Monday 22 January 2018

I swear he'll be a great Doctor

There's a wonderful synchronicity to the casting of Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. This year is the 50th anniversary of the programme, an occasion that's being marked by a special episode featuring multiple Doctors and a 90-minute drama, An Adventure in Space and Time, about its creation in the early 1960s.

It's fitting that Capaldi, who'll be playing the 12th incarnation of the Time Lord, is 55, the same age William Hartnell was when he became the first Doctor way back in that black-and-white November of 1963.

He's also the first actor over 50 to fill the role since Jon Pertwee, who was 51 when cast as the third Doctor in the 1970s.

Whether by accident or design, Capaldi is an excellent choice. The Glaswegian is best known for playing foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, but there's a lot more to him than that one role.

He was charming in Local Hero, Bill Forsyth's lovely, Ealing-style film from 1983, and superbly horrible as the tyrannical King Charles I in Channel 4's dark English Civil War drama The Devil's Whore in 2008.

Between those two extremes, Capaldi's lengthy and impressive CV boasts a range of performances, dramatic and comedic, spanning television, movies and theatre.


In short, he's an actor who can do it all: heavy drama, light comedy and the space between the two that the Doctor Who scripts frequently straddle.

His take on the Doctor, which we'll get a brief taste of in the closing minutes of this year's Christmas special before the next series proper begins in 2014, will be fascinating to see.

Ever since the BBC decided in 1966 to give the character the power to regenerate in a new body – a crisis response to Hartnell quitting the series because of the punishing production schedule – every actor to play the role has put his own distinctive stamp on it.

Hartnell was a tetchy, grandfatherly Doctor. His immediate successor, Patrick Troughton, gave us a slightly dotty, Chaplinesque version, a scruffy space vagabond who played the flute.

Pertwee's Doctor, with his flowing locks and dandyish velvet jackets, was a dashing man of action. Doctor No 4, Tom Baker, who prior to David Tennant's tenure was regularly voted the fans' favourite, combined Pertwee's athleticism with a dollop of eccentricity.

Sometimes the Doctor's new face didn't quite fit. The portrayal of the character offered by Colin Baker (no relation to Tom), who followed the popular Peter Davison as the sixth Doctor and was the penultimate one in the programme's original run, was regarded by some fans as abrasive and unlikeable.

The BBC controller, Michael Grade, also allegedly disliked his interpretation.

The choice of Capaldi is something of a watershed moment. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, after a 16-year hiatus punctuated by an unsuccessful BBC/Universal TV movie starring Paul McGann, the Doctor has been growing progressively younger.


Christopher Eccleston was 41. Tennant was 34. Outgoing Doctor Matt Smith was just 26 when he was cast, making him the youngest actor ever to inhabit the role.

Casting Capaldi looks like a conscious decision to steer Doctor Who back to its origins and also a way of countering claims that it's become too focused on a younger audience – an unfair allegation, since many of the storylines in the Smith era have been as dark and scary as anything in the programme's history.

It's also a canny marketing move. Capaldi already has a profile in the US, thanks to The Thick of It's spin-off movie In the Loop, which should further boost Doctor Who's popularity over there, where it's already a cult favourite on BBC America.

A Doctor for all ages then, and all television markets, too.

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