“There will be plenty of time to wax rhapsodic about Peter Capaldi and his Doctor in the coming weeks, but I think it’s safe to say that he’s dazzling right out of the gate; also forceful, aggressive, and dangerous… This new Doctor runs such a gamut of emotional states and attitudes throughout the course of the 80 minutes, it isn’t so much confusing, as it is a sight to behold. You genuinely never know what he’s going to do next.”
– Ross Ruediger
Except for Ross, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone more excited than me at the thought of Peter Capaldi taking on the most iconic role in sci-fi as Doctor Who. Capaldi’s that rare kind of actor who can elevate a scene, or an entire film, just by his mere presence (consider his previous signature role in The Thick of It, or his brief but powerful turn in World War Z). To have an actor of his brilliance as The Doctor was just better than I could hope for.
Somehow, in his first full appearance, he managed to exceed even those high expectations, with a performance at once familiar and new, at once comforting and daring. And in three incredible scenes, he became the Doctor in ways I’d never expected.
“Why this one? Why did I choose this face? It’s like I’m trying to tell myself something. Like I’m trying to make a point. But what is so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking?”
It’s pretty early on in Steven Moffat’s “Deep Breath” when the Doctor, still recovering from his regeneration, confronts a tramp about his new face. He can’t quite place it, but he just KNOWS he’s seen it before. (I’ll not spoil it here, but fans will know exactly where.)
The scene’s at once tense, poignant, and hilarious, as the Doctor’s confusion quickly gives way to contempt for his “attack eyebrows” (“They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross!”), then to glee at the thought of being Scottish (“I can complain about things. I can really complain about things now”). It’s a full-on rant. It’s Malcolm Tucker without the swearing. It’s the Doctor we’ve all been waiting for since Capaldi was cast a year ago.
And it’s the last time we’ll see that Doctor…
“Those people down there – they’re never small to me! Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way!”
It’s a far more serious Doctor who confronts the episode’s villain, a mad cyborg who’s just as lost as he. It’s a Doctor who’s not afraid to break his own code if it means humanity is safe for a little longer. It’s a Doctor who’s well and truly dangerous.
If “attack eyebrows” showed off Capaldi’s comedic genius, then this scene brings us his gift for intense drama. From the time he pours that scotch (“I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first”), we are scared. Scared of this Doctor. Scared for this Doctor. And even scared for his enemy. For the first time in a long time, we have NO IDEA what he’s doing.
Which is why what he does at the end of the episode might be the biggest surprise of all…
“You can’t see me, can you? You look at me and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone. I’m right here, standing in front of you. Please, just… just see me.”
The world is saved, but the Doctor isn’t yet. He’s looking for the reassurance that his closest friend is still his friend. And Clara just doesn’t know if she can be that anymore. She can’t see the Doctor she knew in the man standing before her.
(A brief aside to shout-out Jenna Coleman. Her performance in “Deep Breath,” at once caring and conflicted, might well be her finest hour on Doctor Who.)
Maybe another actor could have conveyed the pathos of the Doctor, the latent, eternal loneliness of the character. But no other actor could have conveyed it with such power and grace as Peter Capaldi. More than the rant, more than the quiet danger, THIS is what I think of when I think of the Twelfth Doctor.
Granted, this is all just one episode. We still have eleven more to go. But I’m actually more excited now than I was before it aired. Capaldi understands the Doctor, seemingly from the inside out. And the way he has brought the character to life is (as Ross said) dazzling. The Doctor we meet in “Deep Breath” is the closest we’ve come to classic Doctor Who since the show’s revival, and yet it’s also something more. Something completely new. Something that could be magnificent.
I have no idea what’s next. And I can’t wait to find out.
So, until then, allons-y!