“Well, Peri, what do you think? Hm?”
“Oh, never mind about the clothes; they’re easily changed. What about me?”
“I meant you!”
“Sorry, afraid I don’t understand.”
“Well, neither do I. I mean, people don’t change like that. I mean, physically, just in a flash.”
“I’m not ‘people,’ Peri, I happen to be me.”
“Natural metamorphosis. A form of rebirth. I call it a renewal. And this time, a positive triumph. I can sense it in every fiber of my being.”
Tomorrow sees the beginning of the eighth season of the 21st century incarnation of Doctor Who and the debut of the latest actor to portray the time-traveling Doctor, Peter Capaldi. That’s not him in the picture above, of course; instead, you’re looking at the sixth actor to take on the title role, Colin Baker, who flew the TARDIS from March 1984 through December 1986, and the dialog up top is a back-and-forth between his Doctor and his young companion Peri from his proper debut story, the much maligned “The Twin Dilemma.”
We’re looking at dear old Colin because of something that struck me last Christmas, as we entered the final moments of Matt Smith‘s final bow in the TARDIS. Smith’s Doctor’s current companion, Clara, has been through an anniversary special, so unlike Peri she knows the drill; when the Doctor is mortally wounded (or is about to succumb to the effects of old age; that’s happened three times now), the regeneration process kicks in and transforms him into a new man. And yet, that almost seems to make things worse — as she watches him stumble around the console and make his last speech she knows that the dear man she’s come to know, come to have a bit of a crush on even, will be replaced with a complete stranger. When that moment hits like a blow, when in the blink of an eye Smith’s face is replaced with Capaldi’s, Clara is in complete shock and remains in a wide-eyed, slightly terrified state through the end of the episode. The best point of comparison really is the end of “Caves of Androzani,” Colin Baker’s prececessor Peter Davison‘s last tale, through the opening of “The Twin Dilemma”; the TARDIS is in flight, the Doctor has regenerated before his pretty young companion’s eyes, and because of ill effects of that process it seems the poor companion’s life is in immediate danger.
The strangest thing about this is that the comparisons run even deeper. Rewind to Davison and Smith. Both were, in their respective days, the youngest actors ever to take the role. They both took over from actors who had defined the character of the Doctor for a generation, wild-eyed and alien eccentric Tom Baker and the dashing and frantically energetic David Tennant. They both had unevenly written but reasonably successful runs that each included a lovely round-numbered anniversary special. They both had Silurian stories that weren’t as good as Brian Hayles’s original “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” starting Jon Pertwee, and are in fact the only other two Doctors have a proper Silurian story. Both also had to deal with a proper multi-story arc about one of their companions trying to kill them. And both lost their defining companions (Tegan Jovanka for Davison, Amy Pond for Smith) in their final seasons, only to have them replaced with less well defined but very pretty companions (Peri and Clara).
And it was a plot point from the Davison years, the Time Lords offering the Master a “complete new life cycle” in the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” that saved Smith’s Doctor from being the last. He even at one point pulls out the gaudy Seal of Rassilon that Pertwee’s Doctor nicked from the Master in that story to deal with a bit of plot nonsense, as though to nod to those in the know that this is how they were going to do it.
So we see these patterns leading up to today — and honestly, if I wanted to be here all day, I could go so far as to map Christopher Eccleston‘s season back to the Pertwee years and draw some closer comparisons between Tom Baker and Tennant’s runs, but I think the general point’s been made — and on top of this we now have the descriptions being offered in interviews of Capaldi’s Doctor. Distant. Alien. “Less user-friendly.” Fierce. He’s a less likable Doctor. He’ll be butting heads a bit with his companion. Now, where have I heard all that before?
Oh, right. 1984. Colin Baker. Also, oddly enough, both Colin Baker and Capaldi had played roles on the show prior to being cast in the title role, Baker as the Gallifreyan Chancellery Guard member Maxil in “Arc of Infinity,” and Capaldi as the marble merchant Caecilius in “The Fires of Pompeii.” (And both naturally thought that meant they’d never get to play the Doctor.)
How fitting for a show about time travel that we seem to be witnessing history repeating itself. And honestly, that’s where the odd sort of worry sets in, that we may be in for another miscalculation in the production office regarding the lead character and another perilous fall from the great peak of popularity that was reached with the anniversary.
That said, while showrunner Steven Moffat isn’t anywhere near as bulletproof as he was before taking the helm, he’s never written a dud of a season premiere. He’s thrown a fan favorite supporting cast — Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax — into the premiere to smooth things over. They’ve sent the new Doctor and his first adventure on an actual world tour to build up goodwill and a positive buzz. The show is so big these days that it would take some significant work to bring it down, and the vibe I get from all the articles and interviews is that the new man in the lead has somehow renewed the production team’s vigor.
Perhaps this season will break the pattern. Perhaps this time the public will be ready for a darker, spikier Doctor. Perhaps this time we’ll actually see the character’s new trajectory all the way through to the end, wherever that may lead. Certainly I’ll be watching. After all, even if Capaldi’s Doctor is a non-starter I have to see if that finale with the Cybermen finally breaks the streak and makes it so that I can no longer say that the last good Cyberman story was in 1982 …