As we approach the debut – at least in a complete story – of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, the Who-o-sphere is abuzz with the same frenzied commentary and speculation that has always accompanied the handing over of the role. Eccleston only doing one season? Matt Smith replacing the beloved Tennant? That blonde guy from All Creatures Great and Small replacing Tom Baker? Since 1966, when somebody came up with the wild idea of recasting the title character in a popular TV series, such debate has become an integral part of Doctor Who fandom. This time, however, the uproar seems to be focusing on Capaldi’s age. He’s too old! He’s not cute! Fan-girls are beside themselves! The series can’t be “relevant” with an older Doctor! To this I say: calm yourselves, people.
Before I start to rant, I should confess to my own ageism in this matter. When Smith was cast, this late-thirty-something (at the time) shuddered. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I thought. The guy playing the Doctor is younger than me. It was bad enough when sons of your favorite baseball players start showing up…this was the Doctor! No matter that Peter Davison was thirty-one when he took over; I was only nine at that point. It didn’t really count. Now the Doctor was a mere boy of twenty-six? How could this possibly work?
But it worked beautifully and Smith captured the character’s nonconformity to our understanding of age and the passage of time. Ancient and wise, boyish and curious, quirkily humorous or cosmically profound – Smith brought all the crucial elements together in a perfect package.
So I was convinced. Who cares how young the the guy looks?
Capaldi is the oldest new Doctor in the history of the series. Indeed, he is essentially the same age as the oldest man to play the Doctor, William Hartnell – an interesting coincidence often noted by the critics. It is true: if one disregards a few months here and there, both men were fifty-five when they first appeared as the character. Yet Capaldi doesn’t seem nearly as old as Hartnell, at least to this viewer.
Hartnell played older: the original concept of the Doctors character was that of a grouchy yet ultimately loveable grandfatherly figure. Hartnell himself had made a career out of playing curmudgeonly characters; indeed, it was his portrayal as a hard-bitten old sports agent that lead to his casting as the original Doctor. His white-hair wig and gentlemanly Edwardian attire – including a walking stick – contributed to the “balmy old granddad” package. Hartnell was also not a well man. Arterial sclerosis contributed to occasional mental lapses – included line-flubs known as “Billy Bluffs” – and eventually forced him to retire from the role. Generation affects our perception of age. Fifty-five was just older in 1963 than it is now, and I suspect in Britain even more so.
Doctor Who viewers will recognize Capaldi from the Tennant story “The Fires of Pompeii” and from the five-part Torchwood mini-series “Children of Earth.” With his well-trimmed seventeenth century goatee and ‘stache, he cuts a dastardly striking figure as Richelieu in The Musketeers. Zombie fans know him from World War Z as a suspicious WHO doctor. The role he may be best known for – to UK viewers certainly – is that of a fiery foul-mouthed government PR man in the BCC political comedy The Thick of It. If that character is any indication, he will indeed be a “fiercer” Doctor, as the Daily Mail suggested. A doddering fossil is not who we’re dealing with.
So I implore calm from the Doctor Who community. Granted, Peter Capaldi might not be the “lunch-box candy” you’re accustomed to, but he’s a great actor who will bring the intensity and quirkiness to the role it demands. Jon Pertwee was fifty-two and did his own stunts. Even raw physicality doesn’t make the man. Michael Fassbender may make a great young Magneto, but that doesn’t make Ian McKellen any less bad-ass. Capaldi will bring it. And if you want cute, check out the episode of Prime Suspect in which he played a transvestite. I hope I’m that pretty after I regenerate.