Thursday, April 13, 2017

Doctor Who Series 10: The Beginning of the End for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor

By Jerry Chandler

In two days’ time we get to start in on the first weekly episodes of brand new Doctor Who to air on television in almost 16 full months. For Doctor Who fans everywhere, this should be a weekend of great celebration. The first episode of a new season of Doctor Who followed in America by the Doctor guest starring in the first episode of Class, the already canceled spin-off series. Two hours of new (or mostly new for some) Doctor does in fact get the fan juices flowing. But there’s also a twinge of regret in there as well. This is caused by knowing that the ultimate goal of this season is to send Peter Capaldi’s Doctor off into the Gallifreyan sunset. Maybe more importantly, that twinge is from knowing that his last season is still under the powers that be that oversaw his prior seasons in the role.

I was a fan of Peter Capaldi long before his time on Doctor Who. I first saw him in the cult classic film The Lair of the White Worm. He wasn’t supposed to be the star of the film, that role was given to Hugh Grant. But Capaldi’s Angus Flint stole every scene he was in. He landed mostly smaller parts here and there over the years as well as a few larger ones, and many were neither in genre or easily available viewing in the states. At least a few of those I had to track down though. Hey, there was no way I wasn’t checking out a series with him as a featured character and a name like Chandler & Co at least for the name. He was quite good in it by the way.

1996 gave him two roles that fans of fantasy and dark mysteries could really get in to. One was as an angel with ulterior motives in the Neil Gaiman written Neverwhere. The other was as a member of the McHoan family in the suspenseful, dark, and genuinely surprising series The Crow Road. Both shows were eventually aired on various channels in the US, and Neverwhere in particular likely introduced Capaldi to a lot of the same fans who would later get into the new Doctor Who when Christopher Eccleston took on the role. 

Capaldi first entered the Doctor Who world in a relatively bit part on the show during the Tennant era, and then with a huge part as the evil bastard character in Torchwood: Children of Earth. For many, this darker character was what sparked interest when he was cast as the Doctor. For many others- maybe even many more -the role that made his being cast as the Doctor was the amazingly brilliant turn he took as the manic, manipulative, foul mouthed, scheming Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It and In the Loop. For many, this role had them more curious than anything else about what the casting of the next Doctor they would see was going to lead to. Was the angry Malcom Tucker a sign of things to come in Doctor Who?

The answer would unfortunately be both yes and no as well as a little bit of a few points in between. It turned out that Steven Moffat wanted to shake things up in a major way, and the way he intended to do it was by returning the Doctor to his angrier earlier days and making him the polar opposite of what Matt Smith’s Doctor represented to many fans.

Capaldi’s debut story as the Doctor featured a confused and occasionally confusing Doctor. This was nothing new to Whovians. Regeneration stories almost always had the Doctor at his worst mentally and emotionally; occasionally even physically. But this Doctor seemed angrier than recent Doctors. There were moments of him feeling like he was a threat as well. The problem was you weren’t always sure who he would be a threat to- friends or foes. It was somewhat reminiscent of Colin Baker’s debut as the Doctor. Sadly, the Colin Baker similarities would continue in more ways than one.

The run of the first Capaldi series was wildly mixed when it came to story quality. Sadly, the truly good stories were outweighed in the mix by the ones that were merely okay and those that ranked as outright bad. The writing in many cases did Capaldi no favors. By sheer talent and charisma, Capaldi made the Doctor work in some of the stories a lesser talent may have gotten lost in, but even then the overall direction for the series hampered his Doctor.

His Doctor was directed to be occasionally cold to the point of uncaring about the death of others. In several early episodes he simply decided that the fate of some of the people he was with was sealed, and in so doing decided that their deaths could be used to keep him and the others alive or to solve the mystery of the moment. He gave their passing no seaming thought or concern, and this was wildly in conflict with the Doctor we had known under the Smith, Tennant, and Eccleston eras of the new series; let alone many of the older, original series Doctors.

He was full of venom as well. He would spit venom at strangers, at his series companion Clara, and at her newly introduced boyfriend. The boyfriend thing was also one of the major weaknesses of the first season of Capaldi’s run. Besides turning large chunks of the season into a bad relationship drama and thus detracting from the better elements of what the show could be, it also introduced something into the Doctor that simply felt wrong on all levels; especially to old school fans. The Doctor had developed an absolute loathing for soldiers.

It was an anger and hatred that he let loose in comments not only directed at Danny Pink, but at other characters over the first run of Capaldi’s episodes. This felt wrong for a character that served with soldiers, still showed even in Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor feelings of incredible respect and friendship for Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and can be argued to have taken on a soldier or two in the past in the form of companions like Harry Sullivan and (arguably) Leela.

All of this was designed to create the dilemma around the new Doctor’s character. Was he a good man? They weren’t even subtle about it. It was a question he point blank asked of Clara, and his questioning her about this was used in ads, series trailers, and even in flashback later on in that season. Different episodes included the Doctor facing someone or something telling him how angry or dark he was. Most of it felt forced and contrived, and it was all there to give us a moment of “revelation” for the Doctor we all already knew quite well anyhow. The Doctor had the epiphany that he was not a good man, nor a bad man, but simply an idiot with a box and a screwdriver.

The first series to feature Capaldi as the Doctor was seen as anything from marginally bad to unmitigated disaster by many in Who fandom. Many people hated it for the poor writing and ill-conceived stories; many hated the overall arc; many left it complaining about the overdone relationship story arc, and many left it absolutely hating the character of Clara because of how she was written in that story arc. But the funny thing that was being said by a number of fans was how much they liked Peter Capaldi. Some fans were saying they outright loved his performance, citing how he elevated good stories to great ones and even made the poorly conceived and written ones tolerable.

The general consensus among many who were longtime fans was that Capaldi shared more than just the character of an angry Doctor with Colin Baker. He shared a season full of stories that took an actor who may have been a great Doctor and cut him off at the knees. If only, many a fan was heard saying around a convention meal, he had been given material worthy of him.

Many laid the blame squarely on Moffat’s shoulders. Then came his first Christmas special.

Last Christmas gave fans hope that the first series was going to be an anomaly in the Capaldi era. The story itself was a joyful romp, masterfully blending comedy, horror, adventure, and sentimentality. But more importantly it gave fans a look at a Doctor that was not bitter, angry, and spitting venom at anyone and everyone around him. This Doctor was far more likable than the Doctor we’d had just been watching a short while earlier, and there was hope that the “Am I a Good Man?” experiment was indeed over and done with.

Then there was the waiting. What would the second Moffat controlled series under Capaldi’s Doctor be like? Would it be stronger than the first or another bad mix? Would we get endlessly sidetracked with new relationship stories that went nowhere, or would we start seeing Doctor Who as a series that dealt with adventures in time and space again? It was an answer we would have to wait for until the start of the new series and the airing of The Magician's Apprentice.

I think saying that the response to just the opening moments of The Magician's Apprentice was a huge “OMG” by fans everywhere is a huge understatement. The rest of the episode and the continuation of the story in The Witch's Familiar kept up that level of excitement in fans. The writing was mostly pitch perfect, but more importantly the character of the Doctor was as well.  

The Doctor was no longer a man of questionable character seeking the answer to whether or not he was a good man. Now he came across as a good man as well as a bit of an aging punk rocker with wit, wisdom, and sarcasm to spare. Plus, he got an injection of loving the electric guitar that was straight out of Capaldi’s own past. Watching the Doctor ride into a medieval arena standing on a tank and playing the Doctor Who theme on an electric guitar was an almost dizzyingly perfect combination of ludicrous and awesome.

By the end of The Witch's Familiar, fans were confident that the series had gotten both itself and the portrayal of the Doctor back on the right track. Capaldi was finally going to be given a run of stories worthy of what he could bring to the show, and he was proving that he could more than hold up his end of the deal with his Doctor. Even the fiery intensity of hatred for the character of Clara in some circles of fandom started cooling a bit. Even as many fans voiced the opinion that Last Christmas could have been the perfect exit for the character had the older Clara not been revealed to be part of the alien dream state, they agreed that her portrayal in the writing in the two-parter was a version of the character they could enjoy more of.

The next few episodes kept fan enthusiasm high. Even episodes that felt weaker (The Girl Who Died) or felt like a misfire (The Woman Who Lived) were still head and shoulders above many of the shows from the prior season, and the portrayal of the Doctor by Capaldi was only getting stronger and better. More importantly, the shows again felt like they were about the Doctor rather than about the personal life and misadventures of his companion.

Then we reached the two-part story featured in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion. Then we reached that speech.

Read as merely printed words, it was just okay. Delivered by Capaldi, it was a soaring, moving, and almost terrifyingly powerful speech. It was a moment that was pivotal to the story’s resolution, and it solidified Capaldi as one of the great Doctors for many. Fans were more than ready to enjoy the wild ride to come as the series sped on towards the series 9 finale. But then Moffat’s excesses kicked in, and much of the good will in Who fandom built by the first half of the season was stamped out over the course of those episodes.

Moffat’s companion fixation reached heretofore unseen levels, and, even more so than with series 8, the final episodes of series 9 turned into The Adventures of Clara Oswald featuring Her Pal the Doctor. Moffat’s habit of turning in bad fan fiction stories as professional work reared its head again in its worst example to date. The companion- the character concept designed to be something of a surrogate for the viewer -was essentially becoming not only the main reason for everything that was happening, but was given a sendoff by being turned into basically the Doctor Mark II. As I said in an earlier Needless Things column-

Moffat has stated before that the companion is the important part of the show. Fans were tuning in to see the companion’s story and journey. Companions, he has said, could be shown going from regular people to superheroes. Many in fandom disagreed. They liked strong companions, but they liked the idea of a show called Doctor Who actually being about the Doctor even more so than about the companion. For fans who were growing more than just a little tired of Moffat’s companion fixation, the focus on turning Clara into the ultimate companion turned superhero(ish) Doctor(ish) was just too much. The quality of the stories felt more than a little derailed as a result, and, even as people praised Capaldi’s performance in such stories as Heaven Sent, the last half of the season left a bad taste in the mouth of many in Who fandom.

Then we got The Husbands of River Song. A year later we got The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Moffat proved once again what he proved to everyone back in the days of Russell T. Davies as showrunner and even here and there during his era as showrunner. Steven Moffat- when writing largely self-contained, one and done stories -can be one of the greatest writers of modern Doctor Who. He understands better than almost anyone else who has worked as a modern Who writer what it takes to strike the right balance between myth, fairy-tale, and sci-fi adventure in a self-contained Doctor Who story. But he goes completely off the rails when he runs the entire shebang. Steven Moffat has simply become one of the worst people to have as a showrunner. His excesses- his fixation on the companion, his launching of arcs meant to last a season or more, his penchant for creating mysteries around everything that might not ever be totally resolved -have simply grown too great and far too out of control the longer he has stayed in the position of showrunner.

The sad fact of the timing of the worst of his excesses coming into full has been to damage the Capaldi era. Like Colin Baker before him, Peter Capaldi actually has everything he needs to be a truly great Doctor. He’s proven it even in the worst of the stories he’s been given in his era. But he’s been saddled with poor series direction and more bad stories than any actor playing Doctor can reasonably be expected to overcome.

It was eventually announced that series 10 would be Steven Moffat’s last. More than a few people rejoiced. Peter Capaldi announced in response to fandom wondering what this meant for him that he would be more than happy to stay on. Some in fandom were thrilled with this. The potential of seeing Capaldi in a season not overseen by Moffat offered up the potential of perhaps seeing good stories not ultimately damaged by Moffat’s excesses of late. This was quickly changed as it was announced that he would be exiting the series when Moffat exited the series. 

A lot of fandom who had become fans of Capaldi’s Doctor while tiring of Moffat’s direction of the series were crestfallen. Yes, the idea of letting a new showrunner come in with a clean slate was brought up more than once, but more than a few in fandom wondered if the damage- if that is the right word -of Moffat’s final few years had as much to do with the powers that be at the BBC wanting a totally clean slate than simply just a new showrunner coming in.

For fans of Capaldi’s Doctor, the news meant no chance of seeing Capaldi shine in a season that may not have had the same types of pitfalls as a Moffat season offered. So now fans of Capaldi’s Doctor are looking at series 10 under Moffat as Capaldi’s final hurrah.

This has brought a twinge of regret to some over seeing Peter leave the role just as he found the heart of his Doctor so strongly. It has also brought about a feeling of a bit of trepidation. For fans of Capaldi’s Doctor (or Capaldi in general) the hope is for the last series he has the role in to be the best series he has. The desire is to see him go out on the strong stories and strong season he deserves. The cautious hope is that Moffat, no longer able to play long games designed to go on past the present season, will contain himself and deliver stories like the ones that made him a fan favorite rather than the stories and seasonal arcs that made him merely disliked to outright hated as showrunner in some circles of Who fandom.  

I am a fan of Doctor Who. I have been for a majority of my 46 years. I am a fan of Peter Capaldi. I have been for a majority of my 46 years. As a fan of both, I am both thrilled and saddened that I will be able to see both of them as one for one last go. As a fan of both, I am somewhat saddened that I know that we are going into this series to see the final episodes of Who where Capaldi will be the Doctor. As a fan of both Doctor Who and Capaldi as well as the best of what Moffat can be as a writer for the show, I am more than a little worried that Moffat’s desire to be clever or that the excesses he’s grown into over his time as showrunner will rear their heads one last time. 

As a fan of all three (at least when Moffat is on his game), I am cautiously hopeful that series 10 will give us the stories that Capaldi deserves to go out on, that the season that proves that Moffat can still be one of the best writers of Who, and that their final season of Who together gives the new showrunner and the new actor to take the role a series worthy of the name Doctor Who to take over from them. In Capaldi I have no worries, in Moffat I have more than a few. I know Capaldi will prove my faith in his performance during his final run true. I hope Moffat finds his best again in order to prove my worries unfounded.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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