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
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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