What we Need from Peter Capaldi

Or perhaps that should be, “What we need – now – from Steven Moffat”. The key responsibility does lie, after all, with the head writer. Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor was unremarkable, but never exactly bad. The bigger reason why Doctor Who in his era became so lamentable was the poor quality of the scripts, and for that it is Steven Moffat who must answer. Yet now Moffat has a perfect opportunity to redeem himself. In Peter Capaldi, he has the right actor with whom to make a new start. Just as importantly, he has also engineered the story in such a way that he has license and justification to put a different slant on the show. Will he follow through with it? I don’t doubt that Capaldi can give us what we need, but I worry that Moffat might not give him the scripts that will let him do so.

Doctor Who in the era of Matt Smith became a frivolous show. From the Tennant-era light drama, which was laced with plenty of comedy but remained centrally interested in serious storytelling, Moffat reconceived his show to create a frenetic postmodern comedy. He dressed it up in ponderous, faux-epic trappings when he needed to give it some semblance of weight, but at its heart it was still a comedy. Whether it was a good comedy is beside the point. Good comedy or no, by thus transforming Doctor Who Moffat painted the show into a corner. Television that is deliberately ridiculous cannot easily be made to sway its viewers’ deeper feelings, unless it is handled with rather more finesse than Moffat has been willing to apply. Devotees of his style ought to agree with those, like myself, who had completely given up on Smith-era Who, that the show’s current direction is unsustainable. It has been several seasons since Doctor Who made many viewers cry. Given its history, that is a serious loss. Love Moffat’s style or hate Moffat’s style, we ought all to agree that it is time the pendulum swung back the other way.

Peter Capaldi has a great deal more gravitas than Matt Smith, and gravitas is exactly what the character needs right now. We need a dignified Doctor. There is nothing wrong with occasionally dropping him in some awkward situation comedy, to lighten the mood and explore some alternative sides to the character. But when the Doctor can inadvertently appear naked in his companion’s parents’ living room, and then display a complete lack of social expertise as he attempts to salvage the (quite unfunny) situation, it becomes very hard to believe that we are watching a centuries-old being who has consistently defused conflicts and halted violence all over the universe. Neither Christopher Eccleston nor David Tennant would have been convincing in any of the comic subplots that Matt Smith has been entangled in, and that is because both of them were firmly established as supremely capable individuals. Capable, clear-sighted, resolute: this is what the Doctor needs to be if he is ever again to be placed at the heart of a sensitively written and carefully designed episode of emotional drama.

The good news is that there are signs, if you look for them, that Moffat is planning to do exactly that. In “The Day of the Doctor” (the recent 50th-anniversary special, if you’re not keeping up), he pulled off a very dextrous piece of revisionism. Spoiler alert: in “The Day of the Doctor,” using the solemn and battle-weary John Hurt as a contrast with Tennant and Smith, Moffat reframed the Doctor’s entire character arc, across all seven seasons of the 21st-century show, as being a product of the fateful moment when he murdered his own people to end the Time War. The character of Tennant (and by extension, we presume, Eccleston) and the character of Smith are shown to be two different reactions to that moment, two different methods by which the Doctor has tried to handle the guilt and the sorrow that has dogged him since that day. Tennant, as Hurt observes, is the one who remembers. Smith is the one who forgets.

Thus are the show’s excesses of the last few years deftly excused. The Doctor has become frivolous because he has been running away from his past, trying to lose himself in light-heartedness because he cannot bring himself to face the memory of what he did. So Tennant’s Doctor was grim and intense because he was burdened by that memory, and Smith’s was juvenile because he was trying to forget it. It’s a very neat trick: by writing in this little nugget of commentary, Moffat has managed to absolve himself of responsibility for making the Doctor ridiculous. Once we can understand it as character development arising from factors that were already present in the Doctor’s backstory, the whole drift into silliness can be accepted and forgiven much more easily. Of course it’s quite obviously an explanation that has been devised after the fact, not a consideration that was behind the show’s stylistic transformation in the first place. But for all its patchiness, it at least works. We might not want to go back and re-watch those last few seasons, but we can at least feel more comfortable with their existence.

Yet what this also means, of course, is that the excuse for frivolity is now gone. Now that the Doctor knows he did not actually commit genocide – now that he knows, moreover, that his people are still out there somewhere – he no longer has anything to run away from. The decks have been cleared: there is no good reason why the Doctor should remain a silly character. By the logic of the character arc that Moffat himself has imposed on the show, the Doctor must now revert to being predominantly serious and purposeful. If he does not, the whole revisionist edifice established in “The Day of the Doctor” will cease to make sense. The illusion will collapse, and it will be depressingly clear that changes in the Doctor’s personality occur not because they are consistent with his experiences, but because it is Moffat’s whim. The opportunity to give the show a fresh start will be squandered.

We can only wait and see. Anyone who has watched the new season of Sherlock knows that Moffat is clearly still capable of writing first-rate television. Surely he will realise it is time to bring Doctor Who back down to earth and begin giving it the same treatment he gives his other (currently far superior) show. One promising sign: an image of Capaldi in costume has now been released to the media, and his look is very different to Matt Smith’s. Clad in a trim black suit and shiny Doc Martens, the Doctor appears classy yet modern, serious yet cool, a smart, streamlined, confident icon. I hope so much that we will be able to say the same of the show.

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