Does An Older Doctor Finally Make “Doctor Who” New Again?

Includes spoilers.

It’s been more than half a year since “Doctor Who” fans were left sobbing in their living rooms as the dashing, floppy-haired Matt Smith said what we thought were his final goodbyes after three seasons on the beloved, long-running British sci-fi hit. The span of time since the admittedly kind-of-strangely-awful Christmas special has held many fears for Whovians: Will Clara Oswald’s character finally get a chance to develop? What would the show be like without Smith, whose wit and charm were such an anchor in the depressing post-Tennant’s-hair world?  What would the show be like with this new guy, Peter Capaldi, who is the oldest man to play the Doctor since the 2005 reboot of the show?

The Series 8 premiere “Deep Breath,” full of Victorian costuming, dinosaurs in the Thames, and creepy robot men, took a stab at answering all of those questions, and, of course, couched it all in what was perhaps the most cohesive episode we’ve seen since “The Angels Take Manhattan.” This was due in part to the fact that Steven Moffat (*shakes fist*) was given the opportunity to write Twelve’s and Clara’s relationship from scratch, rather than trying to create this awkward, not-at-all-endearing relationship between Clara and 11 that left many cringing throughout the pair’s episodes. A new Doctor provided Moffat and the other series writers the opportunity to start fresh, instead of having to write Clara’s entire personality/story arc/reason for existence around Eleven’s already established character, which often left her seeming vapid and irritating. In “Deep Breath” we saw her actually have a character design independent of her character’s actions: She was still kind of pushy and annoying, but we’re told this time that that’s because she’s an egotist and a control freak. We saw her be vulnerable, lonely, and afraid. She got in Madame Vastra’s face. In essence, the audience was told that Clara no longer exists just to bolster the Doctor up; rather, she’ll now be her own character with her own feelings and motives outside of his. Thank God. *breathes sigh of relief*

In reality, the entire concept of starting a new season with a new Doctor was the perfect opportunity for Moffat to push “Who” in a new direction. Capaldi’s Doctor is clearly not the same kind of Doctor as Ten or Eleven. The BBC overhauled “Who” between Ten and Eleven, moving from Russel T. Davies’ often independent/loosely connected episode style to Moffat’s interwoven, season-spanning story arcs, as well as bringing on a new companion (Amy Pond) and a new TARDIS design (no more grunge!). But “Who” execs weren’t planning on leaving behind current companions Clara, Silurian Madame Vastra and her wife, Jenny, or Sontaran Mr. Potato Head Strax—Clara only just got here, and everyone loves Vastra/Jenny/Strax. Plus, Moffat doesn’t seem to want to be as flaky with his companion’s as Davies was. And they weren’t planning on ditching Eleven’s latest TARDIS redesign, but rather just updating it, so there had to be a metaphorical line in the sand somewhere. That line in the sand was Capaldi as the 12th Doctor.

Gone are the days of the young, sexy Doctors. Capaldi has a chance to be a hero figure without the flirting and the random kissing (though probably not without the fangirling). Of his three predecessors, he’s most reminiscent of Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, with his snide comments, short temper, and nontraditional accent. This gives Clara a chance to be a female role model without the obligatory question of romance, which is hugely important for the young girls who have grown to love the show over the past decade.

It’s pretty clear that showrunners are hoping young female viewers feels they can relate to Clara—she more or less served as a surrogate for that subset of “Who’s” audience through the entire episode. The show has garnered much of its popularity over the years from the preteen and teenage fangirls who have plastered their bedroom walls with posters of 10 and 11 and dedicated entire Tumblrs and Instagrams to proclaiming their undying love and devotion for said Doctors. In fact, it could probably be said that the show wouldn’t have taken off without that kind of support. But now those Doctors are gone, and in their place is a man unlikely to reap the same kind of affection from the young female audience. Clara feels similarly—the Doctor she so heavily flirted with is gone, replaced by a man old enough to be her father, and she doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. So in a brilliant piece of television, as Clara works through her feelings and decides to accept the Doctor’s new 12th self, the audience does, too.

Madame Vastra: You thought he was young?
Clara: He looked young. 
Madame Vastra: He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover even. 
Clara: Shut up.
Madame Vastra: But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.
Clara: I did not flirt with him.
Madame Vastra: He flirted with you.
Clara: How?
Madame Vastra: He looked young. Who do you think that was for? 
Clara: Me?
Madame Vastra: Everyone.

But the writers also apparently understood viewers might not be quite ready to let Smith’s 11th Doctor go… because he called in from Trenzalore, in a last-ditch effort to tell Clara to please accept his new self, because he needed her. It was touching and not too maudlin, but definitely not as heart-wrenching as the goodbyes fans have seen in the past: Rose’s, Amy’s and Rory’s, River’s. And Moffat also gave a nod to earlier “Who” with the inclusion of villains and plot anchors from Season 2’s popular Tennant-era episode “The Girl in the Fireplace” (which he wrote during Davies’ era).

Couching Capaldi’s premiere as Twelve with favorite characters like Vastra, Jenny, and Strax helped lend a sense of humor to the semi-traumatizing reality that a new era has begun for the beloved sci-fi show, and letting the audience walk through that realization with Clara, whose personality was given a serious re-boot, was a kindness audiences certainly weren’t awarded in 11’s first episode, where the only remnants of 10 were the literal remnants of his clothes. And couching the whole shebang in a familiar story line from a long-gone popular episode helped remind viewers it’s the same show, just with a different face. If the rest of Capaldi’s run is anything like “Deep Breath,” this new reincarnation of “Who” promises to be everything, if not more, than what audiences have grown to love about the show.

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  • I loved the episode! I was so thrilled that Clara was actually, *gasp*, likeable! And Capaldi was PERFECT. I love him. gahhhh, I’m so excited for this season

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