Doctor Who Feature – The Twelfth Doctor Era: Is Peter Capaldi the Definitive Doctor?

Doctor Who has its ups and downs, as anything that runs for over 50 years does. After all this time, the show perhaps as well known for its dud season arcs, madcap plots and failed experiments as it is for its creativity, memorable characters and iconic villains. For every modern classic like Series 4, there is a legendary failure like Series 7 – and nothing illustrates this point more than the Peter Capaldi era. This three series long chunk of the New Series that lasted from 2014 to 2017 presented audiences with some of the best Doctor Who content of the decade – and also some of the worst. But can the flaws of the Capaldi era truly dampen its successes? Do fans look back on the era fondly or harshly? Is Peter Capaldi actually the definitive Doctor? We aim to find out.

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The Grumpy Doctor

Upon his initial casting, Peter Capaldi proved to be somewhat of a controversial choice to play the Doctor, despite having all the necessary traits required to play the Doctor. Due to the fact that the previous two Doctors, who had a combined tenure of nearly ten years, were both young and handsome incarnations, the show had got used to that idea being a staple of the series – in fact, it could be argued that Clara’s entire relationship with the Eleventh Doctor in Series 7 was based around the fact that he was young and handsome. As such, the fact that the Twelfth Doctor was cast as an old man was a sudden and jarring change to the series, one that many viewers felt shook the foundations of the show a little too much.

But there was more to this shakeup than just the casting. Moffat’s decision to write the Twelfth Doctor as a grumpy and at times even cold character in his first series was a bold one, and it certainly shook the series up even more for Series 8. The reaction of a sizeable portion of the fanbase at the time when this was all first announced was then reflected in Clara’s reaction to the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration – the look on her face perfectly visualises what many fans were feeling at the time. In many ways, the situation was somewhat comparable to the reaction to the casting of the Thirteenth Doctor, albeit for very different reasons. In the run-up to Series 8, fans were wondering whether the show could pull off such a radical change to its comfortable tried-and-tested formula.

Overall, Series 8 is somewhat of a mixed bag. There are definitely some genuine gems in this series, episodes like Mummy On The Orient Express, Flatline and Time Heist are enduring classics that most fans agree are the standouts of the series. Following these are the episodes that some fans love, but other fans despite – episodes like Robots of Sherwood, Listen and the too-often overlook Into the Dalek. The series does play host to some really terrible episodes, however, such as In the Forest of the Night and the truly abominable Kill the Moon, an episode that is only worth watching for Clara’s final confrontation with the Doctor due to Jenna Coleman’s astounding acting – other than that, the episode may as well have never existed. The two episodes of note that are particularly divisive are the first episode, Deep Breath, and the two-part finale, Dark Water/Death in Heaven. The former is a strange episode to put at as the opener to a series, as it requires too much prior lore knowledge to be accessible to newcomers. The latter is a finale that, although making fantastic use of the Cybermen and Missy, was notoriously dark and was responsible for genuinely upsetting some fans in a way that didn’t sit right with many people.

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The Hybrid

For Series 9, Moffat introduced a gradual change to the Twelfth Doctor’s character that would be truly actualised in Series 10. Grappling with the choices necessary to truly define himself as a good man, Series 9 sees the Twelfth Doctor tested in several ways, with each story presented a piece of the best and worst of the character. This is mirrored in the format of the series and the accompanying titles of each episode – most of the stories in this series are two-parters, with titles that oppose one another. This presentation of the character was certainly an improvement over the Series 8 version of the Doctor in the eyes of most fans, but still retained enough of the abrasive Series 8 Doctor that those who had grown attached to Capaldi’s Doctor were not disappointed.

Series 9 of Doctor Who, however, suffers from an entirely different issue, which ironically has almost nothing to do with the Doctor himself. The hamfisted attempt to insert an arc into this series with the lacklustre ‘Hybrid’ buzzword failed to click with many fans and the end result, revealed in the controversial finale Hell Bent, left many fans confused. However, Capaldi’s performance as the Twelfth Doctor was exemplary and, although the scripts themselves left something to be desired, the combination of Capaldi and Coleman’s fantastic acting was able to carry Series 9 despite its flaws – and this was enhanced thanks to guest appearances from Maisie Williams, Donald Sumpter and Julian Bleach that made Series 9 feel like the blockbuster run that it was designed to be.

Ultimately, the highlights of the series have to be those that are the most steeped in lore – the opening two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar make a fantastic opening to the series, and the penultimate episode Heaven Sent has to rank as one of the best episodes of Doctor Who of all time. There is a definite pattern to the quality of episodes in Series 9 – the best ones are the ones in which Capaldi himself stands out. From his emotive anti-war speech in The Zygon Inversion to his one-man-band performance in Heaven Sent, the Twelfth Doctor is by far the best thing about Series 9. Whilst the series itself it usually met with mixed reviews from fans, none can deny that it is Capaldi who makes the series – with almost any other Doctor at the helm, Series 9 may not have been the success that it was.

Although the ‘Hybrid’ arc seemed tacked on and rushed, the theme actually relates a lot to the Doctor himself and where his character was at this point. Series 9 presents us with a true Hybrid Doctor – a fusion of his Series 8 and Series 10 personalities that occasionally clash but more often than not showcase the gradual development of the character, particularly with hindsight. Critics of the Twelfth Doctor argue that his character was poorly written as each series seems to portray a completely different interpretation of the Doctor, and they are correct – but this is hardly a criticism. Capaldi plays perhaps one of the most dynamic Doctors of them all, changing from a brusque and occasionally mean character to a warm and merciful Doctor who understands his own moralistic limitations and does his best to do the right thing. The most interesting Doctors are the ones who grow and change over the course of their tenure – the Seventh Doctor and the Ninth Doctor both experienced this kind of development, but none have had such a structured three-stage character arc over as many seasons. Those who stopped watching the show after Capaldi’s first season due to the negative reception his character received were not privy to the incredible change that was apparent by Series 10, meaning they never got to understand why his character had to be that way in Series 8. But what was so special about this arc that it warranted having the Doctor act so un-Doctorish for a season?

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Never be Cruel, Never be Cowardly

To answer that question we have to go back to the beginning. In its early days, Doctor Who was not fully established, either in its popularity and fanbase or in its own personal identity. Fans of newer versions of the show, even as early as 80s Who, may be shocked if they choose to watch some earlier episodes by just how un-Doctorish the Doctor himself acts. William Hartnell himself actually contributed a lot to the development of the Doctor as a man of strict ethical principles after disagreeing with how the character was handled in the first ever season of the show, in which the Doctor regularly tricks and manipulates his companions, influences events to suit himself, and even on one or two occasions attempts murder. As the character traits of the Doctor became established, these character-breaking moments were seemingly brushed under the rug.

In the modern day, the New Series has reinforced the idea of the Doctor as principled and ethically conscious, but many fans have taken the idea of the Doctor as a ‘man who never would’ as gospel – particularly during the Tennant era – to the point where the idea of the Doctor shooting someone becomes completely unjustifiable. This is a nice sentiment, and ‘the man who never would’ is certainly how the Doctor himself wants to be seen the majority of the time, but those who buy into this have forgotten the ‘rule one’ of travelling with the Doctor – he lies. A lot. In fact, we already know that when the Tenth Doctor utters the line “I never would” in regards to using guns, we already know he is lying. The Doctor has shot and killed people many times throughout the show, a famous example being in Day of the Daleks when the Third Doctor steals a laser and blasts an Ogron. Following the Time War, the battle-scarred and guilt-ridden Doctor invents a persona for himself that exaggerates and hyperbolises all of his pre-Time War traits of honesty, mercy, pacifism etc to alleviate his guilt, but it is not a true reflection of his character. We know that the Doctor is prone to rage, and occasionally makes bad choices. Unfortunately, one particular bad choice has sullied the Twelfth Doctor with a bad reputation that is not entirely justified.

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The choice in question of course refers to the scene in Hell Bent in which the Doctor shoots the General. Fans have grappled over this scene and its implications, with some citing the fact that the Doctor had been driven mad with grief in that episode as justification, and others even going so far as to say it is proof that the show itself has lost its way. However, looking back on this entire situation, it seems fans on both sides of the argument need to re-assess the scene with the benefit of hindsight and the context of the episode. For those not in the know, the Doctor shoots and ‘kills’ The General after the latter refuses to allow Clara to escape from Gallifrey. Prior to this, the Doctor had spent 4.5 billion years living the same day over and over again, dying each time, and had now finally escaped and found a way of bringing his friend back – the thing that had kept him going the whole time. Considering all of these factors, and then adding to that the fact that the General is able to regenerate and that he had previously helped keep the Doctor imprisoned, adds a lot more to this situation than simply ‘The Doctor killed someone.’ In fact, this seems far more reasonable than the Third Doctor shooting an Ogron.

And yet, this scene does achieve something tangible – it is an important turning point in the second major change to the Doctor’s character. This scene represents the culmination of the ‘Clara arc’, a pseudo-unofficial story arc that essentially starts with Asylum of the Daleks that is supposed to showcase the best and worst parts of a close friendship. Clara and the Doctor are good friends, and they both help each other through serious tragedies in their respective lives. They are both flawed characters, and their flaws overlap – each one is too dependant on the other, and the fact that their friendship was set up by Missy goes to show how destructive it has the potential to be. The notion of the Doctor and Clara being the Hybrid may seem ridiculous, but it is Moffat attempting (in a somewhat ham-fisted way) to illustrate the point that Clara and the Doctor are in many ways two sides of the same coin – their personalities, their motives, their tendency for lies and showing off are all similar – yet ultimately they must be separated otherwise the Doctor runs the risk of sacrificing everything for her. The Doctor shooting the General acts as a wake-up call, both for Clara and the Doctor himself, that their friendship is no longer healthy and that they need to separate. If you look at the Series 9 finale in this light, it is actually a mature and introspective story that showcases how far the Twelfth Doctor had developed by this point – the seemingly unfeeling angry Doctor from Series 8 is gone, replaced with a far more compassionate man who is willing to go to any lengths to save his best friend – even if it kills him.

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The Grandfather Doc

The version of the Twelfth Doctor that we saw at the end of Series 9 sets up the plot of Series 10 perfectly – with Clara gone, the Doctor strikes up relationships with friends new and old in a way that the Series 8 Doctor would not have been able to do. With this newfound persona he is able to make peace with River Song, befriend Bill and even teach Missy how to be good, showing that even without Clara the Twelfth Doctor is just as much a paragon of virtue as the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors tried to be. But perhaps the most important facet of the Twelfth Doctor’s character development that takes place in Series 10 is his relationship with Bill and how that evolves. Initially taking on Bill as a student, their teacher-student dynamic gradually develops as the Doctor becomes a more paternal figure in her life, and this is a fantastic parallel of the very first Doctor-companion dynamic in the show – that of Grandfather and Grandchild. This is further implied in Bill’s first episode, in which the Doctor looks to Susan’s portrait when trying to decide whether to involve Bill with the dangers of TARDIS travel.

This is perhaps one of Moffat’s greatest achievements with the Twelfth Doctor, and many fans say that Series 10 has the best ‘feel’ of the three Capaldi seasons, as the friendship between the Doctor, Bill and Nardole seemed to resonate more with viewers than the Doctor and Clara’s had. It would be hard to imagine the Series 8 version of the Twelfth Doctor working in Series 10, as his pricklier personality and demeanour would clash more with Bill’s fun-loving attitude, but after two seasons of gradual character development the Twelfth Doctor proves himself to be everything that the Doctor should be, and more – Series 10 doesn’t just present the Doctor as a hero who saves planets, but also as a form of therapist, even counsellor. For fifty years he is able to provide Missy with a stable environment in which she can work towards casting off her evil ways and embracing the good in life, and with just a few months of tuition the Doctor is able to raise Bill’s grades and inspire her with new confidence, all before she even sets foot in the TARDIS.

The Twelfth Doctor in Series 10 is in many ways the ideal Doctor – perhaps even the definitive Doctor. Some may think it a shame that the Doctor didn’t simply start out with this personality from the beginning, and whilst it may have been lighter on viewers at the time if the Doctor had emerged fresh from regeneration as a kindhearted old man, but there is an argument that Moffat did the right thing from the start. The Twelfth Doctor was referred to earlier in this article as one of the most dynamic Doctors of them all, and this is due to his three-season long character development. Without the Series 8 version of the Doctor and his brusque attitude, the emotional weight behind Series 9 and 10 loses some of its impact, as part of what makes his character so interesting and likeable is his painstaking transition from a grumpy old man to a truly definitive Doctor.

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The Definitive Doctor

There will of course be those who disagree, but overall Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor represents all the best aspects of the character. He is a righteous character, yet aware of his own moral hypocrisy. He is a kind and caring figure, yet he is also among the angriest and most utilitarian of the Doctors. His speech to the Master and Missy at the climax of The Doctor Falls perfectly summarises this – he admits that, although he doesn’t always get it right, he tries as hard as he can to be kind. Throughout his entire tenure the Twelfth Doctor grapples with the question of ‘Am I a Good Man?’, and it is in this scene that we, the audience, finally receive a definitive answer. The Doctor lays down his life for innocent people he doesn’t even know, and his final regeneration speech outlining what it means to be a Doctor proves that Capaldi himself has a deep understanding of the character.

If you are a former fan of the show who lost interest midway through the 2010s, or perhaps even earlier, then hopefully this article has made some points that will make you reconsider your stance on Capaldi’s Doctor. With hindsight, and the wider knowledge of the show that newer fans may have gained thanks to the rising popularity of the Classic Series, it is clear that many of the criticisms that were levied against Capaldi were either grossly exaggerated, such as claims of him being ‘too old’, or simply unfair, such as blaming him for the occasional bad episode like Sleep No More or Kill the Moon. Each and every Doctor is faced with criticism like this – Matt Smith was ‘too young’ for the role according to many in 2010, and nobody needs reminding of the frenzy of baseless criticism levied against Jodie Whittaker before Series 11 even aired.

Ultimately, the Twelfth Doctor era speaks for itself. Even amid the aforementioned terrible episodes it hosted, as well as others like In the Forest of the Night, the era also gave us some of the best instant classics of the modern era of Doctor Who. Episodes like Heaven Sent, Flatline, Mummy on the Orient Express, Oxygen, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls will be remembered for years to come and proves that, even after more than 10 years, the New Series still has plenty of excellent stories to tell. Moving forward there is certainly a lot that the show can learn from the mistakes of the Capaldi era, but after the lacklustre Series 11, there is definitely a lot that Chibnall can learn from the Capaldi era’s resounding successes. Without a character-driven story Doctor Who can appear to lack substance, and this was an issue that plagued the Thirteenth Doctor’s debut season despite the writer’s best efforts to make her quirky and likeable. The irony is that Capaldi’s grumpy first-series persona is a far more interesting character than the typical do-gooder Doctor, and Moffat was able to blend the best elements of both worlds by having a brusque Doctor early on, that evolves into the definitive Doctor over time.

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So, to answer the question that sparked this lengthy feature-style blog post: Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is the Definitive Doctor. Though it takes him time to get to that point, when he gets there, fans have to agree that it is worth the wait. It is a classic case of not truly knowing what it is you had until it suddenly disappears. Obviously there are some that may not agree – that is the nature of the fanbase. For some fans in 2014, the hardest part of being a fan after Series 8 was accepting Capaldi as the Doctor. But now, after a brief but legendary tenure, the hardest part for many is letting him go.

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