Steven Moffat, head writer and producer of Doctor Who, has stated ahead of the 50th anniversary of the series and Peter Capaldi’s introduction as the new Doctor, "Peter's already a bit of a national treasure, an incredibly skilled, fine actor. As most people have realised, the moment you think of him in the part, you find it hard to think of anyone else."[i] Capaldi is a comprehensive change from the outgoing, young and quirky Matt Smith- a “grown-up” as the sixth doctor Colin Baker recently suggested to the Radio Times.[ii] The announcement of Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor has garnered almost universal acclaim with many agreeing with Moffat’s contention that Capaldi is perfect for the role. Although the anticipation for the new Doctor is at a fevered pitch, many viewers and fans will be sad to see Smith leave the role, an actor whose star was on the rise before he became the Doctor, especially from his role on the BBC drama Party Animals, but Doctor Who truly made him a star. Will the same trajectory befall Capaldi- will Doctor Who make him a star? The answer to this star question can be located in notions of fandom, performance and cult status.

Fandom is inseparable from Doctor Who. Most writing about the series, even academic scholarship, generally begins with a confession of fandom by the author. In accordance, I must begin this by admitting I am not a Doctor Who fan, but an outside observer of the Doctor Who phenomenon. When Capaldi was announced as the twelfth doctor on Doctor Who Live, presenter Zoe Ball revealed a copy of a letter he wrote to the Radio Times when he was 15 years old about the Dr Who Special issue.[iii] This associated Capaldi with fandom in a similar way to star athletes who sign for sport franchises and declare their longstanding fandom. In addition, Capaldi has starred on an episode of Doctor Who (“The Fires of Pompeii” in 2008) and in an episode of the spin-off, Torchwood (2009). As Andrew O’Day noted, after the announcement, various online sites unearthed materials that further linked Capaldi as a fan, including a fanzine article he wrote in 1976, which help prove to fans that he is “one of us.”[iv] Capaldi also give a knowing wink to the series when he emerged onstage at Doctor Who Live, stopped and rested his hands on his lapels in the same manner as the first Doctor, William Hartnell.

        The connection fans have to the series is intense, lasting even when the series was off the air (1989-2005), through conventions, fanzines, appreciation societies, online blogs and fan clubs (something Miles Body’s book, Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present explores in greater detail). In fact, fandom for the series grew even though no new episodes were produced, aided by home video. As Aaron Gulyas notes, it was during this time that there was “an increasing sense among some fans of a collective ownership of the series and its legacy.”[v] By choosing an actor to portray the doctor who is also a fan, especially following on from Matt Smith who grew up when the series was on hiatus, the producers have cleverly validated Doctor Who fandom and appealed to the knowingness of fans who will anticipate how Capaldi will be written in as the Doctor when he has already appeared in the series. Being in the know is part of the pleasure many fans derive from the series and the writers, directors and producers are always including small details that reference the immense Doctor Who universe, but also the series’ long history.

        Part of the anticipation of Capaldi as the next Doctor is rooted in the series ever-changing and evolving nature, especially through the regeneration of the Doctor. The title character alters with each new actor who takes on the role, seamlessly incorporating the new actor into the narrative, but also consciously acknowledging the Doctor’s change in body, voice and performance.[vi] The transition from Peter Davison to Colin Baker (“The Caves of Androzani,” 1984) referenced the bodily transformation when Peri called to the new Doctor and he responded, “You’re expecting someone else?” The most recent regenerations underscored the physical transformations by having the Doctor comment on his new body: In “The Parting of the Ways” (2005), David Tennant moves his mouth and states, “New teeth, that’s weird;” While Matt Smith, in “The End of Time Part 2” (2010), inspects his entire body, commenting on past Doctors (“Nose, I’ve had worse”) and his own facial features (“Chin, blimey”). The body, and by extension, the voice is often the site of performance for actors, but because the Doctor character does not change, but the performer’s body does, by emphasising the physical changes Doctor Who skillfully incorporates the new actor without sacrificing continuity.

        In many ways, the star of the series is always the Doctor- the character- and not the actor. This brings in to focus how fandom is often constructed around the character and the differences between each Doctor as performed by the actors. This, however, can negatively impact on the stardom of each actor, especially the fear of typecasting, something that the stars of the James Bond series have also endured. Although some former Doctors have embraced their association with the character, appearing at conventions and fondly remembering their time as one of the most famous characters on British television, the television medium helps facilitate the character of the Doctor subsuming the star performer. Television is a more immediate medium than the cinema, allowing television stars to become a “known and familiar person rather than a paradoxical figure, both ordinary and extraordinary,”[vii] an essential part of film stardom. Television stars are often subsumed within the characters they play, an illusion reinforced by their intertexual appearances in other media that emphasize a compare/contrast approach to the performer and their character. Television, Graeme Turner argues, emphasizes the continuity of the performers’ image, its ordinariness and intimate connection to the audience through the routine and repetitiveness of a television series.[viii] TV also reduces the distance we often associate with cinema. As John Langer has argued, the consumption of TV at home, the medium’s fondness for direct address and its routinized scheduled all function to reduce a sense of ‘distance’ between the medium and the viewer.[ix] This leads to a “slippage” between TV star and character, often times through the drastic reduction in the distance between the circulated image and performance.” The two become entangled so that the performer’s image is equated with that of the fictional role.

        Many of the Doctors were television actors and not cinematic stars when they took over the role, and this is also true of Capaldi. In many ways, his star image is already closely connected to a character, Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-2012) and the spin-off film, In the Loop (2009). Tucker’s overly aggressive attitude and propensity to use profanities appears as an unusual fit for Doctor Who, but Capaldi’s extensive acting career suggests he possesses the diverse acting talent needed for a series that incorporates various genres and draws “on a variety of stars and codes of performance […] as well as a range of genres.”[x] Many scholars have noted the importance of theatrical training for British stars, whether on television or on screen. In fact, Sarah Street notes, the association between television and the stage has imbued British television with an artistic respectability, often cornering the “market for prestigious, exportable, quality broadcasting.”[xi] Contemporary television, especially cable series emerging from America, such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men, have been deemed “quality” series with high artistic value due to subject matter, style and prestigious acting. Although a British television star, Capaldi represents this turn towards “quality” television, mainly through his BAFTA winning role as Malcolm Tucker. It also displays how important Doctor Who has become as a British institution, a popular, intelligent and respectable television show established actors no longer shy away from.

        As recently as 1989, the year the series ended its original run before its revival in 2005, the show had become a national institution, but as Aaron Gulyas puts it, the increasing use of “call-backs to the series’ past kept fans intrigued [but] the general public began to move away from the series.”[xii] The series become a cult series, with “cult” conveying a sense of “offbeat,” especially compared to the conventional and more commercial mainstream. The series has steadily regained popularity and become a significant part of popular culture, even outside of Britain, but still retains a cult status. This, also, links the star of Doctor Who with cult status, associated with a niche appeal, not mass appreciation.[xiii] Cult Stardom is “acquired” which again locates the importance of fandom to Doctor Who. For millions of fans, the eleven (and soon to be twelfth) Doctor will always be a star due to the Doctor Who fanbase and fan discourses. 

        But, will Capaldi become a star? There is no doubt that he will to millions of Doctor Who fans, but his status as an award-winning British actor in his mid-50s has, in many ways, solidified his standing before his first appearance as the Doctor. His status, however, may not be a star as much as a character actor, something often argued against British stardom produced by the theatrical tradition with actors who are able to subordinate their own personalities and create distinctive characters.[xiv] The emphasis on acting and performance, ordinariness, not extraordinariness and lack of glamour creates stars who are not stars in the conventional, Hollywood model. The Doctor Who viewership will ensure Capaldi will become a more recognised individual, especially outside of Britain where The Thick of It was not as big of a hit, but stardom may be more difficult to achieve for a man who for many will only be the new Doctor.

Julie Lobalzo Wright
New Doctor, New Star?: Doctor Who, Fandom and Stardom

by choosing an actor who is also a fan the producers have appealed to the knowingness of fans who will anticipate how Capaldi will be written when he has already appeared in the series

Understanding Celebrity and the Public Sphere PDF DOWNLOAD


[v] Aaron Gulyas, “Don’t Call it a Comeback,” in Gillian I. Leitch (ed), Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012 (2013), 45.

[vii] Deborah Jermyn, 'Bringing Out the * in You: SJP Carrie Bradshaw and the Evolution of Television Stardom', in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond (eds), Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (2006), 73.

[viii] Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (2004).

[ix] John Langer, “Television’s Personality System,” Media, Culture and Society 4 (1981).

[x] John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1983), 3.

[xi] Sarah Street, British National Cinema (2009), 117.

[xii] Gulyas, “Don’t Call it a Comeback,” 45.

[xiii] Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas, “Introduction: Star-Making, Cult-Making and Forms of Authenticity” in Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas (eds), Cult Film Stardom: Offbeat Attractions and Processes of Cultification (2013), 3.

[xiv] Jim Leach, British Film (2004), 105.