Dawn of a New Doctor

CapaldiIt’s kind of a big deal when a new Doctor comes around. As far as most viewers are concerned, it’s only happened twice so far: Eccleston to Tennant, and Tennant to Smith. That’s not to belittle the importance of the older Doctors from before the 2005 series, it’s just a fact of the show with its current level of popularity. So for many of them, the upcoming season 8 premiere will be their first time seeing a new actor in the role without the benefit of hindsight that they have when looking back at Eccleston or Tennant. Naturally, it’s an exciting time in the Doctor Who fandom, and hopes are riding high on Capaldi’s performance dealing with what some perceive to be the problems plaguing the show as of late. So, you might ask, what does a change like this mean?

The first thing one must understand is the nature of regeneration and how it works within the show. No matter what face he wears, the Doctor is always the Doctor. A bit tautological, I know, but bear with me. What I mean by that is that the Doctor isn’t literally a new person, as showrunner Stephen Moffat has made quite clear. It’s not a mantle being passed down or anything like that. And in spite of some changes in personality or preferences, there are always constants that make the Doctor who he is–a soft spot for humans, a desire to help those who are in trouble and to foster peace whenever possible. He has enemies and rivalries, such as with the Master, which transcend individual regenerations. But the Doctor also doesn’t like to look back, and changing faces is a convenient reason to avoid doing so.

The arrival of a new Doctor is often accompanied by other changes. Sometimes, it’s a change in showrunners, as with Ten regenerating into Eleven, which brought Moffat to the seat in place of Russell T. Davies. Changing companions is also common, although far from guaranteed (see Rose’s continued presence from Nine to Ten, or Clara’s as we move from Eleven to Twelve). There are benefits to each: keeping a companion across regenerations can help to keep newer fans tuned in as they experience this change for the first time along with the companion, emphasizing their audience surrogate role. By getting new companions at the same time as the Doctor regenerates, it allows for the slate to be effectively wiped clean, freeing the show from being beholden to old plot threads that may not fit with the new vision of the show. The beginning of Matt Smith’s era is probably the ultimate example of this: new Doctor, new showrunner, new companions. There was very little looking back in Series 5, and it rather fittingly ended with a literal reboot of the Doctor Who universe.

New Doctor, new companion, new costume, new TARDIS set, new Sonic... wiping the slate clean.

New Doctor, new companion, new costume, new TARDIS set, new Sonic… wiping the slate clean.

But they’ve chosen the former approach for this Doctor, and that’s the only big change in regards to the production side of things this season. This might give those who’ve complained about the direction Doctor Who is heading in reason to sigh, but I think there’s plenty to indicate that some of these complaints will be addressed. What are these problems, exactly? Well, to list a few:

  • Complex story arcs that don’t actually go anywhere. This is a problem that had been growing for some time; while Series 5’s season-long story arc about the cracks was generally well received, but the following season… not so much. As it turned out, the solution to “the Doctor irrefutably dies here at this time and date” is just to send an impostor instead. Doesn’t seem like it solved the real problem, does it? And when you combine that with lingering series 5 questions like “who blew up the TARDIS?” and “who are the Silence, and why do they hate the Doctor so much?” it starts to pile up. While many of these questions were addressed rather hastily in the Christmas special “Time of the Doctor,” it was hardly a satisfying conclusion to something that had been built up to for so long.
  • In contrast with that, Series 7 went too far in the opposite direction, such that each episode is so independent of the others that when the time came for the big finale story, it seemed to pop out of nowhere. It’s one of the reasons why Clara is often seen as a dull character; she had very little role to play as her story arc lurked in the background, out of the way of the blockbuster style plots of the episode, until there was a spare minute here or there to touch on it.
  • The Doctor’s constantly increasing power level, caused by an equally constant escalation in the stakes. We went from the future Earth being in peril in Series 1 to the present Earth, to several planets, to the entirety of time and space, untilĀ actually destroying and recreating the universe in series 5. Where’s left to go after that? Once the Doctor is regularly destroying entire fleets and sending aliens scurrying at the mere mention of his name, it’s hard to take some of the lower-stakes episodes seriously. Then there’s the Sonic Screwdriver and its ill-defined set of abilities to deal with, a problem which the Hurt Doctor in the 50th alluded to. It’s gotten to the point where episodes with weaker writing will often fall back on it as a deus ex machina. Point the Sonic, toss around some technobabble, and problem solved! This has been a problem in the show’s past, which they dealt with by destroying the Sonic during the Fifth Doctor’s run and not bringing it back.
  • The flirty nature of the Doctor’s relationship with his companions. This is something that came about in the modern era, and was never a big part of classic Who, although it’d be a lie to say it was absent entirely. From a certain perspective, it makes perfect sense. If an attractive young man sweeps down and takes a girl on wild adventures, shows her things she’d never thought possible, all while being charming and funny and courageous, well… who wouldn’t fall in love with that? But as it became more of an issue, the show started to focus on it more, be it through the several anguished goodbyes with Rose or Martha’s unrequited crush, until finally it started to push some fans away. Some people, used to the more asexual approach to the Doctor, couldn’t fathom why he’d be interested in “simple Earth girls” and wrote off the revived series entirely right off the bat.
  • The Doctor’s progressively decreasing age. Fans more accustomed to classic Who were looking for someone a little older, who could lend some gravitas to the role. And it’s certainly true that there are some stories that are much easier to do with an older actor in the role, even if Smith really did a great job with the old man routine sometimes. This has obviously been dealt with already in the casting of Capaldi, so I won’t get into it too much, but it also ties in with the last point. An older actor won’t necessarily have the same romantic expectations that a younger one might.
  • Similarly related, the Doctor’s general silliness and over-the-top nature had begun to exceed what some fans were willing to deal with. Doctor Who has always had a bit of self-awareness about it, and through that it dealt with its low budget by embracing that inherent silliness to a certain extent. The Sixth Doctor had some very silly moments in his run, far worse than anything today, and yet the occasionally whimsical moments of the Smith era (fish fingers and custard, anyone?) seemed to grate on some. Too many catchphrases, too much “timey-wimey.” I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to want the show to be completely devoid of humor, however, so in this case it’s a matter of scale.

All that being said: how have these problems been addressed so far, and how will they be addressed in Series 8? As noted above, the backlash from Series 6’s long and convoluted arc led to a highly episodic format in Series 7, which was far more mixed in its reception. Having learned both extremes are not particularly good for the show, it seems the writers have decided to take it back to a more ordinary approach. By most reports, the blockbuster episodic tone has been done away with. Things are less fast-paced, more willing to take time to examine the problem (as befitting the title of episode 1, “Deep Breath”) and all around more thoughtful. Moffat also boldly declared that “the fairytale era is over.” Problems come with consequences, and are not so easily solved as those at which he can point his Sonic Screwdriver and be done. The Sonic itself doesn’t seem to be going anywhere just yet, but if its usage can be reined in some, I see no problems with keeping it around. It is an iconic part of the Doctor’s arsenal, after all.

Capaldi has also stated that he was adamantly opposed to having his Doctor indulge in flirting with companions. Because they knew that they specifically wanted Capaldi to play the next Doctor, he seems to have had a little more power than an actor coming into the role usually would (although I imagine his past film credits help in this regard, too). I also suspect this may be a little played up, however; not in that there will be flirting, but rather that everyone was ready to do away with it and attributing that change to Capaldi earns him some brownie points with the more dedicated Whovians. I don’t doubt that he felt that way in the slightest. He also mentions in this interview that scenes are tending to be longer than before, that there’s heavier drama and a more somber tone to the episodes, all of which help to deal with the show coming across as too over-the-top.

So, with the episode still just under 2 weeks away, things are looking very promising indeed. Most of the major complaints held by fans over the last few years have been addressed, and the show is taking a more serious approach that older viewers will find more appealing. I honestly haven’t heard or seen a single bad thing said about Capaldi’s performance so far, which makes me very excited to see the Twelfth Doctor in action.

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