We’re so confused. We have no idea what to think of this Doctor and we’re puzzled by what the show’s trying to say about him. Our first impulse is to say that’s a good thing; that we’re not being spoon-fed an idea of the Doctor or having an idea of him shoved into our face, which is one of the ways in which Matt Smith’s tenure went wrong in season seven. Showrunner Stephen Moffat went from tailoring the material to the innate charm and energy of his lead actor to fairly shouting “LOOK AT HOW CHARMING AND ENERGETIC THE DOCTOR IS!”
But so far, the underlying theme of the Twelfth Doctor’s stories seems to be that he’s not a very nice man but that he’s trying to be better. To which we would say, “Well, duh.” Hasn’t that been a theme of the Doctor all along? That he lies and manipulates; that he is sometimes consumed with anger; that he allows countless people to die for his causes and then flits away? This has not only been covered before, but it’s been openly stated by countless characters before, including the Doctor himself. It’s just not new to say that the Doctor is consumed with hatred for the Daleks or even to say that he makes a good Dalek himself (an almost identical line was said by a Dalek to the Ninth Doctor, back in season 1). Neither is it new for him to cause the death of people around him as he goes on adventures. But it would seem that the mysterious Missy and her “heaven” may just be a place where all of the Doctor’s “sins” are being gathered, as if a case was being made against him. Or an army. So far, she only seems to be collecting people who sacrificed themselves, like the android and the soldier Gretchen, who just wanted something good named after her for her sacrifice. Clearly, the Doctor will at some point be forced to come face to face with the many people who died for him. This works fine thematically, since the entire season seems to be a setup for the Doctor coming face to face with a lot of his flaws.
We don’t mind a Doctor repenting for his perceived sins, but the timing of this seems very odd to us. In the 50th anniversary special he essentially undid the worst sin of his life, giving himself the happiest of endings and alleviating himself of centuries of guilt. And then he immediately followed that up by setting up shop in the town of Christmas, where he became a beloved figure because he spent 900 years defending it from every threat in the universe until he essentially gave his life to save theirs. As actions go, his stint on Trenzalore ranks as the most selfless thing he’s ever done. So why is he so racked with guilt right now? Actually, “guilt” isn’t the right word. He seems less perturbed that he does bad things and more perturbed that he doesn’t know what that makes him. In other words, the Doctor’s angst this season isn’t about being less than perfectly moral, it’s about being uncategorized, a state that would naturally offend someone with a mind such as his. Am I good person or not? And if not, then what? It’s possible (although it’s early days yet) that the point isn’t the questions being asked, it’s that they’re being asked at all. We know he’s morally conflicted and occasionally dark. He knows it too. But for the first time, he’s asking what that really means.
Capaldi is giving the most subtle, layered performance any actor has ever given in the role. And we thought season 5 Matt Smith was as good as it gets for this character, but Moffat’s producing some interesting and meaty (an unusual, but apt word choice we also used in last week’s review) stuff here without resorting to a lot of frantic shouting. It says something about Capaldi’s skills that he almost made the direct address to the camera bit actually work – something that works so rarely that we always wonder why anyone bothers trying it. Even if it does work, it always feels weirdly archaic to us; like something from the silent film era (which it is, essentially).
But because this Doctor’s not conflicted about his darkness (more frustrated by the lack of understanding as to what it means), he gets to be a gleefully unrepentant asshole. Capaldi gets all the quippy one liners one would expect from a Tennant or a Smith, but they’re all casually cruel or dark – and perfectly delivered each time. “She’s my carer. She does my caring so I don’t have to.” “He’s the top layer if you want to say a few words.” On the other hand, Clara’s “You’re not my boss. You’re one of my hobbies,” may be one of the all-time great Companion retorts. The ghost of Sarah Jane Smith threw back her head and laughed long and hard at that line.
As for Clara, she’s also getting some much-welcome character development this season, and while it may tip over a few times into some Moffat-questionable ideas about women, we can’t deny that Jenna’s nailing the material. Moffat took a school teacher character, layered a control freak characteristic over her, and came up with a naughty schoolmarm who slaps the Doctor and asks “What did we LEARN, Doctor? WHAT DID WE LEARN?” It’s almost silly how regressive it is, but it works. And we found it odd – and the show seemed to be making a very subtle point about it – that she could literally walk directly from pain, death and war, straight into her chipper, flirtatious schoolteacher life without missing a beat or even needing a second to get her bearings. The Doctor is cold, but what about Clara? What happened to the girl who burst into tears last season when she realized all people are basically ghosts to the Doctor? What we see so far with this season is a deep dive on one particular Doctor’s psyche and one particular Companion’s psyche, and what we’re finding is two flawed but good people traveling together, trying to figure some stuff out. You can say just about anything is a metaphor for life, but that one really is. We really hope we’re not reading too much into it, because that sounds like a fascinating season. If it’s just Moffat rehashing thoughts that have been developed plenty of times with this character already, it’ll be a disappointment. As always, we’ll just have to see.
* Journey Blue. Danny Pink. That would appear to be too large a coincidence for Moffat, who loves wordplay almost as much as he loves long mysteries. Let’s hear some theorizing. We never did get to see a clear shot of Journey’s brother’s face.
* Also: Danny’s adorable.
* The Doctor’s nasty and hypocritical stance regarding soldiers was a little overstated perhaps. His cruelty to Journey was almost unbearable. Obviously, this is all going to come back and bite him in the ass, especially with Missy and her army in the wings.
* The crack in the Dalek? That can’t be a coincidence, can it? Or the mention of the beauty of “the silence?”
[Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC Worldwide 2014]
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