Just before I went to the Azores for two weeks, the lovely Peter Capaldi was officially anointed as the Twelfth Doctor. Given the fractious nature of DW fandom, this seems to have been a remarkably popular choice. Certainly the appointment of Matt Smith was a lot more divisive at the time.
Nothing became Capaldi less than the way the news was announced. For crying out loud, Auntie, does everything have to be turned into Britain’s Got Talent these days? The show was a vapid, overblown mess and the less said about it the better. It must piss people off royally when they spend their lives writing really top quality drama for the BBC and don’t get a fraction of the exposure of Doctor Who. And I speak as a fan.
But Capaldi managed – just – to retain his dignity, and I’ve a feeling that will be a keynote feature of his performance. Lord knows we could do with it after Matt’s hyperactive bounding around. I think we are all ready for an older Doctor who does, occasionally, feel truly dangerous. Not in Ten’s smouldering emo way, but wearing the ancient robes of a proud, remote and inscrutable race.
It took me a while for the penny to drop that Capaldi got his first big break in Local Hero, which happens to be my all-time favourite movie. There are lines in that film that have passed into our family vocabulary (“IT HAD A NAME! YOU DON’T EAT THINGS WITH NAMES!” “It was a clean break. You can check the bones if you don’t believe me.”) Okay, it’s as much a period piece in this age of instant, portable digital communication as Audery Hepburn’s Roman Holiday, but I’ve always been a sucker for quirky, gentle humour and a strong sense of a place that is both beautiful and remote. And Capaldi…well, there was the wonderful meeting with Mac at the airport when he offers to help with Mac’s luggage and takes the briefcase, leaving him to struggle with his huge suitcase…and who could forget the look on his face when he discovers Marina’s webbed toes?
But I digress. In all honesty I’ve never really got into The Thick of It – it’s not the swearing as such that bothers me but I do like to have at least one likeable person in something I’m watching (in fact that’s been a lot of my problem with recent episodes of Who, come to think of it). Capaldi broke my heart and won me over in the unforgettable Children of Earth as Frobisher, the flawed but ultimately decent civil servant who went home and shot his kids rather than have them abducted by the monstrous 456. He’s an actor of great presence and range and I look forward very much to see what he’ll do with the Doctor.
I know it upset some people that the Doctor wasn’t cast from a conspicuous minority group this time around. I think they may be saving a big surprise like that for the tricky Twelfth Generation. But there’s another reason why I didn’t subscribe to the view that casting the Doctor should be subservient to political correctness, and hear I risk making myself unpopular.
The point is, most SF and fantasy is heavily encoded with the political characteristics of its period. We do tend to forget that when shows go on for 50 years and become a fixture, but just as Star Trek is basically a Western in space and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds is about the jittery decline of imperialism, Doctor Who is a product of the long, elegaic, post-Suez sunset of Britain’s influence on the world stage. At its heart is a mixture of nostalgia and wish-fulfilment. It looks back to iconic images of London invaded by Nazi-like monsters and meeting plucky resistence, defined by Churchill as Britain’s finest hour. And it hugs closely to itself, like a hot-water bottle brandished against the cold winds of change, the illusion that a well-intentioned British amateur can save the world.
Cast in the mould of the Edwardian gentleman adventurer of private means, the Doctor has massive cultural clout and operates from a position of assumed authority, but skirts the edges of being a pathetic, irrelevant and isolated figure for all that. Ten’s tip to Martha at the start of The Shakespeare Code, “Just act as if you own the place. Works for me,” is freighted with all the unquestioned and unjustified self-confidence of an Eton education. It’s said by someone who not only is able to carry that off, but can’t conceive of anybody not being able to do so.
Never was this clearer than when the fob-watched Doctor found himself in a boarding school in 1913, and felt right at home. Gallifrey was conceived as something very similar – sexless, communal living arrangements with beautiful buildings, emotional sterility and a veto on emotional expression. The Doctor can afford to remember it fondly because now he can never go back. He is vulnerable and adrift, his moorings gone, and as Joni Mitchell famously said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”
Classic Who exploited this abrasive relationship to the full. When he revived the franchise, RTD made the bold decision to blow the rug away and leave the Doctor utterly alone in a postwar society that he had to figure out how to negotiate. He captured that vulnerability in his writing and it defines the RTD era, though both his Doctors interpreted the brief very differently – Eccleston by being defensive, spiky and abrasive and Ten by being needy and manipulative. Billie Piper’s presence was crucial; she was the Doctor’s eyes and ears in a new society, and the audience joined her by proxy on the journey. It was a casting choice of extraordinary boldness and did much to sell the show to a new generation – just like Rose, everyone was asking, “Who is this weird bloke – where has he been for the last 20 years?”
Moffatt has concentrated on the legend of the Doctor, and that has a hollow heart. Myths are full of symbolism, less sure on character (unless they are skilfully reinterpreted). It will be interesting to see where he goes with the dignified and patrician Capaldi. I hope PC will stand up to him in a way that, perhaps, Smith never quite felt able to do. PC has had a lot of big breaks behind him, he could walk away from Who anytime and be seriously famous, so taking on the bullshitters would leave him with less to lose. And if there’s one thing Malcolm Tucker was famous for, it was making his opinions f*****g well felt.
So, to get back to whether a PoC could ever play the Doctor, well, “never say never,” but it would involve the show having an extremely different narrative, so much so that I’m not sure it would even be Doctor Who any more. But I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong.
So far, we’ve only had one very specific take on postcolonialism. I happen to believe that DW is, in essence, a show about postcolonialism from the colonisers’ PoV, and that does make it a big ask to turn the tables. But if there’s one constant in DW, it’s the show’s ability to surprise. Both Eccleston and Tennant, under RTD’s aegis, crossed the class barrier, something that would once have seemed unthinkable. Nine was unmistakably working-class, and Northern with it – two taboos crashing down at a stroke. Ten took it off in another direction as the Converse-wearing cockney wide-boy (said to be moulded on Jamie Oliver’s persona). Smith and Moffatt seem to have re-erected some of those class barriers. But future writers might well find a way to cross the ethnic divide with the same skill, boldness and lightness of touch as RTD tackled the great British obsession of class. It won’t be on the Twelfth Doctor’s watch. But after that…well, who knows?