By gum, if we’re going to have a “Doctor Who” category here at the Conversation, I’m going to use it to talk about something other than the State of the Union Address, because I think the current state of the union can be best captured by my desire to never watch another State of the Union Address. Somewhere out there in America, my high-school civics teacher is enjoying his long-delayed victory in the argument over whether I would ever have to pay close attention to such things. Well-played, sir, well-played.
So anyway, there’s a new Doctor. (He’s not actually called “Doctor Who,” for those unfamiliar with the show, although some of the later episodes have made an annoying fetish of slipping the phrase into episode-ending dialogue.) This is a rather amazing bit of popular culture: a television show that just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It was off the air for a while in the Nineties, so it’s not quite 50 years of continuous broadcasting, but still: wow. And it’s nowhere near running out of gas.
One reason “Doctor Who” remains evergreen is that the titular character is an ancient time-traveling alien who occasionally “regenerates” after suffering fatal injury, which means presto! New actor! As Doctor Who mythology has it, this also means significant personality changes too; he’s usually a bit dazed after regenerating, but he eventually recovers all of his memories, filtered through a personality that has changed a bit. Until now, one of the few threads of his character that never unravels has been his whimsical good cheer. A few of the original incarnations of the Doctor were a bit more dour, and played by older actors, but ever since the awe-inspiring Tom Baker got his multicolored scarf wrapped around the part in the Eighties, he’s always been a superficially funny guy.
After his long interregnum, the Doctor returned to the air a few years ago in a modern re-invention that added a bit of angst to the character, and a higher budget to express it with. His absence from television was worked into the story – he was fighting in a horrible temporal war that eventually forced him to wipe out his own species. That’s a heavy burden to carry, especially for a man who prides himself on fighting like the dickens to save lives – anyone’s life, everyone’s life – and mourns each failure. One of the best scenes in the relaunched show had the Doctor literally dancing for joy because he got to the end of an adventure in which “everyone lives.” Christopher Eccleston was playing him back then; he did such a good job of conveying the Doctor’s happiness over saving every single life that it was hard for longtime fans to decide if they wanted to laugh or cry.
Now, after a successful run featuring Matt Smith as the most blatantly comical take on the Doctor yet (“Fezzes are cool. I wear a fez now”) the showrunners have decided the new incarnation, played by Peter Capaldi, will be older, and kinda scary. My friend Jim Treacher at the Daily Caller has some interesting thoughts on that. He approves of the prospective new direction for the venerable character:
The Doctor should kind of creep you out. He should make you think, “I’m in the presence of someone I don’t know, someone I can never know, because he is utterly alien. But he still wants to save us from these even creepier space guys, because he’s smarter than them and he’s not about to let them forget it.”
This is a longtime conceit of the show. The Doctor has no awesome physical powers, beyond the regenerative ability that makes him tough to take out once and for all (it releases a lot of energy, so you can’t just toss him in the basement and shotgun him until he stops coming back.) He triumphs through his wits, and of course the ready availability of a time machine built with dimension-warping godlike technology. In theory, anyone who has a big problem with him could just shoot him on sight – something the show has really only addressed once, in the aborted Fox TV attempt to bring the show to America in the Nineties, where the Doctor materialized in L.A., stepped out of his time machine, and was promptly gunned down in a drive-by shooting.
But in practice, as he has gleefully observed on several occasions, the monsters are afraid of him. The most terrible, merciless killers in the galaxy quake at the thought of his arrival. And he’s just this lovable eccentric with a time machine that looks like a phone booth. I worry this charming contrast will be lost if the Doctor actually looks and acts like someone you should be afraid of. And really, the scary elements of the character were always there, ably portrayed by the quite remarkable procession of gifted actors who have played him.
Matt’s Doctor was scary. You could get in a lot of trouble by jumping in that time machine with him. He was hilarious, prone to goofy pratfalls executed with a fine Buster Keaton flair… but he was also capable of hacking into the base code of all creation and rewriting it. He was the magical bow-tied clown guardian of a little girl who spent much of her life waiting for him to reappear and whisk her off to the stars, but he was also the destroyer of worlds. He was laughing away the pain of committing genocide against his own people. It is a running theme of the show – explicitly stated in these newer episodes – that the Doctor travels with a companion, usually a young woman from modern-day Earth, because he needs someone to rein him in before he brings the stars crashing down. After a thousand years of fighting against inhuman cruelty, he must occasionally be tempted to turn out the lights, put the chairs on the tables, and hang a “Closed” sign on the universe to put a final stop to it. He could do it.
But he won’t, and his sense of humor – an expression of how much he loves the cosmos, and all the good people who dwell within it – is a big part of the reason why. Maybe the Dark Peter Capaldi Doctor will forget all that at first, and give us an interesting series as he goes about remembering how to laugh.