Checking In with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor

Last summer, Doctor Who fans were crushed to hear that Eleventh Doctor and clumsy baby giraffe Matt Smith would be stepping down from the iconic role the following Christmas. Two months later, in a live, worldwide special, Smith’s successor was announced: Peter Capaldi, arguably the first veteran actor to assume the role and a household name in the UK for his many memorable TV characters, including spin doctor Malcolm Tucker on the BBC’s The Thick of It. The feedback was generally positive, with some scattered ageist comments that we’re going to pretend were never uttered, but it would be another year until Capaldi’s real debut, where fans would be able to see him in action.

Now halfway through Series 8, Capaldi appears to have breathed new life into Doctor Who. His version of the enigmatic time-traveler is the most alien in recent memory, and it’s making for some cracking good TV. Here’s a brief look at his tenure so far, broken down by episode.


“Deep Breath”

Post-regeneration episodes are crucial parts of the life of this show; they must not only make plain the changes to the Doctor’s new personality, but also win over fans still feeling jilted from losing the previous Doctor. This much-anticipated series opener, set in Victorian London, does all that and more while establishing a drastically different tone. The Doctor’s usual regeneration-induced stupor is cause for much enjoyment, as are the copious jokes made at the expense of his imposing eyebrows and new-found Scottish accent, but the self-hatred that was so evident in his ninth incarnation has made a comeback.

The episode’s villain, who turns out to be a variation of the Clockwork Droids from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” is quite the match for Twelve. This half-faced man has been harvesting organs from unsuspecting Londoners in an attempt to fix himself and his hidden spaceship, and the Doctor remarks at one point that he’s replaced his parts so many times that it’s difficult to tell how much of him is human and how much is alien. The line rings true with the Doctor himself, who experiences an identity crisis at the sight of his now grey hair and eerily-familiar face. (Savvy fans will remember that Capaldi had a role in the Tenth Doctor adventure “The Fires of Pompeii,” as well as a notable part in Torchwood: Children of Earth.) Clara, too, grapples with the changes in the Twelfth Doctor, and via a few heart-pounding moments of uncertainty, ups her companion game when she realizes Twelve isn’t the cuddly knight-in-shining-TARDIS that Eleven was. “Deep Breath” was merely confirmation of a new, exciting dynamic between Doctor and companion that hasn’t failed to entertain yet.

“Into the Dalek”

The Daleks have been around almost as long as the Doctor, and it was only a matter of time before they made their way into the newest series in an episode that hearkens back to the Ninth Doctor adventure “Dalek.” In “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor happens across an ailing Dalek, and agrees to have himself and Clara shrunk in order to fix the creature from the inside. It’s implied that he does it more out of intrigue than desire to help a member of the race he’s been battling all his lives, but over the course of the episode, he realizes troubling things about himself that make this version of him all the more tragic.

At one point, the Doctor melds his consciousness with his patient and attempts to talk it down from murdering everyone in the hospital ship where it resides. He helps the Dalek visualize the majesty and infinite wonders of the universe, but this tactic backfires when the Dalek sees the hatred in the Doctor, which only adds to the mess of morality. Clara cleverly intervenes and the Dalek eventually ceases its rampage, but it manages to deliver a painful blow when it tells the Doctor he would make a good Dalek, echoing a similar line from “Dalek.” Capaldi perfectly captures the shame on the Doctor’s face, something he snaps out of alarmingly fast. The whole episode showcases a familiar struggle for the Doctor and his principles: he dislikes soldiers, but often forgets that he once was one. This contradiction later gives perspective to Clara’s romantic relationship with fellow teacher Danny Pink, who is also introduced in this episode and happens to be an ex-soldier.

“Robot of Sherwood”

This was the carefree episode that reminded Whovians that the Twelfth Doctor has a lighter, curmudgeonly side, as evidenced by the unintentionally hilarious one-liners peppered throughout the story. Joined by a devil-may-care Robin Hood and a surprisingly fangirly Clara, the Doctor must stop a band of robot knights being controlled by the Sheriff of Nottingham (because of course he’d be behind it) before they can rebuild their spaceship and consequently destroy the English countryside. It’s a mostly Errol Flynn-inspired episode, with a dash of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and honestly, it’s just plain fun.

The plot here is simple and slightly campy, but the parts to pay attention to are the Doctor’s interactions with Robin Hood. Robin is a self-aware legend, whereas the Doctor is annoyingly resistant to the idea that he’s already a hero. He practically mimics the old tales of Robin Hood, including sword fighting (albeit with a spoon), splitting an arrow in two, and inciting a peasant rebellion against the robot captors. When he’s rewarded with a kiss on the cheek by a fair maiden, though, he touches it as though it’s the most foreign thing he’s ever been subjected to. This kind of adoration has never been something with which the Doctor has been 100% comfortable, but by the end of the episode, he arrives at an understanding with Robin, acknowledging that heroes not only exist but also positively affect those around them. Only three episodes into his run and  Twelve already is toying with the hero archetype to extremely satisfying results.


Showrunner Steven Moffat’s episodes don’t always hit their mark — note the cluster of distracting elements in “The Wedding of River Song” that bore no influence on the plot — but when they do, they’re absolutely brilliant. Case in point is “Listen,” which bears all the marks of Moffat’s pre-showrunner days in the sense that it revolves around a bit of paradoxical time-hopping, a villain that had both children and adults cowering behind their couches, and quite a few deliberately unanswered questions.

This was the episode where I knew Capaldi had, incredibly, upstaged David Tennant as my favorite Doctor. Twelve is determined to investigate an imagined threat: a creature whose defense mechanism is to hide, usually under a child’s bed, blending into its surroundings as if it didn’t exist. It’s due to this perceived threat that Capaldi is gifted an amazing monologue on the nature of fear and gathering strength from it. Twelve says the monologue to a young Danny Pink, whom Clara has inadvertently lead them to through a TARDIS mind-meld; in the present day, she and Danny have advanced to the early stages of a relationship, and Clara is still hiding his identity for fear of disapproval from the Doctor. While we’re on the topic, Clara, who becomes more wonderful with each passing adventure, ends up meeting the Doctor as a child, and fans are led to believe she’s the monster under the bed that the Doctor has been so fixated on for most of his life. Funnily enough, she has her own strikingly poetic monologue on fear not having to make you cruel or cowardly, and the way this affects the Doctor she knows is fascinating and emotional. Everyone warned me not to watch this episode with the lights off, but precisely no one warned me I’d be sobbing by the end of it. Well done, Moff.

“Time Heist”

In this Ocean’s Eleven-esque episode, the Doctor and Clara are enlisted to help rob the Bank of Karabraxos, the most secure bank in the galaxy, by a shady figure known as the Architect. No one on the four-person team, including a cyborg and a shapeshifter, knows what they’re tasked with stealing, nor are any of them truly prepared for the Teller, a dangerous but pitiful menace who weeds out bank guests harboring guilty thoughts and essentially turns their brains to soup. Paired with the ominous Ms. Delphox, head of bank security, the Doctor faces a complex situation that turns out to be quite straightforward in the end.

By the climax of the episode, we find out that not only was the bank heist actually a rescue mission for the Teller and another being of its species, but the Doctor himself arranged it at the behest of a dying Madame Karabraxos, founder of the bank. How does the Doctor figure this out? Well, he remembers clearly that he absolutely hates the Architect and pieces things together from there. Freud would have a field day with this Doctor. In fact, why haven’t they done a story with Freud? But the fact that this entire plot was careening towards breaking out two alien captives came as a relief, if not a testament to the Doctor’s title. He may be a daft old Scotsman now, but his core traits are being respected and displayed in the best ways possible.

“The Caretaker”

Those who were looking forward to a slightly meaner Doctor in Twelve got their wish with this episode, which saw Twelve go undercover as the caretaker of Coal Hill School, where both Clara and Danny teach. The plot centers around the fact that Clara is having difficulty juggling her real life — work, dating, and what have you — with the whimsical trips the Doctor coaxes her into. Clara tries to rein the Doctor in from any conspicuous activity that might put the children in danger (let’s be honest, he’s not good at flying under the radar), and the Doctor implores her to go about her business and let him work alone. We all know how well that goes down.

When Twelve notices Clara talking to a teacher who looks remarkably like Eleven, floppy hair and bow tie included, he jumps to the conclusion that he’s Clara’s mysterious boyfriend and couldn’t be happier for her. The misunderstanding is either very narcissistic on the Doctor’s part, or simply indicative of him wanting Clara to be happy when he’s not around. Either way, when Danny accidentally stumbles upon the Doctor trying to capture the threat of the week and mucks things up, the truth comes barreling out of Clara, and an indignant, shell-shocked Danny begins to question their relationship. That impetus makes for an emotionally-heavy conversation between Danny and Clara, and also shows us the Doctor in a foul mood that makes you want to hurl a sonic screwdriver at his head. Nevertheless, Danny plays a key role in saving the day, and he and the Doctor come to an uneasy truce. But the reappearance of the soldier theme is cause for apprehension; Danny makes a pass at the Doctor by calling him an officer, and I suspect the Doctor won’t soon forget such a snide remark. I just hope the series finale doesn’t have Clara being forced to choose between them.

Peter Capaldi has been a fan of Doctor Who all his life, and that devotion is evident in the way he portrays the Doctor. Twelve possesses a childlike wonder at the universe and an unwavering instinct to help people, despite his sometimes mercurial demeanor. He’s still very much the Doctor without being too similar to any of his predecessors, and effortlessly meshes theatricality with solemnity. This show has done a complete 180 from the Eleventh Doctor’s era of fairy-tale storytelling, and I couldn’t be more proud of the cast and crew.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 PM on BBC America.

Posted on October 4, 2014, in BBC, BBC America, British Television, Drama, Primetime, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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