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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tartan Time Lord

It occurs to me that I haven’t said anything about Doctor Who for a while now. And that’s just wrong. There is a new Doctor, and that needs to be commented on.

We met the twelfth incarnation of the last Time Lord in the series’s traditional Christmas special, which served as the eleventh Doctor Matt Smith’s swan song. Wait, are they actually the thirteenth and twelfth Doctors, since John Hurt has lately been inserted in the chronology? Showrunner Steve Moffat says it doesn’t matter because the Doctor himself has never worried about numbering his incarnations. But then he doesn’t have to keep them all straight like we fans do.

And while I’m on the topic, do we actually know for sure that William Hartnell’s Doctor was really the first one? Is it possible that there were other incarnations before him? I mean, I know that’s accepted universally by people who focus on this stuff, but has it ever actually been stated in some canon source? The main argument for Hartnell prime is the supposed limitation of twelve regenerations for a Time Lord, a limit that the Doctor actually (somewhat surprisingly for many of us) attained in the aforementioned Christmas special. But is there anything to say that the Doctor couldn’t have had twelve incarnations before Hartnell’s version and that (spoiler alert!) he couldn’t have somehow gotten a new set of regenerations the same way he did at the end of the Christmas special? I’m just asking.

Speaking of the Christmas special, I have to say that everyone involved did a lovely job. In fact, I didn’t realize just how lovely until I recently got around to re-watching it. In the rush of Yuletide activity, I didn’t really have the time to savor and reflect on the special the first time around. And it confused me a bit because they threw quite a curve there by covering centuries in the Doctor’s lifespan. In fact, Moffat’s approach to Matt Smith’s Doctor refreshingly showed a lot of—to coin a phrase—thinking outside the box. At least once before during Smith’s tenure we would learn that hundreds of years had passed for him—if not for his companions—since the previous episode. And why not? He is after all virtually immortal. In the Christmas special we actually got to see the centuries pass for him, making that Doctor’s lifespan by far the longest of any—at least any that we know of.

The special was basically a catch-up/catch-all story. We found out how the Doctor was supposed to die in the Fields of Trenzalore, as revealed at the end of the previous season. Loose ends about the Silence and the crack in Amy’s wall and a bunch of other stuff were tied up. But in the end, it was a lovely farewell to this particular incarnation of the Doctor. As his sidekick Clara kept popping in every century or so, it had the effect of reversing the usual Time Lord/companion dynamic. This time it was she who was having to watch the other one get old and die.

And at the end of it he turned into Peter Capaldi.

We have so far seen Capaldi in only two full episodes, so it’s still a bit early to judge. But at least he is something different. If anything, Matt Smith and his predecessor David Tennant were a little too similiar. They were both young Englishmen (i.e. the Scottish Tennant playing English) with quirky, flamboyant personalties. At 56 (and only the third actor to take on the role in his 50s), Capaldi harkens back to the days when the Doctor was a brilliant but cranky old fart, putting the lord back into Time Lord. (Interestingly Capaldi, unlike Tennant, gets to use his own Scottish accent as the Doctor.) It says a lot about the state of mainstream television that a major plot point of the first episode was Clara having to accept that her previously dynamic young Doctor was now, well, old—as if the audience had to be helped along to accept a main character who hadn’t only recently started shaving daily. Well, some of us like our heroes with a bit of mileage on them.

It’s also nice to have an actor who can actually remember when the show first started and whose personal reference point for the character isn’t Peter Davison or someone later. Capaldi is a self-described longtime fan and, in hindsight, seems born for the part. In fact, he has already played two other characters in the Who-niverse. One was a citizen of Pompeii during a Tennant-era episode (nicely referenced in Capaldi’s own debut episode, “Deep Breath”) and which also featured future companion Karen Gillan in a small role. He also played a government minister in the “Children of Earth” arc of the spinoff series Torchwood.

Capaldi is one of those actors who has been around for years but, at least early on, was not always noticed. It is hard to remember that the first time many of us saw him was in his second screen role in 1983 when he played gangly, fresh-faced Danny who accompanies Peter Riegert to an impossibly beautiful, eccentric and isolated Scottish coastal village and becomes smitten with Jenny Seagrove, who seems to be a mermaid, in Bill Forsyth’s wonderful classic, Local Hero. I re-watched it just the other night and found it just as charming as the first time. And I couldn’t help but notice that the last shot is of a British phone box. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)

Five years later he was in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, and in the same year he was an archeologist trying to solve a dangerous mystery with Hugh Grant in Ken Russell’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm.

Over the years he could be seen in numerous UK television shows and in supporting roles in movies like Turtle Diary, December Bride, Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and the Rowan Atkinson vehicle Bean. Eight years ago he played Andy McEntee, chair of Amnesty International’s UK section, in the TV movie Pinochet in Suburbia (aka Pinochet’s Last Stand), starring Derek Jacobi as the former Chilean dictator. To take the role of the Doctor, Capaldi had to give up playing Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC series The Musketeers, but the role he was best known for up to now was that of the British government’s potty-mouthed Director of Communications in four series of the political satire The Thick of It—leading to some interesting YouTube mashups of Tucker spewing profanities in the TARDIS.

He will next be seen on the big screen as Mr. Curry in Paddington, about the beloved teddy bear. Last year Capaldi was in two major feature films. He played Guardian editor Alan Rushbridger in The Fifth Estate, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. And in a rather eerie coincidence, he appeared in the zombie flick World War Z (starring Brad Pitt) as one of a number of World Health Organization employees. In the credits he was listed simply as “W.H.O. Doctor.” (More Twilight Zone music.)

So how is the new series going? So far, so good. The first episode served notice that there won’t be any of the romantic tension between the Doctor and his companion(s) that has been a feature of the Russell T. Davies/Stephen Moffat years, and that’s just as well. Also, it doesn’t hurt that “Deep Breath” was more or less a sequel to my favorite Doctor Who episode of all time, “The Girl in the Fireplace.” And the second episode, a riff on Fantastic Voyage inside a Dalek, served notice that the Doctor, a former UNIT employee, is going to be even more hardcore against anything military.

More significantly, while no less humorous or whimsical, the show has a somewhat darker edge to it. But that was to be expected since the first two episodes were directed by creepy film specialist (Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England) Ben Wheatley.

As I said, so far, so good.

-S.L., 5 September 2014

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