Recently, my friends and I have finally been able to begin watching the latest season of Doctor Who, where Peter Capaldi takes of the role of the Doctor in his newest incarnation. While we are only a couple of episodes into the season so far, the plotlines of each episode have marked a return to something in the Doctor’s character I hadn’t really seen since David Tennant’s portrayal: moral ambiguity.
As I discussed in my earlier post “A Farewell to the Tenth” where I wrote personal send-off to Tennant’s character, the tenth Doctor had an edge to him that I really appreciated. While he was lovable, brilliant, and eccentric, he could also be very dark, often being downright cruel to his foes. He always wanted himself and others to be the best they could be, but it was apparent that was something he had a hard time doing as he sometimes solved things in rather cruel ways. He also could get very petty at times and even went on a power-trip or two. At the end of the day he was still a great man who performed many fantastic feats in the name of protecting others, but we sometimes questioned if the ends justified the means.
This was the problem I had with Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor. When I say “problem” I do not mean that I thought his take on the character was bad, but that what he brought to the table didn’t always feel like the Doctor — at least in terms of how I understand the character established from the onset with Christopher Eccleston.
There was something in the way that Matt Smith portrayed the Doctor that never compelled me in the same way his two predecessors had. I do not deny that many great, iconic moments took place during Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor: The Silence were very compelling as a new foe, “The Impossible Astronaut” had one of the best unsettling moments of the whole series, and the pair of Amy and Rory were easily the best companions the series has had thus far. The quirks I’d come to know from the Doctor were there too, but the eleventh Doctor was very boyish and presented much more heroically than he had in his previous two incarnations. Where previously he was shown to be more flawed, Smith was more idealized.
A friend of mine, when discussing this, did bring up a good point that the boyish nature of the eleventh Doctor contrasts well with the moments where he does show his edgier side, and I agree that at points this was very effectively done. His edgier side is still very apparent, such as his ruthless efficiency against the Silence, and the presence of the Dream Lord in “Amy’s Choice” did a good job of showcasing the dark side that still lurks within him.
However, I think the moment in Matt Smith’s run that best exemplifies my issues with is a line from the episode “A Good Man Goes to War.” The line, spoken as a warning to the Doctor’s adversaries, is simply “Demons run when a good man goes to war,” referring to the Doctor mobilizing allies to attack the base on the asteroid Demons Run in order to save Amy Pond and her baby. Following this episode I found I had very polarized feelings about this line. On the one hand it stood out as very memorable in my mind, but it also got on my nerves.
Demons Run was one of the biggest narrative peaks in Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor, especially while Amy and Rory were with him, and it makes a big point of showcasing just how formidable and victorious the Doctor can be. The words kept echoing in my head though, and they kept bothering me. The Doctor is many great things, but it’s always been a little questionable to me whether or not he is a good man. Matt Smith was fantastic as the Doctor, but I feel they got sidetracked from this idea during his seasons to present a more positive and heroic character.
Just two episodes into Capaldi and I have seen a return to this ambiguity that I have come to love from the Doctor, and it looks like it’s going to be a focal point of the season. The way I’ve always seen him is exactly as Clara says at the end of the second episode “Into the Dalek,” — that she’s not sure whether or not he’s a good man, but that she thinks that’s also “kind of the point.” That’s how I’ve always seen the Doctor: an extraordinary being who doesn’t always do what’s right, but tries his hardest to. Clara says this to him because the Doctor prompted the question “Am I a good man?” and I’m hoping the season will continue to confront this problem. Capaldi’s Doctor seems more self-reflective than he’s ever been, and I hope it continues in this fashion.