New Doctor Who Arrives in the Thick of It

Posted by Kelvyn Gardner on August 06, 2013

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2013 is a pivotal year in the history of the UK’s (and the world’s) longest-running sci-fi television series. Doctor Who reaches its fiftieth anniversary in November. Among the celebrations and special programmes to mark the anniversary, fans have known for some time that the actor currently occupying the role, Matt Smith, would be leaving, and, therefore, a successor had to be found.

For those of you not familiar with Doctor Who, the show has an almost unique deus-ex-machina in the form of ‘regeneration’. Conceived by the early production team in the 1960s to enable the replacement of the elderly original incumbent of the role of the Doctor, this allows the time lord character to regenerate into an entirely new body, complete with different personality, character traits and appearance. For a TV drama, this is both neat and useful: no-one has to appear in the shower after a season missing from the storyline.  

The first regeneration, of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton, was done with quite literally no fanfare whatsoever, and simply occurred in the story The Tenth Planet, in 1966. Since then, as seems to be the case with every ‘event’ in the media, the news of one Doctor’s planned departure, followed by the search for a successor, and finally the announcement thereof, have increased in the planning, the execution and the delivery. It’s almost like a national sport. I say ‘almost’ but perhaps it’s an understatement. After all, bookmakers really do offer odds on who will be the next Doctor. On this occasion, the bookies got it right. Peter Capaldi has the role.

Now, Doctor Who has always been a licensing success. In the early days the show was an unexpected smash-hit. Indeed, many senior BBC managers wanted the show canned after eight episodes, but by then the nation was aflame and the initial merchandise reached the stores in time for the show’s first Christmas in 1963. Doctor Who merch ruled big-time through the 1960s. There was a period during the show’s absence from the airwaves when licensing ‘shrunk’ to products for the hard-core fans. Even then, the BBC told me that you could almost guarantee to sell 20,000 of any new merchandise item, such was the fanaticism of the Whovian  cohort. Since the 21st Century revival of the programme, licensing has hit new heights, and not only in the UK. The American fan-base has grown steadily in recent years, and when it’s possible to spot a Doctor Who display unit in branches of Hot Topic, you know that the USA has begun to catch the bug. 

This is one of the things that makes the choice of Peter Capaldi an interesting one. The original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, was an established actor in the British film industry (among many starring roles was that of ‘Dad’ Johnson, the rugby scout in the greatest-ever sport-themed movie, This Sporting Life). Since then, we have had more ’unknowns’ than stars play the role. Indeed, the last two Doctors were both very new to senior acting roles when they got the part.

With Capaldi, we return to having a ‘name’ actor. I think this timing is right. When the programme was revived in 2005, the production team clearly decided that a well-known actor would supply the gravitas needed to successfully float the ship. Shakespearian specialist Christopher Eccleston was chosen, and though he stayed for just one ‘season’, he got the show off to such a good start that the licensing world was ready to put the image of the next Doctor, David Tennant, on a thousand different products.

Capaldi takes over at a critical point. The fiftieth anniversary episode in which he will make his debut will be a zenith in the show’s history. 2014 could look flat by comparison, an ‘after-the-party’s over’ year. Capaldi’s personal charisma might be enough to overcome that, and propel the show forward into the second-half of the decade. Some licensees tell me they did not do so well under the last Doctor – this is a chance for another fresh start and all of us in the licensing world wish Capaldi well in the role.