Cover Story

Once Upon A Time Lord

Scottish actor — and ''Who'' superfan — Peter Capaldi takes over the TARDIS to battle Cybermen, Daleks, and annoying Earthling foibles in the new season of ''Doctor Who''

In December 2012, EW had lunch in New York with Matt Smith, a 30-year-old who was coming to the end of his tenure as the star of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who. The Doctor is a monster-battling alien whose ability to regenerate his physical form has allowed a number of actors to star on the show in its half-century history. Smith was the 11th such actor — and all too aware that he wouldn't be the last. ''One day you will be sat opposite another Doctor,'' he said a tad sadly at the end of our meal. ''You will be cheating on me! Right? And I will expect you to always speak fondly of me.''

Eighteen months later, your writer is in a London photo studio and is indeed about to ''cheat'' on Smith with Peter Capaldi, whose first season as the star of Doctor Who will premiere on BBC America Aug. 23. Since its 2005 reboot, the show has become a genuine global phenomenon, with a whole new generation of fans following the Doctor in his fight against those metallic maniacs the Daleks, the similarly villainous Cybermen, and all the other monsters of the Who universe. In America alone, 2.5 million viewers tuned in for last year's special Christmas episode, in which Smith's so-called Eleventh Doctor regenerated into Capaldi's Twelfth. ''This is not the show that I grew up with,'' says Capaldi, himself a die-hard Whovian since childhood. ''It's a bigger beast.''

Given these stakes, it is hardly a surprise that showrunner and head writer Steven Moffat says finding a new Doctor was a major headache: ''It does feel a bit like you're back to square one. It's exciting in one sense, but on the other hand, it's a whopping great problem.'' Moffat solved that problem — he hopes — by casting the whippet-thin, 56-year-old, almost-completely-unknown-to-American-audiences actor sitting opposite EW. So who is Peter Capaldi? What foes will his Doctor face off against in the new season? What friends will assist him? And, most important, will EW be allowed behind the controls of the TARDIS? (Spoiler alert: The answer to the last question is ''Yes!'')

Like so many of Britain's cultural icons — the royal family, steak-and-kidney pudding, Keith Richards — Doctor Who is both highly eccentric and extremely old. Indeed, Capaldi is likely to be the last Doctor who will be capable of remembering the first actor to play the part, William Hartnell, who originated the role way back in 1963. And Capaldi certainly does. One of his earliest recollections is of watching Hartnell's Doctor in the multipart 1964 adventure ''The Dalek Invasion of Earth'' when he was 6. ''At the end of the first episode, a Dalek emerges from the Thames and it's such a surprise,'' Capaldi recalls between bites of his very British-looking cheese sandwich (it's pretty much a hold-the-cheese situation). ''I loved the effort people put into making these strange worlds.''

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