Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The 12th Doctor

Doctor Who's 12th Doctor was played by Peter Capaldi, who guest-starred in an episode of the David Tennant-era Doctor as a citizen of Pompeii. (The familiarity of his face is eventually, but unnecessarily, retconned. But now that I think of it, the word "unnecessarily" in that sentence is redundant.) He's an older-looking Doctor with a Glasgow accent, who likes to dress on the dressy side of business casual (no tie, anyway), play Beethoven's 5th on an electric guitar and use sonic sunglasses in addition to, or at times instead of, the customary screwdriver.

For his first two series, Doc 12 hangs out with the same Clara Oswald who followed the 11th Doctor around toward the end of his run. In what I guess was Series 8 of Modern Whoviana – note, however, that I had to look this up on Wikipedia – Clara has a romance with an adorable maths teacher named Danny Pink, while she's teaching at the same school, setting up some character conflict with the Doctor who has no respect for soldiers while Danny used to be one and hasn't quite gotten it out of his system. Their love story comes to a sad end at about the time a certain Missy is revealed to be the latest regeneration of the villainous Master, the second-last Time Lord (sorry – Lady), who has been frenemies with the Doctor for something like 2,000 years. She remains a recurring threat throughout the 12th Doctor's tenure. In Series 9, Doc adventures with a more grief-hardened version of Clara, who shows an increasing tendency to declare herself to be the Doctor in what I fancy to be an early foreshadowing of the 13th Doctor's sex. On either side of Danny Pink's ennobling end, she has a remarkable zest for dangerous escapades that borders on, and sometimes crosses the border into, downright recklessness. It's kind of fun to see the Doctor taken aback by it.

But then, Clara is snatched from him and the show undergoes a weird format change for Series 10, in which the Doctor has two companions – a deceptively wimpy guy named Nardole, who (in one of two Christmas specials that bookended an entire year of no new episodes) gets dismembered and put back together, and a same-sex attracted college girl named Bill Potts, who is actually only a college girl because the Doctor senses something remarkable in her and offers to be her tutor at the university where he has (this is the weird part) agreed to stay put, no Tardising about, for 1,000 years while guarding a vault containing the nefarious Missy. Nardole's role is to disapprove when the Doctor chooses to play hooky and gallivant across spacetime. Bill's, apparently, is to ask different questions ("Doctor What?") and make different observations ("It's smaller on the outside") than any of the Doctor's previous companions, because she sees everything differently.

So, in these three seasons of Doctor Who, the denizens of the Tardis thwart an evil Italian restaurant that turns people into cyborg replacement parts; shrink down and do the incredible journey inside a Dalek; go back to the 12th century to prove whether or not Robin Hood really existed (and, of course, discover that the Sheriff of Nottingham is in league with aliens); stage a heist at the most secure bank in the universe, guarded by a beast that'll melt your brain if it smells guilt on you; duke it out with killer robots, a moon-devouring dragon, a ghostly apparition that kills anyone who can see it within 66 seconds, a race of living graffiti who kill people by turning them two-dimensional, and a forest that grows up overnight all over the world; and face a combined Missy/Cybermen plot to turn all mankind's dear departed against them. And that's just Series 8.

Series 9, heavy on two- (or three)-parters, features jaunts on the Dalek homeworld, a time travel puzzle involving more killer ghosts, a demonstration of how it's never a good idea to grant immortality to a Viking girl (just catch me making that mistake now), an attempt to provoke a genocidal war between mankind and the shape-changing Zygons living peacefully among us, mayhem caused by a machine that spares workers the trouble of sleeping, and a confrontation between the Doctor and the surviving Time Lords of Gallifrey.

In Series 10, they go up against liquid people who can travel anywhere (or anywhen) in no time flat, robots who kill anyone who isn't smiling because they want everyone to be happy, a people-eating monster under the ice at the 1814 Thames ice fair, a house that eats people, a space mining company that rents oxygen to its workers by the breath and turns their spacesuits against them to keep costs down, an invasion by corpse-like alien monks who try (and largely succeed) to enslave the human race in part by rewriting the history books, a Victorian-era British invasion of Mars (a bad idea for so many reasons), the real reason the Ninth Roman Legion disappeared (hint: Druids were only indirectly to blame), and a Cybermen origins story that takes place on a 400-mile-long colony ship struggling to back away from a black hole – which has the intriguing relativistic effect that decades pass at one end of the ship during minutes at the other. I think a whole branch of mathematics could be devoted to figuring out how things would play out on that ship.

There is also a goodly crop of Christmas specials. The 2014 one, "Last Christmas," capitalizes on the demise of Danny Pink to inject a vivid dose of heartache into a tale in which Santa Claus joins forces with the Doctor to battle face-hugging aliens intent on eating people's brains. "The Husbands of River Song," 2015, provides emotional closure for the relationship between the Doctor and his main squeeze, who keep meeting like time machines in the night (mostly traveling in opposite directions). It's also a pretty funny episode, featuring (among other things) a sentient robot suit that keeps the brain of an evil alien king alive, and a restaurant ship that caters exclusively to the most evil people in the galaxy. This is followed, without any intervening episodes, by 2016's Christmas special "The Return of Doctor Mysterio," in which an American kid who's crazy about comics inadvertently swallows a rare gem that causes wishes to come true, and grows up to be the equivalent of Superman. Finally, there's "Twice Upon a Time" (2017), which draws out the Doctor's inevitable regeneration into a crossover story starring David Bradley ("Filch" from the Harry Potter movies) as the First Doctor.

Along the way, the guest cast is graced by such talent as Justin Chatwin (American Gothic, Another Life), David Suchet (best known, at least to me, for playing Hercule Poirot), Joivan Wade (Doom Patrol), Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Paul), Jemma Redgrave (of that Redgrave family), Michael Troughton (son of Patrick "The Second Doctor" Troughton), Mark Gatiss (who played Mycroft Holmes on Sherlock, which he co-created with Who showrunner Steven Moffat, and also wrote some Who episodes), Peter Serafinowicz (a.k.a. Darth Maul), Greg Davies (whom I recognized as a recurring panelist on the hilarious British celebrity game show Would I Lie to You), and more.

How shall I narrow it all down to Three Episdoes That Made It For Me? Quickly, I suppose. (1) "Heaven Sent," the penultimate episode of Series 9, traps the Doctor almost alone in a sort of purgatory where Peter Capaldi reads some of his best lines and delivers some of his best line readings. The epitome of a bottle show – it almost doesn't have anybody in it except the Doctor, unless you count a terrifying cloaked figure that he spends a lot of time trying to avoid – it somehow packs a lot of dramatic power. (2) "The Return of Doctor Mysterio," which comments drily on the comic-book conceit that nobody can tell Clark Kent is Superman because of glasses. And (3) "Time Heist," in which the Doctor, Clara and a few other accomplices willingly erase their own short-term memory in order to pull off a bank robbery that could only succeed with foreknowledge of an impending catastrophe (among other sci-fi gimmicks). There are several Honorable Mentions, though, such as "Smile" (with the killer emojibots), "Oxygen" (with the killer spacesuits), "Mummy on the Orient Express" (need I say more?) and the "Under the Lake/Before the Flood" duad, in which an alien tries to harvest the souls of all mankind just to boost his radio signal.

However, there are also problems with the 12th Doctor. I didn't think Series 9's Zygon two-parter was all that great. Neither was the Monks three-parter in Series 10. I came away from Series 8's "Listen" not really convinced that it was about anything. I thought "In the Forest of the Night" (also Series 8) was just one too many episodes in a short span in which Earth is almost destroyed by a natural disaster of astronomical scale, coming a mere four episodes after "Kill the Moon." I was rather disappointed with how Series 9's "The Woman Who Lived" turned out (i.e. as a recurring character, speaking of the immortal girl the Doctor inadvertently creates). And although I used the word "ennobling" to describe Danny Pink's death, I regret that the show didn't give his romance with Clara more time to develop. I suppose once they get domesticated, they aren't much use as time-and-space-traveling companions, as the 11th Doctor learned from Amy and Rory. But mainly, I think the whole "Let's have the Doctor settle down as a don at I forget what university" concept that ran throughout Series 10 was a non-starter. It was just too far off format. I mean, domesticating the Doctor is even worse than tying his companions down with day jobs, marriages, homes and ordinary lives. Also, the idea of bringing back Doc 1, played by a well-known and high-quality actor like David Bradley, seems brilliant on paper (and at times, Bradley carried it off just as brilliantly) – but it runs hard upon the shoals of political correctness, which definitely doesn't embrace the attitudes espoused by the First Doctor. As a result, I think, the experiment ends up insulting fans who have followed the show since its infancy, making the original doctor appear either ridiculous or obnoxious and basically canceling out any good the crossover does.

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