Peter Capaldi revealed on Monday night that the coming season of Doctor Who will be his last as the Doctor.
Speaking to BBC Radio, he said to Jo Whatley that “I feel sad, I love Doctor Who, it is a fantastic program to work on, but I don’t know how long I can give it my best, and if I’m not giving it my best, I don’t want to do it.” As there is no final word on the schedule for the next season of Doctor Who, the exact date of his last episode is unknown. If it sticks to the traditions of the modern series however, the Doctor will regenerate either during or immediately before the 2017 Christmas episode.
The decision to depart comes at an interesting time for the series, but the timing is not unexpected. The upcoming season will be the fifth for showrunner Steven Moffat, and some fans claim that his best years are behind him. Certainly, ratings for the show in the UK dipped during Season 9. Some episodes only garnered about 5.6 million viewers, when the show more regularly pulled 7-8 million viewers in the past. Perhaps it is the ratings or simply creative fatigue, but the BBC announced a little over a year ago that Season 10 would be his last. He will be replaced by Chris Chibnall. In the broad history of Doctor Who, a change in producer is frequently accompanied by a change in lead actor. The year 2017 will be added to the list of 1969, 1974, 1996, and 2010 when this has happened.
At the same time, this means Doctor Who will be changing both lead actor and the production staff at the same time. That certainly raises the stakes for the BBC in its effort to keep the show profitable. The last time this happened in 2010, the revived Doctor Who was seen as the child of outgoing producers Julie Gardner and Russell T. Davies. Steven Moffat was an experienced writer and producer at that time, but it was unclear if Doctor Who would continue to be the ratings powerhouse that it came to be under the previous production team. Moffat was able to deliver, and so a precedent was set for the show’s survival. Still, it would be a safer bet to stagger the changes of Doctor and producer across different years. Peter Capaldi said that he was offered the show for another year, but turned it down.
His decision to leave may have to do with the physical nature of the role as much as anything else. Doctor Who is science fiction, but hardly anything resembling cerebral science fiction. Early on, Capaldi recounted his first meeting with Matt Smith, and Smith was on crutches. The Doctor frequently finds himself running down hallways and going around corners. Taking those corners in a way that provides a good medium shot for the camera involves slipping around the corner on one leg. This eventually caused leg injury for Matt Smith, and was known to be a problem for Capaldi as well. Perhaps this activity, along with other stunts, gets at what Capaldi considers “giving his best.”
Summing up Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor is a bit tricky to do. After years (decades, even) of going with younger, more charming actors, the casting of Peter Capaldi was a return to the roots of the series — he was, at 54, the oldest actor cast to play the role since William Hartnell originated it in 1963. With that change came some departures from the recent, regular mechanics of the show. The Doctor could be stiff and prickly instead of charming (though Capaldi has no trouble commanding a room).
The difference in age also made him a much less likely romantic interest for his female companions, as David Tennant was for Billie Piper and (in an unrequited way) Freema Agyeman, and as Matt Smith was for Jenna Coleman. In fact, the regeneration from Smith to Capaldi was played up a something of a shock to Coleman’s character Clara to highlight this fact. How well this played with the viewing public is still an open question. Peter Capaldi is unquestionably a good actor, and a life-long Doctor Who fan.
Are the dips in the show’s ratings due to the public not accepting his age in the role? Or are they due to the fact that Steven Moffat and the writing staff are just running out of gas? Is it both? I think only time will make that clear.