The Doctor has entertained audiences with many faces for over 50 years. Each one comes with its own endearing quirks. In the 50th anniversary special “The Day of Doctor,” for instance, Matt Smith and David Tennant’s incarnations met face to face with a heretofore unknown version played by the late John Hurt — a rare, but not unheard of treat for Doctor Who fans since the trio’s subsequent misadventures took a microscope to their individual peculiarities. But when Peter Capaldi’s glaring eyes made a brief cameo toward the end, viewers were left wondering what his 12th Doctor would be like.
The next four years would leave Doctor Who fans in the dark, mostly. The special’s three main Doctors were all well developed — Smith’s was a seemingly innocent child who was “incapable of speaking without flapping [his] hands about,” Tennant’s was a lanky ladies’ man, and Hurt’s curmudgeonly “War Doctor” kept complaining. But Capaldi? The mere seconds his eyes graced the screen weren’t enough to leave an impression, but as two seasons and three Christmas specials would prove, his time at the helm apparently hasn’t been enough to endear him to audiences as strongly as his immediate predecessors.
Those who’ve stuck with Doctor Who have struggled just as much as Capaldi to understand and accept his take on the character. An early emphasis on his Doctor’s lacking identity, constant costume changes and even a “soft reboot” in season nine have done little to render things any clearer. Now that Capaldi’s time is almost up, however, perhaps 2017 will be the year he truly makes the Doctor his own.
Ever since Smith’s Doctor died and regenerated at the end of 2013’s “The Time of the Doctor,” Doctor Who fans haven’t quite figured Capaldi out. Nor has the show, as the actor’s older, angrier and definitively Scottish interpretation of the Time Lord has ranged from one end of the character spectrum to the next. When he emerged from the saliva-covered T.A.R.D.I.S. in the season-eight opener “Deep Breath,” his hair was cut short, Smith’s clothes were still on him, and his memory was failing. As a result, viewers were just as confused as the Doctor’s companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who’d never witnessed a regeneration before.
Writer and showrunner Steven Moffat used Clara’s confusion to his advantage, sprinkling much of Capaldi’s first season with stories about the Doctor’s many attempts to understand himself. Or as the Galifreyan asked Clara after an early adventure, “Am I a good man?” Her honest answer, that she didn’t know whether or not the man before her was good, reflected the thoughts and feelings of the fans at home. No one, including Clara, truly knew who Capaldi’s Doctor was or would become. This gave the audience a footing in the show, especially newcomers to Doctor Who, as their mutual disorientation allowed Moffat to revisit or revise old stories without having to “reinvent the wheel” because of Smith’s departure.
Yet Doctor Who‘s post-regeneration drama couldn’t last forever. Fans wanted more, so when “The Magician’s Apprentice” inaugurated the 2015 season, a soft reboot of sorts offered something new. The Doctor was still an occasionally ornery, older man, but instead of posing questions about himself and his place in the universe, Capaldi filled his time with guitars, sonic sunglasses, wardrobe changes and lengthy monologues in which he frequently interrupted himself. Knee-jerk responses online ridiculed Doctor Who‘s attempt to make itself cool again, but Capaldi’s hoodie-and-blazer combo wasn’t meant to impress. It had more to do with the Time Lord’s identity — that of a 2,000-year-old alien finally figuring himself out. Unfortunately audiences weren’t buying it, as suggested by the series’ steadily decreasing ratings.
“I love playing The Doctor”
When Capaldi’s Doctor went on one last date with River Song (Alex Kingston) in “The Husbands of River Song” and created a superhero in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” he still hadn’t found his footing yet. New quirks were a thing a of the past, as the character’s self-assured, irritable, Scottish traits were branded onto his being. Like Smith, he couldn’t talk without cutting himself off and gesticulating wildly. Like Tennant, his fashion sense wasn’t always the best. And like Hurt’s War Doctor, he accepted his curmudgeonly nature. But frequent costume alterations and other physical modifications kept coming, resulting in a Doctor audiences had difficulty holding onto. So if Capaldi wants to finish his run strong, perhaps he ought to build on these developments and do away with the constant changes altogether.
When he spoke with Uproxx last year, Capaldi briefly discussed the possibility of his departure — which the BBC turned into fact with its recent announcement. In addition to the 2017 Christmas special, which will be his last outing, the 58-year-old actor has 12 regular episodes left to go before the 12th Doctor regenerates into whoever the 13th version may be. Possibilities remain for the character once the tenth season premieres in April, but there’s very little time to do it in. Unless he takes his cues from his predecessors’ respective debuts, and the companions they shared them with.
This all depends on Bill (Pearl Mackie), the new companion who — judging by the first trailer — shares more in common with season five’s Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) or season one’s Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). That’s because, as Capaldi explained, “Everything in the show is brand new to her.” He went on to suggest Mackie’s newness would be “very invigorating for us, as it means we have to retell — or tell afresh — the whole story. We have to explain what all the bits and pieces are.” The result? The 12th Doctor must adapt to a brand new traveling companion, a new set of circumstances that could make or break him.
Judging by the first trailer’s brief teases, Mackie’s announcement trailer and our conversation with the pair in October, Capaldi’s third and final season with Doctor Who could be his best. What’s more, longtime showrunner Moffat is also on the way out, suggesting their final bout with the series may follow a trajectory similar to Tennant and Russell T Davies’ in 2010. In other words, 2017 has all the makings of becoming the year of Doctor Who — so long as Capaldi sticks to his strengths during the time he has left.