inspect its own premises through beautiful outer-space navel-gazing, but also gives Capaldi essentially a straight hour to do nothing but monologue. If the Doctor’s big speeches were all Middle-Earth rings of power, then “Heaven Sent,” is the One Ring to Rule Them All.

In “Hell Bent,” Clara asks the Doctor why he’s not wearing his new velvety-coat, noting that she liked it because it looked “Doctorish.” Part of why Capaldi is an extreme version of all the Doctors at the same time, is because his character is constantly trying to figure out how to be the Doctor and not totally accepting it until he feels like he’s earned it. He’s constantly trying to figure out who this particular Doctor actually is, and he’s not going to rely on just being reminded of who he used to be. This Doctor throws away his sonic screwdriver, which is a classic pre-2005 Doctor move. This Doctor is flippant about what his purpose is; is it to save people? Can he deal with those consequences? This Doctor questions himself and admits when he has gone too far. But unlike when David Tennant went too far in “The Waters of Mars,” this Doctor doesn’t head for a catastrophic tear-filled regeneration. Instead, he has to keep on living. Keep on being the Doctor. All the soul-searching, all the testing of his own boundaries, all the discoveries about what he’ll do and how far he’ll go make him a synecdoche of all the versions of the character that have come before. Capaldi’s Doctor is that synechdoche, the part that represents the whole, because in his portrayal of the character, and the stories he’s inhabited, this Doctor has became something so few television characters rarely do.

A whole person, who feels real.

Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, out now from Plume (Penguin Random House.) He’s been writing about Doctor Who on Tor.com since 2010.

28 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!