Time is a fascinating concept, and one that humanity has maintained something of an affection with, as well as a certain degree of struggle. The potential that science may one day allow us to manipulate aspects of time, at least to a certain degree, presents us with odd possibilities about the nature of the universe and its laws, and questions about what role we play in it all. How much of the world around us can we seek to change, and how will we change, in turn, as a result?
Many of these rather heady questions appear as themes in the latest series of BBC’s long-running science fiction drama, Doctor Who, which for the last several weeks has been introducing its audiences to the most recent incarnation of the program’s namesake, played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.
With little contest, Capaldi has lived up to expectations among fans with his interpretation of the character; if anything, with the last few episodes we have seen what is, perhaps, the most complex face the Doctor has worn to-date. This, of course, is no small task, especially for any actor who must assume the role of a leading character that constantly changes every few years; it is one of the most novel elements of the Doctor Who franchise, but also one that constantly demands an unprecedented amount of uniqueness and imagination from its leading men.
This in mind, we can look back on the series since it’s relaunch in 2005, and note how the energy brought to the table by previous actors Christopher Eccleson, David Tennant, and Matt Smith certainly contributed to the program’s expanding fan base, especially outside the UK, over the last several years (perhaps due, in part, to the fact that the character was allowed to be young and “hip” for the last three of the Doctor’s regnerations, in contrast with past casting decisions which generally featured older male actors). This trend was broken with the decision to have Peter Capaldi take the helm, who at age 56, is the oldest actor to play the part since the 1970s (with the exception of John Hurt’s “War Doctor” that appeared in last year’s Day of the Doctor special).
Capaldi’s age has hardly been any sort of setback: among the most stark criticism of the program over the last few years, largely under the direction taken by head writer and show-runner Steven Moffat, is that the young Doctors and their brilliant, but often flirtatious interactions with female companions, had begun to present fairly predictable scenarios that contrasted too greatly with past representations of the character, where the interactions between The Doctor and his companions were seen as being complex (or were they really? One might just as easily argue that the romantic tension, which became especially apparent during David Tennant’s tenure with co-start Billie Piper, was among the most complex relationships ever featured on the series).
From the moment Matt Smith’s Doctor transmogrifies into Capaldi–all within a startling, and quite deliberately unnerving flash–we are certain that things will never quite be the same. An instant, and the admirable romance-that-wasn’t-really-romance that viewers came to love during Smith’s years had been handed to a puzzled looking, wiry man up in his years, and with a mad-scientist’s unsettling gaze… oh, and eyebrows. This guy has some wicked eyebrows!
Those initial moments did, in fact, set the stage for the way Capaldi would portray The Doctor, and with the first installment of the new series, Deep Breath, a slow build throughout the episode brought us along with a newly regenerated Doctor as he struggled to relearn himself, who he had been, and more importantly, who he had become. This struggle is shared with costar Jenna Coleman, who nearly departs The Doctor’s company at the end of the episode, only to stick around, thanks to a courtesy call from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) prior to his regeneration. Actress Coleman has, in recent weeks, received welcome praise for the dynamics her character would, and has shown over the course of Series 8; at present, media speculation about her likely departure from the program has been fueled somewhat by the, at times, rocky relationship her character has with the new Doctor.
After Deep Breath (which, in the opinion of this writer, still may have been one of the strongest episodes of the new series), something of a token introduction between the new Doctor and his old enemies, the Daleks, was presented with the appropriately titled Into the Dalek, followed by a romp through Sherwood Forest with the legendary Robin Hood, with The Robot of Sherwood receiving a slightly warmer reception (and better reviews) than Dalek had before it.
Things turned creepy with Listen, which brought together a number of interesting elements for the series, which included a rather interesting wardrobe consideration for Capaldi, for whom press images revealing the look of his Doctor offered a more stripped down look (no scarves, cravats, hats or bow ties), but one that was still fairly regal, and even drawing some comparisons with actor John Pertwee, who portrayed the Third Doctor on the original series, with both men’s wardrobes evoking descriptions comparing the Doctor with a “magician”. In Listen, the collared shirt and vest were dropped in favor of a long sleeved black shirt, reminiscent of the “jumpers” actor Christopher Eccleson had made his standard throughout his tenure as a Time Lord. Also, this episode introduced a rather curious element that, by the end of the series, would seem rather paradoxical: a fellow time traveler is met by Clara and the Doctor who is, apparently, a descendent of both Clara and her new love interest, Danny Pink (played by actor Samuel Anderson).
Time Heist presented a plot line somewhat reminiscent of the Tennant years, with its reliance on alien creatures and futuristic set designs, though the episode had offered few other particularly memorable elements, seemingly existing apart from the other present installments in theme and style, while The Caretaker brings things back home, where an alien invasion is about to break out in the very school where Clara Oswald and boyfriend Danny Pink are employed as teachers. The dynamics do pick up again here with the interactions between Clara and the Doctor, and particularly, his approval of the new man in her life, taking a fatherly tone that both bespeaks his favor for bow ties and teachers who ear them (despite his new appearance), and an apparent disdain for soldiers, which remains somewhat unexplained (though it might be inferred that this is a resentment the Doctor maintains for his own previous incarnation as John Hurt’s War Doctor). Kill the Moon the following week presented another opportunity for Coleman’s character to take the lead, and affirming that, in truth, the show is as much about the companions, and the choices they make, as it is the time-traveling Doctor whom they are assisting.
Shades of past personalities have been a frequent motif throughout Capaldi’s first season, including references to both the scarves born by Tom Baker and Matt Smith’s trademark bow tie; however, no nods to previous incarnations and actors was so fine as that which appears during Mummy on the Orient Express, where Capaldi, producing a metal cigarette holder, opens it to reveal that it contains Jelly Babies, the trademark candy of the Doctor which, at one time, had been a regular motif the character would utilize (this was particularly the case during actor Tom Baker’s tenure with the role). Mummy was also perhaps the creepiest episode of this season, next to Moffat’s Listen.
Another notable element that would persist throughout this series appears in Flatline, the next episode in the series, where due to an issue that traps Capaldi within a tiny version of the Tardis (don’t worry, it’s still bigger on the inside), Clara is forced to go off, armed with her companion’s sonic screwdriver, and perform the role of The Doctor on her own. And does she ever… right down to actually introducing herself as The Doctor (a theme which, interestingly, comes up again in the series finale, albeit only remotely… although it still had us guessing, if only for a moment).
In The Forest of Night was not noted for its critical acclaim, but this episode is noteworthy, in our opinion, for other reasons. Namely, its references to global changes, as well as references to solar anomalies and outbursts the likes of the Carrington Event and the equally legendary Tunguska blast of 1908, which would have most any Fortean-minded viewer excited.
The series is wrapped up with Deep Water and Death in Heaven, a two-part finale which confirms the identity of “Missy,” a mysterious villainess who appeared at the very end of Deep Breath, as a new regeneration of The Master, long time nemesis of our favorite Time Lord. Opening with the rather shocking death of character Danny Pink, Clara heads off prepared to betray the Doctor, only to reveal that her angst is played out in a dream sequence. Despite her true emotive motivations revealed, the Doctor commits to helping her in one of Capaldi’s sparing moments of tenderness throughout the series thus far, which is played subtly before leaping back and taking up his stiff attitude. The two embark on a mission to save Danny from death itself, only to find themselves in the hands of “Missy” and a full-blown invasion of Earth by Cybermen, who are tapping bodies of the recently dead for their uprising. It is later revealed that the deceased Danny Pink is among them, with the episode resolving in a graveyard match of wits where The Master (or Mistress, rather) imparts a gift to The Doctor, having been newly appointed as president of the World, whereby he now controls the army of Cybermen. It is a gift which, she hopes, will force the Doctor into having one hell of a bad day, and left with the decision of what to do with total power, and all its destructive force. Fortunately, Danny, who is resolute in his love for Clara despite becoming “Cybermanitized”, maintains control of his will, and assists the Doctor in eliminating the threat.
Death in Heaven was arguably one of the finest moments of the entire first series of Capaldi’s run (though it was referred to elsewhere as “a strong finish to an otherwise disappointing season”). Still, it should be noted that part of the success relied on both costar Coleman’s performance, as well as the way Moffat and the BBC helped orchestrate a game, of sorts, leading up to (and throughout) the finale, where we were initially left guessing about Clara’s intentions altogether. Then, at the outset of Death in Heaven, the viewer is led to consider whether Coleman is, in fact, really the Doctor, as she so-claims while bargaining for her life against the Cybermen. In truth, wouldn’t it have been a brilliant ploy all along… carry us through an entire first series, only to reveal that Clara had actually been a future regeneration of the Doctor this entire time? For a fleeting moment, Coleman had many of us wondering.
Getting a bit philosophical in retrospect, from the perspective of philosophical eternalism, all points in time are considered equally “real,” whether it be past experiences, or those yet to come, as perceived by those of us rooted in the present. The philosophical argument could be made, in fact, that despite our inability to “see” the future, it exists nonetheless. These sorts of issues are, however, hardly any impediment to a man with a time machine capable of carrying him anywhere throughout the known universe, and to any point in history he chooses. The problems that arise from doing so, however, are what so constantly propel this series, and its characters, ever forward.
The reviews have been mixed and varied, with most conclusions ending with praise for Capaldi and Coleman, as well as for a series that picked up more steam right at the end than it did at any point throughout. It is worthy of noting that, earlier this year, I featured an article here at Mysterious Universe in anticipation of Capaldi’s treatment of the character, and the expectations that were brewing in anticipation of the airing of the new series. Altogether, it has been a good show, and with the direction it is going, will likely get better with time; which is hard not to do, in the hands of a capable cast and, well, an actual time machine.