New Series

The Magician’s Apprentice: Must Doctor Who Be Stupid?

Capaldi with guitar

In amongst some nice moments and some arresting moments in The Magician’s Apprentice was a moment I simply fast-forwarded. Over the last ten years there are many such moments: moments where I go and make a cup of tea or change the channel. Or, in one case, a moment where I simply turned off the television. To this day I have no idea what happens at the end of The Rings Of Akhaten.

I mean, obviously I know. The Doctor talks the monster to death – probably with recourses to terms including ‘baby’ and ‘big boy’. And almost certainly saying something ‘come and get it’ and probably ‘fandabidozi!’. But there’s plausible deniability while it remains unwatched – maybe the Valeyard and Fendahl team up with the Gundan Robots, the Doctor regenerates into Clara and vice-versa and everyone speaks Old High Galifreyan for the rest of the episode.

But these moments I speak of – the ones that drive me behind the metaphorical sofa. These moments cannot be summed up on one choice turn of phrase. They are varied, they happen across a number of Doctors and are scripted by different writers. There is one unifying theme however. In all of the the doctor is an idiot.

Steven Moffat has dispensed with a lot of received wisdom that RTD brought to Doctor Who. Most obviously that you couldn’t have an older Doctor, but I remember other such Davies-isms. You couldn’t show someone getting shot, was another such example. I’d love to know what RTD made of Amy machine-gunning Silents to death – or the Doctor shooting them with his Sonic Screwdriver. This actually happened. The Doctor killed intelligent beings by shooting them with his Sonic Screwdriver. Incredible.

But one bit of received wisdom no writer seems to be able to dispense with in NuWho is stupidity. I use the term advisedly for RTD would no doubt exclaim that while bits of his DW were stupid, they were also brilliant Because the programme is stupid and the character is too. This has almost be one a truism among certain well established Who fans and Moffat had embraced it wholeheartedly. Despite his early reputation as a master of dark storylines, he has one of the stupidest moments on the whole 50-odd years on his CV. Namely the hard-to-watch ‘drunk doctor’ bit in The Girl In The Fireplace or any of the speeches to no-one-on-particular he makes Matt Smith say.

While I can admit the character behaves stupidly across any era of the show, it never struck me that he was playing at being stupid. And this is the rub. We can forgive – hell, we can love – eccentricities and quirkiness of character and foibles and flaws. But we hate affectation, braggadocio and self-satisfaction. And that’s what the Doctor reeks off when he’s off at the deep end.

Yes, the programme is silly and the character is ridiculous – but these things have to have an internal logic of their own. If your starting point for watching any episode of Doctor is to write it off as far-fetched or implausible you’re in for a miserable time. What irks me is when The Doctor is stupid within that universe. And he is – routinely – stupid, in-universe, since around 2006.

Interestingly Christopher Eccleston escaped pretty much unscathed, despite looking fairly uncomfortable when his character veers towards kookiness. It’s the Tenth Doctor where this stuff really takes hold. But Matt Smith is, of anything, more stupid that Tennant’s Doctor. Just hos many spittle-flecked, limb-flailing moments do they share in their combined eight years? Frustratingly both are gifted comic actors; Smith particularly has wonderful moments of embodying the awkward physicality of someone who doesn’t know quite how their body works. Which seems to be true of both Matt Smith and Eleventh Doctor.

My impression was that the Doctor, traumatised by the experience of the Time War, was driven to playful, boastful or daft behaviour as a means of escaping his memories of the past. This is made fairly explicit in The Day Of The Doctor, when John Hurt’s character asks Ten and Eleven what drives them to such childish extremes. My expectation was that this behaviour would be toned down or disappear completely, both as a result of the Doctor’s catharsis – and because that stuff would so obviously be unsuited to Peter Capaldi. And then the Twelfth Doctor emerged on a tank and paying a guitar. Stupid, it seems, is back in fashion.

This can only be, I guess, because the writers believe that this is an immutable part of the Doctor’s character – or because they fear viewers will think the show too po-faced without detours into idiocy. There are other recurring themes over the last ten years that make reappearances – I think it’s worth questioning whether they’re now indivisible from the fabric of the show.

Tennant and Smith both actors came dangerously close to pastiching their own performances towards the end of their runs, probably for a number of reasons not limited to familiarity, fatigue and repetitive scripts and direction. But something else too, for stupidity alone does not explain some of the Doctor’s most egregious behaviour – now, seemingly adopted by the Twelfth. It’s worse than that. It seems ingrained in the series that the Doctor behaves like an idiot. Not the buffoonish ‘actually-mad’ outer limits of Tom’s Fourth Doctor or the uncertain birth-pangs of Sylv’s early clowning – but a self-regarding, self-aware twattery.

Moffat had the nerve to write – in the current DWM – that the best story in the universe is about someone who doesn’t know they’re the hero. But the Doctor of the last ten years does know. Not only that, he never bloody shuts up about it. When the Doctor swaggeringly proclaims his own genius, or makes a self-aggrandising speech about what a hard bastard he is or emerges from the wings of a medieval court standing on a tank, wearing Ray-Bans and playing his own theme tune on an electric guitar, it’s quite reasonable to come to the conclusion that he’s a complete arsehole who basks in adoration. The invariable response to this from Moffat, Davies, Spilsbury and other professional fans (or fannish professionals) is “Oh, but he is a complete arsehole, you sweet deluded fool!”.

But he isn’t. At least he never used to be. Not for the reasons I think he’s an arsehole anyway. The Doctor may be dangerous and he may be grumpy – in most regenerations he’s flat-out rude. And sometimes we may catch a whiff of danger about him, this man with secrets. However we would not think twice about bounding into that blue box, in spite of it all.

But in his worst moments the Doctor – Tenth, Eleventh and now Twelfth – is someone we’d edge away from. That man at the party talking too loudly; the bar-room braggart whose friends catch each others’ eyes. That man who is the self-proclaimed office joker. That man who, when faced with his own mortality (for, what, the thousandth time in his televised adventures) fucks off to Merrie England to prance around and show off in front of a load of strangers for several weeks.

In those moments I don’t recognise that man as the Doctor. In those moments the Doctor is not a man I’d like to know – he is a man who is an idiot in all the wrong ways. A man who makes hearts sink when enters the room. In those moments the Doctor is nothing less than a twat.

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Doctor Who’s popularity over five years

If there were any doubts over what a slick machine Doctor Who has become under Steven Moffat and his revolving-door production team, have a gander at this graph of search terms over the last five years, tracking the relative popularity (in Google search frequency) of Chris Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

Granted, this isn’t strictly a measure of their popularity solely in terms of Doctor Who, but all of the peaks in these charts represent some big new from the programme. The first heralds Smith’s arrival, with subsequent high points for Tennant’s departure, the 50th anniversary and Smith’s final episode. However, one of the peaks bows the rest out of the water: the announcement of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor.

It’s a phenomenal response to the news, albeit with an absolutely vast BBC campaign behind it generating unprecedented interest in Capaldi’s arrival. It’s debatable what we can take from this, but I think it tells us a lot about how important Doctor Who is to the BBC – and how much of a part the internet has to play in the continuing popularity of its greatest hits. Having said that, we can see that the programme has made significant year-on-year gains.

To be fair Doctor Who lends itself particularly well to this medium but the fact the announcement regarding Capaldi dwarfs the announcement of Smith by a factor of three suggests the Beeb has recognised – and very much courted the power of the web and social media.

What else? Well, it’s interesting to note that Tennant tracks ahead of Smith at virtually all times, even after Tennant vacates the TARDIS. Eccleston, perhaps unsurprisingly doesn’t have a huge volume of search engine hits, nor does Capaldi until he gets the Sonic Screwdriver.

As Smith’s career has arguably been driven mainly by Who – and as he was The Doctor during the BBC’s harnessing of the net in pushing its shows – let’s have a look at how the respective actors have done around the world.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that English-speaking countries have taken to the show, but the breadth of the international popularity is as surprising as Ian Levine maintaining a dignified silence on Twitter. South America, south-east Asia and Scandinavia all seem to have gone timey-wimey too.

Meanwhile, searching by news illustrates how social media and the web have overtaken traditional news sources – Smith’s arrival easily outstrips Capaldi’s. No Doctors have any meaningful coverage outside of English-speaking countries in news searches either.

Meanwhile Youtube searches indicate that the series remains popular across the board, with the unusual exception of Eccleston – perhaps he’s too long ago for the internet generation to get a handle on, or perhaps his relative lack of episodes meant here not as much penetration – from Tennant onwards there’s been a deliberate tactic to target online video with mini-episodes, trailers and exclusive content.

Meanwhile the surviving classic Doctors are fairly well represented. Colin’s spell in the jungle, Sylv’s Hobbit excursion, Paul’s Night of the Doctor and Tom’s return in the 50th special all generated notable peaks, thought it’s interesting to note that they all maintain a certain level of interest.

Also, nice to see the departed Doctors are still popular on Teh Internets. A pleasant reminder that, here or not, they live on across the web.

Lastly, a reminder of the power of memes – and why you will always hear these bloody catchphrases.