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Interaction: The eyes of Peter Capaldi

Kügenliche: Hello everyone, and welcome to Interaction for this week. It is the twenty third day of January 2016, and yesterday it was announced that the long running British science fiction programme Doctor Who will hold back its next series until next year, and that it will be the last series under current showrunner Steven Moffat. He is to be replaced by Chris Chibnall. Well, under Moffat, Doctor Who has become a global success. It is transmitted right across the world, its stars have gone on global tours to huge crowds, and it has – almost singlehandedly – caused a spike in reported incidents of female bowtie usage. [adjusts bowtie] And yet, ratings in the UK are sagging. Is this merely due to the autumnal scheduling of the last two serieses? Will the spring 2017 series be the British national event that the BBC hopes it will? And just what is it about Doctor Who that has made it such an enduring success? Can it really go on forever, regenerating itself as it goes on exploring all of time and space? Well, here to discuss these questions and more are our panellists. First, joining us from New York City, NY, USA is the host of a podcast that centres on Doctor Who and the worlds it explores, Ms Jess Chistle.

Chistle: Hi.

Kügenliche: From Manchester, England, UK is the author of several books about Doctor Who, including his latest, We’re All Stories In the End: ‘Doctor Who’ Under Steven Moffat and Its Effects on Television Around the World, Mr Panjeev Bhartum.

Bhartum: Good evening.

Kügenliche: In Los Angeles, CA, USA is the Adam J Finche Professor of International Media at California State University LA Live, Mr Brian Petrescu.

Petrescu: Hello.

Kügenliche: And with me here in our Warwickshire studios is the costume designer for Birmingham, England, UK’s Heart Transplant Players, Ms Zenitta Holland.

Holland: Good evening.

Kügenliche: Welcome all of you. Thank you for joining us. Jess, let us start with you. What is it about Doctor Who that has made it such a success in recent years?

Chistle: Well, Charlotte, it’s not any one thing. In fact, I’m not sure you could say it’s anything about the show itself. It’s more about us as a culture, or more accurately, a subculture. For decades, students have been losing interest in science and mathematics, even as their importance has grown exponentially. Today, we all carry around these tiny technological marvels in our pockets or our purses, which we call cell phones. And those of us who recognise that and are constantly in awe of that are increasingly frustrated with the rest of popular culture, which seems to take all this for granted and use it only to make yet more CGI scenes with New York being destroyed by whichever animated monster hasn’t had a live action version of itself yet. There is a subculture that is eager, even desperate, for heroes and role models who solve problems with their minds and not with guns. These are the people that Doctor Who speaks to.

Kügenliche: Well, that raises an interesting point that I’d like to discuss with you, Panjeev. Computer generated imagery shows up regularly in films and television today. Doctor Who, despite being a science fiction programme, actually uses comparatively little visual effects, doesn’t it?

Bhartum: Yes, that’s right. Compare it to other science fiction media, and you’ll find that rather than battles being fought in space or giant monsters tearing down buildings, Doctor Who has much more of a human element to it. The effects shots are there to serve the story, rather than being an end of themselves. What’s more, in order to keep the budget down, the effects shots are used only briefly here and there, such as when someone first walks into the TARDIS. The rest of the time, if they need to show somebody walking into the TARDIS, you’ll see them step into a box, and then they’ll cut to the TARDIS interior. Only on rare occasions have they actually portrayed the transition between the two.

Kügenliche: Panjeev, you mentioned a human element. So I’d like to take that to you, Brian, and ask you just how much of a human element there can be in a programme about a two thousand year old alien who can change his face.

Petrescu: Well, the Doctor may be described as a Time Lord, but the series has always been about humans. Just look at the previous Doctor, Matt Smith. He was defined by his relationships with Amy Pond and with Clara Oswald. We saw him through their eyes. He was, perhaps more than any other Doctor, dependent upon his companions. Why, when he was separated from Amy, he went off and hid in a cloud over Victorian London. And Clara did for him what four hundred years of remorse couldn’t do: she convinced him to change his mind about Gallifrey. So Doctor Who – perhaps especially the new series – is a story of the companions rather than the Doctor.

Kügenliche: Well, you mentioned Clara. Jenna Coleman, who portrays Clara Oswald, has now left the programme, leaving the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, to face a change in companions for the first time. Zenitta, where do you see the programme going in this last series under Steven Moffat?

Holland: I am not sure. I am looking forward to it, providing that that awful hoodie is gone.

Kügenliche: Well, that’s an interesting way to look at things. And with that –

Holland: Where’s John Barrowman, by the way?

Kügenliche: Sorry?

Holland: Wasn’t John Barrowman supposed to be here?

Kügenliche: Er... we did not reach out to him.

Petrescu: Really? I was expecting him to be here. I mean, he seems to show up inevitably every time people on TV talk about Doctor Who.

Kügenliche: Well, he is not a part of this panel today. But we do have an interesting and accomplished panel here to take questions from you at home, so please send us your tweets, text messages, E-mails, telephone calls, and any other forms of communication you can get your hands on. We begin with a question from Twitter. It is from a person known as at sign OneHandOnTrousersAtAllTimes, and this person asks how long Peter Capaldi will remain as the Doctor and if he is the best ever in the role. Jess, how would you rate Peter Capaldi?

Chistle: I do think he is the best Doctor there has been so far.

Kügenliche: And what is it about him that makes you say that?

Chistle: His eyes.

Petrescu: Omigod, you’re so right! He can be so expressive! It’s almost mean to say, because he’s had so many lines that he’s delivered perfectly, but then sometimes he can convey so much without saying anything at all, too.

Chistle: And it all starts with the title sequence, doesn’t it? There are plenty of pictures of Peter Capaldi smiling. They could use any of those. But they went with a sort of determined glare, a sort of “no mucking about” look. And that’s what set the tone for the Twelfth Doctor.

Holland: Yes, and right from that first episode, his eyes have an important place in the story. Throughout “Deep Breath”, our attention is drawn to eyes, particularly the Doctor’s. When he first staggers out of the TARDIS, we see his baffled stare in a shot from Clara’s point of view. Then, he stares intently into a discarded mirror, in the famous “Who frowned me this face” scene. Then later, in his final confrontation with the Half Face Man, the Doctor again holds up a mirror. But this time, the mirror has another side. Let’s have a look.

[Clip from “Deep Breath”.]

Twelfth Doctor [Capaldi]: You are a broom. Question: You take a broom. You replace the handle. And then later, you replace the brush. And you do that over and over again. Is it still the same broom? Answer: No, of course it isn’t, but you can still sweep the floor, which is not strictly relevant. Skip that last part. You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again. There’s not a trace of the original you left. [holds up platter] You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from!

Half Face Man [Ferdinando]: [takes platter]

Twelfth Doctor: [looks in other side, then looks away]

[Clip ends.]

Holland: Notice that the Doctor begins by questioning the Half Face Man, but when he sees himself in the other side of the platter, he realises that he really needs to ask that question of himself. And after the Half Face Man falls to his death, the Doctor looks out the door of the restaurant. Then he looks up at the camera. In that moment, he is asking us a question. “What do you think?” he asks of us. “Did I do it? Or did he?”

Bhartum: I didn’t know we were allowed to bring clips.

Kügenliche: That is news to me as well.

Petrescu: Well, in fact it goes back even further. Let’s not forget his cameo in ”The Day of the Doctor”, or those first few seconds after he regenerates in “The Time of the Doctor”. He looks back at Clara, with eyes full of uncertainty. It’s as though he desperately wants to know how he looks, but he can tell from Clara’s reaction that he’s not going to like the answer.

Chistle: And you can go all the way back to Peter Capaldi’s first appearance on Doctor Who, in “The Fires of Pompeii”. At the end, in the midst of the eruption, Lobus Caecilius and his family are cowering in their house. They know they have no way out. But then they hear the TARDIS come back. The Tenth Doctor says, “Come with me”, and Caecilius looks up at him, ash swirling all around them. And Caecilius comes with the Doctor. And although he and his family were soon dropped off in safety, we discovered this past series that the Doctor never really left Caecilius behind.

Holland: Yes, and this past series was filled with crucial moments for Peter Capaldi’s eyes, wasn’t it? There was the moment amongst the hand mines on Skaro, when the Doctor is about to rescue a boy, and the boy says his name is Davros. Peter Capaldi says nothing, but the change in his expression says everything.

Bhartum: And don’t forget the end of “Under the Lake”.

Holland: But you can’t see his eyes then.

Chistle: Well, now that you mention it, isn’t that actually more terrifying? Seeing the Doctor with his eyes invisible in the shadows?

Bhartum: Yes, exactly.

Holland: And what about “Face the Raven”? The Doctor rages at Ashildr. Properly rages. His eyes are just about burning holes through her, but then Clara talks him down. And then after Clara faces the raven, he warns Ashildr to stay away from him. And his tone is certainly severe, but that is one hell of a menacing glare he gives her.

Petrescu: And there’s one bit in “Heaven Sent” when the Doctor is moving around the TARDIS, and he’s sort of talking out loud about how he’s going to escape from the situation he’s in, imagining that he’s in the TARDIS, talking to Clara. And he says, “I’m nothing without an audience”. And Peter Capaldi says this as he’s hurrying past the camera. But just as he says it, he gives a brief glance – ever so brief – at the camera. It’s as though he’s speaking to all of the viewers.

Kügenliche: Well, that last is not that impressive. I do it frequently. As now, for instance, because we are going to another of your questions. John from London, are you there?

John in London: Yes. Hi, Charlotte.

Kügenliche: Hello John. Thank you for phoning in. What is your question?

John in London: Yeah, why didn’t you say you were doing a show about Doctor Who? I could have been there. I wouldn’t have missed it. I could have –

Kügenliche: Thank you for that question, John. Panjeev, I’ll hand that question over to you. Why didn’t we say we were doing a show about Doctor Who?

Bhartum: Er... you did say you were doing a show about Doctor Who. When I received your invitation to appear, it was quite clear that we were going to discuss Doctor Who.

Kügenliche: Well, there we are, John. The answer to your question is mu. And talking of questions that must be unasked, let us now turn to the last episode in what we must consider an extraordinary series of Doctor Who, “Hell Bent”. Zenitta, I wanted to talk about a quite jarring moment at the start of this episode.

Holland: Yes, I know the moment you mean. And I’ve brought a clip of that too.

Kügenliche: Have you?

Holland: Of course. This episode follows on from “Heaven Sent”, which ends with the Doctor on Gallifrey. And yet, “Hell Bent” opens with the Doctor on Earth, in the same American diner that his previous incarnation had previously visited, a diner which is staffed by a quite impossible waitress. Let’s have a look.

[Clip from “Hell Bent”.]

Twelfth Doctor: [plays Clara’s theme on electric guitar]

Clara [Coleman]: What’s it called?

Twelfth Doctor: I think that it’s called ‘Clara’.

Clara: Tell me about her.

Twelfth Doctor: [looks up, surprised]

[Clip ends.]

Holland: Brian, what were your impressions of that scene?

Petrescu: Well, this was a classic Moffattian moment. We are thrown into the scene believing that the waitress asks this question because she is not Clara, and that the Doctor is surprised because he thought she was. But as the episode progresses, we discover that the Doctor was surprised first because he did not recognise her, and second because he realised that he could not answer.

Chistle: Wait, hang on. Zenitta, do you, like, travel with clips of Doctor Who in your arms, or what?

Holland: Yes, of course. Why? What is in your arms when you travel?

Chistle: My cat.

Bhartum: My baggage.

Petrescu: A Cinnabon.

Holland: Well, regardless, Brian is exactly right about that scene. Upon first viewing, we are meant to think that Peter Capaldi’s look says “Wait, then who are you?”. Only at the end do we discover that it actually said “Oh shit, I can’t tell you about her!”.

Chistle: Yes, and it is a fitting conclusion to a ninth series that dealt so heavily with the concepts of identity and appearances. In this series, after all, we encounter Ashildr, who loses her connection with her Viking heritage over time, eventually settling simply on the name “Me”. We meet a boy who would grow up to become one of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries. And we discover why the Twelfth Doctor ended up with Caecilius’s face.

Bhartum: Actually, I thought the waitress was one of those Clara fragments.

Chistle: And that’s clearly what we’re meant to think. We’re meant to say to ourselves, “Well, if she looks like Clara and sounds like Clara, but she doesn’t recognise the Doctor, then obviously she’s a Clara echo!”.

Holland: Yes, Steven Moffat certainly enjoys doing that to the viewer.

Chistle: The QI situation.

Holland: Sorry?

Chistle: QI. The “obvious but wrong” answer.

Holland: Oh, yes.

Kügenliche: Well, we have time for one last question, and it’s an E-mail from Cendrine in Wilcox, AL, USA. Cendrine asks us to include one more extraordinary use of Peter Capaldi’s eyes, in the form of a video to a young fan whose grandmother has died. Let’s have a look.

[Clip: “From the Doctor to My Son Thomas”.]

Kügenliche: Well, what can we say to that? Let us leave the last word with the Doctor. Thank you to Ms Zenitta Holland, Mr Brian Petrescu, Mr Panjeev Bhartum, and Ms Jess Chistle for being with us this week. And next week we’ll be discussing the feather. We’ll explore its history, its uses, and the evolution of feathered animals. We will be joined by a painter, an ornithologist, a plumologist, and an engineer developing feathers for human use. That’s all coming up next week on Interaction, so please send in your questions. Until then, good night.

Holland: Have you got QI in America?

Chistle: It’s there if you know how to find it.

Kügenliche: And that advice was obvious but useless.