Why Peter Capaldi Is My Doctor Who*
Remember where you were when you found out Peter Capaldi was going to be the Twelfth Doctor? I was in the kitchen and a friend called to tell me. “You know who he is. He was in ‘Local Hero.’”
“Not Peter Riegert,” I said. (I had a thing for him back in the day.)
“No, he’s Scottish.”
Then I remembered. “Oh yeah! The one who had a facility for languages!”
Like mostly everybody else—except of course Steven Moffat, the “Doctor Who” show runner who’d recruited him for the role to replace Matt Smith—it took me a while to focus on who this Peter Capaldi person actually was. Most British TV viewers thought of him as Malcolm Tucker in “The Thick of It,” so there were tons of jokes about the new Doctor being a horrible sweary man. Then, when Capaldi actually made his first entrance in Series 8, Episode 1, with his hair tinted iron gray and wearing an unflattering brown Matt Smith suit, everybody’s reaction turned to “He’s so OLD.” The way the Doctor’s post-regenerative disorientation was staged suggested an out of control dementia patient. The climax actually brought back Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor to beg his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) not to reject this new version of him just because he wasn’t young and sexy anymore.
Given that “Doctor Who” is technically a show for children and teens, and that Capaldi was the oldest actor to take on the role in the regular TV series since William Hartnell in 1963, it’s understandable that Moffat would think it was important to deal with the subject of age and how we all deserve to be treated the same no matter how we look. But I was so frustrated when I learned that Moffat had insisted that Capaldi crop his luxuriant curly hair down to Malcolm Tucker length for that first series, and made him wear a frock coat made with dull blue wool instead of the sensuous velvet he originally wanted. Because it undercut the whole point of saying we shouldn’t judge people by their age. When Capaldi was allowed to grow his curls into full floof and dandy himself up in jewel-toned velvets, we could see for ourselves that just because you’re not a boyfriend doctor doesn’t mean you’re not hot as. And not surprisingly it was around the time that Capaldi was allowed to have the Doctor look he wanted that “Doctor Who” suddenly went from being a strictly British phenomenon with a cult international following to a genuine worldwide hit.
Unfortunately Moffat, with his chronic fixation on bitch goddess characters (e.g. Claire Jackman in “Jekyll,” Irene Adler in “Sherlock”), had to have Clara lead her new old Doctor around by the nose, with the result that he became her companion rather than the other way around. While this was great for Jenna Coleman, giving her a showcase to audition for her upcoming role as Queen Victoria, it stifled Capaldi’s opportunities to shine and meant viewers took a long time to come around to realize what a really great Doctor he was. Not surprisingly it wasn’t until the Series 9 episode “Heaven Sent” that fans finally stopped slagging off Capaldi and vocally pining away for Tom Baker and David Tennant. This was the one featuring a one-man tour de force performance by Capaldi—finally allowed to show what he could do without the admittedly fabulous Jenna Coleman absorbing all the show runner’s attention.
My friend and I geeked out happily during the Capaldi era. We invested in downloads and DVDs and watched premiere BBC broadcasts in real time (never mind how.) We went to Fathom Events broadcasts in movie theaters. We both invested in Twelfth Doctor replica jackets, which we proudly wore to work (whoever got the license from the BBC to make them did a great job—nobody realized we were cosplaying.) We were disappointed though by the lack of other good Twelfth Doctor-branded items in the BBC shop. They still had tons of merchandise for previous Doctors, but practically nothing for the Twelfth. Why a David Tennant/Matt Smith body pillow and not a Peter Capaldi one? Next best thing, I gave my friend a life-sized cardboard standee for Christmas (again, nice one, BBC shop) and started a Tumblr called Capaldiwatching, which I was doing a lot of as I caught up with as many recorded Capaldi works as I could dig up, from “Local Hero” and his darling New Wave vocals with the Dreamboys, to the Capaldi-written and directed films “Soft Top, Hard Shoulder” and “Strictly Sinatra,” to his superb catalog of TV performances, from “Mr. Wakefield’s Crusade” to “The Thick of It.”
We went to see him live with Jenna Coleman at the 2016 Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. We had to wait a ridiculously long time in a massive auditorium that I started thinking of as the Hangar of Shame (a term in frequent use by Capaldi fangurls.) Word was that a huge amount of people had paid to have pictures taken with him, and being an Oscar-winning filmmaker he wasn’t about to let them go without each getting a good image out of it. When he finally came onstage he was so charming that we forgot everything else.
Much as I like to second guess Moffat’s choices with Capaldi, I have to give him credit for having the nous to cast him as the Doctor in the first place. But then he has quite the track record for plucking up actors and giving them brilliant star vehicles nobody else would have had the imagination to think up for them, like James Nesbitt in “Jekyll” and Benedict Cumberbatch in “Sherlock.” The fact that Moffat always goes high concept makes him valuable in an era of storytelling where the higher the concept the better, though he usually ends up losing control and crashing. That didn’t quite happen with Moffat-era “Doctor Who,” though it felt like that era ended before it was really ready to, and Chris Chibnall and his Thirteenth Doctor suffered for that. Chibnall’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman concept of the show and the unimaginative choice to make Jodie Whittaker’s first female Doctor a sort of Peter Pan in Northern Soul costume didn’t help either. In retrospect it became clearer that Capaldi’s Doctor was authoritative, he was complex, he was witty, he was soulful, he was entertaining, and, yes, sexy. And oh how much the fans missed him.
Things that endear me to Peter Capaldi as the Doctor
Being a longtime fan of the series he was knowledgeable about the other actors who’d played the Doctor before him and mindfully drew on their characterizations—after all they were literally playing the same person as he was—which enriched his portrayal marvelously.
I suspect that Peter Cushing was a key inspiration for his Doctor, not so much Cushing’s portrayal of the Doctor in his two feature films (which was a very different character from the Doctor in the TV series) but the swashbuckling men of action he played in classic Hammer films, like Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Van Helsing and the Rev. Dr. Blyss in “Night Creatures.” And Cushing, like Capaldi, did his own stunts whenever possible.
The fact that Capaldi plays rock and roll guitar was brought into his character (the Tardis having built-in stadium speakers, etc.) but he never really performed, as in playing a single song all the way through. His Doctor riffed the way Sylvester McCoy’s played the spoons.
He let his directors use all sorts of atmospheric lighting effects that were horribly unflattering to him because he was a director himself and knew that dark lighting and weird colored filters were a fantastic look for his character.
He approached the role of the Doctor as seriously and played him with as much realism and sincerity as he played any other role in his career. He never condescended to play it as children’s theater. That’s the secret to why his Doctor attracted such an unprecedented adult audience to “Doctor Who.” And led, naturally, to yelps that it was losing its prime directive as a children’s series. Because no matter how good you are, somebody will always bitch.
*In interviews he referred to the character as Doctor Who, even though that’s incorrect, like calling Frankenstein’s Monster Frankenstein. And he knew that, having been a “Doctor Who” geek from childhood, but he said it that way anyway because he knew that was what most people called the Doctor and he wasn't going to be a snob about it. He wanted to be a Doctor for everybody.
(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.