2013 was already set to be a pretty momentous year for Doctor Who considering that it marked the 50th anniversary of the series. Then in June, news broke that Matt Smith, who had played the 11th incarnation of the Time Lord since 2010, would be stepping down, and that the anniversary would also see a new actor taking on the role as the show entered its sixth decade.
Dr. Who Recap: And the 12th Doctor Is...
By Edwin Davies
August 5, 2013
After months of speculation, word began to filter through that the bookies' favorite was the Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, an Oscar-winner best known for his performance as the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It and its big-screen spin-off, In The Loop. Despite the secrecy that surrounded the announcement - supposedly as few as ten people knew that Capaldi has landed the role - the bookies turned out to be bang on the money, and when number 11 bows out, either in the forthcoming anniversary special or the annual Christmas special, he will be replaced by Capaldi's wiry frame. But what does it mean for The Doctor to regenerate, and why is it such an important event?
Regeneration was not originally built into the character of The Doctor, but like much of the mythology of the show, came about as a matter of necessity. In 1966, as the show was quickly establishing itself as one of the BBC's more popular shows, William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor, was forced to leave the role due to his worsening health. Rather than cancel the show, the producers settled on a novel idea; since The Doctor is an alien, why can't he just "die" then come back as another person? When Hartnell's Doctor collapsed at the end of The Tenth Planet serial and transformed into Patrick Troughton, it not only allowed the show to continue in the immediate aftermath of Hartnell's departure, but set the stage for it to become a show that would impact multiple generations of viewers.
Not only does regeneration allow The Doctor to replenish his reserves every couple of years and slip into something more comfortable, but it also allows Doctor Who as a show to shake things up. This has become much more pronounced in recent years - just think about the marked difference in tone between the David Tennant years, which could often be downright wacky, and the more whimsical one that has defined Matt Smith's tenure - but even in the early days of the show, a change in who was piloting the TARDIS would have a major impact on the nature of the show itself.
Each new actor was able to put their own stamp on the character, one which would both serve as a means of distinguishing themselves from their predecessors while maintaining continuity so that people don't feel like their Doctor was somehow "wrong." Unlike, say, the cinematic versions of James Bond, all of which are very slight variations on a very specific character, each iteration of The Doctor is different from the one that came before it. They each have a firmly established sense of right and wrong, but each actor fundamentally differs on how to express that. Hartnell's Doctor was a sprightly, impish, grandfatherly type with a Victorian demeanor, whereas Troughton's was a sort of intergalactic hobo; Tom Baker's was almost perpetually delighted by each adventure, while Christopher Eccleston's seemed to dread them. The core concept remains the same, but the execution can vary wildly, and seeing an actor like Capaldi, who has a very different energy to Smith, take over could have a very strong and immediate impact on the show.
And because The Doctor was so central to the show, the stories being told would fit the tone of their performance, as well as accounting for the changing tastes of the audience and the way in which television was made - compare the multi-part serials of the early days and the self-contained single episodes of today to see just how much the show has changed to keep up with the times. The only TV series that have been on for comparable amounts of time would be soap operas, shows that essentially repeat the same dynamics over and over with different casts as the years pass. Doctor Who is unique in that it has been able to remain hugely popular and relevant - barring the 16 years when it was off the air - as the world has changed around it.
Probably the most important impact of regeneration is that it has allowed the show to develop a unique relationship with members of its audience. If you talk to people who grew up watching Doctor Who, the phrase "my Doctor" will inevitably surface. It's not merely a case of which actor was playing the character at the time, but one of who was their own personal Doctor, the one who defined for them who the character was and what Doctor Who as a show could be. Different generations, from the children who watched Hartnell's Doctor and are now grandparents to its current audience love the same show, but their ideas of what the show is might be wildly different, and are intimately tied up with the question of who "their Doctor" was.
It's a uniquely personal relationship between character and audience that has allowed the show to thrive as a cultural phenomenon; it feels as if there will always be a Doctor, and even if you might not like what the show is doing now, a horde of new viewers will. It's become a living, evolving entirety whose fan base remains so passionate because of their connection not just to the stories, but to the different people who helped tell them. It's this reason why a regeneration is not just part of the ongoing story of the show, but a major event; each new actor means that the show is going to change as well, and the audience is going to have to determine whether they like the new Doctor as much as they did the old one. Only 11 men have played The Doctor before (if you discount the film versions from the '60s, in which he was played by Peter Cushing, and dozens of radio series in which other actors have taken on the role) and the addition of a 12th is rare and special.
In terms of the man who fills that role, Capaldi is a brilliant choice. Not only is he a great actor (seriously, people, watch The Thick of It, In The Loop and Local Hero) but he's a lifelong fan of the show and is no stranger to genre fiction; he played the Angel Islington in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, guest starred in Torchwood and Doctor Who itself (in an episode with Karen Gillan, before she became a companion). More important, he's a markedly different talent from Matt Smith, who I've loved as The Doctor but whose performance was initially just a slight variation on David Tennant's interpretation. Capaldi's an older, more intense actor than Smith, but he's also got a lightness and a twinkle in his eye, suggesting that he could both intimidate the fuck out some Daleks and handle the humour of Steven Moffat's scripts. It's been years since there's been an older Doctor, and I for one can't wait to see what Capaldi's experience will bring to the role, even if he has to cut down on the inventive swearing.
The Doctor is dead! Long live The Doctor!