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Immediately following a special BBC1 programme Doctor Who Live on Sunday August 4 2013, when it was announced who would play the Twelfth Doctor, executive producer and lead writer Steven Moffat said in response to whether he had drawn up a short list: ‘Yes. The list went ‘Peter Capaldi’. It was a very short list.’
So what made Capaldi an ideal choice? Born in Glasgow on 14 April 1958, Capaldi’s acting career has been an extremely long and distinguished one. Movie roles have been extensive and have included Local Hero (1983), The Lair of the White Worm (1988), and Dangerous Liaisons (1988). He also went on to help write and star in the 1992 comedy film Soft Top Hard Shoulder, which won the Audience Award at the London Film Festival and saw Capaldi take away the Scottish BAFTA for Best Actor. Capaldi was again in the spotlight for a short comic version of It’s A Wonderful Life for BBC Scotland which won a BAFTA Award for Best Short Film and an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. His early television work, meanwhile, included parts in famous programmes such as Crown Court (1984), Minder (1985), C.A.T.S Eyes (1986) Rab. C. Nesbitt (1989), Dramarama (1989), the Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1990), and Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1991), before he went on to star in the BBC drama series Mr. Wakefield’s Crusade (1992) playing closeted gay man Luke Wakefield. Following this he appeared in Prime Suspect (1993), Chandler & Co (1994), The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1994), The Vicar of Dibley (1994-96), Neverwhere (1996), The Crow Road (1996), Tom Jones: A Foundling (1997), Fortysomething (2003), Judge John Deed (2003), Foyle’s War (2004), Peep Show (2004), Midsomer Murders (2006), and Skins (2007-8). More recently, he has appeared in the TV mini-series The Nativity (2010), in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House (2011), in the cold war drama The Hour (2012), and is due to be seen as Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC’s upcoming drama The Musketeers. The role, however, that he has become most associated with is that of government official Malcolm Tucker in the BBC comedy series The Thick of It (2005-12). This earned him both the 2010 BAFTA Television Award for Male Performance in a Comedy Role and the British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actor. He also played that part in the film In the Loop (2009). With all these previous credits, Capaldi’s casting as the Doctor has been tied into discourses of ‘quality’ much as Christopher Eccelston’s was. Writing for The Guardian, Mark Lawson stated that Capaldi’s ‘casting confirms that, like James Bond, the Doctor has become a role serious actors are happy to take on.’
At the same time, Capaldi has been constructed in the wider media and in Doctor Who fandom as a ‘fan’ of the programme. This marks Capaldi’s similarity with David Tennant and his difference from Matt Smith who, as the youngest actor to play the Doctor, had grown up during the period the programme was off-screen and who had to do ‘research’ by watching old stories after being cast in the role. On Doctor Who Live, Capaldi warmly embraced the fans, and presenter Zoe Ball drew attention to a letter which Capaldi had written to the Radio Times about the programme’s 10th anniversary special. Steven Moffat told Sky News: ‘you realise one of the finest, most loved actors in the country is a huge Doctor Who fan, and a genius actor, and…that maybe we could just…ask him…would he like to be the Doctor, so we contacted him and said would you be interested in it and he was very interested.’ Even when Capaldi was being mooted as a possible replacement for Matt Smith, The Doctor Who News Page was drawing attention to his status as fan, who had written numerous letters to the Doctor Who production team in the early 1970s inquiring how the series was made, and who had been sent scripts by then-producer Barry Letts. Furthermore, the day following the announcement the site reported that regular reviewer Matthew Kilburn had discovered a fanzine article by Capaldi dated from May 1976 concerning Bernard Lodge’s title sequence. Additionally, in a piece for SFX Online, Ian Berriman writes that ‘Further proof that the actor is One Of Us’ comes in the fact that Capaldi had as a youngster wanted to run ‘The Official Doctor Who Fan Club’ (5 August 2013). Much has also been made of the fact that Capaldi has already appeared in Doctor Who, as Roman merchant Lucius Caecilius in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ (2008), as well as in the spin-off Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009) as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher. So Capaldi is represented as an actor who will very much respect the programme.
So what of reactions to this casting? These can be found on numerous Doctor Who forums but here I have taken a representative sample of views from Twitter which exploded with comments following the unveiling. For, as one poster put it, ‘The announcement of a new Doctor is like a nerd version of the announcement of a new pope’ (4 August). Some of these participants on Twitter will, for example, be fans of the classic and new series, some only fans of the new series or parts of the new series, while people who identify themselves as casual viewers also have access. It is nothing new that ‘so many people are judging the new Doctor before they have even filmed a single scene’ (6 August). Just as many who were devoted to David Tennant were at first appalled at the casting of Matt Smith, a wide selection, largely of ‘fan girls’, outpoured their grief at Smith’s impending departure and at the choice of a much older (and in their view unattractive) Doctor in the form of Capaldi.
Their comments were met with hostility by many. Relief was expressed that Steven Moffat hadn‘t pampered to their wishes: ‘I‘m glad that it wasn‘t some young flash git to keep the fan girls happy’ (male, 4 August). Some took delight in the misery this would cause this segment of the audience: ‘I hear the cries of a 1000 geeky fan girls fading into the darkness and dying’ (male, 4 August) and ‘I love the fact that he’s older and that all the little fan girls are upset hehe’ (male, 4 August). Other posts suggest that to be a ‘true fan’ one must appreciate the true nature of the show. One poster wrote that the casting ‘will sort the fans from the fan girls’ (female, 4 August), while another poster stated: ‘Some fans throwing their toys out of the pram because Capaldi is deemed too old to have any sex appeal. Get a fucking grip!’ and ‘It’s ageist…And dismisses what’s important, the concept of the show, for a shallow idea of how sexy the leading man should be’ (gay male, 5 August). It must be recognised that some fans attitude to ‘the ageist debate’ are also affected by their own ages. Many posters were pleased that Capaldi’s casting returns to the ‘roots’ and ‘first principles’ of the series when William Hartnell played the Doctor. For example, one poster wrote ‘Capaldi feels like a return to #DoctorWho’s roots: charismatic odd older professor type rather than cool young geek’ (4 August). Other posters were quick to highlight that ‘Peter Capaldi is the same age William Hartnell was when he began playing the Doctor’ (55) (5 August). But, perhaps most intriguingly, a number of posters drew attention to the visual similarities of Capaldi and Hartnell, with one tweeting side-by-side photographs of the two tugging at their lapel (5 August).
One-time producer Barry Letts often stated that Doctor Who story titles had to be ‘Whoey’; thus, the 1973 story ‘Peepshow’ became ‘Carnival of Monsters’. So I have named this story in the ongoing Who narrative ’Doctor Who and The Tugging of the Lapel’. Through repeating this very gesture used by Hartnell in the 1960s, Peter Capaldi has shown that we must not only consider him as the first BAFTA award-winning actor to play the Doctor, but that as a fan, he respects the programme’s past, and this fills me with hope for the series’ future. Indeed, in his letter to Doctor Who Magazine 464, Capaldi writes: ‘every one of the last 50 years of Doctor Who will have helped make [the character]’. Moffat has shown so far that he can echo the past without poorly mimicking it. ‘Lapel Tug’: perhaps in Who circles we can use ‘lapel tugging’ as a new synonym for being Doctorish and maintaining continuity. Those who have voiced concerns about an older Doctor with less sex-appeal are not respecting the series. They are not ‘lapel tugging’. For some on Twitter, it has been the quality of scripts for the Moffat era that has come under fire and I agree with these closing remarks believing Capaldi to have the potential to convey a darker, more mysterious Doctor: ‘I hope the scripts are up to the standard of the actor (don’t think Smith was well served as he deserved!’ and ‘That’s where the focus is required. Good scripts for a good actor’ (5 August). ■
I’d like to thank Melissa Beattie, Frank Collins, and Matthew Kilburn for contributing to discussions with me on some of the issues raised here. Details about Capaldi’s career have been found on the Doctor Who News Page and elsewhere on the Net.
Andrew O’Day is editor of the forthcoming book Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era. He received his PhD in Television Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London and has contributed chapters on ‘classic’ and ‘new Who’ to a range of edited collections.