Change Is Good
Peter Capaldi’s incarnation of the famous character is special precisely because he is unlike any of his predecessors.
By Otis Roffman, Beloit College
The Doctor traipses like a startled deer just hit by a truck, thin legs trying to get a footing in the graveyard darkened by clouds, inhabited by an army of deadly Cybermen, given to him as a gift by his arch rival, the Master, to prove that perhaps they’re not so different after all.
The Twelfth Doctor’s hair is graying and clean cut, his face sharp and lined, with arching eyebrows and piercing green eyes. The humanoid alien’s mouth is a dour line, perpetually troubled.
The Doctor’s eyes widen and he rushes excitedly, clumsily to the Master. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” He gives her a gentle kiss. “I really didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you!” The Doctor runs opposite her and grins, a nasty and devious display of teeth that borderlines on sinister. “I am not a good man! I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am?”
Audiences held an expectant breath. Most had an idea of what would come next. The Doctor was at the climactic conflict of the season, facing impossible odds, about to unveil the reason he can win. Drawing on Doctor Who’s previous speeches, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a brazen declaration about “being a doctor,” an energetic and heartfelt lecture on what being the godly alien do-gooder who always defeats the bad guys means. In the past, simply stating, “I am the Doctor,” was enough.
“I…am…an idiot!” the Twelfth Doctor shouts with delight. “With a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning.”
The script is flipped, and Twelve is victorious in freeing himself from the self-aggrandizing binds and myths of Doctor-hood. He is canonically a new beginning, the first incarnation of an entirely new set of regenerations, but Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the character is arguably the best yet of the new series. As the next season of “Doctor Who” airs, fans should examine just what has made him so special.
Capaldi’s casting marked a sharp departure from how the character had been cast since the series rebooted in 2005. Previous leads David Tennant and Matt Smith were young and vivacious men, both traditionally handsome and filled to the brim with smiling energy. The Doctor was known as a happy-go-lucky, mad, brilliant and handsome time-traveling alien with two full hearts and an occasional dark streak.
Many were surprised when Capaldi, at age fifty-five, was cast. Who was this wiry, older man coming to replace the smooth-faced and floppy-haired Smith? It was hard to imagine him spinning and twirling about the TARDIS, spouting colorful gibberish about time and space to a bright-eyed companion. Many worried the show would not be the same. They were correct, but in the best possible way.
The Twelfth Doctor proved that change is necessary. In Capaldi’s first season, gone was the happy-go-lucky attitude, replaced by a steely and piercing glare. The Doctor became stiff and gruff, outright cold in many ways, less predictable and more alien. He’s emotionally withdrawn and has more difficulty expressing himself. His displays of affection are limited, his hugs comically awful and his smile inescapably sinister in nature.
The Doctor’s abrupt shift in character revitalized the show with a new and darker energy. For the first time in a long time, viewers were not encouraged to trust the Doctor outrightly, or rely on him to make decisions that leave none unscathed. During Smith’s tenure, it was as if the Doctor could do no wrong. The Eleventh Doctor was like an unstoppable trickster god. He shouted armies down from atop Stonehenge and detonated fleets of alien ships just to send a message. Eleven was a whirlwind of mood shifts. He could change from a compassionate, tender and fun-loving hero to a dark, frightening, Machiavellian mastermind in seconds. But if he did anything questionable, it was more or less swept under the rug.
Smith’s incarnation could dance anything off in his bowtie and candy-store TARDIS interior. His friends seemed perpetually dazzled by him, and excuses were consistently made for his behavior. Clara says, in reference to Eleven, “The only reason I’m still alive is that I do what the Doctor says.” People were encouraged to trust the Doctor no matter what he did or said, because he was always going to win and be right in the end, but a show where the main protagonist is invincible and can do no wrong becomes boring, and even though Smith was fantastic in many respects, Doctor Who was getting stale.
With the Twelfth Doctor, this colorful veneer was stripped away, and the Doctor was forced to present himself more honestly and face the complexity of his own character. Scowling in his industrial, metal-plated TARDIS interior, the Doctor’s tactics became rougher, and he stopped sugarcoating and avoiding things. Viewers could no longer expect every episode to end happily for everyone, or anyone.
“Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose,” the Doctor explains uncomfortably at the end of “The Mummy on the Orient Express.” In the episode, the Doctor had to allow several people to die just to figure out what he was fighting. Even though it looked almost villainous at times, he was doing the best he could to save as many people as possible.
With Capaldi, “Doctor Who” looked difficult truths in the face instead of shrugging them off. It addressed moral quandaries and actively challenged the Doctor. Clara was no longer there to smile and admire; rather, she became a checks and balances system for her alien friend. She forced him, on multiple occasions, to confront his own decisions, attitudes and beliefs. It was through their disagreements that they solved problems, and grew as characters themselves.
The Doctor’s crisis of identity is the true conflict arc of Capaldi’s first season. At the start, he asked Clara, “Am I a good man?”
Clara stared at him, suddenly shaken in the realization of her answer. “I…don’t know.”
The Doctor gave an exasperated sigh and stood up. “Neither do I.”
In his first season, the Twelfth Doctor faces enemies and situations that force him to confront the type of person he is. He has to make hard decisions that he can’t quite shrug off because it’s not part of his personality anymore. For the first time in years, the Doctor felt like a dynamic and changing character. He regenerated into an uncertain and withdrawn alien, no longer interested in pretending to be something he’s not, but not sure of what he is. The Twelfth Doctor’s end-of-season victory is his grounding realization that he is, in fact, just a fool in a box who wants to see the universe and help where he can.
Such intricacy and growth within the Doctor’s character would not have been possible without Capaldi’s skilled acting and ability to thread multiple personality traits into his Doctor’s personality. He is able to display warmer personality traits that audiences associated with previous Doctors into the context of Twelve’s radically different persona. In “Listen,” the Doctor takes time to comfort a scared child, something every version of the Doctor would do, but Capaldi frames the moment in a manner distinct to his incarnation.
DOCTOR: Are you scared? The thing on the bed, whatever it is, look at it. Does it scare you?
DOCTOR: Well, that’s good. Want to know why that’s good?
DOCTOR: Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower. There is danger in this room and guess what? It’s you. Do you feel it? Do you think he feels it? Do you think he’s scared? Nah. Loser. Turn your back on him.
It is clear the Doctor is trying to encourage Rupert, but he’s refusing to disguise the danger of the situation, instead working to help the child realize the skills he possesses to survive it. Capaldi takes a typical “Doctor Who” moment and works with the script to make it his own.
Capaldi’s acting becomes even more impressive, and vital, in his second season as the Doctor. In Season 9, the Doctor’s epiphany has loosened him. Twelve is cracking more jokes. He’s wearing a hoodie and a t-shirt under his blue coat instead of a tightly buttoned shirt and vest. He’s smiling more, and sometimes he’s even charming. The Doctor viewers see in Season 9 is trying to embrace his identity as the idiot in a box.
If given to an actor of lower caliber, such a change could have felt strange and artificial, but Capaldi seamlessly bridges the gap. Yes, the Twelfth Doctor is a lot looser than he used to be, but he’s still pretty damn strange and awkward. The Doctor is still capable accessing the cold and harsh aspects of his personality. He still dismisses and ignores human emotions he can’t understand, and fumbles consistently to display any sort of complex affection, especially when it comes to his friendship with Clara.
But now he’s working on it. Clara even prints out some reference cards to help guide him through emotional situations he fails to grasp. “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do everything I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet.”
Capaldi has also been consistently excellent at downplaying heart-breaking or emotionally challenging moments. Melodrama was a big issue in the Smith years, but the Twelfth Doctor’s responses to hard moments have made every one of them feel heart-wrenchingly real.
When he knows Clara is going to die, the Doctor can barely even bring himself to speak. You can see, in his wide eyes wet with un-flowing tears, he’s having trouble allowing himself to believe it’s happening. The restraint in the dialogue, and in Capaldi’s action is far more powerful than any verbose, tear-stricken speech.
CLARA: Heal yourself. You have to. You can’t let this turn you into a monster. So, I’m not asking you for a promise, I’m giving you an order. You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge. I will die, and no one else, here or anywhere, will suffer.
DOCTOR: What about me?
CLARA: If there was something I could do about that, I would. I guess we’re both just going to have to be brave.
CLARA: Everything you are about to say, I already know. Don’t do it now. We’ve already had enough bad timing.
(The Raven caws close by.)
DOCTOR: Don’t run. Stay with me.
CLARA: Nah. You stay here. In the end, everybody does this alone.
CLARA: This is as brave as I know how to be. I know it’s going to hurt you, but, please, be a little proud of me.
(She touches his cheek. He takes her hand and kisses it.)
CLARA: Goodbye, Doctor.
For the entire goodbye, the Doctor barely says a word, but it’s a choice that speaks volumes. The scene is strengthened by restraint, and the arc that follows, with the Doctor feverishly punching his way out of a prison for 4.5 billion years before tapping into the cold and harsh components of his personality as he attempts to bring Clara back to life, then quietly and sadly accepting the loss of his memory of her, is a perfect microcosm of the diversity within the Twelfth Doctor’s personality, and a testament to Peter Capaldi’s skill in bringing it all into play.
The twelfth incarnation of the Doctor brought new and quiet depth to the character. Peter Capaldi took a more or less static character archetype and breathed in new air, bringing a stale show back to life. Doctor Who in the Capaldi era has challenged viewers with difficult problems and encouraged them to face them head on. The Twelfth Doctor has steeled fans with the knowledge of life’s pains, the importance of growth through challenge, the necessity of change and the need to question oneself and befriend people who will help you do so. Demonstrating such lessons was important to many people who were struggling. It was certainly important to me.
As “Doctor Who” fans prepare to say goodbye to Capaldi, one hopes the next incarnation of the Doctor will be similarly dynamic and unique, on its own terms, and the show will continue to challenge viewers with hard truths whilst reiterating the necessity of compassion in all action. The Twelfth Doctor will be sorely missed, but change, after all, is not always a bad thing.