Monday, September 08, 2014

Some Thoughts On The Twelfth Doctor--A Review of Season 8 So Far

Let it be herewith known that I am perfectly capable of accepting new Doctors. I am not one of those people who have gotten hung up on "My Doctor" and cannot roll with a new face on an old friend. In fact, "my Doctor" was originally Tom Baker, from back in the day when episodes aired on the local public television station and I watched on a garage sale purchased black-and-white TV in my dorm room. Since the reboot, I was impressed by Christopher Eccleston's barely contained rage, enjoyed David Tennant's practice of wearing his heart on his sleeve, and found Matt Smith to be a manic but ancient alien in a body that only looked young.

I made the transition from Russell T. Davies to Stephen Moffatt without feeling that there was some sort of side I had to pick as to which one was better. They both had great strengths, and also great weaknesses as show runners, but the beauty of a show that has run as ridiculously long as this one is that the highs and lows smooth out when placed in perspective with fifty years of episodes.

And yet--it is not entirely possible to always take the long view. This is episodic television, and if you look forward to your Saturday night does of the Doctor, each episode matters in a way that it wouldn't if you were binging on entire seasons, Doctor tenures, or even decades of stories. When you only have one episode a week (instead of watching Tennant's entire run via Netflix in about two weeks--like "a friend" of mine did), your love of the new incarnation can rise and fall on the strength of that week's episode.

So, with that lengthy prelude, let us examine Season 8.

As of yesterday, we are one quarter of the way through Peter Capaldi's inaugural season. Three episodes of a twelve episode run down, and the newest incarnation has not yet come into focus for me, and I can't tell why.

Looking back at the New Who Doctors, there has been a moment with each of them, early on, where I felt that I was in good hands. Nine gave us "Basically, run!" and we were clearly bringing the past with us into the future. Ten woke up from his lengthy regeneration nap with "Is that the sort of man I am now? Am I rude? Rude and not ginger." Eleven gave us "You're Scottish--fry something!" Basically, each of them had a joie de vivre even in the face of chaos that told us that even as the very existence of the universe was at stake, it was going to be an adventure to travel with this man.

I'm not sure what to think about Twelve yet.*
* Pedantic footnote: Not sure there is an established convention yet about how to number the incarnations, since the "War Doctor" got inserted late last year. I'm going to stick with the numbers I got used to before John Hurt broke all our hearts, and he gets to be "The War Doctor" for now. So Peter Capaldi is Twelve. Thus it shall be.

Thus far, we have been treated with a couple of episodes that ask "Am I a good man?" The question was explicitly asked in the first episode, "Deep Breath," and the answer that was finally given at the end of that episode was Clara's summations "I think you try to be, and I think that's what matters." (Paraphrased, based on my best recollection.) The question is ineluctably bound up in the subject of the second episode "Into the Dalek"--is a "good Dalek" possible? What does it mean when Rusty the Dalek tells the Doctor "You would be a good Dalek"? In "Robot of Sherwood," the Doctor and Robin Hood have a Very Important conversation about what makes a hero, and whether the man and the myth can co-exist.

These are fine, and they are important questions for a philosopher to ask, and they are certainly within the broad portfolio of Doctor Who. I'm just not sure why we are asking these questions now.

I mean--in the last couple of episodes of Eleven's tenure, he was beyond heroic. He spent over 300 years on Trenzalore as a sort of human shield (okay, Time Lord shield, but that doesn't make any sense) to keep the people of the town of Christmas safe. And in the penultimate episode, he joined up with several incarnations to rewrite history--he reversed the Time War, managed to not commit genocide of his own species, and relieved the burden on his own War Doctor incarnation's soul.

Why question his goodness now?

As Twelve, he's been preemptory and a bit harsh--calling Clara a control freak, for example, was a bit nastier than we've seen recent Doctors being. But calling humanity "Pudding heads" is hardly the sort of thing that should make one question his own character. It certainly doesn't make me (as audience) question him. He still protects humans against the Half-Face Man with the same kind of speech about his love for humans that Eleven made in "The Eleventh Hour" and that Ten made all the time. So despite his superficial distaste for humanity, when confronted with an actual threat, he choses to believe that we are worth saving.

I'm not sure that the answer to this question is even in doubt, frankly. Not diagetically, within the context of the particular 12th Doctor episodes, nor in the history of the television show.  The Doctor is our hero, and free-floating existential angst about the nature of goodness feels forced and unnecessary.

In the three episodes aired so far, Twelve hasn't really got a personality, yet. He complains, sure, he's manic (all the weird quasi-medical testing he did on Robin Hood's Merry Men is out of character. And where did he pull that syringe from?), he's rude, he's arrogant, and he's childishly competitive with Robin Hood--all of which we've seen before, but without a sort of thematic personality to tie the disparate parts together. Eccleston had weary gravitas, Tennant flirted with the world until he had to be "so so sorry" at people, Smith thought blindingly fast and jumped around the myriad ideas until he struck the right one. Capaldi--is grumpy and skeptical? Rude and not ginger?

I have great affection for Capaldi--not just his Malcolm Tucker, who is gorgeously, baroquely filthy, but his turn as the tragically soft hearted John Frobisher in Torchwood's third series "Children of Earth." He has range. He has a fascinating face to watch--those eyebrows!--and a great accent to listen to. He just hasn't got much to do.

Perhaps that's the point. This is Clara's season, where she gets to be competent, where she gets her own arc, rather than being a puzzle for the Doctor to solve. Which relegates the Doctor to the role of companion--he's at a loss, she's the one who has experience at this "all of time and space" thing?

I hope we'll get a couple of seasons for Capaldi to tailor the role around him. It's jut not happening yet.

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