I’m writing on Sunday night, and full of anticipation for next Saturday, when we’ll see the Twelfth Doctor for the first time. (My family will be camping near Swansea; we and the friends we’re with will all go into a cinema in Swansea to see the new episode as it’s broadcast.)
To help get us all warmed up, here is the chapter Looking Forward from my recent book The Eleventh Doctor — my preview of what I hope the Peter Capaldi era will bring. Enjoy! (And don’t forget to buy the book if you haven’t already!)
The new Doctor
Despite how very highly I rate Matt Smith, part of me is pleased that he jumped before he was pushed – that he’s avoided the trap that David Tennant fell into of reiterating the same character for so long that he’s reduced to self-parody. He walks away from Doctor Who with his head held high, having been consistently the best thing about the programme throughout his four years. At the same time, he leaves the stage clear for his successor.
I hope that Capaldi will play the role very differently. The great thing about Smith was that, despite his tender years, he was believable as a much older man. The very serious core of that man kept showing through the (sometime self-consciously) zany exterior in a way that Tennant never really managed to pull off. (Where Tennant ranted and raved, Smith just quietly bled.) As Capaldi is visibly much older than Smith (at 55 years old, more than twice Smith’s age when he made his debut) he can hardly produce a similar kind of performance. Instead, I hope to see him played as fiercely intelligent, and impatient with those who can’t keep up. Way back in Father’s Day, Christopher Eccleston says of Rose, “I did it again, I picked another stupid ape”. I liked that sense of assumed superiority – a sense that only appears in flashes, as the Doctor mostly tries to stay polite, but which is always there beneath the surface. I’d like to see more of that.
While I’d like to see the new Doctor’s raw intelligence as the most obvious and visible part of his character, I also want to see (relatively rare) impish moments showing the other side to his character. In other words, Smith’s performance turned inside out. Without that other aspect, the character will not be likeable, and that would be catastrophic. It’s not enough that we should respect the Doctor – we have to like him, too.
What now for Clara? With her mystery solved, she will presumably be downgraded to being a normal human. I am very OK with that. Rose became Bad Wolf, the most powerful being in the universe; Donna became part Time Lord; Amy was told by the Doctor that “quite possibly the single most important thing in the history of the universe is that I get you sorted out right now”. Clara was the impossible girl. I’m about ready for a companion who is just a companion – the regular person through whose eyes we see the Doctor.
With Capaldi playing an older Doctor, we should presumably be safe from the threat of more Doctor/Companion romance. If the idea of a 1200-year-old man with a 27-year-old woman doesn’t creep out the audience, then putting her with an actor twice her age ought to do it.
Because that romantic subplot really isn’t necessary at all in Doctor Who, in fact it’s a distraction. Every week, we’re shown brand new things – the wonders of numerous new civilisations, of races with morals incomprehensibly alien to us, of the universe. It’s anticlimactic to come down from those high planes to mere soap-opera, and terribly insulting to the audience to think that none of that other stuff is of value to anyone without some snogging. If we’re going to see The Doctor In Love again, then something like the River Song story-line is the way to do it: matching him with something like an equal, not an ordinary person plucked from present-day Earth. I say something like River Song because of course actual River Song is unbearable. I suppose when we look at the pig’s ear Alex Kingston has made of that role, we should be all the more grateful that the role of the Doctor himself has been so well cast all through the revived series (notwithstanding my criticism of Tennant’s later years).
I think that if Series 7 proved anything, it was that splitting a single series into two halves in different years just doesn’t work. If for some reason we really can’t have more than half a dozen episodes in a year, then Moffat should just be honest with us and himself, and call them what they are: a short series. That way, expectations can be set properly, and Moff needn’t make narrative promises he can’t keep. Really, I’d like to see a single solid block of thirteen episodes, as we had for the first five series.
The other lesson of Series 7b is that we do need a series-long arc to tie all the stories together. You could make a case that the average quality of the five episodes of Series 7a was higher than those of the eight episodes of Series 7b, but there’s no question that the second half as a unit was stronger than the first half. It had a sense of narrative propulsion which, though flawed, did at least give us a sense that we were headed somewhere.
Series 7 didn’t really give us the promised return to the Doctor as anonymous wanderer. It certainly seemed we were headed that way at the end of Asylum, when Clara wiped the Daleks’ memories of him; and some of the individual episodes – A Town Called Mercy, Hide – had that intimate quality where the universe wasn’t under threat, just one or two human lives. But the lure of the large was too strong for the Moff and his buddies, so that the last three episodes crescendoed through the end of all human life on Earth (The Crimson Horror), the end of the pan-galactic human empire (Nightmare in Silver) and finally the complete rewriting of time and the destruction of many (most? all?) stars.
I’d be happy to see bit more cosmic hobo from Peter Capaldi, and a bit less Saviour Of The Universe. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m in favour of saving the universe. But not every week. Once every year or two seems about right.
I still want to know why the TARDIS exploded back in Series 5. We’ve waited three years for the explanation, and that doesn’t seem reasonable to me. Should I just accept that we’re never going to know, and that Moffat has dropped that whole thread on the floor?
And the end of The Day of the Doctor strongly suggested that we’ve not seen the last of Gallifrey, and that the Doctor is likely to go looking for it. I have mixed feelings about this. But let me just call it now: Gallifrey will turn out to be inside the painting Gallifrey Falls No More. How they ret-con that with The End of Time I couldn’t possibly speculate.
[Note: all three of the images in this post are taken from this excellent compilation of fan-made Series 8 posters.]