So the excellent actor Peter Capaldi is to play the 12th incarnation of the Doctor. Perhaps with the 50th anniversary of the programme approaching Steven Moffat just couldn’t resist casting another middle-aged Scotsman as his alter ego. And at the very least, the regularly floated and supremely absurd idea of a female Doctor has been knocked on the head for another few years. Capaldi is a lifelong Doctor Who devotee. He had a fan letter published in the Radio Times in 1973, and made a guest appearance playing the character of Caecilius in the 2008 episode, The Fires of Pompeii. He also had a major role in Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood: Children of Earth, playing John Frobisher in five episodes.
I am pleased, and surprised, that the BBC has gone for an older actor this time, especially after the controversial, and entirely successful, decision last time to go with the youngest Doctor ever, Matt Smith. I had thought Doctor Who had been given over entirely to the youth vote, so its nice to see the character reverting to the middle-aged 900-something he has been for most of the last 50 years. That the actor playing the Doctor is older than me for the first time since 1996 has nothing to do with it!
I do however have a problem with the relentless hoopla spun around the announcement that Capaldi is the 12th Doctor. There was a time, not so long ago, when the audience didn’t know that the current actor was leaving until the next regeneration sequence began. I can still recall the delicious, unbelieving shock when John Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, and then when Baker in his turn became Peter Davidson. Even as recently as 2005 we had no idea that Christopher Eccleston had only signed up for a single run of 13 episodes. That was drama and Eccleston’s regeneration into David Tennant was all the more powerful for being completely unexpected.
Now all the drama goes into the big reveal as to the identity of the next actor to embody the role, not into the regeneration episode itself. Such is the hype that by the time we get to the actual regeneration it will seem like ancient history. Revealing all before stems from the same mentality which drives film companies to release countless extended trailers and clips, giving almost everything away before the film is even in cinemas. It is the sort of thinking which makes TV stations reveal everything that is going to happen in soap operas ahead of time, which at least does have the advantage of making watching them even more pointless and less worth watching.
It is a mentality which means that finding out first is more important than watching the film or programme when it finally arrives. But then in a world in which identikit fast food franchises have taken over the planet surprise, originality and the unexpected seem to be regarded as a Bad Thing. The mass audience wants to know exactly what it is getting. All the time. Which is why our high streets and malls are filled with fast food outlets and shops which are all exactly the same, and why cinemas are dominated by franchise movies which are all…ditto.
Of course I see the BBC’s problem. In these Internet days it is almost impossible to keep secret the fact that an actor is leaving a popular programme. Especially when filming must begin with a replacement before the last episode with the previous actor is broadcast. So, presumably executives think, why let the tabloids grab the headlines? Why not capitalise ourselves?
So, in a new height of ludicrousness, that’s exactly what the BBC did on Sunday night. They devoted 30 minutes of peak time TV to a live programme announcing that Peter Capaldi is to play the Doctor. It was done like the results edition of a dancing or talent competition – the winner wasn’t announced until almost the end – complete with studio audience. This monstrosity of a programme was presented by Zoë Ball, who has no connection with Doctor Who.
I had to look her up to find out what she does. It turns out she is a DJ who has presented TV dancing shows. Which is fine for her and her doubtless many fans, but could the BBC really not find anyone associated with a programme with a 50 year history to host this fiasco, or was everyone too embarrassed? Well Peter Davidson and Bernard Cribbins did turn up as guests on the obligatory chat show couch, Matt Smith video-phoned his praise in, and Peter Capaldi performed with dignity. Still, I half expected Simon Cowell to make an appearance. Or Lord Sugar to tell Capaldi ‘You’ve been hired!’ It feels like a precedent has been set. Perhaps when the queen finally dies the BBC will run a similar show to announce the identity of our next monarch.