Remembering the brilliance of The Twelfth Doctor
Contributed by Milo
Doctor Who has been experiencing a lot of change recently, but my favourite era of the revival show is without a doubt Peter Capaldi’s time as The Doctor. Maybe part of that is just because he’s so brilliant in The Thick of It. Maybe because he’s just so brilliant. But I also like just how deep Steven Moffat goes into the history of it all – exploring not just who The Doctor is but what makes The Doctor The Doctor. Coming off the wake of the regeneration of the happy-go-lucky Matt Smith era (not without its darker moments in turn, but presented with a more cheerful facade), Capaldi’s first few episodes could be seen as hostile, bleak and off-putting to some. The Ben Wheatley-directed post-regeneration episode Deep Breath had Smith return briefly to remind Clara (Jenna Coleman) that yes, he really is The Doctor now – and it wasn’t just Clara that needed convincing, it wasn’t just the audience – but also, it was The Doctor himself.
Characters like Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara’s boyfriend and PE teacher at Coal Hill School, frequently question The Doctor’s status as well, The Doctor – not helped by the fact that the main agenda of Michelle Gomez’ Missy this series is that her main goal is to prove that she and The Doctor are one and the same – even a Dalek tells The Doctor that he would make a “good Dalek”, which is not something that their greatest enemy wants to hear. The Twelfth Doctor era of the show tears down any preconceived notions that we had of the character. It eventually leads to a culmination in the end of the brilliantly underrated Kill the Moon when some of the best bit of acting on the show is displayed between Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, with the pair acting their socks off for Clara to finally call The Doctor out on his spectacularly ignorant decision to basically not care for humanity at their time of need – The Doctor has always done this. Why stop now?
There’s a reason why he’s so on the surface unlikeable in Series 8, and why that’s such a hard sell compared to the instant loveable Doctors of the past – part of the journey is the end, and that’s what makes his growth as a character so rewarding.
There’s a distinct tonal shift in the aftermath of Kill the Moon as The Doctor’s journey towards finding out who he wants to be treads to a lighter, more hopeful self – he’s not a good man, but he’s also not a bad man. He is – in his own words, an idiot. We immediately see a continuation of that in Series 9 when he’s introduced in The Magician’s Apprentice by literally playing a guitar whilst driving a tank through the portcullis of a castle… in Medieval era England, introducing the word “dude” several centuries too early, telling jokes that won’t land until decades later. He takes it – and runs with it – embracing his role as the mid-life Crisis Doctor.
It also puts him on a renewed mission to not see anyone turn into characters that have to share the same guilt that he does – when forcing the Zygon Clara and Kate Stewart into a press-the-buzzer game of life or death, he brings up a message of just how powerful Who can be, slowly convincing Bonnie into believing his point of view by getting her to think outside the box. Doctor Who may have had wars – but it’s never been a show about them. Preventing them before they start was the ideal situation here. It’s impossible to pick a favourite Capaldi speech – there are just too many good ones, but this – in The Zygon Inversion – might just be his most powerful. This was the episode – the moment – that cemented him as my new favourite Doctor, the one time where the lack of a Murray Gold score was noticeable turned out to give it the edge that it needed, the sheer emotion and volume in his heartbreak was instantly believable. You felt that in that moment that The Doctor was real, and not just an actor playing a part.
Capaldi of course is familiar with the Who universe, he’s a fan – and has starred in the show before. The Fires of Pompeii (which also featured an alternate role for future companion Karen Gillan) in Series 4 featured Capaldi – and he brought life to the tortured Government Politician Frobisher in the excellent Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries. But it’s the brilliance of the actor’s portrayal that you could completely believe that these three characters were played by different people, and one of the genius moments of Series 7 is that it calls back to previous roles in the way that Who hadn’t really done before when it reused actors. It flips the script on its head – and in The Girl Who Died, he returns to the visions of rescuing Caecilius from the destructions of Pompeii and breaking the rule of history as an excuse to save Ashildr from dying. In that moment he doesn’t care about losing wars, but he cares about losing people – and Capaldi’s portrayal of the grief that The Doctor carries with him is second to none. “Who frowned me this face?” he asks himself, before the triumphant sound of Murray Gold’s score kicks in – “to remind me, to hold me to the mark. I’m The Doctor and I save people.”
That’s who The Doctor is. It’s a mark that carries through him and lingers over his shoulders in the tenth series, his final bow – Capaldi knocks it out of the park one more time. His choice to stay behind in The Doctor Falls to attempt to buy time for people who are dead anyway, just so they can live a little longer knowing full well he will fail due to the sheer numbers of the Cybermen – would have been a great end point for the series – if that was intended as not just a finale to a particular series but a finale to the whole show – Doctor Who going out on a bang like it did couldn’t have been more appropriate. His speech to Missy and The Master doesn’t work – or at least, he doesn’t know that it works – but it carries across, capping his run of series on the highest note possible. Whilst The Zygon Inversion may have my favourite speech – it’s The Doctor Falls that features my favourite finale of the whole series.
Another example of a great performance, that I couldn’t not mention here? The ambitious solo-hour Hell Bent, which features no other characters, no other monsters – just Capaldi – sees himself tearing down a wall over and over again, and it’s the greatest hour that the show has ever pulled off. There are some truly experimental moments of the Capaldi era – such as the series with all two-part episodes, which this is a part of – that push the boundaries of what Doctor Who is capable of. Whilst The Doctor has always had companions with him – Capaldi had the sheer quality to convince you that as insane as it seemed, a companion-less season, or at least a season with no other recurring leads, could actually work – even if we never got to see it.
His final moments with the First Doctor act as another perfect way to cap off the end of his tenure, with Doctor Who returning to where it all began in Twice Upon A Time to close the loop further – featuring a stellar David Bradley performance in a perfect recast – showing the first Doctor what it means to live with the burden of being a Doctor of War. One Doctor’s journey ends… another’s begins. As it always must.