Peter Capaldi plays second fiddle in ‘Doctor Who’ debut

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman). (Photo Courtesy of Ray Burmiston, ©BBC/BBC Worldwide 2014/BBC AMERICA)

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman). (Photo Courtesy of Ray Burmiston, ©BBC/BBC Worldwide 2014/BBC AMERICA)

An exponentially oversized T. rex stomps through the River Thames. From a reasonable distance, a diverse group of Victorian Londoners including an extraterrestrial humanoid lizard gawk in horror as the dinosaur galivants around Big Ben.

For the uninitiated, this description of the opening shot of the eighth season premiere of “Doctor Who” might sound absolutely batty. As for disciples of the long-running BBC program, this is exactly what they have come to expect.

It is not the intention of this premiere, written by showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), to deliver set pieces and plot devices fans have not seen before. While this has proven to be Moffat’s specialty, his task in this episode is far more difficult and important to the future of this television institution.

He has to introduce the world to the new Doctor.

Enter Peter Capaldi. Best known for his iconic role in Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick of It” and its companion film “In the Loop,” Capaldi has been delivering consistently stellar work in his 30-year career. Much to the confusion of many die hard “Doctor Who” fans, he is even a veteran to the series, making a previous appearance in the series in 2008 as well as a recurring stint on spinoff “Torchwood.”

Yet when Capaldi’s Doctor enters the frame, fresh out of his distinctive blue box after being upchucked by a dinosaur, all conscious memory of his other roles fade away. This moment not only sets the tone for the episode, which is both zany and unsettling, but also serves as the first characterization of the Twelfth Doctor. Unlike predecessors David Tennant and Matt Smith, Capaldi is not exactly youthful.

This is a vital detail not only for understanding Capaldi’s still mostly undefined take on the character, but also his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman). Serving as an avatar for an audience that was not quite ready to let go of Matt Smith, Clara obviously has a hard time accepting a Doctor who is not her Doctor, but rather one she is not quite sure she even knows anymore.

As the Doctor goes off on a B-plot to become acclimated with his new form and the unique quirks that come with it, Clara gets mixed up with the returning Paternoster Gang, an interstellar team of investigators who know of the Doctor well enough to re-introduce him to the audience with expository dialogue. Their encounters with the compulsory villains of the week do not belong among the worst this charmingly inconsistent series has to offer, but they are hardly noteworthy either.

The antagonists, foreign androids which harvest human body parts to become selectively human, serve as a supplementary symbol for the intrinsic vanity in the Doctor’s regeneration process. Otherwise, they are not particularly interesting.

To reiterate, though, the episode is not about the villains or the peril they bring. The goal is to pass one of television’s most beloved batons to the next runner. Capaldi may not have been given much to do in his unveiling, but he has already proven to be a mesmerizing force on a show that lives and dies on the strength of its plucky Time Lord. It will likely be hard to look away as he defines the future of the series.

“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

 

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel