On ‘Doctor Who,’ it’s ‘Time’ to change the Doctor

Dec. 25, 2013 | 11:00 a.m.
Peter Capaldi will be the 12th Doctor Who when he takes over from Matt Smith in the 2013 Christmas Special. (BBC/MCT)

Peter Capaldi will be the 12th Doctor Who when he takes over from Matt Smith in the 2013 Christmas Special. (BBC/MCT)

On Christmas Day 2013, Peter Capaldi will take over for Matt Smith as the star of “Doctor Who,” the phenomenal BBC sci-fi series about a traveler in time and space. (It airs here on BBC America.) At some point in the holiday special “The Time of the Doctor,” Smith’s Doctor will regenerate into Capaldi’s — same character, new body — and the era of the 12th Doctor will begin.

Capaldi is best known to Americans, which is not to say well known, as the F-bombing spin doctor in Armando Iannucci’s political comedies “The Thick of It” (BBC series) and “In the Loop” (film spinoff) and, reaching back through the foggy mists of time, for Bill Forsyth’s gentle comedy of Scotland, “Local Hero.”

At any rate, he is better known to us than were immediate predecessors Smith, David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston when they assumed the role. And Capaldi has twice appeared in the Whoniverse, as a 1st century businessman in “The Fires of Pompeii” and a tragic figure at the center of the spun-off “Torchwood” miniseries, “Children of Earth.” Thrice, if you count his very brief appearance (eyes only) last month in the 50th-anniversary special episode, “The Day of the Doctor.”

The announcement in August of Capaldi’s casting followed months of public speculation and wish-listing, conspiratorial sifting of coincidence and readings of tea leaves. He had been the bookmakers’ favorite and, at least in one respect, came as no surprise: Because whatever else the new Doctor would turn out to be — and, if recent history were any guide he would turn out to be tall, thin, white, clean-shaven, not bald and unconventionally attractive, and did — it was going to be somebody British.

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Matt Smith in "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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"The Wooden Cyberman" in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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"The Wooden Cyberman" in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Daleks in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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The Doctor (Matt Smith) faces off against Daleks in "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Matt Smith in "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Matt Smith in "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Cybermen in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Orla Brady as Tasha Lem Cybermen in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Orla Brady as Tasha Lem Cybermen in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Jenna Coleman as Clara in "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Rob Jarvis as Abramal, left, and Tessa Peake-Jones as Marta in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Rob Jarvis as Abramal, front left, and Tessa Peake-Jones as Marta in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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The Doctor (Matt Smith) and the Daleks in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Orla Brady as Tasha Lem Cybermen in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Artwork featuring the Doctor and some of his friends and foes in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Artwork featuring the Doctor and some of his friends and foes in a scene from "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Jenna Coleman as Clara in a poster for "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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Matt Smith in a poster for "The Time of the Doctor," the 2013 "Doctor Who" Christmas special. (BBC America)

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A poster for "The Time of the Doctor" features Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman. (BBC America)

Like James Bond, “Doctor Who” posits a world in which the U.K. is still at the center of things. It’s where the aliens arrive, where the Earth is repeatedly saved.

Some had hoped for a black Doctor (Idris Elba was often named), or a female Doctor (Olivia Colman, perhaps), and as with other great and important offices, it does seem only right that it be open to anyone, regardless of gender or color. If such a move seemed just possible this time, it’s hard to believe the next Doctor won’t break one of those lines, or both.

That Capaldi is an award-winning actor of great reputation does not necessarily mean that it will be any easier for him to take control of the Tardis (his time/space machine). Every new Doctor represents a testing of the brand and a testing of the faithful; there are viewers still mourning the loss of Tennant (Doctor No. 10), and undoubtedly some who feel nothing’s been as good since Tom Baker (No. 4) quit back in 1981.

It will also, and not incidentally, be a test of the show runner, Steven Moffat, who arrived with Smith, following the retirement of series-rebooter Russell T Davies. Show runners are a thing viewers know about now; we know who to blame when things are not to our liking, and Moffat (whose work I do like) gets a fair share of abuse.

Still, first reactions were on the whole approving, though some younger online commenters bemoaned Capaldi’s age — 55, the age of William Hartnell, in fact, when he created the role in 1963. Fangirls who crushed on the younger Eccleston, Tennant and/or Smith wondered how they would adapt to a Doctor old enough to be their dad.

There is, of course, plenty of precedent for gray-haired swashbucklers (your Gandalf, actually called Grey, your Obi-Wan Kenobi, your very vibrant Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee). And Moffat can always create companions for raw youth appeal, as was the original custom: Hartnell’s Doctor traveled with a granddaughter. But Capaldi is also very much more fit and energetic than was Hartnell at his age.

Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in "The Name of the Doctor." (BBC Worldwide)

Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in “The Name of the Doctor.” (BBC Worldwide)

Certainly, he represents a change from Smith, thought by some to be too young for the part when he took over, ironically. He offers a range of new tonal possibilities, some of which are also old possibilities. Indeed, if you look back across the whole life of the series, Capaldi seems very much in the tradition — a likely, almost obvious choice.

He has the authority, the madness, the sweetness. And at bottom, Moffat might be more of a “Who” classicist than was Davies, who brought sex, romance and a will-they-won’t-they element to the series. It may be time for the return of a more fatherly, or at least more fatherly-looking, Doctor.

Still, there’s no telling how Moffat will write him. The Doctor is as constant as the stars and as changeable as the wind; he is a warrior clown, comical and stern, a 1,000-year-old child, a tenderhearted soul who loves humanity and yet is renowned across the universe as the scourge of worlds. (Worlds that deserve a scourge, naturally.) There is a lot of room to play in there.

Fans — especially British fans, whose allegiance spans decades and generations, speak of “my Doctor” as if every citizen needs to have a favorite — do have strong ideas about what the Doctor should be. But variety is in his nature, and in choosing to take this ride, we agree to accept the authenticity of the latest anointed choice — a choice no more in our hands, after all, than it is in the Doctor’s.

He is always surprised by who he next finds himself to be.

– Robert Lloyd

RECENT AND RELATED

"Doctor Who" star Matt Smith. “I think what he brought back to the role is the absolute nuttiness of the Doctor,” Moffat said. “Matt’s Doctor is basically insane. You put him in a normal situation, and you realize he’s an absolute lunatic.” (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)‘Doctor Who’: For Matt Smith, it’s been a ‘nutty’ ride

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Peter Capaldi: A return to distinguished tradition?

‘Who’: Jenna Coleman is right in time

Moffat reveals new Doctor’s audition scripts

Comic-Con bids Matt Smith farewell

‘Doctor Who’ finale: The mystery of Clara

ESSAY: A love letter to ‘Doctor Who’

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