Happy birthday, Peter Capaldi!
Today is Peter Capaldi’s 57th birthday! In honor of the latest Doctor’s birthday, Doctor Who FAQ author Dave Thompson has written a birthday post, detailing his thoughts on Capaldi’s portrayal of the famous television character.
PETER CAPALDI’S BIRTHDAY
by Dave Thompson
The odds were always stacked against the Twelfth Doctor.
For a start, was he the Twelfth Doctor? Even before John Hurt’s “War Doctor” came along to throw out the numbering once and for all, the very fact that the tenth had been doubled was already throwing the chronology a bit.
Add to this the fact that Peter Capaldi’s reign not only followed that of the bafflingly popular Matt Smith’s, but also the show’s own (frankly untoppable) fiftieth birthday celebrations; add to that, the continued sense that show runner Steven Moffat has now switched his default setting to Unnecessarily Convoluted Storytelling mode; and add to that, the mold-breaking emergence of the first Doctor in a decade who isn’t simply older than the show, he’s also older than any of his predecessors (William Hartnell was 55 when he debuted the role; Capaldi was 56) . . . that’s a lot of baggage to carry.
As he commences filming on his second season, however, Capaldi has already conquered the most important task of all. He has convinced us that he is the Doctor, and not just within the realms of his personal, vociferous, fan club (the fate of at least two, and possible four of his predecessors).
A performance that is uniquely his own has also, and utterly without contradiction, been described as an amalgam of every Doctor who came first; First’s irascibility; Second’s humor; Third’s occasional resemblance to the magician who performed at your best friend’s fifth birthday party; Four’s uniquely alien outlook; Five’s . . . well, we’re still waiting for five to show up. But Six’s irascibility, Seven’s sense of mystery; Eight’s . . . okay, eight is still absent as well. But Eccleston’s toughness, Tennant’s charm and Smith’s flapping silliness can all be extracted from Capaldi’s DNA; and he has required all those qualities, too.
It is redundant to suggest that Moffat’s career as a writer is locked in irreversible decline, particularly where Doctor Who is concerned. But the truth is . . . true. The first three stories that he wrote for the series, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances two-parter, The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink are routinely, and rightly, regarded as not simply the best tales told since the show returned in 2005, but among the best in its entire fifty year lifespan.
Subsequent creations could not maintain that quality, and often seemed set on upending it altogether; while the man who cast such razor-sharp eyes across simple human relationships via earlier creations Joking Apart, Coupling (both, tellingly, nominally sitcoms) and Jekyll is also responsible for foisting upon us some of the most cringe inducing romantic interests of the modern age: less Doctor Who, and more Who Cares?
That current companion Clara’s dalliance with “PE teacher” Danny Pink represents the most stultifying of them all was possibly the most heart-stoppingly dull of them all. Perhaps there are sound psychological reasons why the last ten year’s worth of Doctor’s companions have chosen to fall for the dullest blade in the knife box, but at least Mickey (Rose’s put-upon paramour) and Rory (Amy Pond’s pet rock) came good in the end, while even Donna’s ill-fated fiancé at least had the cojones to be working for the opposition all along.
The watery Pink, on the other hand, existed solely to provide the Doctor with an opportunity to indulge in further Mickey/Ricky mix-ups, this time by insisting that the math teacher taught PE; to push Clara into a series of emotional crises that were the least believable element of the entire series (and in a run that included the Moon being revealed as an egg; the legend of Robin Hood as an alien-induced hallucination; and trees as global fire-fighters, that’s quite an achievement); and to die, which we will get to in a moment.
Even more damagingly, not once were we offered any indication as to why Clara should care so much for the man. His persona is seen from just two perspectives – the Doctor’s scorn and disdain (which, unlike Ten’s constant mockery of Mickey, was not feigned), and his own tiresome PTSD induced sense of self-pity. Not once are we given even a hint as to why Clara should care any more for this bullying, over-possessive lunk than a fish would for a bicycle. Only once the season finale passed by did we understand why Pink was even part of the story to begin with.
It was so they could remake that whole Ianto/Cyber-girlfriend storyline from an old episode of Torchwood, of course. That, and the now inevitable insistence upon imbibing finales with a tissue box full of wearying lachrymosity. As if the death of Osgood, UNIT’s inhaler-wielding, scarf-toting hardcore queen of nerdish delight, was not shattering enough for the average viewer. As if the return of the Master, in the form of a fresh Mistress of Uber-camp Madness, was not breathtaking enough for the most trigger-happy channel-surfer. As if… as if we cared.
Capaldi triumphed over all of these things; and so did Clara, at least when she wasn’t being shoehorned into awkward clinches (and, via the Christmas special, even more awkward flashbacks) with the Pink thing.
Indeed, no matter how high Capaldi soared as the season progressed, Clara soared likewise. Unquestionably, her sheer force of character convinced us that, at last, the Doctor had unearthed a force of nature capable of equalling even Rose (or Jo Grant, for any older viewers still watching). And capable, too, of delivering lines with such beguiling intensity that an entire generation is destined to melt every time they hear the words “run, you clever boy . . .” Or see a soufflé.
As an overall series, it wasn’t the best. At least three episodes (Into the Dalek, Kill the Moon, In the Forest of the Night) rank among the weakest deployed since the show returned, and it may or may not be coincidental that two of those were at least partially stymied by the frankly absurd science that underpinned them. Yes, we know it’s all make-believe, but if you’re setting a story on what claims to be the Earth that the rest of us live on, then make sure that basic physics don’t undermine the whole thing.
Of the others, Flatline, Time Heist and Mummy on the Orient Express were bold enough to withstand multiple rewatchings; Deep Breath was rewarding upon subsequent viewings; Robot of Sherwood was this year’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship; The Caretaker was a glorious romp; Listen was a frankly terrifying notion that writer Moffat then castrated by trying too hard; and then it was time for the season finale.
Dark Water/Death In Heaven was the two-parter in which we finally learned the reason why past stories had been interrupted by Mary Poppins, before Poppins herself became . . . Well, cynics could point out that Missy is less a reincarnation of the Master than she is a pantomime revision of Moriarty, and there is truth to that. But she is also (like Moriarty) one of Moffat’s all-time classic villains; frighteningly insane, incalculably evil, and absolutely unmissable. The moment when she sweeps herself so elegantly backwards and calls out for “Doctor Chang” . . . if you didn’t have a Demented Nanny fixation before that, you do now.
And Capaldi? Capaldi matched her every step of the way, to emerge as strong a Doctor as he ought to be, and as likable a Doctor as he clearly doesn’t care to be. And, even better, unlike his last three regenerations, the man can’t even flirt properly.
Although you know that on the playground the following day, once the cries of ”exterminate” and “delete” had been exhausted, more than one juvenile would-be Lothario zoomed in on the girl of his dreams and declared “you look nice. Have you washed?”
Happy birthday, Peter Capaldi. And happy birthday, Doctor. May there be many, many more.