I love Doctor Who.
I love it so very dearly.
And I want very much to love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
And on top of that, I think Peter Capaldi has everything he needs to one day be spoken of in the same hushed reverence we now give the One Tom Baker.
I feel Capaldi has a clear love of the source material. Even if it were not hammered into us at every turn by Moffat’s marketing squad, it’s still obvious. But frankly, this season is wasted on Moffat, who is the source of almost all the problems I have with the Doctor.
A prickly Doctor is nothing new– the First Doctor Himself set a precedent for that, and each and every Doctor (perhaps barring Five) have had their moments with that. The curmudgeonly old man we first met in Foreman’s Yard back in 1963 almost always finds a way to reemerge, but too much focus is spent on establishing that yes, this Doctor is alien and you’re not supposed to identify with him– but all that makes is an unlikable character. The same was tried with Colin Baker in 1984. Colin had the same potential and turned in some truly great moments in his short tenure (the shortest until Christopher Eccleston, if we factor in Paul McGann’s Audio stories as his “proper” run as the Doctor), but the effort to create and then endear a non-endearable lead to the audience ended disastrously for the show. Viewers tuned out in the face of the Later Baker’s sheer bluntness and alienating alienness, and his reputation only began to recover with the expert handling of Big Finish’s superb fanboy writing staff in audio drama form.
Writing a prickly, unlikable Doctor can be done, but it takes more skill than Steven Moffat is willing to put into the story.
Consider Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Third Doctor, way back in 1970. This new Doctor was abrasive, headstrong, and suffered from a completely justified intellectual superiority complex. He was bitter and stern, and loathed the plebeian military force he was compelled to work with. He tolerated his companion, Doctor Elizabeth Shaw, but only in the sense that he had the opinion she was the next cleverest being in the building, yet she was still very much an ant to the Third Doctor. By the time he realized that he respected her, she had stormed out of his life, only ever bothering to keep in occasional contact by way of metaphorical post card every couple of decades.
The Doctor’s alienation of Elizabeth Shaw effected a subtle change in him, and while he was initially disgusted by Jo Grant’s lack of scientific credentials, or other qualities he might have deemed a sign of a “clever” individual, he quickly grew to respect her for her inner strength, resourcefulness, and eagerness to learn.
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the Doctor also began to build a rapport, which had begun with two men that couldn’t even tolerate each other, and only worked together because the situation never stopped demanding it. But for all his hatred of the military life, the Doctor grew to rely on Brig’s stalwart will, by-the-book nature, and sheer reliability (even if Brig never wised up to details as quickly as the Doctor might have hoped).
It’s well worth noting that throughout Elizabeth Shaw’s run, and early into Jo Grant’s run, the Doctor would always introduce Team Tardis with “I’m the Doctor, and this is my assistant, Doctor Elizabeth Shaw/Josephine Grant.”, but by the end of Jo’s tenure on the show, that had changed to “and this is my friend/companion, Miss Josephine Grant”, to the point where Three warmed up almost immediately to newcomer Sarah Jane Smith.
He had stopped seeing his companions and allies as burdens, ignorant dullards who he was tortuously saddled with, and instead began seeing them as friends, comrades, and in the case of Brig and Sarah Jane, even a sort of family in whom he was able to place his more or less complete trust– quite a change!
And yet, he never lost that streak of “Doctor knows best, so shut the heck up and listen you stupid idiot.”, with that particular streak of personality lasting all the way until the very end of his decidedly more jovial and personable Fourth incarnation.
The Third Doctor remained stern, brash, and headstrong throughout his life. Once he realized that his actions had consequences, even for a being of god-like intellect compared to the humans around him, he began to thaw, and the Third Doctor we remember and love today– that suave, dapper gentleman who was always prepared to engage The Master in a sword fight, or give a good villainous mook a toss whilst screaming “HAAAAAI!!”– was truly born.
So far, we haven’t really seen that lesson click with Capaldi’s Doctor.
And under Steven Moffat, we aren’t likely to see this brand of careful and deliberate character arc. Consider the evidence– Moffat’s other current notable series, Sherlock, derives much of it’s success from having a stuck up, arrogant, socially inept and sociopathic genius who absolutely refuses to listen and learn these very sorts of lessons. Sherlock is the kind of man who will only ease up when his comforts are threatened by his current course, reverting back to those old habits as soon as the situation again permits it. He is regularly abusive to everyone around him, and that very same everyone has all but completely given up trying to change him.
And that’s what Moffat has given us in this latest season of Doctor Who: he has given us “Sherlock in the Tardis”, because that’s what he knows. Clara does double duty as the Doctor’s Watson and Lestrade, and she hates him for it. She’s tired of being his nanny and Jiminy Cricket.
And I do not blame her a bit for being utterly worn out by him. He’s a hard man to like.
And that happens because his head writer is so doggedly insistent that he be hard to like.
Capaldi has the ingredients for Doctor Who greatness, but first things first– let’s depose the Grand Moff Steven.