Here we go again! In August, Peter Capaldi replaced Matt Smith in the iconic title role of the British family science-fiction series Doctor Who, a programme that’s changed actors more times than a Mindy Project midseason re-tool. Capaldi is joint-oldest to play the part with the Sean Connery of Doctors William Hartnell. His age, along with his otherworldly physicality and fannish investment in the history of Doctor Who have led some to assume that Capaldi will resurrect some of the mystery, mastery and manipulation seen in the earliest incarnations of the character. While this is undoubtedly the case, it forgets that Matt Smith’s performance – an actor nearly half Capaldi’s age – was always pushing in that direction, even if the writing for him was not. Smith had managed to convince us that age was no obstacle to playing The Doctor. Now it seems the show is happy to pass The Eleventh Doctor off as some reckless young buck to help viewers come to term with an older Twelfth. It’s double standards, and a very dangerous game!
Capaldi is probably the best actor to have played the role, and I don’t say that lightly. Unlike Christopher Eccleston – another actor I admire greatly – he also seems a comfortable fit for the role. But essentially this is a repeat of what Doctor Who did in introducing Colin Baker as The Sixth Doctor; a more sinister, less personable variation on the character. Despite Baker’s best (and loudest!) efforts, it was a sea change they were never really able to pull off. So is the show making the same mistakes as before? Short answer: No. Long answer: They’re making different mistakes. This time, the writers have remembered to round out the edges of the character early on, rather than leave character development for a time that may never come. However, somebody needs to tell Steven Moffat that the moral ambiguity of a character is best represented in their actions not in constantly talking about how morally ambiguous they are. Hence, genre pieces like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘Time Heist’ have been this season’s most successful episodes.
We’re halfway through Capaldi’s first season and it’s hard not to notice the discrepancy between the quality of his performance and the material he’s given. As the absurdist, Godot-like vignette between The Doctor and a Victorian tramp in debut ‘Deep Breath’ indicated, Capaldi’s actorly flow offers new dramatic possibilities for the programme (and puts the show’s use of Eccleston to shame!). But there’s only so much even the finest actor can do when compelled to speak in Moffat-ese baby talk for the majority of episodes, although the head writer has shown some restraint in contracting his idiomatic ‘thingy’ to ‘thing’. Moffat presents the biggest obstacle to Capaldi’s success. Now micro-managing most of the season’s scripts, in addition to several of his own sole pen, the same laziness and hackery that beset Smith’s tenure is already starting to permeate Capaldi’s after only five hours of television. While Capaldi is completely fresh, Moffat’s schtick after five years as showrunner is tired, and tiresome; never more evident than in laborious, tenuous allusions to a familiarly mechanical-looking season arc.
There’s dead weight in the cast too. I sincerely hoped that the character and performance of companion Clara would improve once she was released from her status as story point in the ill-advised ‘impossible girl’ arc. But between the clipped, garbled diction of the dialogue and exponentially annoying inflections of actress Jenna-Louise Coleman (and the smugness…can’t get over the smugness), she’s a lost cause. I’m glad the writers haven’t resorted to the bickering married couple dynamic that made The Doctor and Peri’s TARDIS scenes so unwatchable, and I’m grateful for the buffer that teacher Danny Pink (a considered performance by Samuel Anderson) provides – yes, if there’s one thing Moffat can write well it’s awkward men! But as long as Clara’s the main focus of Doctor Who, which she is more and more since the show revived the autonomy of The Doctor’s companions, it’ll always feel like there a little Moffat running around in the world of the programme. It also doesn’t help Capaldi that the writers insist on keeping the spectre of Matt Smith around.
Doctor Who has always surrounded new Doctors with familiar elements of the series to cushion viewers in times of transition. Indeed, this season began with a Victorian-set adventure featuring the ‘Paternoster Gang’ who were regulars in Smith’s era. But Moffat went so far as to have Smith in the episode (calling Clara from the past) and allusions to the actor in later episodes. As wonderful and apposite as these moments are – because they feature Smith – they’re holding viewers back from really embracing Capaldi’s Doctor. You begin to suspect that Moffat’s vanity is partly behind this effort to build a dramatic whoniverse unified around his time as showrunner. Prior to his debut, I suspected that Capaldi, an Oscar-winning director no less, might excise a little more control over the show than befits his brief, as did auteur Orson Welles who liked to put scare quotes around the term ‘actor’. I can see Capaldi’s influence on the change in pace, the contraction of melodrama, and even the language…in that it sounds like language! Long may it contin-who.