The Thirteenth Doctor

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jodie Whittaker will play the thirteenth incarnation of the character known as The Doctor. I’m in two minds about a woman taking the role, but I’ll come back to that - please don’t label me a misogynistic Neanderthal who can’t be a true lover of the show quite yet. For the moment, though  - and until the Christmas special - Peter Capaldi is still The Doctor so I'd like to review the last few series and say goodbye to the current incarnation.

Let me get this out there straight away. For me Peter Capaldi has been a terrific Doctor: especially over the last series I hold him to be the best since the show returned in 2005. He managed to capture the alienness and aloofness of the non-human Time Lord while embracing the fallibility and limitations of humanity. Comparisons with previous Doctors can be invidious but it was clear that Capaldi grew up with Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee and that their characterisations influenced his, but he brought a flair and a mercurial, driven element to the part that was uniquely his own. 

Capaldi is a fine actor and that showed in his performances, but the writing has not always served him well. Especially in the first of his series it seemed that the characterisation was distinctly heterogeneous. I often felt that the writers were channeling Matt Smith and that the anthology format delivered episodes that were noticeably uneven in quality. There were strong stories such as “Into The Dalek” and “Flatline” which took interesting ideas and developed them intelligently. There were clunkers, too, like “Kill The Moon” and “In The Forest Of The Night” where little thought seemed to have gone into the plot after the initial “Hey, man, what if the Moon were like some giant, you know, egg?” proposal.

Over the following two series the classic:clunker ratio improved markedly. Yes, there was “Sleep No More" in Capaldi’s second series, but I can forgive that lapse for, if nothing else, the Doctor’s war speech from “The Zygon Inversion”. Yes, the Monks trilogy in the third series was a mess, but I can forgive that for “World Enough And Time” - one of the most perfectly directed, scripted and paced pieces of television I have seen in a long time. Through all the ups and downs, however, Capaldi held things together with pitch-perfect performances of the character he made his own and which shone especially in “Heaven Sent” - an episode that is unique in the Doctor Who’s history in being, effectively, a one-man show. 

Farewell, then, Peter Capaldi. Farewell, too, Steven Moffat. As show-runner Moffat can take the credit for the peaks of the last few years, but is also responsible for the troughs. If the unevenness of characterisation in the first series was an issue then Moffat is at least partially responsible for that. While his scripting is generally excellent and he has a fine grasp of the balance between humour and threat, his unwillingness to follow through on harm that comes to the characters has undermined the drama. There have been way too many zombies, from Clara Oswald being brought back from the dead in “Hell Bent”, through the resurrection of the students in “Knock Knock” to the decyberneticisation of Bill Potts in “The Doctor Falls”. There is a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality and, at times, that line has not only been stepped over, but stamped on, jumped on and otherwise kicked into oblivion. The dénouement of the Monks trilogy (“The Lie Of The Land”) is a prime example in which Bill Potts saves the world with her memory of her mother, as if the rest of the world’s population did not also possess such fond memories.

For me, Capaldi has been the best Doctor since the show’s return and that means that Jodie Whittaker has some big shoes to fill. I don’t know much about her but I’m told she’s a good actress and that is all that is really important. I hope she takes the part in both hands with enthusiasm and excitement and creates a version of The Doctor that is unique - not in being female but in being Whittaker’s vision. I hope that Chris Chibnail, the new show-runner,  builds on the strengths of Moffat’s tenure and learns from its weaknesses. 

I said I was in two minds about casting a woman as The Doctor. Perhaps I should now clarify that. As a boy, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, looking for examples of what it meant to be a man, there was a heroic male character on television who showed that being smart and scientifically-literate was cool; that resolving conflict through negotiation and mutual understanding was cool; that a man can be strong and face down evil without resort to fists or firearms. There are few enough such male characters on television (Jean Luc  Picard, now gone, was another example) and these days, where they exist, writers seem to feel that that they have to be emotionally illiterate or psychologically crippled in some way (Yes, Sherlock, I’m thinking of you). Now, at least for now, there is one fewer and I regret that.

None of which means that I am looking forward any less to the future of Doctor Who. I, for one, have no intention of storming off in a huff vowing never to watch the show again simply because the central character is now female. I’m looking forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker does with this brilliantly flexible role and I’m looking forward to seeing what Chris Chibnail does with the show I have loved since I first saw it fifty years ago. Things change and things remain the same. The Doctor is now female but as long as the show remains true being Doctor Who I will continue to love it.