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.