Can Peter Capaldi Save Doctor Who?


Surely a new Doctor’s first episode is always met with a strange mixture of hope, resentment and apprehension because part of what’s kept Doctor Who on the air for so long (apart from that little decade-and-a-half-long break) is the fact that a new actor always brings a new set of possibilities to the role. And as much as you may love the outgoing Doctor, you’re always a little curious and excited to see what a new person will do. That said, the particular tension surrounding Peter Capaldi’s first episode (airing tomorrow) feels uniquely divisive. A massive chasm has grown over the last few years between fans who think that Doctor Who is better than ever, and those who think it’s never been worse. And the central figure at the heart of both arguments is showrunner and writer, Steven Moffat.

So if you love Moffat and what he’s done with the show, then certainly you’re concerned that replacing the fresh-faced, eyebrow-less Matt Smith with a grizzled old Scot will change its dynamic. But for the latter group, Capaldi has been raised to an almost Barack Obama circa 2008 savior figure — here to rescue the show from its current depths of mundanity. So if he does anything less than deliver Who into a new golden era, he will have failed.

Given my previous submissions on this topic, and indeed the title I went with for this post, it’s not hard to figure out which side I currently stand with.

I do somewhat understand the worries of hard-core Moffat and Smith fans because, at the risk of ageism, it’s harder to imagine a man in his 50s sprinting around the universe with quite the same zeal. He’s certainly not poised to be the spider-limbed, accidental Lothario that 11 was. And while I don’t think that Capaldi has any designs to make his Doctor Malcolm Tucker in space, the few previews we’ve seen have made it clear that he’s a much darker, quieter and inert figure than his hyperactive predecessor.

On the other hand, I often think that Moffat haters (myself among them) go too far in blaming Moffat for everything that didn’t work about Smith’s tenure. After all, Moffat was responsible for some of the best episodes during both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s respective runs. You can argue that that stems from the fact that Moffat is better at crafting a one-off story than a season arc (and I wouldn’t disagree with you), but it’s just as possible that having a better lead deliver those lines or anchoring those stories was also vital.

When Matt Smith announced his departure last year, people bemoaned the fact that it seemed as though he’d hardly had anything to do, that his character still felt undeveloped and unchanged and that ultimately it was all Moffat’s fault because there was only so much an actor could do with bad writing. Which… is possible, certainly. But it’s also possible that, as good as Smith was, he was never the leading man he needed to be to make this part work.

The eternal problem of casting a role like the Doctor is that you never want anyone too conventionally good-looking but not anyone actively repulsive. He should look alien but approachable and ultimately someone you would like to travel around the universe with. So it’s hard to find an actor who has the gravity of a leading man without looking like one. And just as hard to find someone who seems like an enticing mixture of safe and scary.

And while Smith did meet the physical requirements, I never quite understood who his Doctor was meant to be. He could go from ADD toddler to creaky old man at the drop of a hat, but it didn’t seem as though this was a progression or a development or even an intentional two-faceness. In short, his performance lacked the kind of depth necessary for helping me to buy that the toddler was masking the old man or that the Doctor was a little bipolar. Without either of those explanations, it just seemed like he was playing whatever worked for the scene — hence the feeling that his character never went on a kind of emotional journey. And this was a dynamic that both Eccleston and Tennant didn’t seem to struggle with even though their Doctors could be every bit as ambivalent.

Could you blame it on Matt Smith’s relative youth? At 26 he was absolutely the youngest Doctor to take on the role, so it’s hard to say what kind of actor Smith will mature into in the future. But ultimately I think that he is — and always was — more of a character actor. Which is something that worked when the first season was about Amy’s fairytale friend coming back to take her on adventures, but quickly caused the show to lose focus when the Doctor himself became the central figure instead.

So where does this leave Peter Capaldi? He certainly has a more commanding presence on-screen than Smith. Even though he was technically not a lead in The Thick of It, his character loomed large over everything — even when, and sometimes especially when, he wasn’t in the room. It’s easier to imagine him taking hold of a character like the Doctor and giving him the kind of layers and complexities that he needs in order to work as a simultaneously familiar and unknowable figure.

The unfortunate and anti-climactic truth is that none of us will know the answer today, and few of us will have a better idea after the first episode has aired. Because what Capaldi really needs is time — time to develop the character, time to figure out how to work with the material he’s given and time to show us that he can do a better job of conveying change and development than poor old Raggedy Smith.

The sometimes frustrating reality of this show is that it’s never beyond saving — there are always new Doctors, new companions, new villains, new universes and new stories down the line. For Capaldi, resting all of our hopes on him to save us from horrible, evil Moffat is setting him up for failure, and expecting him to be slower or duller than an actor half his age is frankly unfair. So at the risk of ending on a sappy note, I suggest that we do the really radical thing and just give him a chance.  At least for an episode or two. Or until the first short skirt joke.

10 thoughts on “Can Peter Capaldi Save Doctor Who?

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  2. Matt Smith brought something to the show that had been missing for decades: fun. I was so ready to hate him at the time “The Eleventh Hour” was first broadcast and was won over instantly. While it didn’t take away his ability to portray a very sad, lonely man traveling in time and space when called for, his Doctor was anti-gravitas in a way that hadn’t been seen since the last actor to wear a bow tie in the role, Patrick Troughton. Unfortunately he became a bit of a caricature in his last two seasons but at his best he was immensely enjoyable in the role. Capaldi i was very enthusiastic about, seeing that the character could be taken in a direction that would evoke the more curmudgeonly aspects of the character so well portrayed by Tom Baker, and only slightly less successfully by William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee. But he has not quite lived up to that enthusiasm. A lot of my dissatisfaction though lies in the decision to embark on yet another companion love story. But he has also failed to evoke pathos in all but a few fleeting scenes (and one of those involved Smith’s Doctor at the other end of the Tardis phone). It’s not that I don’t like the 13th Doctor, I do, I just don’t care much about him. This may change, though when Clara leaves the show and we see how this effects him.

    But please to God, no more romances for the next dozen or so companions.

  3. New DW series. BORING – unexciting and twee writing! Pater Capaldi is not right for the part. Messrs Tenant and Smith fitted the part like a glove, PC seems like a fish out of water!
    I’m a Scot and give me Matt Smith for DW any day!!!

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  5. Calpaldi will be fine in the role just like Matt Smith was before him. Warming up to a new Doctor is part of the charm of the show. The real issue is whether Moffat can actually write a compelling female companion with some actual depth. If he can get away from his paint by the numbers approach to writing women I think a lot of the complaints will die down.

  6. LoL, well we seem to already have both extremes on Moffatt covered in this thread already. xD

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that Matt Smith did exceptionally well with what he was given to work with. As far as I can see, the guy has proved he has the acting chops, so if his flipping from ADD toddler to wise old man didn’t seem to fit sometimes (and sometimes it didn’t) then I’m more inclined to lay blame for that on the writing than on Matt.

    That character dynamic was clearly very deliberate: The Doctor is both the ageless timelord and the brand new person that regenerated interacting with young Amelia Pond. And it’s a good observation that they never really nailed down how those two halves were connected – it seemed to be an episode by episode thing.

    Matt’s relative youth was definitely a factor. Not in the acting skill department, IMO, but just in the fact that a significant number of people were always going to have trouble taking seriously a Doctor with (as River put it) “the face of a twelve-year old”.

    I’m of the opinion that Moffatt is, in many ways, a great writer. But he does seem to have a number of personal foibles/tics as a writer which have become more obvious and problematic now that he’s working at a larger scale. For example, if you look at Pre-Season 5, half or more of Moffatt’s episodes involved some sort of reset button, and half or more of them involved women infatuated with the Doctor. Scattered amongst episodes from a variety of perspectives that was great. But we’re now seeing the same patterns repeated again, and again and again and writ large across entire seasons.

    Will the arrival of Capaldi improve Dr Who? I’m holding my judgement on that, and I’m willing to hold it for a fair while – one more season seems fair. Capaldi seems an interesting guy and I think he’ll be an interesting Doctor if he’s given the material to work with.

    IMO, the writing is the core issue and I suspect that if Capaldi *does* improve the state of Doctor Who it won’t be because of his skill as an actor (though I’m sure that will be great). It will be because casting the Doctor as a physically older man forces Moffatt to approach the character in a new way and throw away some of those crutches he’s been relying far too heavily upon.

  7. Moffat haters… god… what a bunch of bandwagoners with no real arguments, just insane and stupid hate for a show that is meant to be different every now and then and a man that is doing his job.
    Moffat is doing a superb job on Who, and Matt had one of the best run ever. You don’t like a show anymore because people told you to not like it anymore? Don’t watch it.

    • I think the main problem is that even people who aren’t thrilled with Moffat, like me, still watch the show in the hope that it’ll be more like it used to be. Now a lot of that can be chalked up to nostalgia — often times what’s new just seems “bad” because it’s not what you’re used to. It’s also absolutely true that you have to have enormous talent to steer a ship like this. Moffat isn’t God-awful and pretending he is is a little naive.

      But I do think that the show has been missing something, especially in the last couple of seasons. The question is whether that sense of the show missing a “heart” or missing a sense of direction is due to Smith or Moffat — or a combination of the two. Either way, my hope is that Capaldi can bring that back.

    • Moffat is a loathsome, sexist fungus who wrote a couple good episodes under RTD and has since vomited up a slew of trope-ridden, fridge-happy, Magical Girl-infested dreck leavened with the occasional decent character or arc. The man doesn’t appear to have a meaningful grasp of storytelling, character development or pacing. I was actually excited for him to take over the show after RTD left, but now I’d prefer if it he were fired into the sun.

      As for Capaldi, meh. “Cranky white man with a dark side” is not exactly breaking new ground for DW and I can only imagine that viewers will continue to be subjected to episode after episode of poorly written, monotonous manpain, except that it’ll now be delivered in a Scottish accent.

      • New DW series. BORING – unexciting and twee writing! Pater Capaldi is not right for the part. Messrs Tenant and Smith fitted the part like a glove, PC seems like a fish out of water!
        I’m a Scot and give me Matt Smith for DW any day!!!

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