Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi will be a Doctor of gravitas and steel

One of the joys of <em>Doctor Who</em> is that the actor isn’t limited by their human characteristics - Capaldi won’t have to play the Doctor as a 55-year-old man, because, you know, he isn’t.

The moment the 12th Doctor was announced as being Peter Capaldi - already the bookies’ overwhelming favourite - a number of things happened: millions across the nation nodded sagely and muttered “knew it”; a hundred thousand people made the same jokes on Twitter; ten thousand Tumblr users started editing gifs of The Thick Of It to add extra Cybermen; and a thousand TV writers with looming deadlines gratefully pulled out a file called “PeterCapaldi12thDoctor.doc”, emailed it to their editors and knocked off early to go down the pub.

Before we got there, of course, we had to endure an overwrought attempt to turn a six-word announcement into 35 minutes of Big Event Television. Presenting, Zoe Ball had the manic fixed grin of someone who’s been told “keep them talking for god’s sake, you’ve got to buy us time”. We were treated to the invaluable thoughts of Liza Tarbuck, Bruno Tonioli, and anybody else who’d happened to be in the vicinity of a BBC camera crew over the past few days. Rufus Hound wore a Keep Calm t-shirt, and must now be shunned by all decent society. It came across rather like an episode of The Apprentice: You’re Fired happening in reverse.

It’s hard to shift the feeling that the whole circus of inflated importance the BBC builds around the show isn’t altogether healthy for the quality of the output. Going big is not necessarily going better in the Whoniverse. The best Who episodes of both the Davies and Moffat eras have been tightly focused, with lean plots that keep the spotlight on the characters - big stakes on a small stage. The misfires most often seem driven by a demand for bigger and bigger spectacle, or the judgement-destroying phrase “wouldn’t it be cool if...?” (“Wouldn’t it be cool if The Doctor rode up the Shard on a motorbike?” “No.”) All this razzle-dazzle makes us wary.

Regardless, Capaldi is a tremendously exciting casting choice. Just as the casting of a big-name actor like Christopher Eccleston was a statement of intent for the revived series back in 2004, going for Capaldi suggests an encouraging ambition among the production team. Lest we forget, he’s the first Doctor to have won an Oscar (for directing, not acting).

Obviously, we’re not going to get Malcolm Tucker In Space (as much as Armando Iannucci should absolutely consider that as a Thick Of It spin-off). The 12th Doctor will not be telling Daleks in great detail where they can stick their plungers, or ramming a lubricated horse cock up the space-time vortex. It will not be Doctor Who The Fuck Are You. IT IS STILL A KID’S SHOW, PEOPLE.

Moreover, while Capaldi may be indelibly linked in the public mind with language that’s the bluest blue ever, he’s an actor of great range and subtlety. You only have to look at one of his two other appearances in the Who universe to see that - his understated, heartbreaking performance as a betrayed civil servant in the Torchwood mini-series Children Of Earth, which helped elevate a jolly but juvenile show into a genuinely compelling drama.

What does the fact that Capaldi’s one of the oldest actors to take on the role mean? It’s an easy guess to suggest the character will be played as more mature than Tennant’s schoolboy enthusiasm or Smith’s clowning often suggested (and Capaldi and Moffat hinted as much in their interviews on the announcement show). Certainly, there should be a lot less companion-flirting; moreover, it’s easy to imagine the gravitas and steel Capaldi can bring to those key moments when the Doctor gets righteously angry. But then one of the joys of Doctor Who is that the actor isn’t limited by their, uh, human characteristics: in the same way the youngster Smith could often seem older than any other actor, Capaldi won’t have to play the Doctor as a 55-year-old man. Because, you know, he isn’t.

It’s an inescapable issue that The Doctor will be, once again, a white guy. It genuinely felt like this time round we might have got a female Doctor or a non-white Doctor, and pretty much everyone who isn’t a member of the permanently furious faction of Who fandom would have been fine with it (for starters, the series has clearly laid the groundwork for either to happen). And yes, this would indeed have been a huge deal on the “what do our heroes look like” front.

But for the same reason that Capaldi’s age doesn’t have to constrain his interpretation of the role, it may be possible to put too much emphasis on how much of an advance casting the role differently would have been. The character wouldn’t suddenly come freighted with a lifetime of living as that person, or be forced to progress from a starting position determined by generations of ingrained societal nonsense. The Doctor would still have been a thousand year old alien who’s too head-in-the-clouds half the time to even notice human differences.

That said, they’d better bloody let Capaldi get to use his native accent. While David Tennant was made to English up for the role (and Sylvester McCoy toned his accent down) there’s no particular reason why Capaldi should. Yes, he’ll be great whatever voice he uses - but come on, wouldn’t it be a joy to hear him giving it the full Glaswegian? After all, lots of planets have a Scotland.

Peter Capaldi. Photograph: Rankin
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge