It seems like just yesterday that a gray-haired, wild-eyed man popped into Matt Smith’s clothes in a town called Christmas, unsure of how to fly the TARDIS. And yet this week we learned that Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, will be leaving Doctor Who at Christmas this year. It’s a tough revelation to swallow, especially after season 9, in which Capaldi really came into his own in the role.
Capaldi’s casting was a deliberate break in style from the other actors who have headlined the show since Doctor Who was revived in 2005. Gone were the relatable charms of David Tennant and Matt Smith. Capaldi’s Doctor was cold, obtuse, and explicitly alien in a way no Doctor had really been since Tom Baker’s heyday in the 1970s. It felt like a jarring shift for the show early on, but it proved to be the course correction the show really needed, and it absolutely would not have worked without an actor of Capaldi’s caliber as its center.
We still have a full year of his adventures to look forward to, but with season 10 just around the corner it feels appropriate to celebrate his best moments so far. These are Peter Capaldi’s 15 Greatest Doctor Who Moments.
15. His Eyebrow Cameo In “The Day Of The Doctor”
It can be incredibly difficult to get Whovians to agree on much of anything (Russell T Davies fans versus Steven Moffat fans is a gruesome war of attrition). But you’d be hard pressed to find too many fans who weren’t delighted by “The Day Of The Doctor,” the show’s 50th anniversary extravaganza. It offered a wealth of pleasures: David Tennant and Matt Smith teaming up, a treasure trove of winks and nods to the show’s history, a further exploration of the Doctor’s torment during the Time War (giving us a secret new version of the Doctor, wonderfully played by the late, great John Hurt), and a lovely cameo by the indomitable Tom Baker.
And yet perhaps the most bracing moment of the whole thing came during its climax, as the Doctor summoned all of his past incarnations to save the day… and one future incarnation. While we got some nice archival footage of all the past Doctors, our very first glimpse of the Twelfth Doctor was a two second shot of the top half of his face, giving us our first taste of what would lovingly be coined the “attack eyebrows.” It’s a brief, electric moment that sets the stage for a very different Doctor.
14. Questioning The Color Of His Kidneys After Regeneration
Whatever misgivings people may have had with the twilight of his tenure in the TARDIS, Matt Smith’s regeneration scene was one of the most emotionally rich, elegantly written in the show’s history. After giving a wonderful speech to a heartbroken Clara about how we all change as we go through life, he hallucinates Amy Pond, who wishes her raggedy man goodnight.
It’s genuinely tear jerking stuff… and then in the blink of an eye Peter Capaldi’s scowl has entered the picture. He silently scans Clara’s face like it’s a code he’s trying to crack before uttering his very first word: “KIDNEYS!”
Whereas past Doctors had expressed some playful disappointment at their hair color, Capaldi’s Doctor seemed genuinely dismayed by the hue of his brand new kidneys, much to Clara’s utter bafflement. It was a fun, slightly bizarre way to set the stage for a Doctor who didn’t really play by the established rules.
13. Flirting With A Time-Displaced Dinosaur In “Deep Breath”
After a bumpy maiden voyage in the TARDIS, Capaldi’s Doctor eventually ends up in Victorian London with a Tyrannosaurus Rex in tow. While the newly regenerated Doctor was having trouble communicating with his closest friends (he could barely tell the difference between Clara and Strax, a reformed Sontaran warrior who looks vaguely like a potato), the Doctor had no such social problems with his new dinosaur friend. Noting the creature was a “lady friend,” he found himself having a rather natural rapport with her, and exhibited much more empathy toward her than those long considered his confidants.
This was clarified a bit when the addled Doctor began reciting what the dinosaur was saying (he speaks dinosaur, of course). The T-Rex was cold, confused, and scared, unsure of where it was and what was happening to it, neatly mirroring the initial harrowing effects of regeneration. It was an early insight into how this version of the Doctor operates: it’s not often he’ll outright tell you how he’s feeling, but if you look in the right place, he’s practically broadcasting the contents of his hearts.
12. His Speech About Killing To The Half Faced Man In “Deep Breath”
For most of “Deep Breath,” the Doctor is having something of an existential crisis, not at all uncommon for post-regeneration episodes. He spends the majority of the story being abrasive toward his friends, abruptly fleeing at the drop of a hat, accosting homeless people, and just generally being a weirdo, even by his standards. This reaches its apex when he seemingly abandons Clara to die at the hands of the Half Faced Man, a cyborg obsessed with reaching “the promised land.”
Of course, the Doctor has not actually abandoned Clara, and engineers a plan to take down the Half Faced Man in rather dark fashion. Sitting at a table across from the villain with a glass of whiskey, the Doctor ruminates on the nature mortality and whether or not they’re each programmed for murder, before the Half Faced Man falls to his death with no immediate explanation.
This is a moment not many other iterations of the Doctor could have pulled off, and it was an early indicator that this was not a Doctor who had any problems going to very dark, morally ambiguous places to get the job done.
11. Demanding A Thank You From A Bewildered Soldier In “Into The Dalek”
Imagine being a soldier in a horrific, seemingly endless war with the universe’s greatest monsters, the Daleks. You realize you’re likely on the losing side, and are facing the moment of your death with as much grace and bravery as is humanly possible. But then something happens: you’re not dead at all. You’re suddenly in a strange place, saved by a man who got a little lost on a coffee run. You’d probably be a bit aggressive.
And yet the Doctor was having none of it. There was no reassuring speech about how he’s arrived to help, no disarming jokes. Instead, he takes umbrage at the rudeness of the bewildered soldier, demanding an explanation from him at gunpoint. Without a hint of fear, he tells her to “get it right,” demanding she thank him for saving her life before he acknowledges her confusion and explains the situation.
10. His Paranoia About The Unseen In “Listen”
“Listen” is something genuinely special. The Doctor, having been knocking around on his own for a bit, is grappling with the mystery of why seemingly every living being has, at one point in their lives, had a dream where something reaches for them from under the bed. He posits that perhaps a being exists that is so good at hiding, its existence has remained hidden throughout time.
Not only is “Listen” one of the best written episodes of Steven Moffat’s tenure on the show, it features a powerhouse performance from Capaldi, as he wrestles with what seems like genuine paranoia, attempting to reconcile the fear he’s been running from since he was a boy. The great Moffat twist, of course, is that the “monster” under the Doctor’s bed was Clara, who traveled back to the Doctor’s childhood as he cried in bed to deliver his own future speech about persevering through fear. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was one of the first pieces in the humanization (for lack of a better term) of the Twelfth Doctor.
9. Fighting Robin Hood With A Spoon
In his earliest adventures, the Twelfth Doctor didn’t show much capacity for silliness. While there’s plenty of precedent for a darker, more enigmatic version of the Time Lord, he still always exhibits a love of the absurd. The new Doctor finally let his goofball flag fly at an appropriately ridiculous moment: when he was challenged to a sword fight by the seemingly real Robin Hood.
The Doctor reluctantly accepts the challenge, apparently out of a sense of bemusement and maybe just a little bit to impress Clara, who is smitten by the very idea of a real life Robin Hood. But rather than face him earnestly with a sword, the Doctor relays his lack of respect for the situation by dueling with a spoon. Surprisingly, the Doctor more than holds his own against the legendary vigilante with his dinner utensil– not the last time he would showcase surprisingly nimble physical ability…and a sense of humor.
8. His Final Confrontation With Missy In “Death In Heaven”
After a season long journey of self-discovery, the Doctor is confronted by his single greatest foe: the Master, regenerated as a Time Lady and now going by Missy. As is often the case, Missy is out to prove a point: that deep down, the Doctor is not so different from her, and is willing to do awful things in his own self interest.
Faced with a planetary calamity and the death of more than one trusted ally, the Doctor doesn’t give in to Missy’s dark designs. Rather, he comes to the conclusion he’s been searching for since he regenerated: he’s not really a good or bad man, he’s just an idiot knocking about the universe, doing the best he can (a genuinely shocking assist from the legendary Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart ends up saving the day).
7. His Davros Dilemma In “The Magician’s Apprentice”
One of the oldest moral quandaries in time travel related science fiction is some sort of spin on a simple question: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a child, would you do it? You could potentially be sparing the world the horrors of World War II, or perhaps create an even worse scenario. And either way, you’d still be killing an innocent child. The Doctor faces this dilemma in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” as he encounters a young boy who turns out to be Davros, the maniacal creator of the Daleks.
It’s an even more clear cut choice for the Doctor: young Davros is caught in a war zone on Skaro, on the verge of being killed by nightmarish instruments of destruction. He doesn’t have to kill him, he just doesn’t have to save him. The Doctor eventually makes the only choice he really can, saving the young boy, and instilling in him an appreciation of mercy that somehow, in some small way, survives to the present day and is integrated into the Daleks, saving Clara’s life in the process.
6. His Electric Guitar On A Tank Entrance In “The Magician’s Apprentice”
For a man who’s lived for over 2,000 years and constantly changes the future, the Doctor can be a bit of a fatalist. More than once, through prophecy or premonition, he’s felt as if his death was inevitable. This usually results in the Doctor either sulking or descending into self-destructive darkness.
The Twelfth Doctor, of course, is not usual. Once again sensing his impending doom, Clara and Missy find the Doctor in Essex in 1138, where he spends three weeks partying and introducing anachronisms to his newfound brethren. The clear highlight is when he enters an arena on top of a tank, wearing sunglasses and shredding on his electric guitar.
It’s the most fun we’ve ever seen Capaldi’s Doctor have, yet it’s also somehow more distressing than when prior Doctors have gotten angsty in the face of death. It’s not only a clever subversion of expectations, it allows Capaldi to really cut loose for the first time, and it is a delight.
5. His Speech To The Zygons And UNIT In “The Zygon Inversion”
The Doctor can sometimes come off as condescending and nasty in his casual disregard for the feelings of what he perceives as lesser species. Indeed, Capaldi’s iteration of the Time Lord went so far as to have Clara prepare him note cards so he didn’t come off as a completely heartless jerk in situations where he should be ostensibly comforting.
And yet all that venom is really rooted in a place of deep sorrow. The Doctor has experienced unimaginable pain in the face of the endless intergalactic battle that was the Time War. When the Zygons and UNIT find themselves on the brink of war, the Doctor makes a heartfelt plea to both sides that war is always pointless and that, at the end of it all, both sides will eventually have to sit down and talk, so they should just skip the fighting part.
It’s a powerhouse moment from Capaldi; the rawest emotion he’s shown in the role to date. He may have a decidedly abrasive way of going about it, but Twelve really is trying to spare people the same pain he’s been forced to endure.
4. Spending His Final Night With River Song
It’s probably inaccurate to say River Song had worn out her welcome by the time she met Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, but there was certainly a feeling that her story was finally reaching its end in “The Husbands Of River Song.” Though we met her through a memorable David Tennant adventure (where she died… sort of), River was really an ally/love interest of Matt Smith’s Doctor. There was some question as to how that dynamic would translate with the much older, much less romantically inclined Twelfth Doctor.
There was nothing to worry about. While the episode itself is mildly ridiculous, Capaldi exudes a level of familiarity and affection for River that immediately snaps the relationship into focus. Once River figures out he’s actually the Doctor, their usual flirtatious rapport instantly returns. When he finally takes her to their final night together on Darillium (where a single night lasts 24 years), it’s difficult to imagine another iteration of the Doctor ultimately saying goodbye to her.
3. Remembering Why He Chose His Face In “The Girl Who Died”
One of many questions fans had when Capaldi was cast revolved around an unusual fact: Capaldi had already appeared in Doctor Who as another character. Capaldi had a role in a Ten-era episode as Caecilius, a resident of the doomed Pompeii just before Mount Vesuvius exploded. At the urging of his companion, Donna, the Doctor saved Caecilius and his family from the calamity.
Would the show acknowledge this, or simply brush it off? This question was answered pretty quickly, as the newly regenerated Doctor notes he recognizes his new face in “Deep Breath” and questions why he chose it. Despondent after the death of a young ally named Ashildr (played by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) the Doctor suddenly realizes what he’d been trying to tell himself with Caecilius’ face: even if you have to break the rules, save someone.
2. Saying Goodbye To Clara In “Face The Raven”
The Doctor actually bids Clara a seemingly final farewell a few times, but the moment that stands out from the rest is the climax of “Face The Raven.” After a fairly convoluted plot about a countdown clock and a murderous magical raven, Clara ends up sacrificing her own life to save a friend. This all ends up being a plot to trap the Doctor by Ashildr, but Clara’s death was not part of her plan.
As the raven approaches, the Doctor slowly realizes there’s nothing he can do to save Clara. To her credit, Clara faces her death with bravery, and makes the Doctor promise not to lash out in vengeance; to stay true to who he is. You can see on Capaldi’s face it’s not a promise he can truly make, but he still manages to tell Clara what she needs to hear. Once she’s gone, Ashildr teleports the Doctor to an unknown location, which happens to be the stage for his finest hour…
1. The Entirety Of “Heaven Sent”
There have long been a handful of Doctor Who episodes that get held up as the best of the best: “Blink,” “The Girl In The Fireplace,” and “The Doctor’s Wife” are some of the most common contenders. “Heaven Sent” is absolutely on that list, and a strong argument can be made it’s at the top of the heap. The episode is what’s referred to as a “one hander”: there are essentially no other actors in the episode except Capaldi.
The Doctor finds himself alone in a mysterious, puzzle-like castle, hunted by a cloaked creature. That is, essentially, the entire episode, and yet it is stunningly good.
While the episode is masterfully written and directed, none of it would possibly work without Capaldi giving the best performance of his career. His eventual realization of what is happening is genuinely heartbreaking, yet it only furthers his motivation as he dives headfirst into a deadly, impossibly time-consuming mission. Capaldi runs the full gamut of emotions as he slowly chips away at a very specific version of Hell with grace and heart.
It’s a monstrous achievement of an episode, and stands not only as Capaldi’s defining moment as the Doctor, but perhaps the Doctor’s defining moment, period.
What’s your favorite moment from Capaldi’s run on Doctor Who? Please share it in the comments!