Over half a century, eleven actors have starred in the British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, one of pop culture’s longest-lasting franchises. Yesterday afternoon, Peter Capaldi, best known for his role as Malcolm Tucker on the political comedy The Thick Of It, was announced as the twelfth Time Lord. Presumably, we’ll first see him in the final moments of this year’s Christmas special, when Matt Smith, the youngest actor to have played the Doctor, regenerates into Capaldi, who will be the second oldest.
Showunner Steven Moffat claims there was only one name on his shortlist of actors, and that was Capaldi. With such certainty in his pocket, can he win back some of the people he’s lost over the past couple years? Will casting a 55-year-old man alienate some of the “squee” contingent upon whom the fanbase has been built in recent times? Can a series that has relied on back-to-back young, attractive actors (we’ll throw a bone to Eccleston on this one) present a lead so vastly different and still survive? The key to Doctor Who’s longevity is change, and in the modern era, what seems like the riskiest change yet may end up being the show’s most brilliant move in years. Here are four reasons why:
As an actor, Capaldi can do pretty much anything: comedy, drama, tragedy, farce — you name it. Take a good long look at his IMDB resume, and you’ll see that since his first major role in 1983’s Local Hero, he’s played a wide range of characters on TV or film. Two in particular might give us some insight into what we could expect — his ethereal, complex portrayal of the Angel Islington in the BBC production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and his haunting John Frobisher from the Torchwood miniseries “Children of Earth.” Doctor Who has had many fine actors take the lead, and several of them danced with greatness, but Capaldi is surely the greatest actor yet to have been cast as the Doctor, and it’s difficult to imagine the show flailing with this man as its new face.
He brings the show credibility.
Previous Doctors have had to work to prove themselves. Remember how easy it was to dismiss Smith at the time he was cast? (I know, because I was one of the people who was quick to dismiss him.) That’s unlikely to happen with Capaldi, and that could be vitally important at this stage. Modern Doctor Who is entering its eighth season, a point at which many long-running TV series start closing up shop, if they haven’t already. It is imperative that the show is not viewed as stale, and the presence of an actor like Capaldi is like an adrenaline shot to the heart(s). The fact that he won an Oscar for Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Capaldi wrote and directed the short film) might be the cherry on the cake.
He’s a lifelong fan of the series
We don’t know Capaldi’s precise history with Doctor Who, but having been born in 1958, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the 5-year-old Capaldi sitting down to watch the first episode in November of 1963. We do know he’s a fan (as was David Tennant, and that worked out splendidly), with evidence in the form of a letter written by a 15-year-old Capaldi to the Radio Times. In Capaldi’s single previous Who outing, “The Fires of Pompeii,” he was somewhat underused as Caecilius. However, look back at that episode and you’ll see Capaldi’s perfect understanding of everything that Doctor Who is about near the end of the episode when David Tennant steps from the TARDIS to save Caecilius and his family from the exploding volcano. The look on Capaldi’s face when he sees the Doctor — that’s it. Right there, in that moment, he understands the wonder of the show’s universe. In hindsight, it’s quite the sight to behold.
If Tennant and Smith represent two sides of the same coin, Capaldi is a different currency altogether. It’s a ballsy move to cast a 55-year-old man as the Doctor. This hasn’t been done since the First Doctor back in the sixties. Indeed, Capaldi is only months younger than William Hartnell was back when the show began (vividly illustrating the difference between 55 then and 55 now). We cannot know the precise physical shape Capaldi is in, but at 55, it seems unlikely that he’ll be called upon to be an action-oriented Doctor in the same vein as his recent predecessors. Maybe the show could even somewhat move away from its recent frenetic pace towards something slightly more mannered and thought-provoking (a series closer in tone to “The Name of the Doctor” than “Let’s Kill Hitler”).
It seems even more unlikely that his companions will moon over and lust after this Doctor in the same way we’ve all too often seen with previous Doctor/companion relationships. Maybe the series will even bring in a true, proper male companion for the Doctor; someone young, who can be the action hero, and do the heavy lifting — a dynamic not previously seen in the new series.
One of the hallmarks of Smith’s Doctor was that despite the youthfulness of the actor, he had the ability to tap into the character’s great age. Maybe he didn’t look a thousand, but he often felt that old. It’d be easy to assume that Capaldi has been cast to help reflect that part of the Doctor, but what if the idea is to go for the opposite of Smith: A man who appears aged on the outside, but is youthful and energetic on the inside. It’s in the sole publicity photo the BBC released yesterday. There’s a mischievous twinkle in those eyes — a particular spark that’s been absent from Doctor Who for many years, but looks to have finally returned.