Come Christmas Day 2017, Peter Capaldi will no longer play the Doctor in the BBC’s long-running series Doctor Who. The science fiction show’s transition won’t come as a surprise, as the 59-year-old actor announced his decision to leave in January. Capaldi even hinted at the possibility in an Uproxx interview one month prior, though he was smart enough then not to let Schrödinger’s cat out of the bag (or box, rather). For as soon as the British broadcaster made it official, all anyone could talk about — including the Doctor Who team itself — was when, where and how the character would regenerate.
Rumors concerning Capaldi’s replacement, who will be selected by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, have also plagued Doctor Who news feeds ever since — and therein lies the problem. The acclaimed The Thick of It and In the Loop actor deserves far better than a constant barrage of questions about his eventual regeneration (even though I admittedly based an entire column on it), though asking fans and critics alike not to pepper the lead of a popular series with such inquiries is too much. Besides, at least the show itself can provide Capaldi some refuge while allowing him to focus on the work, right?
Wrong, as the show chose to add more fuel to the fire by constantly teasing viewers with fake regenerations (“The Lie of the Land”), as well as what may be a preview of the real deal (“World Enough and Time”). Throw in a season-long advertising campaign hellbent on reminding audiences the 12th Doctor is on his way out and eureka! — just about everything else gets drowned out. Which is sad, since Bill Potts’ (Pearl Mackine) introduction in “The Pilot” promised a whole new vantage with which to see Doctor Who. Like Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) first meeting with the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) 12 years prior, this new phase hinted at something fans hadn’t experienced in a while: awe.
When the Ninth Doctor saved Rose from certain death in “The Parting of Ways,” he offered her and those watching at home the program’s first explanation of regeneration in decades:
“I might never make sense again. I might have two heads, or no head. Imagine me with no head! And don’t say that’s an improvement, but it’s a bit dodgy, this process. You never know what you’re going to end up with… Every cell in my body is dying… Time Lords have this little trick. It’s sort of a way of cheating death, except it means I’m going to change, and I’m not going to see you again. Not like this. Not with this daft old face.”
This monologue both explains and mystifies the process, leaving Rose and the audience confused. Yet Doctor Who regenerations since have been treated less like an experience and more like a spectacle, as was the case for David Tennant. Like his predecessor before him, the 10th Doctor (Tennant) sacrificed himself for someone else — Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) in “The End of Time: Part Two.” Unlike Eccleston’s Doctor, however, Tennant’s sadness at his looming departure briefly transformed into rage against Mott and all the others he’d sacrificed himself for, causing him to fly away in his T.A.R.D.I.S. while a somber choral arrangement played him out.
On the one hand, Tennant’s viewers were already caught up with the facts of regeneration thanks to Eccleston’s final bow, so then-showrunner Russell T. Davies can be somewhat forgiven for turning the process into a visual charade. On the other hand, all the bells and whistles outshone the awe it otherwise would have generated. Years later, this happened again when Smith’s 11th Doctor forced showrunner Steven Moffat to conjure a way past the 12 regeneration limit established by the original series. He churned out an acceptable solution that also served the story in “The Time of the Doctor,” but it also dragged Smith’s regeneration on into oblivion. Sure, it provided the actor with more than enough scenery to chew through as he bid farewell to Doctor Who, but the conceit also put regeneration ahead of everything else.
This is precisely what has happened to Capaldi, albeit throughout most of the season. When the final run began in June, Moffat amplified the process by telling BBC Radio 4, “every regeneration is different, but we are playing it slightly differently this time.” The outgoing head writer and executive producer later stressed Capaldi was the “most emotional Doctor” in the series’ history, perhaps as a mea culpa, but subsequently dug right back into regeneration in a Doctor Who Magazine interview. “[W]e’re gonna keep it funny, and we’re gonna keep it lively, as well as sad,” he said. “Doctor Who will laugh bravely into that good night.”
As of this writing, I haven’t watched the screener for “The Doctor Falls” yet, so the precise nature of the 12th Doctor’s regeneration remains a mystery. Whatever Moffat has in store for the curmudgeonly, Scottish-accented Time Lord may overshadow an entire season’s worth of teasing — especially if rumors about who will appear alongside Capaldi’s Doctor prove true. Even if this proves to be the case, however, it doesn’t change the perception that the esteemed actor was done a disservice during what ought to have been his victory lap. Peter Capaldi deserves better.
Peter Capaldi returns one final time to Doctor Who on Christmas Day 2017.