Well. We’ve had one series and a Christmas special of the twelfth* incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. That’s plenty of opportunity to have become familiar with the Doctor’s latest persona. So, what do we think? I know those who are singing this Doctor’s praises, who have been positively awed by Peter Capaldi and who have duly cleared a spot at or near the top of their personal “Best Doctors” list (all Whovians have one) for Twelvie. At the same time, I know others for whom Capaldi has failed to live up to expectations as the Doctor and have found it difficult to warm to Capaldi’s Doctor. The general consensus seems to be that Capaldi’s Doctor, and Series 8 in general, has been a success, and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who positively dislikes Capaldi’s Doctor, but certainly not everyone has taken to Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor with equal enthusiasm.
Which is where I come in.
Don’t worry, Whovians, I’m here. I’m going to provide you with an objective, definitive and completely authoritative appraisal of the Twelfth Doctor. There’ll be no need for any more arguments over Twelve’s behaviour in Kill the Moon. You can thank me later. So, without further ado, here’s my verdict on the Twelfth Doctor.
Expectations and predictions
First of all, it’s worth discussing what I expected of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor before I had seen him. Based on the casting of an older actor for the part, Moffat’s descriptions of him as a “darker”, more “abrasive”, less “user-friendly” Doctor, and the context of his regeneration (after having spent approximately a millennium defending a town on Trenzalore), I formed a picture in my mind of a more sober and solemn Doctor, much like the Fourth Doctor when he’s in his solemn, brooding moods. More humourless, more world-weary, more aloof, less patient with evil, and less equivocal about taking morally-questionable measures to deal with his enemies. Based on my expectations, or prophesyings, I was genuinely excited for Capaldi’s Doctor. It had been a while since a Doctor in the Hartnell-C.Baker formula had been done, a formula which, done right (as both Hartnell and Baker had succeeded in doing in various moments, although not consistently), can be the most compelling of all Doctor characterisations. I was also looking forwards to seeing New Who’s take on the Hartnell-Baker archetype. My predictions for Capaldi’s Doctor were broadly accurate. We got an abrasive elder Doctor in the Hartnell archetype, more morally ambiguous and certainly more alien (although Matt Smith’s Doctor was also very alien in his own way).
Where Capaldi’s Doctor differed from my predictions was in his energy and adrenaline. I foresaw a world-weary, increasingly cynical Doctor for whom saving the universe had become a nuisance and an intrusion into his peace and quiet. I saw Twelve helping people only reluctantly, and finding himself in the midst of trouble with an air of annoyance and impatience. I expected this more cynical incarnation as the most likely effect of his long stay on Trenzalore, a Doctor who had grown tired of saving people, who wanted only for the universe to finally leave him in peace. It would fall to Clara to help the Doctor in this respect, to reignite the spark and rekindle his sense of duty and his drive to pursue justice. What I didn’t expect was for the Doctor, upon leaving Trenzalore, to leap straight back into his old routine with the energy and zeal of a much younger, much less battle-scarred man. But that works, too, I guess.
Praise — what works
Capaldi is probably the most talented actor to play the role of the Doctor in the show’s history. He gives his all to the role, and one can tell he is supremely in his element playing the Doctor. One could expect no less of perhaps the biggest Whovian ever to be cast in the role. It’s also obvious that Capaldi has a very good idea of what he wants to do with the character, and, for the most part, executes this vision impeccably. After two incarnations of affable, youthful “good boyfriend” Doctors, Capaldi’s more unpredictable and abrasive approach makes for a refreshing change.
Certain elements of the Doctor’s character crystallise prominently in Capaldi’s portrayal: arrogance, charisma, leadership, curiosity, toughness, alien-ness, coldness. Elements of the Doctor’s character more recessive in Twelve include whimsy, warmth, humanity, moral compulsion, eccentricity (bar the obligatory alien-ness), vulnerability. In relation to previous incarnations, Capaldi’s Doctor draws most influence from Hartnell, in his abrasiveness and cantankerousness, Colin Baker, in his unpredictability, callousness and unwillingness to “suffer fools”, Pertwee, in his gravitas and hauteur, McCoy, in his darkness and manipulativeness, and Eccleston, in his straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. I particularly feel that Twelve and Nine would get on famously; both represent similar approaches to the Doctor’s character — the tough northern Doctor and the rugged Scots Doctor. Twelve also seems to bear a lot of similarity to the War Doctor (from what we’ve seen of him), a more sober, darker, morally ambiguous Doctor. Capaldi’s Doctor is least like the whimsical incarnations of Troughton and Smith, as well as the more human incarnations of Davison and Tennant.
Criticisms — what doesn’t work
While, all-round, I like Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor, there are certain aspects of his character which I think have not been portrayed well. For one thing, Capaldi’s Doctor seems to be very one-note. He’s the grumpy, abrasive, unpredictable one with the Scottish accent. Beyond this, there’s little more to Twelve’s character. Even the much-hyped “darkness” of Capaldi’s Doctor hasn’t come out like one would have expected it to, and seems limited to a lesser reluctance to undertaking morally questionable measures (providing they are in pursuit of a greater good). There’s potential there, to be sure, in exploring Twelve’s morally ambiguous side, as we saw in Mummy on the Orient Express, although for the most part it has not been tapped to the extent seemingly promised. The whimsy and eccentricity that has, to an extent, been part of every incarnation is markedly absent in Capaldi’s Doctor. Or, to be more accurate, on the few instances that Twelve does attempt to do whimsy it comes off as inauthentic and out of character. To be sure, Twelve can be convincingly humorous, but only when he’s deploying dry sarcasm (“She cares so I don’t have to”), which is more fitting with his character, rather than when consciously trying to make people laugh (“2DIS”).
Another aspect of Twelve’s character I would criticise is his alien-ness and general cluelessness about human things, e.g. his inability to understand human relationships and behaviour. This all comes off as very affected and unconvincing, as though it were a bad attempt at a joke on the Doctor’s part. I think the worst instance of this was in the final scene of Last Christmas, when Clara asked the Doctor if she looked young, to which the Doctor’s reply was “No idea”, promptly fetching her a mirror so she could see for herself. Cringe-inducing. Such cluelessness doesn’t necessarily bother me per se (Matt Smith’s Doctor was very clueless about human things in many respects, after all), but it just feels like sloppy writing.
Additionally, it somewhat feels like Capaldi is yet to carve out a unique take on the character. At the moment, Twelve feels a bit like a synthesis of bits and pieces of the incarnations that came before him: a bit each from Hartnell, Pertwee, C. Baker, McCoy and Eccleston. That, to an extent, is the curse of casting as big a Whovian as Capaldi in the role: when playing the Doctor he’s constantly conscious of all the actors who’ve played the role before him, and finds it hard to detach himself and forge something new. It has been suggested that Capaldi will peak late in his tenure, that it will take him time to flesh out his character. I very much hope that is the case, and I have no doubt that an actor of Capaldi’s calibre is fully capable of giving us one of the classic performances as the Doctor.
Capaldi’s Doctor is a refreshing new direction for New Who, and a compelling re-imagining of the character of the Doctor. However, his character needs further development and fine-tuning if he is to be convincingly a multi-dimensional character. At the moment, if the Capaldi era thus far can be taken as representing the whole of the Capaldi era in a historical sense, I would place the Capaldi Doctor somewhere near the middle of a “greatest Doctors” list; of the New Who Doctors I would rank him bottom. In my opinion, Capaldi hasn’t captured the character of his Doctor as convincingly in his first season as each of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith did in their first seasons. On the level of characterisation, there still needs some work to do on Twelve if Capaldi would be remembered perhaps as much as he’d like to be. That will, of course, come in time, and I look forwards to seeing what Capaldi will bring to the role in series 9.
* Well, thirteenth, really, or fourteenth, depending on how you look at it. But let’s not get into that.