Call the Doctor: The Many Faces of 'Doctor Who'

As the British sci-fi TV show enters its fifth decade with a new 'Who,' it remains as popular (and pop-philosophical) as ever

Peter Capaldi as The Doctor in 'Doctor Who.' Credit: Ray Burmiston/BBC

In the opening episode of the current season of BBC's Doctor Who — the longest-running science fiction show in history, about a humanoid alien who has traveled time and space for a millennium — the Doctor, currently played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, is having a tense exchange with his travel companion and assistant, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). The two have known each other for years now — ages, it would be fair to say. They have been across the universe and back, and they have challenged and uncovered each other's deepest secrets. At the end of last year's Christmas special, "The Time of the Doctor," the Doctor trusted Clara enough to have gone through a kind of death in her presence. He never really dies, however; instead, he regenerates when his body meets fatal limits, materializing again as the same continuous being, though with a different body and personality.

In the Doctor's two prior incarnations — brilliantly played by David Tennant (from 2006 through 2008) and Matt Smith (2010 to 2013) — everyone's favorite Time Lord was young and handsome, lanky, goofy, exuberant, full of wonder and bright smiles despite several lifetimes' worth of terrible memories. Capaldi's Who, though, is not youthful or ebullient; he's weary and dour, and he is painfully aware of his dramatic change. The Doctor might not be an attractive or likable man this time around, and his companion might no longer accept him as the man she admired and risked everything for. "Are you cross with me?" he asks. Clara admits that she is. "And if I hadn't changed my face, would you be cross?"
    
The question could also be meant for Doctor Who's audience: Peter Capaldi's version is, after all, a much different Doctor than the series' current generation of fans (known as Whovians) has known before. But there's no real doubt of the answer. Over the course of 50-plus-years (the series debuted in 1963, though was in hiatus from 1989 to 2005) and more than 800 imaginative episodes, Doctor Who now stands, according to the British magazine New Statesman, as one of the U.K.'s most successful cultural exports, and holds the record for "the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama," after 94 countries broadcast the series' 50th anniversary special last November. This is to say that what was for decades an acquired-taste curio outside Britain is now a respected and sizable international success that is only gaining momentum. But Doctor Who is also, to be sure, a thoroughly odd show — fanciful, hilarious, terrifying, devastating, all the while making wild leaps — and its success has been as improbable as the stories it tells.



Conceived as a slot-filler to keep a young audience tuned into BBC on Saturday nights (it began the same season that the Beatles skyrocketed in England), Doctor Who at first aimed to be a pedagogical entertainment. The inscrutable Doctor, on the run from his own ancient race of stern Time Lords, and his various companions would travel dimensions and eras in his space ship, the TARDIS (an inspired bit of whimsy that looks like a blue British police box from the 1960s but is vast on the inside). Along the way they visited known events and times as well as future trouble spots on Earth and throughout the galaxy, and their adventures illustrated ostensible lessons in history, behavior, values and science. The Doctor solved some cosmic mysteries, helped some endangered people and races, tried to rectify losses and fears and hurts, nullified tyranny and genocide when possible, and saved the universe and reality over and over — but as a Time Lord he would not overrule major finished history (as example, in a 2011 episode he wouldn't kill Hitler when given the chance).

At the outset, BBC made plain to the show's 1963 creative team that Doctor Who shouldn't feature commonplace science fiction stereotypes of the time, such as robots and terrifying bug-eyed monsters. But after producer Verity Lambert succeeded in delivering an episode about death-dealing robots with a big telescopic eye — the Daleks, bent on annihilating any race that was different from their hatred— it became an overnight sensation. The Daleks, and their repetitive cries of "EXTERMINATE," became the Doctor's most indelible enemy, and they have already turned up in the current season. (In 1999, a Dalek appeared on a British postage stamp commemorating the millennium, in an image by renowned photographer Lord Snowdon).
    
The Doctor himself was always intended to be enigmatic, and has only revealed his true name to one person — and even then it wasn't said aloud. Though much of his background has slowly been filled in during the last half-century, an unexpected turn at the end of this season's spooky and surprising "Listen" (many of the show's best episodes are earth-bound horror tales) indicate that buried and frightening parts of the Doctor's past still remain to be divulged. Back in 1963, the first actor who played the character, William Hartnell, portrayed him as an aging, sometimes ill-tempered man — which is how some saw Hartnell himself. In the late 1960s, as Hartnell grew older and more tired, and began mistaking script lines, BBC decided to keep the character but use another actor, as a younger man possessing a different face and temperament. As a result, the Doctor became an ongoing consciousness, transfigured from time to time, who remembered his past and purposes but also acquired a new personality.

Over the years, as the character died and regenerated (Peter Capaldi is the 12th or maybe 13th Doctor; it's complicated), subsequent actors and creative teams have imbued him with intriguing depths and quirks. He has been whimsical, pompous, charming, heroic, angry, ruthless, homely, good looking, even sexy. But as his personality has expanded, the Doctor has stayed true to some core ideals that stand for how humanity should progress: He believes in diversity, in racial and sexual tolerance — he's even voiced his faith in socialist health care — and attempts to protect the oppressed, especially from violent endings and the ruin of war. Though the Doctor says he's fought in wars himself, and has maybe killed races, he has no respect for authoritarian or military mentalities, having grown contemptuous of weaponry and violence.

Early in David Tennant's run on the series, the Doctor summarily destroyed the career of a British Prime Minister who fired on alien enemies that were in retreat. In another Tennant episode, when asked why he doesn't respect a military commander's judgment, the Doctor says, "He's carrying a gun. People with guns are usually the enemy in my book." Capaldi's Doctor apparently feels the same. At the end of the new season's second episode, when a young female soldier asks to join him in his travels, the Doctor replies: "I think you are probably nice. Underneath it all I think you are kind, definitely brave. I just wish you hadn't been a soldier." Steven Moffat, the show's producer and writer, recently told London's Guardian: "When they made this particular hero, they didn't give him a gun…. They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter…. they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts! And that's an extraordinary thing."

He has been whimsical, pompous, charming, heroic, angry, ruthless, homely...even sexy.

    
It's true, the Doctor's alien physiology allows him two hearts, but they hold darkness as well as enlightenment. More than once, Daleks have said they recognize a kinship with the Doctor because of the unexamined anger and hatred at his core. In the present season the Doctor asks Clara, "Am I a good man?" The question catches her short. "I don't know," she admits, though she thought she did know once. He's also capable of displaying a god-sized hubris. In "The Waters of Mars" (a special from 2009), Tennant's Doctor grew so arrogant in the infallibility of his own judgment and its impact on others, that a female astronaut told him, "No one should have that much power." The Doctor replied, "Tough…. I'm the winner. That's who I am. The Time Lord Victorious." Appalled, the woman asked, "Is there nothing you can't do?" The Doctor looked at her smugly, and said, "Not any more." The immediate result of that exchange is the most devastating moment in all of the series' runs. It leaves the Doctor shaken and trembling alone on a snowy street at night, telling himself in horror: "I've gone too far."
    
Capaldi has said his Doctor will be "less user-friendly" than before. He seems, if anything, more actively scientific than his earlier selves; at the same time, he recalls less of his former charm and personal experience. Much of this season's first episode fixed on the bodily age of this new incarnation: He is an older man, with gray hairs and deep lines that furrow his long face and hollow cheeks. (Capaldi is now 55, the same age as William Hartnell when Doctor Who began in 1963.) This new aspect befuddles him. Staring at his image in a cracked mirror in an alley, the Doctor asks a bewildered vagrant, "Have you seen this face before? It's funny because I'm sure that I have. You know, I never know where the faces come from. They just pop up, faces like this one…. It's covered in lines, but I didn't do the frowning. Who frowned me this face? Why this one? Why'd I choose this face? It's like I'm trying to tell myself something. Like I'm trying to make a point. But what is so important that I can't just tell myself what I think?"

The comment refers to a critical instance in both the Doctor's and the series' history. In a 2008 episode, David Tennant's Doctor and his assistant, Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate), landed the TARDIS in Pompeii in the 1st century C.E., the day before Vesuvius would erupt and kill 2,000 people. In that episode, Peter Capaldi played the father of the Roman family that befriends the time-travelers. Though the Doctor knows these people will die within hours, he will not intervene to save them; he insists to Donna that he has no right to change history. As the Roman family cowers in their house, destruction pouring down, Capaldi begs the Doctor to rescue them, but the Doctor boards the TARDIS with Donna and departs. "You can't just leave them!" Donna tells him, but he answers, "Don't you think I've done enough? History is back in place and everyone dies." In a prescient moment, Tennant's Doctor returns and extends his hand to Capaldi and his family, and brings them aboard the TARDIS. This is what Capaldi's Doctor is trying to recall when he looks into the mirror: a memory of himself saving the man who would later wear his face.

This serendipity is also a telling reminder that for more than 50 years Doctor Who has proven itself a persistently inventive story about humanity, in both historic and personal terms, large and small, as an experiment that fails every epoch and day, yet necessarily goes on and merits conviction. We fuck up a lot — horribly, at times — but we move on. Then we learn a little, and move on a little more. "Look at these people, these human beings," the Doctor once told an otherworldly despot. "Consider their potential!" History, the Doctor was saying, demands of us that we are sometimes worthwhile. If this new Doctor is still the man we have followed all these years, he will overcome himself whether or not he's forgotten to remind us of that fact again.