Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

Once Upon A Time Lord

Posted on

In December 2012, EW had lunch in New York with Matt Smith, a 30-year-old who was coming to the end of his tenure as the star of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who. The Doctor is a monster-battling alien whose ability to regenerate his physical form has allowed a number of actors to star on the show in its half-century history. Smith was the 11th such actor — and all too aware that he wouldn’t be the last. ”One day you will be sat opposite another Doctor,” he said a tad sadly at the end of our meal. ”You will be cheating on me! Right? And I will expect you to always speak fondly of me.”

Eighteen months later, your writer is in a London photo studio and is indeed about to ”cheat” on Smith with Peter Capaldi, whose first season as the star of Doctor Who will premiere on BBC America Aug. 23. Since its 2005 reboot, the show has become a genuine global phenomenon, with a whole new generation of fans following the Doctor in his fight against those metallic maniacs the Daleks, the similarly villainous Cybermen, and all the other monsters of the Who universe. In America alone, 2.5 million viewers tuned in for last year’s special Christmas episode, in which Smith’s so-called Eleventh Doctor regenerated into Capaldi’s Twelfth. ”This is not the show that I grew up with,” says Capaldi, himself a die-hard Whovian since childhood. ”It’s a bigger beast.”

Given these stakes, it is hardly a surprise that showrunner and head writer Steven Moffat says finding a new Doctor was a major headache: ”It does feel a bit like you’re back to square one. It’s exciting in one sense, but on the other hand, it’s a whopping great problem.” Moffat solved that problem — he hopes — by casting the whippet-thin, 56-year-old, almost-completely-unknown-to-American-audiences actor sitting opposite EW. So who is Peter Capaldi? What foes will his Doctor face off against in the new season? What friends will assist him? And, most important, will EW be allowed behind the controls of the TARDIS? (Spoiler alert: The answer to the last question is ”Yes!”)

Like so many of Britain’s cultural icons — the royal family, steak-and-kidney pudding, Keith Richards — Doctor Who is both highly eccentric and extremely old. Indeed, Capaldi is likely to be the last Doctor who will be capable of remembering the first actor to play the part, William Hartnell, who originated the role way back in 1963. And Capaldi certainly does. One of his earliest recollections is of watching Hartnell’s Doctor in the multipart 1964 adventure ”The Dalek Invasion of Earth” when he was 6. ”At the end of the first episode, a Dalek emerges from the Thames and it’s such a surprise,” Capaldi recalls between bites of his very British-looking cheese sandwich (it’s pretty much a hold-the-cheese situation). ”I loved the effort people put into making these strange worlds.”

Capaldi became, in his own words, a ”geeky fan” of the show who collected the autographs of the actors playing the Doctors in its first decade and wrote letters to the Doctor Who production office. (In 1976, the Doctor Who International Fan Club magazine published a Capaldi-penned appreciation of the show’s title sequence.) The actor’s enthusiasm lasted into his teens, but eventually he became distracted by other matters. ”You get into sex and drugs and rock & roll, and that becomes more important to you than watching Doctor Who on a Saturday,” he reminisces. After a rejection letter from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Capaldi studied graphic design and sang with a band called the Dreamboys, whose drummer was Craig Ferguson (yes, that one). His first big acting break came when he was cast in Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s 1983 comedy Local Hero, and over the next two decades he became a familiar face, if not exactly a household name, in the U.K., thanks to projects such as the 1996 TV miniseries Neverwhere (co-penned by future Doctor Who scribe Neil Gaiman). In March 1995, Capaldi won an Academy Award for writing and directing the short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Around the same time, he was offered the opportunity to try out for the starring role in a TV-movie reboot of Doctor Who, which had been off the air since 1989 following a ratings slump. Capaldi declined. ”I didn’t go. I loved the show so much, and I didn’t think I would get it, and I didn’t want to just be part of a big cull of actors.” He likely dodged a bullet. Paul McGann (Withnail and I) was cast in the movie, which proved a ratings disappointment. As a result, Doctor Who was shelved again until March 2005, when showrunner Russell T Davies brought the series back, much to the delight of fans — including Capaldi. ”I watched it with my daughter,” he says. ”I said, ‘This is Doctor Who, and you’re going to watch it whether you like it [or not].’ She liked it, and then it became a family thing; it became the thing that we did.”

Something else Capaldi did a lot at this time? Use the F-word. In May 2005, the BBC debuted a sitcom in the U.K. called The Thick of It, the British progenitor of Veep (both were created by Scottish TV satirist Armando Iannucci). Capaldi played Malcolm Tucker, a fictional, ferocious, and foulmouthed political enforcer (typical Tuckerism: ”This is the f—ing Shawshank Redemption, but with more tunneling through s— and no f—ing redemption”). The monstrous Tucker struck a chord with the British public, and over the next few years Capaldi achieved star status in his homeland. ”It became clear quite quickly that quite a vocal and large group of people liked this character, and that had never really happened to me before,” says the actor, who is as polite and soft-spoken as Tucker routinely is not. ”I would be stopped in the street and asked for an abusive bollocking from Malcolm Tucker.”

Capaldi was also finally making his mark in the Who universe. He was cast as the marble merchant Caecilius in the 2008 David Tennant-era adventure ”The Fires of Pompeii” and then as a British politician in the 2009 Who spin-off miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth. Capaldi further expanded his fantasy/sci-fi portfolio while also becoming a familiar of the Jolie-Pitt clan, playing the king of the fairies in the recently released Maleficent and a World Health Organization doctor in 2013’s World War Z. ”That was an odd summer,” he recalls. ”I worked with Angelina on Maleficent — from which I’ve been cut completely — and then went to work with Brad on World War Z.” As for his prophetic credit as a ”W.H.O. Doctor”? ”Total coincidence.”

Still, when it was announced in the summer of last year that Smith was leaving Doctor Who, Capaldi’s name was notably absent from the list of rumored replacements, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Radcliffe, and Tennant’s Broadchurch costar Olivia Colman, who would have been the first woman to be cast in the part. Capaldi followed the media coverage of the Who horse race with interest but with no idea he might be asked to audition for the role. ”I didn’t think of myself at all in that kind of race but was quite entertained by the whole thing playing out because I’m a fan of the show,” he says, adding that he thought he was out of the running due to one simple factor: ”My age. I would have thought they were automatically heading younger.”

Capaldi’s reasoning was sound. The age of the actors playing the Doctor has varied wildly over the decades, and Hartnell was, like Capaldi, in his mid-50s when the series debuted. But since its 2005 relaunch, the show’s male leads have all been younger than Capaldi — and have gotten younger over time. The first of the new Doctors, Christopher Eccleston, was 41 when he first appeared on the show, while his successor, Tennant, was 34. Smith himself was just 26 when he was cast. Of course, the actor playing the Doctor can’t keep getting younger — the show isn’t called Doogie Who-ser. And it turned out that what Capaldi perceived to be an obstacle to his casting was actually an advantage as far as Moffat was concerned. ”I did say, ‘No, we probably won’t end up with another quirky young man,”’ he recalls. ”I very quickly thought about Peter.” Capaldi reveals that when his agent called to ask how he would feel about playing the new Doctor, the actor ”laughed for about two minutes — because the idea was just so joyful,” he remembers. In an attempt not to tip off the media that Capaldi was in the frame for the part, Moffat auditioned him at the exec producer’s house in London. ”I’d written some scenes for him to do, and I sort of maximized the daftness of them,” says Moffat. ”You know, ‘Can you do all this stuff without giggling?’ He was instantly in command of it, and he looked and sounded right for that part.”

{C}

Last fall, Capaldi traveled to the Doctor Who studios in Cardiff, Wales, to shoot his scene for the 2013 special Christmas episode. ”The night before, I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this at all,”’ he says. ”[I was] just pacing up and down in my hotel bathroom. But you just have to throw yourself into it.” Jenna Coleman, who plays companion Clara, describes filming the regeneration scene as a ”surreal” experience. ”Matt finished his scene and then Peter arrived,” says the actress, 28. ”They shook hands and then crossed paths, and it’s literally as brutal as that. You carry on filming the exact same scene with a different actor. Peter must have done that scene about 55 different ways, throwing things in the air and seeing what sticks.” Fans got to see the result of Capaldi’s experimentation on Dec. 25 when his Doctor suddenly appeared before Clara in the TARDIS to ask, ”Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”

Capaldi says the first time he really felt like the Doctor was when he did get to fly the TARDIS after the new season began shooting in January. ”Of course there’s a lot of people, prop guys, very kindly telling you how to work the TARDIS,” he says. “But I thought, ‘I know how to work the TARDIS, you don’t have to tell me how to work the TARDIS.”’

Someone else who doesn’t need to be told how to work the TARDIS? Yours truly. A few days after speaking with Capaldi, EW is at the show’s studio complex, where the two-part Cybermen-featuring finale of the new season is being shot by Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay. At the moment, however, this Who-loving writer is fulfilling a childhood dream by standing on the 360-degree set of the TARDIS, punching buttons on the ship’s six-sided console, whose controls include computer keys and a set of levers originally designed to be used in railway signal boxes. ”What was quite good, they were Matt Smith-proof,” explains EW’s companion, Who production designer Michael Pickwoad. ”He was very good at breaking things.”

Pickwoad fashioned this latest version of the TARDIS a couple of years ago during Smith’s tenure as the Doctor but has made some modifications now that Capaldi is at the controls. These include adding bookshelves and an array of blackboards inscribed with a mix of Earth algebra and whatever in blue blazes they have in that department on the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. ”Peter Capaldi, he’s more of a thinking Doctor,” says Pickwoad.

In addition to showing off the redecorated TARDIS, Pickwoad gives EW a tour of some of the sets that will be featured in the new season, on the condition that your writer doesn’t reveal what he sees. (Doctor’s orders!) Moffat & Co. are well aware of the huge interest in Doctor Who around the world and are careful to the point of paranoia about the possibility of the show’s secrets becoming public. Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. A few weeks after EW’s trip to the U.K., the BBC announced that the scripts for the new season’s first five shows — as well as a rough cut of the first episode — had leaked online, prompting Who scribe Mark Gatiss to vent on Twitter, ”People spend all their time making nice things and then other people come along and break them…”

{C}

But the Who crew is prepared to hint at some of the things to come. Like the revamped TARDIS, Capaldi’s debut season as the Doctor will be both familiar and different. The Moffat-penned season premiere, for example, features the return of the Paternoster Gang, a trio of Victorian detectives and fan favorites made up of the green-skinned Madame Vastra (played by Neve McIntosh), her human wife, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), and the dome-headed, hilariously dim-witted Strax (Dan Starkey). ”The first episode is all about meeting the Doctor,” says Moffat’s fellow executive producer Brian Minchin. ”Clara is lost in Victorian England and lovely young Matt Smith has disappeared and Peter Capaldi is now the Doctor and she’s discovering what he’s like and we’re with her going on that journey.” So far, so normal — at least for fans accustomed to the idea of crime-solving interspecies lesbians. However, the premiere was directed by the hot British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, a die-hard Who fan who’s known for making extremely violent films, including 2012’s occult horror movie Kill List. ”He’s made the show quite scary,” says Capaldi. ”Ben has a wonderful eye and a sensibility about dreadfulness, in the sense that his films are all full of dread. You know, ‘What terrible thing is about to befall these characters?’ He’s brought an element of that to the show, which is great.”

Last season, Smith’s and Coleman’s characters enjoyed something of a flirtatious relationship. But with an almost-30-year age gap between Coleman and her new costar, Clara has been gifted with a more generationally appropriate love interest, Danny, played by Who newbie Samuel Anderson. ”He’s a teacher at the same school as Clara,” says Minchin. ”Clara decides she’s not going to leave her life behind to go travel in time and space. She’s starting this relationship with Danny, so she’s going to keep both lives going at once. The Doctor will drop her back two minutes after she’s left, and she’ll have to explain why her hair’s grown longer or she’s got seaweed in her dress.” Beyond the Cybermen, this season will bring back the Daleks, while this year’s list of guest stars includes the singer Foxes, British comedian Frank Skinner, and Keeley Hawes (MI-5) as a character called Mrs. Delphox. ”She’s playing this naughty but nice, really sexy villain who kind of kills you but with a sweet smile,” says Coleman.

Of course, the show’s most important new element is Capaldi’s Doctor. ”He’s more alien than we’ve seen him for a while, and he is less patient with the foibles of human beings,” says the actor. ”Somewhere in his regenerative process, human beings have lost their charm for him. But they begin to work their magic eventually.” In last year’s special 50th-anniversary show, the Doctor’s many incarnations worked together to save Gallifrey — and in a real-life echo of that, Capaldi reveals he has sought assistance from his two immediate predecessors, Tennant and Smith. ”Matt and David have both been very helpful,” says Capaldi. ”We text a lot, if there is a problem I need some advice on. It’s a very small club, the amount of people who have played the part when the show’s been at this scale.”

Coleman says Capaldi could hardly be a more enthusiastic costar: ”He especially likes it when things get blown up and [there are] Daleks and Cybermen. He’s absolutely loving getting to play the Doctor.” Capaldi is fully aware that the role of the Doctor is not a job for life. ”It’s funny Matt saying that,” says Capaldi when told about Smith’s comments to EW in 2012. ”One of the things that hits you when you get the part is that it is finite. It’s not like the series winds up — you get replaced.”

For now, though, Capaldi admits he is very much the cat who got the cream — or, rather, the Doctor Who fan who got his hands on the TARDIS. ”I feel guilty that my job is so fantastic,” he says. ”You wake up in the morning and you’re Doctor Who. What a reason to get out of bed!”


Burning Questions

How is Peter Capaldi’s Doctor different from past Doctors?

”I suppose the last couple of Doctors have been like the ‘good boyfriend’ Doctors,” says Doctor Who exec producer Steven Moffat. But Capaldi’s Doctor is ”not as sweet and lovable as he might seem. He’s unapologetic.”

Will Capaldi’s previous appearances in the Who universe be referenced this season?

Yes, although ”we’re not going to make a big fuss about this because everyone knows he’s the same actor,” says Moffat. ”But there’s a neat little idea” that Moffat credits to previous Who showrunner Russell T Davies.

Are there overarching plotlines this season?

”Yes,” says Moffat, ”but at the same time 90 percent of every episode is a stand-alone adventure.”

Will the Doctor’s archenemy the Master be back this season?

”There’s always that rumor,” teases Moffat. ”It didn’t come from us.”

Where will this season be set?

”We’ve got quite a lot of Earth stuff this time,” says Moffat. ”But it’s a proper variety, and I think I’ll not tell you what’s going to be on the roller coaster in advance.”

What will happen in the season finale?

Moffat is mostly mum on the subject, though we know it will be a two-parter. But he does reveal that ”it’s not just about Cybermen. It’s a good, action-packed, mad one, I think.”

Make New Enemies, But Keep The Old

Peter Capaldi isn’t just the new Doctor, he’s also a Who expert — so we asked him which classic foes he’d like to fight.

Daleks and Cybermen are coming in the new season. But if Peter Capaldi had his pick of vintage Who villains, he’d pit the Doctor against two other old foes: the Axons from 1971’s ”The Claws of Axos,” and the original ’60s-era Cybermen. ”Axons appeared as these godlike creatures, but underneath they were festering bags of flesh. I’d love to see a modern version of that,” says Capaldi. And the Cybermen were ”absolutely terrifying, with cloth faces. That was really creepy.” Unfortunately, showrunner Steven Moffat describes both foes differently. ”I always thought the Axons had a natural resemblance to a BAFTA,” he says, referring to the British version of the Oscar. As for the old-school Cybermen? ”We’re not bringing those back, because they look like boys with [sweaters] pulled over their heads. But Peter and I are not having a fight about which Cybermen are better.”

Comments