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.