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Peter Capaldi to depart 'Doctor Who,' British TV show that thrives on reinvention

Peter Capaldi, the 12th actor to portray 'Doctor Who' on the long-running British science fiction program, says he's leaving the series. What makes BBC show so enduringly successful?

Peter Capaldi attends the 'Doctor Who' press line on day 1 of Comic-Con International on July 9, 2015, in San Diego, Calif.
Tonya Wise/Invision/AP | Caption

“Doctor Who” actor Peter Capaldi is departing the show and presumably the hunt for the 13th new lead for the long-running program begins.

How does the practice of bringing on new actors to play the TV show's protagonist figure into its success and longevity? Is another enduring British franchise, the James Bond movie series, the model? 

Mr. Capaldi first appeared as the Doctor, a “time lord” who is able to voyage across time in space in a time machine, in 2013. The British TV show first debuted in 1963 and aired until 1989. It returned in 2005, with that incarnation starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. 

Since its return, multiple other actors, including David Tennant and Matt Smith, have also taken on the role of the Doctor. This development is built into the story of the show, with “Doctor Who” lore stating that the Doctor can create a new body for himself when the one he currently has is badly wounded. Therefore, the same character can take on different appearances. 

In recent years, “Doctor” has experienced a ratings decline in Britain, but Guardian writer Dan Martin says the decades-old show (particularly long-running if you count its 1960s beginnings) will continue. “’Doctor Who’ is second only to 'Top Gear' as the [BBC]’s most profitable global property,” Mr. Martin wrote. “It’s not going anywhere for a while.” 

With its ability to regularly introduce a new leading man (all Doctors have been men so far), “Doctor” echoes another popular British property – the James Bond series. The spy films, begun in 1962, regularly cast a new actor to star in the James Bond films, with five actors having taken on the role in what are considered the official Bond films before the current Bond, Daniel Craig. 

The show or movie series’ fate is not tied to one particular actor. Dr. Piers Britton of California’s University of Redlands told Forbes the ability to bring on a new actor and adapt the character of the Doctor helps keeps the show relevant. 

“The longevity of the character is assured because it thrives on the basis of character, even as popular culture changes,” Dr. Britton said. “That idea of change – being able to reinvent itself – is central to ‘Doctor Who.’”

Deutsche Welle writer Jochen Kürten offers a similar explanation for how the James Bond film series has lasted so long. “Many things have changed in the world," Mr. Kürten wrote. “Nuclear missiles were replaced by a series of modern threats in a globalized world. Still, the slick James Bond has always adapted with the times.”

Meanwhile, the lobbying for the first female Doctor has begun. Billie Piper, who played the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler between 2005 and 2008, says the time has come, and that it would “feel like a snub” if a woman wasn’t cast in the role, The Huffington Post reported.