This is something I have been meaning to post for some time. With the exception of the inaugural episode “Deep Breath” (dinosaurs, cyborgs, Victorian London), I have been quite taken with this season of Doctor Who. Peter Capaldi has made quite an impression as The Doctor, and that has caused me to ponder. My train of thought follows.
Up until now, I had been disappointed with Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner for the series. I was out-and-out hostile as some on the Internet seemed to be. But there was always something missing. But I couldn’t put it together. I like Matt Smith’s Doctor. I had liked Moffat-penned episodes from the Russell T. Davies era; “Blink”, of course, stands out in particular. I liked Amy, I liked Rory, and I liked Amy & Rory. I wasn’t sure how Clara fit in with the #11 emotionally, but that wasn’t surprising. But other than “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor” — with “The Doctor’s Wife” as a possible runner-up — none of the episodes from the first three years stood out as classic and necessary episodes that needed to added to pantheon of the canon.
And then comes “Robot of Sherwood” and “Time Heist”, which are definitely a couple of outings that can hold their heads high on the fun end of the spectrum, and “Into the Dalek” and especially “Listen” which are some of the darker and more disturbing pieces from the whole of the program’s run. “Listen” has some startling twists and turns that genuinely surprised this writer.
So what changed? Yes, they brought on some new directors, including Ben Wheatley (one of the great directors of the British indie scene). And, of course, the elephant in the room: Capaldi.
Is that all it takes to make a good show great? Change your lead?
There is something very special and wonderful and impossible to define about the collaboration between writer and actor. You can have skilled and talented actors and writers, but if the magic, the alchemy, the shared sixth sense is not there, the work while still good will lack that ability to create something transcendent in its audience. Maybe Moffat, a Scot, can only write for Scottish doctors (David Tennant and Capaldi) — I kid, but only a little. With Capaldi, he found an outlet for his voice that clicked. And perhaps Capaldi too found new levels of meaning and emotional intricacy that Smith could not. Even Jenna Coleman, who was a character with too many plot devices last year, really shines this year and is on fire in her two-handers with Capaldi.
There is a reason that Martin Scorcese always used to work with Robert de Niro and now Leonardo DiCaprio. Or John Ford with John Wayne. Or Woody Allen with Diane Keaton. At its best, the successful actor/writer/director collaboration creates a language all its own. Despite the presence of a Tardis, dinosaurs on a spaceship, Daleks, and Cybermen, Doctor Who, like all great science fiction, works best when the humanity of its key players is front and center. And now that is what Moffat has found in the 8th year of The Doctor Who reboot. Miracles more often that not happen in the writers’ room, not a time machine.