Monday, October 6, 2014

Capaldi "Who"?

At the time of writing we are halfway through the latest series of "Doctor Who" with Peter Capaldi having taking over the role of everybody's favorite time-and-space traveling alien adventurer. I've seen five of the six episodes, and that's enough to discuss some of the changes to the show. As always, it takes a while for me to get settled with any new cast members. Though I like Capaldi very much, I haven't really warmed to his Twelfth Doctor yet. In theory I like the different dynamic of having an older, grumpier, and far less cuddly Doctor at the center of the show. In actuality, I'm having a hard time sympathizing with the character, and it's only in rare moments that he really channels the fun, romantic, genre hero I've always seen the Doctor as being - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, there's been a vast improvement in the character of Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman. Clara has been humanized with more emphasis on her life as an English teacher at the Coal Hill School, plus she has a new love interest, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). It's a little trite, sure, but it works. Suddenly, Clara is relatable and interesting, where she'd been a little too slick and superficial in the previous season with the Eleventh Doctor. Now we can see the rough edges and the flaws. Or it could just be that she's the most familiar element in a show that's gone through some major changes. The focus of the writing has shifted from plot-centric to character-centric. There's clearly a new Big Bad that's been foreshadowed in several episodes, but the stories are centering around the changing relationships of Clara, the Doctor, and Danny.

And it surprises me how invested I've become in Clara and Danny's relationship in only a handful of episodes. Samuel Anderson is great as Danny Pink, a full, well-rounded character who is clearly not just the tagalong black boyfriend that Mickey Jones was. He's a little brittle, but tremendously charming and a good match for Clara. They're both characters who have extremely cool and well-put-together exteriors, but turn into fumbling adolescents when you put them together. It's adorable. Following the rocky fits and starts of their romance and their hectic lives as teachers, it's clear that Jenna Coleman is a much better comic actress than she is a dramatic one, and should have been getting more material like this from the start. I like Clara so much more as an ordinary teacher with real life woes than The Impossible Girl who seemed to exist only as the MacGuffin in a galactic mystery.

Capaldi's Doctor is still a work in progress, but he's a radically different kind of Doctor, much closer to the touchy, avuncular character as he was introduced in the '60s than his more immediate predecessors. Part of it has to do with his age - Capaldi is older and plays the Doctor more crotchety and eccentric as opposed to zany and oddball. The show's approach to the character has also changed. The Doctor always had his shades of gray, and was downright ambiguous in some of his darker adventures, but this time out, his moral compass has never been more questionable. When he asks Clara if he's a good man, it's a genuinely difficult question to answer. The Twelfth Doctor seems far less heroic and protective of humanity than the Eleventh or the Tenth. He's much more fallible, mentally unhinged, and unpredictable. And in the latest comic episode, he was the butt of a few jokes.

I'm also having some difficulty shaking off Peter Capaldi's previous work. I'm so used to seeing him as Malcolm Tucker, that when he's in any comedic context and not exploding into torrents of blistering profanity, it feels a little off. Also, one of his previous appearances in the "Who" universe was the much more morbid, horrific role of John Frobisher in the "Torchwood" miniseries "Children of Earth." The Twelfth Doctor hasn't had the opportunity to be nearly as intense yet. Rather, he comes off a little silly sometimes - I'm getting used to it though, and I expect the dissonance will get better with time.

But while I'm not sure where i stand on the new Doctor, I like the status quo of the new series much better than the back half of series seven. The supporting cast is stronger and more fleshed out, the stories feel more consequential and of a piece, and I'm genuinely curious as to where the show is heading next. I can see more possibilities for interesting adventures with this mix of characters.

I'm also a fan of the new opening title sequence, with its clear references to the older "Who" canon. A few extra electronic warbles make so much difference.

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