With the recent conclusion of Season 10, Thom Hetherington looks back at Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the 12th Doctor…
For a 54-year-old television show, Doctor Who certainly isn’t looking too shabby. And for the first time since its return to our screens in 2005 it’s starting to, literally, look its age. The choice of an older actor to play the Doctor was – relatively speaking – a risky choice at the time, as the show had, since its return, been predicated upon running down corridors while yelling exposition: a formula that had worked pretty darn well for the three sprightly actors who had taken the role before Capaldi. It was clear this was going to be a change of pace; perhaps a different, more cerebral take on the show. Less flirting, a tad less running and certainly no more snogging the companion.
For the most part, this approach and change of tone has served the show well. It was evident in the hiring of Ben Wheatley to direct Capaldi’s first two episodes that Doctor Who was heading into murkier waters. Wheatley brought his trademark unease to the series opener and this carried through the majority of Capaldi’s run as the Doctor. The hiring of horror director Rachel Talalay also gave the show a nastier edge and made clear showrunner Stephen Moffat’s desire to go darker. Later, the show tackled the grim idea of the dead retaining consciousness (“don’t cremate me”) in a storyline that drew complaints in the hundreds for being too dark. There were creatures lurking under the bed, cannibalistic houses and deadly eye sand. The rebooted show had been dark before, but never in such a purely thematic way.
The show’s cerebral edge was also brought to the fore during Capaldi’s tenure. Peter Harness’ standout episode “Kill The Moon” demonstrated this, showcasing a real-time ethical dilemma complete with carnivorous alien spiders. And it’s here that one must take the time to appreciate the sheer idiosyncratic brilliance of Doctor Who. There is no other television program in existence that can deliver such an amazing blend of intellectual stimulation, thrills, and a good dash of fear. That the show is also pitching for a family audience makes this achievement even more remarkable. The aforementioned “Kill The Moon”, as well as hand-under-the-bed-horror “Listen”, to name but two, work so well because they balance intellectual and physical horror. They combine a shiver down the spine with a chilled skull.
Capaldi’s tenure was also a time to explore the dark side of the character of the Doctor – his first series was built around the cornerstone of the question “Am I good man?”. The introduction of Michelle Gomez, on lip-smackingly malevolent form as Missy, created a truly ying and yang dynamic that explored the good and evil lurking within them both. The relationship with his companions too, particularly Jenna Coleman’s Clara, has showcased the dangers of the Doctor’s power. It’s a testament to Capaldi’s brilliance as the Doctor that an entire episode, “Heaven Sent”, rested solely upon his shoulders. Together with the direction of Rachel Talalay, Capaldi made walking around an empty castle one of the most captivating forty-five minutes of television that year.
The show has also, however, managed to retain its trademark optimism and belief in good, a remarkable achievement in a world of television built around shock and violence. To do good “without hope, without witness, without reward” has been an unofficial motto for Capaldi’s time in the TARDIS. Yet the real triumph has been keeping this hope without infringing upon the show’s newfound darkness. This is something that shone out in the fervent anti-war sentiments of “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion”, which culminated in a show-stopping moment of grandstanding from Capaldi.
It’s certainly a truism that Capaldi’s tenure hasn’t been wall-to-wall gold. Certain episodes have, at times, felt so chock-full of ideas they stop making any sense. There have been many promising premises ruined by this confusion, most notably in muddled two-parter “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar”. But even those episodes, and others, were not without their delights, most notably featuring the Doctor riding in on top of a tank playing an electric guitar. Indeed, Capaldi’s tenure has been full of delightful moments; he’s verbally sparred with Santa, physically sparred with Robin Hood and even been a superhero for a little while. In its strongest moments, Capaldi’s tenure on Doctor Who has continued to prove why it’s one of the best programs on television. Upon first appearing in the TARDIS on Christmas day 2013 the Doctor hurriedly asked the question “Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” Four years later, it’s clear that Peter Capaldi certainly did.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One for a Christmas special – the last episode to star Capaldi as the Doctor – on December 25.