Commentary: Peter Capaldi to leave ‘Doctor Who,’ opening the door to new possibilities for the long-running character

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor minds a baby in a 2016 episode of "Doctor Who." Capaldi has announced his departure from the series after the coming season.
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor minds a baby in a 2016 episode of “Doctor Who.” Capaldi has announced his departure from the series after the coming season.
(Simon Ridgway / BBC)

In the course of a BBC radio interview Monday, Peter Capaldi announced that the coming season of “Doctor Who,” a series in which he has starred since 2014 — yes, fans, not counting the 2013 Christmas special — would be his last. Capaldi, otherwise best known as the profane Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci’s political comedies “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop,” inherited the role of a regenerating traveler in space and time from Matt Smith, who replaced David Tennant, who followed Christopher Eccleston, the first to play the character in Russell Davies’ 21st-century reboot.

(For those unfamiliar with the show, which premiered in 1963 and whose next season begins in April, each actor has played a variation on the same character, an extraterrestrial Time Lord; they share a single history and memory, but their personalities are distinct. This started as a convenience to keep the series running after the retirement of William Hartnell, the first person to play the part. Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor, at least by official numbering – it’s complicated.)

Although Capaldi said he was asked to stay on – his contract is expiring -- it never seemed likely to me that his tenure would outlast the already announced departure of current show runner Steven Moffat. (Moffat will be replaced by “Doctor Who” writer and “Broadchurch” creator Chris Chibnall.) He has been a fine Doctor, older than his recent predecessors – more in the mold, chronologically, of Hartnell and Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, back in the 20th century -- but with a fierce, sometimes forbidding, sometimes farcical energy all his own. He can be tough, he can be tender, as hard and as soft as his own Scottish accent. That he was the singer in a punk band is not surprising.

As the Mistress (Missy, for short), Michelle Gomez set a precedent for gender-swapping a Time Lord.

But change is in the show’s alien DNA. For the viewer, learning to let go is part of the deal. And, as with that other Great Hero of long-lived contemporary British genre fiction, James Bond — another franchise that also periodically recasts its lead -- much speculation and argument attends each new passing of the torch.

And again, as with Bond, it will be asked whether the new player might – for once, please – be a person of color, or a woman, or both. (Will the fact that the doctor’s new traveling companion, to be played by Pearl Mackie, is both, make that less likely?) “Why not?” seems a more powerful question here than “Why?” Another pale dude seems almost wrong.

It’s true that fandom can be reactionary. Men have panicked over changing the sex of a hero -- witness the absurd pre-release negativity that met Paul Feig’s 2016 gender-inverted “Ghostbusters.” And some white fans lose their mind over “racebending” comic book characters on the page and screen, as when Spider-Man got a black alter-ego or Michael B. Jordan was cast to play the Human Torch. All the more reason, really, to make that leap, especially given the tenor of the times. Culture moves the world along.

This is a show that makes its own rules, adding or removing obstacles, rewriting canon as the head writer dictates or a story beat might require. Perfect consistency has never been its strong suit; indeed, a disregard for technical details is one of its strengths – poetic logic is what makes the show tick.

But there is canonical precedent, if you want it: In 2014, Moffat turned the Doctor’s arch-enemy the Master (previously played by actors including John Simm and Derek Jacobi) into the Mistress (Michelle Gomez). And the Doctor’s skin is always new; as long as the character is superficially British – that seems to me to be the one non-negotiable point – he might be a she, or both at once, or any color at all.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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