Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reviewing the current Doctor Who - Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor

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Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor in the current series of Doctor Who. Not surprisingly I think he is excellent as a Doctor. 'Not surprisingly' because I have always liked Capaldi as an actor, having followed him since he starred in one of my favourite ever movies Bill Forsyth's Local Hero.

Indeed, although I haven't personally met him, my several of my old Glasgow friends and relations (by marriage) knew him via his early job as an artist in the graphic design department of the BBC. So I operate under the covert delusion that Peter Capaldi is some kind of distant cousin, or something.

Anyway I was delighted when Capaldi was cast in the iconic role - and it is already apparent that he could become one of the best ever Doctors; with a very well focused, uncontrived and convincing character (as contrasted with the superficial and manneristic performances of some exponents - who rely on a silly costume and contrived catch phrases).

(Capaldi is presumably some kind of method actor, as well as a master of his craft, because his best performances seem to come from within; as contrasted with the virtuosic surface sparklings of David Tennant - who always seems to be admiring his own stunt-pilot brilliance.)

From the five episodes so-far it is clear that Capaldi can rise to any occasion the stories demand - from very funny to very scary to joyous or nostalgic: the theme being inner toughness. Indeed, the only thing that could hold him back are the scripts/ direction, which so far - and with the exception of 'Listen', which was a near-miss as a classic - have not been really satisfying.

The problem is that there is not enough of the Doctor and far too much of his companion Clara and her Chick Lit life of fashion, romance and being 'feisty' - at times the Doctor is reduced to being a sidekick. This is pandering to the female audience, of course; but even in her own right, Clara is just not a very interesting character - merely a standard, off-the-peg, pretty perky young woman of the Jennifer Aniston-role type - but not so gifted an actress.

(In that respect Clara is a step-back from Amy Pond; who at least had a sufficiently distinctive look and accent - although her romantic life also was given ridiculous and tedious prominence in the scripts, and the character distorted the show's integrity with her typically modern/ shallow - and unchallenged - sense of pseudo-empowered, lipstick-feminist entitlement and self-assertion. The Doctor in space with a stripper: I ask you!)

The political correctness is a problem too, of course - as in all mainstream entertainment; but somewhat worse since the post 2005 revived series was deliberately contrived as Saturday teatime family propaganda for the sexual revolution; with the crass and anti-mythic strategy of (very-obviously and very crudely) subverting and sexualizing the story-arc doctor-companion relationship and insetrting the most banal of current affairs, culture wars, Leftist 'political points'.

The big problem is that in our era, due to the ever-increasing polarization between the secular and religious world views, lack of clarity over metaphysics has become impossible to carry-off^. Things are coming to a point, you are either on one side or the other; you must either alienate the secular majority or the religious minority; and the sides are hard to blur - even by the most skilled writers.

The early Doctor's unstated but vaguely-Christian, quasi-Stoic morality has become impossible. Consequently, the revived series's interminable scripted moral hand-wringing over whether the Doctor has 'done the right thing' or is 'a good man' cannot go anywhere, nor yield any dramatically-satisfying conclusion. (Inconclusive public hand-wringing over ethical dilemmas is what passes for deep morality nowadays.)

The script-editors/ writers themselves, however talented, are what CS Lewis called 'Men without Chests'. (Indeed some of them appear to be genuinely evil - in the sense of actively and deliberately normalizing sin and subverting virtue; strategically propagandizing moral inversions for an under-age audience.)

At bottom the makers of Doctor Who apparently only believe in positive virtues of kindness and happiness, and the inadequacy of this was seen in this week's jarring double deployment of what the characters believed to be a personal suicide device, used to escape a horrible semi-death from a mind-sucking beast. This was treated as merely common sense and unproblematic matter of reducing suffering, although sad. The idea of the Doctor (the doctor) carrying-around and dishing-out suicide devices to those who 'need' them, is horrible in a way that the scriptwriter and editor did not seem to appreciate.

It is exactly as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre described in After Virtue way back in 1981; at bottom modern secular morality is just a matter of opinion; which sets a limit to how good, how deep, a script can be.

In this light, it is interesting that the explicitly Roman Catholic author Frank Cottrell Boyce has been hired as a writer - this means that there is at least the potential (if the bosses allow it) for a coherently moral story, with a morality more deeply rooted than 'doing this is what makes me feel good'. (Some media reports say Capaldi is also a practising Catholic, but I don't know if they are true; and anyway he is so gifted an actor that it makes no difference either way.)

As so often, we will probably have to be satisfied with glimpses and hints of something Good and Hope-full; and these I am sure Capaldi will give us. The Doctor is a real archetype, and the basic character has repeatedly shown-himself able to transcend all manner of limitations and distortions; as memory edits-out the failures, the dullness, the duds.

But if a really strong script comes his way, and if it is allowed (big if!) - this Doctor has the capacity and range to touch dramatic greatness. 

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Note: ^It is not a coincidence that the best, deepest, most edifying novel of recent years (by popular acclaim and in my judgment) - the Harry Potter series of 1997-2007 - was distinguished by a mostly-implicit but solid Christian underpinning. (Although the author JK Rowing has since become apostate and increasingly anti-Christian.)  Christianity was not what made the books good (there are plenty of 'good' books): but it was what made them great.