Peter Capaldi as ‘Doctor Who’: A return to distinguished tradition?

Aug. 05, 2013 | 2:47 p.m.
Glasgow-born actor and Oscar winner Peter Capaldi, as he appeared in London in this file photo dated May 12, 2013. Capaldi was named as the next star of the long-running TV series "Doctor Who." (Dominic Lipinski/AP Photo)

Glasgow-born actor and Oscar winner Peter Capaldi was named as the next star of the long-running TV series “Doctor Who.” He’s seen here in London in May. (Dominic Lipinski / AP Photo)


And as the world (or one obsessed subset thereof) watched, the name of the person to play the Twelfth Doctor — though not, of course, the name of the Doctor, which shall remain unspoken — was revealed.

Peter Capaldi, the bookmakers’ choice by a wide margin, will take over for the retiring Matt Smith, the Doctor since 2010. Smith’s Doctor will regenerate into Capaldi’s — same character, just a different body — this Christmas.

The new star of “Doctor Who” 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.”

He is, at any rate, better known to us than were his immediate predecessors, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Smith, when they assumed the role. He has twice appeared in the Whoniverse, as a first-century businessman in “The Fires of Pompeii” and a tragic figure at the center of the spun-off “Torchwood” miniseries, “Children of Earth.” He also appears in “World War Z” as a World Health Organization, or WHO, doctor.

You felt a little chill then, didn’t you?

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The announcement came Sunday, after months of public speculation and wish-listing, conspiratorial sifting of coincidence and readings of tea leaves, near the end of “Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor,” a BBC special that aired here simultaneously on BBC America. It is not to be confused with the big 50th anniversary special set for November.

With Fifth Doctor Peter Davison (the cricket-sweater Doctor) and elderly companion Bernard Cribbens as its main in-studio star power and a floating Tardis (police-box shaped time machine, for the uninitiated) introduced as a “special guest,” it was, global interest aside, a small-scale, essentially local, even provincial, event.

Because whatever else the new Doctor would turn out to be — and, if recent history was any guide he would turn out to be tall, thin, white, clean-shaven, not bald and unconventionally attractive (check, check, check, check, check and check) — it was going to be somebody British. As does 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, and the Earth is repeatedly saved.

Actors Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman and "Doctor Who" show runner Steven Moffat speak onstage at BBC America's "Doctor Who" 50th anniversary panel during Comic-Con International in July in San Diego, California.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Actors Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman and “Doctor Who” show runner Steven Moffat speak onstage at BBC America’s “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary panel during Comic-Con International in July in San Diego. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

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. Indeed, if it 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. Every new Doctor represents a testing of the brand and a testing of the faithful; there are viewers still mourning the loss of David Tennant (No. 10), and undoubtedly some who feel nothing’s been as good since Tom Baker (No. 4) quit, back in 1981.

It is also, and not incidentally, a test of the show runner, Steven Moffat, who came in with Smith, following series-rebooter Russell T Davies. Show runners are a thing we know about now; we know whom to blame, and Moffat draws a fair share.

Still, first reactions seem on the whole approving, though some younger online commenters bemoaned Capaldi’s age — 55, the age of William Hartnell when he created the role, back 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 Gray, your Obi-wan Kenobi, your very vibrant Third Doctor, John Pertwee). And Moffat can always create companions for raw youth appeal, as was the original custom. (Hartnell’s Doctor traveled with a granddaughter.)

Certainly, Capaldi represents a change from Matt Smith — thought by some to be too young for the part when he took over, ironically — but he also offers a range of new tonal possibilities, some of which are also old possibilities.

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Moffat may be more of a “Who” classicist than 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 Doctor.

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. At the same time, we don’t know how Moffat plans to 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 thousand-year-old child, a tenderhearted soul who loves humanity and yet is renowned across the universe as the scourge of worlds. (Typically, these are worlds that deserve a scourge.) 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.

For most viewers the Doctor shapes himself to the actor, even as the actor shapes the part.

You want to honor the tradition, naturally, and you can’t afford to alienate your audience. Still, fear of change is a poor basis for creative decision — the point, Moffat told Hero Complex recently, was to bring the world around: “You want people to go, ‘No, that would never work!’…. And they always get wrenched out of their comfort zone, and then they find the Doctor again. And there’s such a range of what the Doctor can be.”

I’m excited.

— Robert Lloyd

Follow us on Twitter: @LATherocomplex


"Doctor Who" actress Jenna-Louise Coleman is photographed in the Los Angeles Times studio in March 2013. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)‘Who’: Jenna Coleman is right in time

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18 Responses to Peter Capaldi as ‘Doctor Who’: A return to distinguished tradition?

  1. Phil says:

    Looks like a return to the tradition of being in the ratings basement, which caused the show to be cancelled in the 80s. Even old geezers like me (same age as Capaldi) prefer to imagine themselves younger and more vital and not be forced to look at the withered reality of looking in the mirror when they turn on the telly.

    • Madelyn Writer says:

      Thanks, Phil, for doing the ceremonial 'oh this is the beginning of the end' speech that accompanies each and every regeneration in the show's history.

    • 70's Who is best! says:

      Oh, really?! So, having a super young actor with little experience and Worldliness is better? In my view, the best doctors were always portrayed by actors who were at least middle-aged. They were wiser. Had seen more. Experienced more. I'm so thankful that they are going back to a more traditional format. No more romance between the doctor and his companion and hopefully no more of the doctor saying stuff that was out of character like for example…"Bow Ties are cool" or "Who da, man?!" It's good to finally see a middle-aged man who has many similarities with the best doctors. Those being the first 4. And you want to talk about ratings? If you have noticed during the Tennant and Smith eras. The older intelligent, male demographic has been dwindling. Capaldi will bring back the oldschool diehards and the older, intelligent males. Tom Baker was in his late 40's when he attained the highest ratings the show has ever had! So, if the fangirls who are primarily just superficial don't like this choice…Well, they can just suck it because they weren't true fans to begin with. Go and listen to your "One Direction" and watch crappy flicks designed for you like "Twilight" and leave "Doctor Who" to us smart folks that want the show to have substance and integrity once again! With that said, we still need to get rid of Moffat and his atrocious writing. Point made.

  2. Sheldon_W says:

    Just a thought: if Doctor Who is to break some boundary lines, they should bring back Freema Agyeman as the Thirteenth Doctor. Say the exquisitely talented Mr. Capaldi decides to leave after three series/seasons, Ms. Agyeman is a young black woman who has serious chops – and her companion, Martha Jones, was an actual doctor.

    Not only would making her The Doctor crush boundaries, it would be a very poetic choice on a show that has made a lot of surprisingly poetic choices.

    Just sayin'…

    • whiskeysplace says:

      Dr Who is not about crushing boundaries but British tradition. I'll wait until Michael Cera stars in a reboot of Shaft and they remake Roots with the cast of Seinfeld before there is a Black or female Doctor.

      Idris Elba is to James Bond and Doctor Who as Micheal Bolton is to Marvin Gaye.

  3. cadavra says:

    Jon, not John, Pertwee.

  4. Michael J says:

    If I could be head writer for the next doctor, I would have Richard Ayoade emerge as the doctor. I would lose the current Clara, and introduce a new companion….a male, who is close in age to Richard. He could be fit and more like a rookie cop type, always ready to head into a fight…..i think the current show is boring. It's always the doctor and his girl tagging along. I think it be fun to see almost like a buddy cop type. Sherlock meets the other guys in the world of Doctor Who, and have the story lines be one adventure to the next, kinda like the 9th doctor had with rose. They were random adventures, instead of what matt did with a giant story connected and leading up to a big finale. Sounds good to anyone else or am I just stupid??

    • 70's Who is best! says:

      Why do you want the Doctor to be a mindless American action hero with no morals or intellect? Many of us became fans of "Doctor Who" because he wasn't John Wayne or some clean cut superhero who resorted to violence to resolve situations. He had the counter-culture or rather "punk rock" aesthetic. The Doctor is an eccentric alien who has a superior intellect to most. He is Liberal, nonconformist, and anti-authority. He believes in critical thinking and questioning everything. He does not believe in an eye for an eye either. He is better than that. He is not Human, so he doesn't have our frailties and irrational behavior. He is what we should aspire to be. Actually the 4th Doctor(Tom Baker) is the best role model both a child AND adult can have! He very well could be the best tv character ever and it is primarily for those reasons I listed.

  5. Reservoir Dog says:

    Not going to comment on the choice. I do wonder what happens to River. I did so enjoy them together. Will we continue to see the oh so delicious Alex Kingston pop in from time to time?

  6. Mike says:

    Finally, an older actor playing the part again! Hooray for the choice! Having seen every episode of the classic and new series, I think he will make a smashing Doctor.

  7. Karen says:

    I agree that Capaldi is going to be amazing in the role– as he was in "The Thick of It" and it's movie spin-off, "In the Loop"– he has exactly the kind of dark intensity, charisma, madness and force-of-nature personality that could make the Doctor a commanding, crazy energetic whirlwind presence again instead of the annoying, milquetoasty hipster-bait that Matt Smith turned it into! And he'll definitely bring in new fans– my husband has never even watched Doctor Who before, but he loves Capaldi so much as an actor, that he's willing to tune in to check it out, as I imagine a lot of non-Whovian Capaldi fans will do, now that it's got an actor in the role with actual acting chops, which we haven't had since David Tennant (another great Scottish actor! Coincidence? :0)! Can't wait!

  8. Karen says:

    I agree that Capaldi is going to be amazing in the role– as he was in "The Thick of It" and it's movie spin-off! We need an actor who has that kind of mad intensity and force-of-nature, likeably curmudgeonly, larger-than-life persona to make the Doctor appealing again, instead of that annoying, milquetoasty hipster-bait who drove me (and scores of other long-time Whovian fans!) away from the show! We Who fans haven't seen someone with serious acting chops in the role since Tennant left the show (another equally-talented Scottish actor! Coincidence? :0), so it will be a nice refreshing change to get the Doctor back on track again– and while they're at it, they need to get rid of that horrible, talentless little twinkie they have as his current companion– I think we've been subjected to enough of a long line of annoying young groupie girls over the past few years– it would be nice if they brought in a more mature, iikeable and intelligent companion again, like someone along the lines of Sarah Jane or Donna Noble (or even a male companion again– NOT Rory, of course! :0)

  9. Aaron says:

    i'll give peter a chance but I have my doubts. I mean every single part he's ever played in has been weasly untrusting characters, how does that qualify you to be considered for a part like the doctor!!!

    • 70's Who is best! says:

      He is a great character actor that can play just about anything, my friend. Plus, he grew up watching the show and is more knowledgeable on the history compared to even Tennant. Mark my words. Capaldi is going to make the show even more popular. The old diehards that have been turned off by certain aspects of the modern series will be coming back as well.

  10. Guest says:

    I'll wait til I see him as The Doctor. Its so easy to get into the bandwagon and fall off too easily if high expectations aren't met. My only concern is how will they re-establish The Doctor's connection with Clara now that he will be regenerating to an older man? A father/daughter thing would be too predictable. Also I will have a hard time shaking off that Malcolm Tucker image that he is known for unlike Matt Smith and Tom Baker who were a relative unknowns. Its gonna be tough so good luck to him.

    • s gordy says:

      I very much doubt many of the Dr Who fans have watched in the thick of it.

      • 70's Who is Best! says:

        True. I have not seen much of Capaldi's work including "In The thick Of It" but I do know that he is a stellar character actor that is perfect for the role of the doctor. He is greatly admired by his peers and the people who have seen his work.

  11. The Doctor says:

    That is to say I don’t like the idea of a woman as The Doctor it’s just a bad idea.

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