So we’re now six episodes — almost halfway — into the eighth series of the Doctor Who reboot, the first with Peter Capaldi as The Doctor.
When Matt Smith replaced David Tennant we were very concerned that he wouldn’t be up to the task of filling the shoes of maybe the most popular Doctor in the entire five-decade history of the series. But by the time he announced his departure he had carved his own niche and become in some ways a modern Tom Baker to Tennant’s Jon Pertwee, the fun-loving kick-ass goof to a doctor who had enjoyed moments of great humor but had proven himself a serious badass who could turn cold and deadly at a moment’s notice when the situation called for it.
We had strong hopes that Capaldi would be a worthy successor. He of course had history with the show after his appearance as a Roman father in “The Fires of Pompeii” appearing alongside Tennant, and is a lifelong fan of the show.
My wife and I have been enjoying the series so far despite our general dislike of Jenna Coleman as the companion Clara. But there is something that we’ve noticed, and it’s something that I feel could be preventing Capaldi from securing his spot in the Doctor pantheon.
It seemed producers knew there was an opportunity with the reboot to introduce a whole new generation of fans to the series, in part through the parents and other relatives who’d fallen in love with the series and its repeats.
It didn’t take long for the show to set the tone with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor and Billie Piper’s Rose, with Eccleston grabbing Piper’s hand as she’s about to be killed by the mannequins and whispers, “Run!” A few minutes later, as he’s pushing her out the door, he introduces himself and says with a grin, “Run for your life!”
In those brief encounters, and then throughout the remainder of the episode, Eccleston establishes his doctor’s persona — he can be funny, but doesn’t suffer fools and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
When he regenerated into the 10th Doctor in “The Christmas Invasion,” David Tennant spent much of the episode unconscious. But when he finally awakens, it’s just in time to save the day in an iconic scene that displays those common Doctor traits while also showing his unique blend of humor and boyish charm.
Matt Smith had some pretty big shoes to fill by the time he became the 11th Doctor in “The Eleventh Hour,” as Tennant became many newer fans’ — and even some older fans’ — favorite actor in the role. But with an early scene learning about his new taste buds (fish fingers and custard!), his choice of wardrobe and a final showdown with the Atraxi, his character was quickly defined and became beloved by many.
Now if you’ve been watching this new season of Doctor Who, tell me what his defining moment has been so far. Can you pinpoint it? I can’t. A recent discussion prompted the idea that it was his final meeting with the Half-Face Man, but we still don’t exactly know what happened to conclude that meeting — did he jump onto Big Ben’s spire, or was he pushed? There have been other moments in the series to date that have given more glimpses into his personality, his back story, but nothing that’s felt like a singular event that summed up his entire character.
But the more I think of it, maybe that’s the point of this new Doctor. The previews and promos leading into the series hinted that this Doctor would be darker and more mysterious, and I’d say that while we know more about him than when we started there’s still a long way to go. While with Tennant, Smith and even Eccleston to a lesser extent their personas were relatively well established early on. There may have been individual surprises, but the fundamentals didn’t change.
With Capaldi, those fundamentals are still in flux and undefined. It hasn’t affected the quality of the episodes, as I’ve found them entertaining, but I find it brings a vague sense of unease that runs under each. That only heightens the tension, even during lighter moments like during “Robot of Sherwood” and “The Caretaker.” However, that suspense of waiting for the defining moment has also kept any of the episodes from being truly great.
But I’m not going to fault Capaldi for that, and I’m certainly going to continue watching … and waiting.