Caecilius to John Frobisher to the Doctor: Why it doesn’t matter
Do Capaldi’s past appearances in Doctor Who & Torchwood matter? Guest contributor Tom Gluck investigates.
So now that we have the announcement, “Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor!” we have the usual vapid complaints against him (usually fuelled by the fact he isn’t actually the current actor, whom some fans would just like to stay on forever), but this time, some are having a bigger non-superficial problem. Peter Capaldi has been two different characters in the Whoniverse already: civil servant John Frobisher from Torchwood’s third season, and Caecilius, the Roman sculptor who the Tenth Doctor met in the fourth series episode The Fires of Pompeii. Neither of these characters were bit parts like Karen Gillan’s former appearance as a Soothsayer in the same episode, before she was ever Amy Pond. And both were also larger than Freema Agyeman’s role in the season two episode Army of Ghosts as Adeola. Plus the fact that this is a Doctor’s casting rather than a companion’s makes the supposed problem much higher profile than those previous casting choices.
So why is this a problem? Well many viewers have issues accepting that two characters in the same fictional universe could look exactly the same. They feel it messes with established continuity, and has to be “fixed” or somehow referenced by characters within the show that explains the identical appearance of the two characters. Some are already saying that the Twelfth Doctor first reaction when he looks in a mirror is that “Hey, I look like that one guy I met in Pompeii that time”, or even “Hey, I look like that one guy I never met, but Captain Jack could have told me about in some off-screen adventure!”.
My issue with those complaints is that there is really no such thing as a single defined canon or continuity for Doctor Who. It has an ever changing creative team, and with nobody interested in the Doctor Who universe’s canon between the creative team and the property’s owner, the BBC as a whole, the canon can’t be defined by any higher body. In-universe this can be explained as a result of the show’s main nature being time travel. With the Doctor whizzing about space and time, he’s always screwing with the time-line some way or another, and as they showed with the Gwyneth/Gwen Cooper similarities in The Stolen Earth, this can explain away any identical characters.
That said, the casting of previously used actors in Doctor Who isn’t a problem now and has never been. Nicholas Courtney, before he played the fan favourite Brigadier starting in 1968, had been in Doctor Who before, as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon in the 1968 story The Dalek’s Master Plan. The Time Lady Romana’s second incarnation’s actress Lalla Ward had appeared in the show the episodes before her appearance as Romana, as Princess Astrid of Atrios in The Armaeddon Factor. And in modern Who, we have the aforementioned second casting of Karen Gillan and Freema Agyeman.
But you can say that these are all companions, and are less important characters than the titular Doctor himself. To that I say Commander Maxil and the Sixth Doctor. The Time Lord Commander Maxil was not a bit part in the story he appeared in Arc of Infinity (1983), his appearance being about as large as Caecilius’ in Pompeii, Maxil even got to shoot the Doctor. And he was played by Colin Baker, who went on to become the Sixth Doctor a year later, much less time than Capaldi’s last appearance on Doctor Who (five years).
So, if anyone had any real issues with the Doctor looking the same as a former acquaintance from ancient Pompeii or a fairly prominent civil servant during the 456 incident, I have hopefully acquiesced them. And if you’re the kind of fan (like me) who likes an in-universe explanation anyway, how about this for an explanation until Moffat makes one up (which he might): The Doctor’s regeneration has him take on a new form from his subconscious. He saw Caecilius in Pompeii, remembering that face. But after at least 205 years as the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors go buy, the memory of that face fell into the backlog of his mind, forgetting who it belonged to. The Doctor then regenerated into that face that’s knocking around his mind, but he doesn’t have to remember it belonged to Caecilius. Until I’m refuted, that’s my head-canon, and I suggest you have your own, as the BBC and Steven Moffat won’t confirm one beyond saying the ever-ambiguous “It’s all canon!”.