In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Doctor Who is back, and they’ve got a new doctor. Peter Capaldi, an old, celebrated, and cantankerous Scotsman, is taking over from Matt Smith. On the season premiere night, I sat with equal parts dread and anticipation, hoping that the hole into which the show has been falling since Moffat took over would be filled in somewhat. Good news: it has been. Somewhat.
The major problems of season seven, the glaring, show-ruining problems, included breaking the internally consistent rules of the Whoniverse, not giving a rat’s ass about personal character development (any character from season seven could have died with absolutely no emotional response from me), and a complete lack of dedication to any type of overarching season narrative, which has been a fairly standard piece of television fiction since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Many of these problems have been fixed (on the evidence of two episodes) with varying degrees of success.
First off, there is a new doctor. Matt Smith was fine and all, but I always had trouble understanding the rabid fan dedication to him. He could not communicate the smoldering menace and goofiness of nine, nor could he fully handle the mercy/anger dichotomy and manic wonder of ten. Each new regeneration is a completely new doctor, so it’s completely excusable that he was not the same, but I feel like what he brought to the role was a lot less than his predecessors. He seemed to be running a poor emulation of the last two doctors with an extra dash of silliness, and his acting chops were not equal to the complexity of the character. It also didn’t help that the guy cast to play a millennia-old alien looked like a twelve-year-old. Peter Capaldi’s showing in the beginning of this season gives me hope.
Capaldi is 56 years old. His extensive acting experience and his gray hair help to lend some much-needed gravitas to the role. Doctor Who has always straddled a line between seriousness and silliness, and Smith’s fez-loving incarnation took it too far over the silliness line. Capaldi’s eyes and age help him communicate the anger and weariness of a man who has been trying to save the universe for millennia. Another welcome personality change is that this Doctor is downright mean.
These are not the eyes of a man who wears fezzes. Fezzi?
He is old, he is angry, and he wants to do good, but he could not give less of a shit about your feelings. In the beginning of episode two, he rescues a soldier while leaving her brother to die. She expresses anger and loss, and the Doctor’s only response is basically to call her out as an ingrate. In the first episode, when Clara (his companion) and he get in a tight spot, he straight up abandons her. He does the calculation, realizes if he leaves then he has a better chance of saving both of them, and then just goes. At another point in the season, a man is about to die. The Doctor gives him something to swallow, and the audience expects him to be saved, but he is dissolved by the attacker and the Doctor does nothing. Clara yells at the Doctor for this extremely callous act, and he responds by saying the pill was a tracker, and they will now be able to figure out where the remains are stored. This Doctor shows a practical and unfeeling acceptance of death as part of the territory, an attitude that makes sense in his line of work, and one that was conspicuously absent in other incarnations. He also insults Clara repeatedly, but this may be due more to social ineptitude than any intent to cause harm. After David Tennant’s run, in which he would apologize profusely to anyone who was about to die or whom he was about to kill, and Matt Smith’s run, which for some reason I can only picture as him jumping around giving lollipops to everyone he meets, it is an interesting direction to have a Doctor who is still dedicated to doing good, but is significantly less squeamish about the moral dilemma of means versus ends.
I loved Tennant in the role, but he was a bit of a softy.
The writing team is also doing a better job giving actual depth to the supporting characters. Clara is written as a little egomaniacal and pushy, which is better than being written as the nothing of the previous season. She is still a basically good person, but she has some depth this time around because she has some flaws. In the second episode of this season, a recurring character is introduced and was given a backstory which immediately made me care if he lived or died, something the writers in season seven failed to accomplish over the entire season arc.
The other glaring fault that ruined season seven of Doctor Who was a complete disregard for complex storytelling or internal consistency. It is hard to tell just two episodes in, but that seems to have improved as well. The plot of both episodes so far is pretty simple and silly, but that is absolutely okay — that is part of what Doctor Who is — a handful of stunning episodes supported by a bed of rough-and-tumble, uncomplicated space opera. What was inexcusable in season seven and what is not happening now is that the plot resolution never made sense, was deus ex machina every time, or was just completely unsatisfying and forgettable. As far as complex storytelling, they are doing a much better job setting up the Big Bad and an overarching season enemy. Some of the people who die in each episode end up in a very nice garden setting, greeted by a woman who calls herself Missy and tells them they have made it to heaven. Something in the carriage of the woman or the too-good-to-be-trueness of the afterlife makes it ring false, and this subtle sense of something being wrong makes it ominous.
To really know if the show is coming out of a slump, we’ll have to wait and see how they handle the entire season, but current data hints that our favorite Gallifreyan might be back in the saddle. I fully intend to watch this show for the rest of my life, and I fully expect its quality to roller-coaster up and down over the years, but here’s hoping we’re currently on an upswing.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.