It was, perhaps, one of the biggest gambles on television this year. And it has worked out beautifully.
British character actor extraordinaire Peter Capaldi stepped into the shoes of the biggest character in science-fiction TV, the Doctor, alien star of the BBC’s Doctor Who. And his portrayal of a morally conflicted, intensely knowledgeable, occasionally ruthless 2,000-year-old Time Lord has added new depth to television’s longest-running science-fiction series.
On Saturday, the show airs its last episode of this season, with Capaldi’s Doctor taking on one of the show’s classic villains in a new form (don’t worry about spoilers; for those who haven’t seen last week’s episode, I’m not saying who it is). It’s a thrilling conclusion to a storyline that has been percolating all season, and a fitting challenge for a time-traveling hero who has already wooed a dinosaur, ripped off the universe’s most secure bank and fought off Robin Hood with a spoon.
But — and here’s where I’m treading onto dangerous ground with the show’s fans — while I love what Capaldi has done with the Doctor, I’m much less thrilled about the stories he’s been featured in. For me, there is still an element of Doctor Who that isn’t rising to the quality of its leading man, and this devil is in the details of the new season’s stories.
First, let’s savor the good stuff. Thanks to a nifty idea called regeneration, the Doctor can morph into a healthy new person when he’s near death, essentially allowing the show to replace its leading actor every so often. And because the Doctor gets not only a new form but a new personality, the new actor has a lot of freedom to re-imagine the character.
Capaldi told me just before his first episode aired that he was looking to bring back an alien quality to the Doctor — to create something in the character’s personality that is beyond the understanding of us humans, with our short life spans and linear concepts of time.
“Even though he can span all of time and all of space, he has to be reachable to his audience right here and now, while at the same time being otherworldly,” Capaldi said. “So that’s the sort of challenge: to be accessible, and yet have a whole hidden part of you that can never be seen.”
The show has explored that idea in wonderful ways this season, showing how the Doctor can be callous about individual deaths, focusing more intently on the big-picture problem at hand rather than people dying in front of him.
One episode trapped the Doctor inside his time-traveling ship, the TARDIS, forcing his human sidekick, Clara Oswald, to solve a deadly problem just as he would — and placing the awful decisions he often must make in a new light.
At the episode’s end, Clara teased the Doctor for a compliment, nudging him gently to to admit she was a good stand-in. “You were an extraordinary Doctor,” he replied, gravely. “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
These parts of the stories touch on something I’ve always hoped to see in Doctor Who. Given the greatness of the character — a being who has lived over a dozen extraordinarily long lifetimes, with the ability to travel anywhere in space or time at will — there has to be a part of him that sees the universe in a completely different way than any human ever could.
And Capaldi has managed to bring that notion to life in a sometimes prickly, sometimes arrogant, sometimes callous, always heroic portrayal — perhaps the closest thing to an antihero that Doctor Who has seen in the 50 years since the show started on British TV.
But perhaps because Doctor Who has strong roots as a kids’ TV show, there have been elements of most every episode that have pulled me out of the story like a loud conversation in a movie theater. The first Capaldi episode featured a dinosaur tromping through the river Thames; another featured the Sheriff of Nottingham teaming with aliens in a scheme to rule England. And there was the episode about the moon turning out to be a giant egg that hatched a huge space creature.
I admit this is probably as much about me as the show. Many Doctor Who fans love the way the modern series calls back to the program’s cheesier roots, back when the Doctor’s primary adversaries, the Daleks, looked more like overturned trash cans with toilet plungers stuck on the side (I must confess, to me, they still look that way).
The new episodes have also done wonders for the character of the Doctor’s human sidekick (known as a companion), Clara Oswald. Critics have long carped about Jenna Coleman’s Clara — and many of the show’s female characters — being too defined by their romantic relationships, their biology and the men in their lives.
This season has given us an independent Clara, constantly challenging the Doctor to rein in his worst impulses. At 56, Capaldi admitted he was a bit too old for them to hint at any romantic relationship without looking, as he said, “creepy.” They’ve built a more complex connection that is sometimes teacher/student, sometimes an irritated friendship and sometimes a tender bond.
So perhaps my misgivings about the story amount to little more than nitpicking. But I can’t help hoping that Saturday’s episode wraps up this new Doctor’s journey in a way that honors the amazing new character they have built, 50 years after he first appeared on a TV screen.