KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This weekend, TV's longest-running science-fiction program is getting a new hero - well, sort of. The next season of the British science fiction show "Doctor Who" premiers Saturday night on BBC America. And it will now star Peter Capaldi. He'll be the 12th incarnation of the Doctor, the show's alien hero. Capaldi is a well-known actor and director in Great Britain. He tells NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans, that the show he's now starring in helped him fall in love with acting in the first place.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Fans have waited more than a year to see how Peter Capaldi would play one of TV's most beloved science-fiction heroes. They got a clue in this speech featured in the trailer for his first episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION TRAILER)

PETER CAPALDI: (As the Doctor) I'm the doctor. I've lived for over 2000 years. I've made many mistakes. And it's about time that I did something about that.

DEGGANS: Capaldi has a strong argument for why producers picked the 56-year-old Scottish actor to lead this British TV treasure, replacing an actor young enough to be his son.

CAPALDI: I think the show is kind of in my DNA, you know? I think it's sort of part of me. So I think I can recognize when it's right and when it's not right.

DEGGANS: Turns out, Capaldi's been a fan of "Doctor Who" almost since the show started in 1963. When he was a teen, he wrote a fan letter to producers and got an unexpected package in response, containing two scripts from episodes which hadn't even been broadcast yet.

CAPALDI: I'd never actually seen this document - this thing that had the dialogue written in it - the stage directions. And this document absolutely blew me away.

DEGGANS: For a young self-described nerd, it was like a sign from above.

CAPALDI: And it sort of changed my life. Someone admitted me into a magic circle or probably propelled me into being an actor anyway.

DEGGANS: But it would take decades before Capaldi got a shot at playing the Doctor, a time traveler from an alien race known as the Time Lords. That opportunity came from a quirky plot twist producers dreamed up long ago. David Tennant, one of the most popular actors to play the Doctor from 2005 to 2010, explained the move in a BBC documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DOCTOR WHO: THE DOCTORS REVISITED")

DAVID TENNANT: Any Time Lord - when their body runs out or when their body would, otherwise, die, can regenerate and have a completely new body and start again.

DEGGANS: In showbiz terms, that means the program can change actors whenever necessary. 31-year-old Matt Smith stepped aside just last year. The change also brings new challenges for the character, as "Doctor Who" executive producer, Steven Moffat, explained to the BBC.

STEVEN MOFFAT: But what is frightening for the doctor - what is alarming for any of us - if you were told tomorrow morning you will be somebody else - you will be alive but rewritten. That would be frightening. And that's what the Doctor faces each time.

CAPALDI: When you regenerate, you find yourself with this personality that you have no choice over, which is not necessarily the personality you want.

DEGGANS: And Capaldi's take on the doctor's new personality is quite specific.

CAPALDI: This character presents himself to those around him in a certain way, but in fact, there's a completely unknown Doctor that is rarely revealed to those around him because that other doctor probably exists in a whole other plane and has a relationship with the universe that's probably beyond the ken of human beings.

DEGGANS: This also makes Capaldi's Doctor seem a little darker and more impatient than previous versions - perfect for and age when even comic book champions are more antihero than hero. Capaldi is a veteran talent - an Oscar-winning short film director whose past TV roles include the classic British comedy "the Thick of It." But a bit of the old fan boy enthusiasm creeps into his voice when he explains why audiences still love the Doctor who scoops up human companions for adventure in a time machine disguised as a police call box.

CAPALDI: It kind of opens the door in this world, and if you go through that door, you can be taken anywhere in time and space, but you'll always be returned back to, like, your backyard or your hometown.

DEGGANS: So far, it looks like Capaldi's past makes him the perfect caretaker for the Doctor's future. I'm Eric Deggans. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The audio of this story identifies the Doctor as a member of a race known as the Time Lords. It is more accurate to say he is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, as not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords.]

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