Doctor Who? The Answer Is Peter Capaldi

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on August 5, 2013 4:32 pm

Fans of the BBC show “Doctor Who” got the news they’ve been waiting for last night.

During a half-hour special, the BBC announced the name of the actor who will be playing the role of the Doctor in season 8: Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.

The 55-year-old will step into the role in January 2014.

“Doctor Who” has been running on and off since 1963. The show ran from 1963 to 1989 and was revived in 2005.

Eleven actors have played the doctor for a season or more. With Capaldi as the doctor, the show returns to a tradition from the original series — an older, darker take on the doctor.

Since the 2005 reboot, the show’s doctors have been younger and had what some call a lighter take on the character of the Doctor.

NPR pop culture guru and “Doctor Who” nerd Glen Weldon says the current Doctor, actor Matt Smith, has played the role as if he were a “dazed puppy.”

“The show has felt a lot more mechanistic than it usually does, and that’s not the show’s heart,” Weldon told Here & Now. “The show has a heart and it’s very warm. It’s just lost some of that. Maybe the way to bring it back is to have Peter Capaldi come in and knock some people around.”


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Fans of the long-running British science fiction show "Doctor Who" have the news they've been waiting for. Yesterday, the BBC announced the new actor who will be playing the lead role in the next season.

ZOE BALL: Please welcome, the 12th doctor, a hero for a whole new generation, it's Peter Capaldi.

HOBSON: Peter Capaldi is 55 and Scottish. He will be the 12th doctor starting in season eight. For more on this and why "Doctor Who" is such a big deal, we are joined from NPR in Washington by "Doctor Who" fan Glen Weldon. He's author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography."

And, Glen, start us off with the basics here. The doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey. He - his species is known as the Time Lords. He has two hearts, but he never dies, really, so they're able to replace him with other actors when he leaves. But what is the show actually about?

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: OK. He's a time-travelling adventurer whose time machine is a blue box that's bigger on the inside, and due to a faulty chameleon circuit, it is stuck looking always like a phone booth from London in the '60s. And this is a guy who goes around saving the universe, not with weapons, not with brute strength, but with his words and with his wits. And he's accompanied by companions. And because of the nature of the show, they tend to be willowy young women from Great Britain who are his companions.

But first and foremost the show is a kid show. It is one shot through with a lot more melancholy than you'll pick up in a lot of other kid shows. And if you're a very young kid it's also a pretty scary one. There's a cliche that in Britain, generations have grown up watching this show from behind the couch because it is so scary. But the most important thing about this show is how very, very British it is.


WELDON: This doctor guy comes from a tradition of the British eccentric, you know, the mad, dotty, old professor and his students. And that's why this show does not - it's science fiction, but it does not have a slick, cynical antiseptic feel at all. It's very tweedy. It's a very humanist, lo-fi, charming little show, which is a good way, a nice way of saying, the special effects kind of suck.

HOBSON: So it sounds kind of like "Austin Powers" for people who have never seen it, but a little bit different.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's not quite as much of a goof, an outright goof as "Austin Powers" is, but there is a certain amount of humor in it. And when I say that the special effects suck, I mean, it's come a long way since - when I was growing up and seeing it in the '70s and you can see the zippers on the evil monster costumes.


WELDON: And - but that's part of the show's charm. It's not slick. The show is really about the relationships between the doctor and his companions. And the doctor keeps changing.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about that, because there have been a number of doctors since the show stared in 1963. It's been on and off the air since then. And the way that they do that, as we said, is to not have the doctors age, but just have them die and then get replaced by another doctor.

WELDON: Absolutely. This is a very canny, smart way of keeping your show running forever. By - basically, when the actor becomes tired or when the producers become tired of the actor, they have him go through a process that they call regeneration, which makes the one doctor die, and the other actor come in with a new face and a new persona. And for long-time "Doctor Who" fans, this process of this new doctor discovering who he is, how he's different from the doctor of the past, what clothes he chooses, what affectations he brings to the persona, that's part of the fun.

HOBSON: Well, here is Zoe Ball, the host of the TV special that the BBC produced to announce the new doctor over the weekend, explaining regeneration.

BALL: "Dr. Who" has come up with some pretty ingenious ideas over the years, but nothing beats the fact that the leading man can change his appearance. It's a process, if you didn't know, called regeneration, which means when the doctor dies, his body rejuvenates, and it comes back to life with a new look and a different personality. Brilliant.

HOBSON: Brilliant and yet, Glenn, there was a lot of talk that there was going to be a woman this time, and there's not.

GLENN WELDON, BYLINE: Yeah. I was really holding out for - there is no compelling reason why the doctor can't be a woman, why the doctor couldn't be a person of color for that matter. There's no compelling reason besides tradition which is no compelling reason at all. And I was really hoping. I had my arms crossed waiting for a Helen Mirren, you know?


WELDON: She'd be awesome. Or even an Idris Elba I think would be awesome as the doctor.

HOBSON: And I think she spoke out and said that there should be not just a woman but maybe a minority woman and a lesbian.

WELDON: Absolutely. There's actually - again, because of the nature of the series, it could be anybody. And I was really hoping they do something besides a young, skinny, milk-complexioned British male this time, and they went a totally different direction with a middle-aged, skinny...


WELDON: ...milk-complexioned British male. They didn't go with another relatively unknown actor in the role. They went with Peter Capaldi.

HOBSON: And this is a Scottish actor. He was in "World War Z" playing a doctor for the World Health Organization. He was on the "Doctor Who" spinoff show "Torchwood," but he is probably best known for playing Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister's enforcer on the BBC political comedy series "The Thick of It." And here is a clip from that.


PETER CAPALDI: (as Malcolm Tucker) If you don't give me his (bleep) number, do you know what I'm going to have to do? I'm going to have to (bleep) go to (bleep) Ruislip and (bleep) snap the thumb and forefinger off of every single person I see.




HOBSON: So he knows how to swear.

WELDON: Oh, my God. He uses - in that role, he uses profanity the way the greatest chefs in the world use seasoning. It just - there's a music to his delivery.


WELDON: And there's such invective. There's such vitriol, which is not something he could bring to the role of Doctor Who. But I mean this is what they did. They decided they didn't want to just imprint a completely new doctor onto some blank slate. They know that Peter Capaldi is a known quantity. And so they're going to adapt the doctor to his personality. Now, there has been in the past doctors who were a little bit more curt, a little bit more snippy, even cruel in the past.

They haven't really worked that well. Colin Baker was one who I didn't think particularly worked that great. But they've just come off a doctor, played by Matt Smith, who was kind of this dazed puppy.

HOBSON: Well, let's listen to a clip of Matt Smith on the show.


MATT SMITH: (as Doctor Who) Could you just ask me that question again?

JENNA-LOUISE COLEMAN: (as Clara Oswald) Could I what?

SMITH: (as Doctor Who) Could you just ask me that question again?

COLEMAN: (as Clara Oswald) Doctor who?

SMITH: (as Doctor Who) OK, just once more.

COLEMAN: (as Clara Oswald) Doctor who?

SMITH: (as Doctor Who ) Oh, yeah. Oh. Do you know I never realize how much I enjoy hearing that said out loud? Thank you.

COLEMAN: (as Clara Oswald) OK.

HOBSON: So very different than Peter Capaldi it sounds like?

WELDON: Yeah. It's going to be at least interesting which I think is good because I think for the last couple years on the show it has been less than interesting, to me, in particular, because the person who took over the writing is a guy named Steven Moffat, who was a really great writer for the show when they revamped the show in 2005 and brought it back on the air. But he - his approach to writing women is sort of a puzzle. He treats them as a puzzle. He treats them as plot points to be solved.

The show has felt a lot more mechanistic than it normally does, and that's not the show's heart. The show has a heart. The show is very warm. And it's just - it's lost some of that. So maybe the way to do that is by bringing Peter Capaldi and to knock some people around and...


HOBSON: ...he's kind of jerk.

Glenn Weldon, tells us why people are so obsessed with this show. It's just a TV show. I know it's been on the air for a long time.

WELDON: When they brought it back, they took all the kid show elements and dosed it with a lot of, as I mentioned before, melancholy and a strange layer of depth and humor that that the show hadn't really experienced before. All these things that were dialed way back, back in the early incarnation of the show, things like the sexual tension between the doctor and his companions and the notion that the doctor is kind of alone were played down. Now, they're really being played up in a way that makes the show a lot more sort of - you can get your teeth into it.

My favorite episode of the show was from this Matt Smith era, which showed both the cheesiness of the special effects and the heart of the show and the sadness of the show. So in this one episode, the doctor goes back to meet Vincent van Gogh and saves him from a marauding giant invisible space chicken.


WELDON: Never mind, it's not important. Don't worry about it. It's just a thing that happened, but he also takes him forward in time so Vincent van Gogh can attend one of his own exhibits and see how much the world adores him and how much art historians prized him. It's very moving moment. It's one of the best moments of the entire series. And yet, when he goes back to his time, he still kills himself because mental illness is more powerful than a time lord. That's the weird, creepy, melancholy, ultimately sad message of the show, and I think it's very affecting in the way you don't necessarily predict from a little kid show.

HOBSON: Glenn Weldon knows way too much about "Doctor Who." He's also a panelist on NPR's pop culture Happy Hour podcast. He's also the author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." Glenn, thank you so much.

WELDON: Thank you, Jeremy.



You know, Jeremy, one thought, until we knew this was a great Abbott and Costello skit...


YOUNG: ...who's the new Doctor Who? Who? Yes.

HOBSON: Who's on first?


HOBSON: Or I'm sure we'll get a listener who writes in and says we should have said whom in one of those cases in the story.

YOUNG: More than likely.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.