• 5th August 2013 • Feature by Seb Patrick •
I’ve posted versions of some of these thoughts on Tumblr and Twitter already, but then remembered I have a Doctor Who website that I could post them on as well. So, and expanded to cover a few more points (a conveniently numbered twelve, in fact), here’s my immediate reaction to The Casting Of The Twelfth…
Caecilius est in TARDIS. Caecilius in TARDIS volat.
It’s a good job that, unlike Alex of this parish, I wasn’t in the audience for the live unveiling. Otherwise my loud cry of “FUCKING HELL!” might have been audible t0 millions.
I mean, really, who saw this coming? Notwithstanding the fact that he was the bookies’ favourite, who really actually believed it was going to be him? I had money on someone else, a tip I’d received about a younger actor (even younger than Smith), and even if it wasn’t going to be that person I was convinced it would just be someone else about whom it would have been impossible to draw any immediate conclusions – so the reaction was never going to be anything other than “Oh, okay, well, we didn’t know anything about Smith beforehand, either, so let’s wait and see.”
Instead, it was “Holy shit, it really is actually the one we all wanted after all.” Which might be the first time that’s ever actually happened.
The thing about Doctor Who recently is that it’s felt like there’s been a deliberate attempt to make the series more… selective in its appeal (to paraphrase Ian Faith). This would seem like an odd thing to do, but it feels like a deliberate strategy because in order to get the popularity in the US that they’re so desperately grasping after at the moment, they have to make it something that will appeal to a fervent, culty kind of Internet-savvy audience. Which a more mainstream show – and Doctor Who, post-2005, not to mention pre-1982 or thereabouts, is about as “mainstream” as a show of its type could ever hope to be – won’t do, because that’s not how the demographics work over there.
So the programme at the moment does certain types of storyline, and has a certain aesthetic, and the production is obsessed with giving the show its own cult of personality (yes, a personality for a TV show, you read that right – Doctor Who circa 2013 is hugely anthropomorphised), and littering geekdom with iconography (both fresh – fezzes – and old – police boxes) that it can grasp onto and obsess over and mashup with another popular cult property on a Teefury design, and coming up with recurring catchphrases, and making it more about the anticipation of the show when it’s not even actually on the air than about the show itself (even the live announcement today – simulcast LIVE IN OTHER COUNTRIES, for crying out loud – was evidence of that latter one). And even, at times, indulging in the “absurd fetishisation of the Doctor” that Lawrence Miles has called Moffat out on before.
Now, like I say, I still like current Doctor Who – Rings of Akhaten notwithstanding – but it still feels far more specifically targeted towards a particular audience than it has been at any point since, like, the New Adventures.
And I love Matt Smith, I really do. He is absolutely astonishing in the role, I think he’s a more facially expressive actor than anyone who’s done it before him, his physicality is endlessly fascinating, he combines many of the best elements of ten men before him. But unfortunately, and perhaps because of some of the things that make him so good in the role, he has become – for this audience to whom the show has been aggressively targeted over the last couple of years – the model for “how the Doctor should be”.
(Even more so than Tennant was for young fans in this country, which was no mean feat.)
So if Doctor Who was ever to feel like it was opening itself back up to a wider audience again – and if we “at home” weren’t to feel like were being abandoned for a shiny new American audience who go to comics conventions and get to see trailers for the fiftieth anniversary that nobody else in the world is allowed to see because don’t you see they’re hardcore fans they go to conventions they’re a better class of fan so they deserve more – then it needed to pull a move, with this casting decision, that wasn’t simply playing to the safe, cosy expectations of what the Doctor has been since 2006. That didn’t have the Superwholockians swooning with joy over their latest slightly odd looking but still let’s face it kind of dreamy dark late twenties boy with floppy hair. Because if it cast the third one of those in a row, then that would pretty much be it, forever.
But it couldn’t just be contrary for the sake of being contrary, either. This couldn’t just be a move to spite those kind of fans – because, like I say, all fans are fans, and entitled to be fans, no matter how baffled some of us might be that anyone could ever look at a series like Supernatural and decide that it had enough shared attributes with Doctor Who to build an entire subset of fandom around the concept.
So they go and cast an actor who basically everybody – at least everybody who’s ever seen him act in anything – loves. An actor that nobody in their right mind could be unhappy with – someone who could be convincingly argued as the best British actor of his particular generation. Someone with impeccable artistic credentials who is himself a fan of the show going back decades (and by all accounts an impossibly nice and charming guy, to boot), who shows that it doesn’t matter what age you are or how you look or even if you’ve been in the series playing a different part before, because if you’re the right person for the role at the right time, then Doctor Who will find you, as it has eleven times previously.
And no, I don’t think it’s a deliberate response to the PR nightmare that was telling a room full of fans that they were more important than the other millions of Who fans worldwide (I doubt they even know that there are some of us out there who were royally pissed off by that and even consider it a PR nightmare), but I really cannot see a more firm statement of “Look, we’ve remembered, this really is a TV series that’s for everyone” than this piece of casting. Like Doctor Who in its pomp, it’s the very best kind of populist.
After I posted the above on Tumblr, Andrew Ellard replied to me on Twitter saying that “There’s a fascinatingly counterintuitive conclusion in that – casting a young, handsome guy is niche, casting old is mainstream!” He wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with me, but it is indeed an intriguing point. Irrespective of whether or not I’ve laid it on a bit thick with my focus on the Tumblr fandom, it’s hard to deny that had a young actor been cast, in this country it would have felt like the programme was aiming its appeal at a specific, younger demographic. And yet weirdly, casting an older man doesn’t feel at all like it’s aiming at a demographic of his age (this isn’t New Tricks, although the success of that programme does show that in Britain, and in television, the Hollywood mantra of “young and sexy” isn’t always the one that wins out). Even though Capaldi’s previous work isn’t actually hugely mainstream (if you only followed Twitter you’d think The Thick of It was the biggest comedy of all time, but it’s never attracted broadcast ratings above two million), I genuinely believe he’s a choice that will bring lapsed or casual viewers in.
The reason I’d consider him the “mainstream choice” in this way is that for arguably the first time since the US movie rumours of the early ’90s, the kind of actor that the newspapers always put forward in this situation – stylish, revered actor in his 40s or 50s who’s done comedy – has actually been picked. We didn’t get Bill Nighy back in 2005, but we’ve got a not entirely dissimilar choice now. Capaldi can very well be the kind of Doctor that people who don’t actually watch the show assume the Doctor will be like.
(And yet I don’t see this as a bad thing, at all. This isn’t “platonic ideal of the Doctor selected by committee”. This is still a potentially madly brilliant and very individualistic move.)
If there’s any sort of wide-ranging point of contention over the casting, it’s the fact that the Doctor is “yet again a white British male”. And I can definitely see the point that a programme as fundamentally wide and inclusive in its appeal as Doctor Who could well stand to take a more progressive stance on the casting of its lead character at some point. I certainly don’t see any particular reason why the Doctor shouldn’t be female, or black, or anything else he so far hasn’t been. If that happens to be the right person for the role at the time, then so be it.
But here’s the thing: I also believe wholeheartedly that Peter Capaldi is the right person for the role at this time. The context of the show as it presently stands, the person the new incumbent is replacing, the stories the current showrunner wants to tell – these things are important. The stars have lined up perfectly on this one, and I think if you dismiss that because you have a notion that the Doctor has to be a progressive change this time out, then I put it to you that you’re holding a particular agenda as being more important to you than the integrity of the show itself.
So while I don’t think there’s any reason why the Doctor shouldn’t be a woman, I also don’t think there’s any reason why the Doctor automatically should be a woman, either. Both viewpoints are unnecessarily restrictive and against the spirit of the series or character. But if it happens to be the right move to make after this regeneration? Then, fantastic. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.
I know Doctor Who fans are a lot easier to come by these days than they used to be, but it is rather thrilling that he has such strong fan credentials, isn’t it?
Although, as the marvellous Al Kennedy put it: “Peter Capaldi’s such a big Doctor Who fan he’s already gone on Gallifrey Base to demand his own sacking.”
The Malcolm Tucker jokes were lame and hackneyed and obvious before they even started, but this one is so exquisitely done that we have to allow it:
But can it be the last word on the subject, please?
A text conversation with my wife last Friday:
Quick note to Character Options: please give up on your silly rubbish 3.75″ scale so that I can get a 5″ Capaldi figure to go on the shelf with the other eleven. He’ll just look silly if he’s smaller.
“Lots of planets have a Scotland.” Ah, hello jokes of 2005, we’ve missed you. But unlike Tennant, I reckon we’ll be going natural accent this time around, yes?
And what of Matt Smith? It’s been observed that he almost sounded a little regretful in what is essentially his “farewell interview”, and while we may never know exactly why he chose to leave at this point, it’s fair to say that the reveal of his replacement’s identity has well and truly overshadowed the fact that he is, you know, leaving. Which wasn’t the case when he took over, nor was it the case for Tennant. In both those instances the regeneration was heavily defined by who was giving up the role, with questions about how the new guy would do very much left up in the air until they first appeared onscreen.
Regeneration scenes are usually a chance to say a fond goodbye, while the “hello” part is normally that bit more reserved and tentative. This time, most of us will be chomping at the bit waiting for the new guy to come in. Heck, the casting of Capaldi has even managed to let some of us forget that we’ve still got the appearance of JOHN BLOODY HURT AS THE DOCTOR to come in a few months’ time.
Which all feels a little unfair on Smith, given that he is himself by any reasonable measure one of the most instantly sure-footed inhabitants of the role – and for many, myself included, comfortably the best of the New Who era.
But then, if his legacy to the role is such that he forced the producers to get someone really, amazingly, stonkingly good in, just to mitigate the widespread sadness over his leaving, then that’s not a bad impression to leave behind at all. In his four years, he could in a number of ways be said to have made himself feel irreplaceable. Doctor Who being what it is, it found a way to replace him anyway.
So, when will we first see him? November, or Christmas? I’ve got a sneaking feeling about the former, I must admit…