Like a lot of people my age, I started watching Doctor Who in the 1980’s, which means that for the longest time, Tom Baker was “my Doctor”. I didn’t really keep watching after he left the series, and it wasn’t until the series was resurrected (regenerated?) in 2005 that I had the time and inclination to start watching again.
The thing about Doctor Who is that despite it’s often silly execution and relatively low-rent effects, it’s become a character show. The effects are sometimes only a step above community theater, and some of the episodes are just played for slapstick effect, but the structure of the episodes in relation to one another is such that whenever you get a light-hearted episode one week, you know you’re going to get a punch in the face real soon that will make you sad or creep you out.
Some people have said that Doctor Who is kind of a children’s show. It’s not really super violent, and the idea of struggling with pacifism is built into the narrative. But I think people assume because people aren’t being shot or getting into hand-to-hand combat, coupled with the sometimes silly and eye-rolling effects and creatures, that it’s intended for younger audiences. While I think overall it’s appropriate for younger audiences (immediate pre- and teens), there’s a lot of complex themes dealt with that younger audiences might not have references for.
How anyone watching the series can have a reference for the problems encountered by a 2000 year old time traveler is not really the point. Despite the Internet’s insistence of puffing up to try and make itself sound really smart by picking apart episodes and crapping on things it’s high-mindedness doesn’t like, I personally like the way the characters are written, and the circumstances that the characters endure in order to make the points about humanity and our interaction with the universe around us. Of course the Doctor has chosen to protect humanity, both past, present and future, and that allows humanity to continue up until the end of the Universe. We’re everywhere, and not only does that have ramifications on the universe, but most importantly, it has ramifications on the character of the Doctor himself.
Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was kind of a preface (as he admitted that he left over disagreements with the management after one season), which made way for a younger generation’s apparently favorite Doctor, David Tennant. While the Eccleston Doctor treated us to vague notions that the Doctor had a missing period in his life that he refused to talk about, Tennant kind of started the emotional ball rolling over the situation. He also started a deeper engagement with the companions the Doctor traveled with, which set a precedent that continued through to Matt Smith.
Tom Baker more or less started the current “manic Doctor” persona, but until Tennant, the character was more of a mentor and kindly caretaker of his companions. Tennant and Smith were, I assume, cast to appeal to a younger demographic, and could be viewed as more of a friend to the companions — and even potentially a winking romantic interest. Both were young and energetic, and many of the scripts seemed to focus on fun they were having. The series became a lot about the fun of traveling through time and space; like cruising around with your first friend who get his or her driver’s license. Of course, there was the undercurrent of pathos running through the series: the Doctor had seen (and done) some shit that we were never fully informed about (until later in the game), but which could explain why his behavior was so manic.
That’s why I find that I’m preferring Peter Capaldi over Tennant and Smith. I liked both, but I think they were cast to bring life into the role so the series could literally burst out of hiatus with unconstrained energy and appeal to a new demographic that shows up for the attractive cast, but stays for the fun of the series. Capaldi is older than the previous Doctors, which circles back around the very early days of the show, but instead of being the “grandfather” that the Doctor started out as, he continues the manic presentation started by Baker. Still, we’re now on the other side of knowing more or less why the 21st century Doctor is haunted. It’s not a secret to us any more, which means that from a writing perspective, we need to find another concern that the character can brood about. So far, it’s a conflict between the now-pacifist Doctor and soldiering. In the first episodes, we see the character asking his companion Clara “am I a good man?”, and admitting that he’s made mistakes, and now it’s time to do something about them.
I expect we’ll be seeing a less fun-loving Doctor and a more contrite and grumpy Doctor (which has already started), but also a Doctor we can relate to. While Tennant and Smith embodied the potential fun of being able to go anywhere and any when, Capaldi shows us what can happen when the past — a very, very long past — starts to catch up to us, and starts to weigh on us, beyond the simple 100 yard stares we got from Tennant and Smith that were meant to convey something was bothering him. It’s a maturation of sorts, because in the real world we have to come to grips with the fact that we’re not as young as we feel, and that we have to own up and answer for the things we did when we were younger, and that those things which seemed like a good idea at the time weren’t actually the best decisions we could have made. The most telling episode so far this season was “Listen”, where we’re introduced to the idea of fear that’s always with us, and is embodied in scene when Clara comforts the Doctor as a child by telling him to listen to his fears. This new, “older” Doctor takes this to hearts (!), and is being more open to his fears that he’s been trying to avoid for the past three incarnations.
I guess it remains to be seen if the Tennant/Smith fans will take to the Capaldi Doctor as ardently. Aside from the fact that he is older (“I’m not your boyfriend”, he tells Clara, and as a nod to the sentiment fostered with the previous actors), he’s shaping up to be crankier and more morose. From a character stand point, it’s something I like. From a demographic standpoint, we’ll need to see how it plays out.