Years: 1963 — 1989
Synopsis: A mysterious, face-changing, time traveling alien with various companions saves the Earth and universe from a variety of colorful adversaries.
• A unique concept for its time.
• Willing to evolve overtime, keeping the show fresh for decades.
• Brings back the already then lesser used serialized storytelling style with most stories being told through about four episodes at half an hour each.
• Often strong and memorable stories.
• Overcomes its sometimes lacking budget with often strong stories and distinct production inventiveness.
• Some of the most iconic villains in TV history.
• May look antiquated and dated for today’s audiences, especially the episodes from the 1960s.
• Can be slower and more cerebral than later eras of the show.
• Story quality becomes variable by the 1980s.
• Many episodes, particularly from the earlier seasons, are still missing today thanks to the BBC’s past policy of erasing tapes and film stock.
First Doctor (1963-1966) —
William Hartnell (1908-1975) was indeed a brilliant actor, and perfect choice to headline this strange new show for its first years. He new the strengths and weaknesses of himself and the show. He knew that he was going to flub lines in a show without the budget for more than a take or two, so he would intentionally alter his lines at random to mask the unintentional moments. Was “Susan, check the fornicator!” intentional? If we cannot tell, perhaps it does not really matter. The author of this blog has taken to this method of intentionally using puns and unusual phrasings in everyday speech to mask the moments of misspeaking. It is that genius of Hartnell that is still the quirky heart of the wibbily-wobbly timey-wimey-ness show. Ultimately, Hartnell’s health began to degrade, and with great sorrow and shock, he was replaced by a wholly different actor. But where there’s tears, there’s hope …
Second Doctor (1966-1969) —
Patrick Troughton (1920-1987) may be seen as the fulcrum of the writing efforts to soften the initially prickly and inaccessible Doctor. The show’s producers and writers certainly did not want the show to end with the necessary retirement of Hartnell, so they radically leveraged the concept of “alien” by having the character naturally renew himself, later also described as “regeneration.” Troughton did not really emulate Hartnell’s performance, showing a more whimsical and carefree attitude, yet he was still inexplicably the Doctor. Though not even close to the degree as later eras of the show, the much younger Troughton helped bring more energy to the stories, which continued the inventiveness of the First Doctor stories. Troughton’s final story, The War Games, is easily the best and most epic story in the history of the show up to that point. That final, ten part story featured elements that dramatically pushed the show forward: the still unnamed people of the Doctor (Timelords) finally appear, the possibility of control over regeneration, a reminder of other renegade Timelords. The end of the Second Doctor was built to be hard and dramatic, allowing for even more evolution of the show …
Third Doctor (1970-1974) —
Now in color! Jon Pertwee (1919-1996) brought back some of the prickliness of Hartnell, while injecting a significant sarcastic humor and super-spy feel. Pertwee perhaps has the most interesting biography of all the actors that ever played the Doctor, in that he was an actual spy in the Royal Navy’s Intelligence Division during WWII. He worked with Ian Flemming, the creator of James Bond. That large serpent tattoo seen prominently in his first episode is real, a result of a night of heavy drinking while in the Royal Navy. Coincidentally or no, Pertwee’s Doctor was an era of gadgets and isolation, featuring the first true story arc of the show. The War Games ended with the Timelord judges sentencing the Doctor to exile on 1970s Earth after forcing a regeneration, all for his crimes of flaunting their laws of non-interference. Most of the Third Doctor’s time was spent trying to escape his exile, often by fidgeting with his old type 40 TARDIS (the eccentric time machine in the shape of a Police Box that technically kidnapped the Doctor). The more earthbound stories were perhaps more inventive than ever, partly thanks to the switch to color. In terms of iconic characters, we had the Brigadier Alister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT, who often had a complicated relationship with the peaceful-minded Doctor, and the charismatic Sara-Jane Smith, who would ultimately have her own spin off decades later. Most significantly, perhaps, was the inclusion of the long running arch-nemesis, the Master, whose sometimes universe threatening battles with the Doctor continued almost to the very end of the recent Moffat Era. Pertwee made the decision to follow his predecessor’s lead by limiting his time on the show, and so, Doctor Who moved forward …
Fourth Doctor (1974-1981) —
Tom Baker made the character and show his own, spending more time in the role than any of the actors thus far. Shedding the prickly super-spy vibe, he portrayed the character as a kind of true intergalactic explorer that loved finding trouble a little too much. He would say some of the strangest, most sarcastic things, and smile massively at the same time. No one could truly figure out what was behind the wild eyes, massive teeth, and absurdly long scarf of this incarnation, especially after randomly offering people Jelly Babies or Licorice Allsorts (he called them all Jelly Babies for some reason). Well, maybe Sara-Jane Smith had an inkling of this Doctor’s mind by the time she left. He had battles with god-like entities, briefly became president of his own people, and eventually found a reborn Master by the end. His actions during Genesis of the Daleks ultimately became the seed of the Last Great Time War discussed after 2005. This is the Doctor that many long-time fans say is “their Doctor.” Mostly the fault of the Master, the end of this Doctor did eventually come, but the end was prepared for …
Fifth Doctor (1981-1984) —
Peter Davidson was the youngest to take on the role at the time, and perhaps the most talented (some fans of the Fourth Doctor might scream at such a sentiment). Davidson brought subtlety and heart to the role that his predecessors sometimes lacked, including a random penchant for the very English game of cricket. He was at one point willing to sacrifice his remaining regenerative energy (up to eight further lives in theory) to save people he barely even knew. Especially later in his tenure, this Doctor was much more “hands free,” sometimes literally saving the universe with a shoestring and a teakettle. Through it all, however, he was still downright strange and alien. His sarcastic wit was perhaps the driest of all of them. This was the Doctor that would save us all, deserving of his deep-seated compassion or no. He was easy to underestimate, and seemed to often use that to his advantage. Indeed, his alien companion, Turlough, was initially conscripted to kill the Doctor, but the Doctor unknowingly turned Turlough away from that path via that absurdly large heart. In the end, the Fifth Doctor sacrificed himself to save his American companion, Peri, but the regeneration felt different this time …
Sixth Doctor (1984-1986) —
Colin Baker represented the most dramatic personality shift for the Doctor up to this point. His outfit was an ocular migraine, having every pane of fabric against another pane that did not match. If Baker had the chance to create the costume, he at one point stated it would have been closer to the Ninth’s simple black. Indeed, there are production stills featuring a black version of the colorful outfit. Supposedly, a blue version of the outfit also existed, but was incompatible with the film compositing of the time. Regardless, though perhaps not as crazy as memory would suggest, this Doctor was more willing to engage in violence, notoriously using a ray-gun at one point. The core drive of this Doctor, according to Baker, was simply justice. He would save everyone, but cared little if anyone liked him. This growing willingness toward darkness was directly referenced in the Trial of a Timelord story arc, which featured a pure evil, alternate future incarnation of the Doctor, The Valeyard. Though the Valeyard timeline appears to have been averted, that shadow of the Doctor would later be embodied in the very similar Dreamlord, who the Eleventh Doctor may or may not have truly beaten. Ultimately, this darker, more chaotic incarnation of the Doctor was received somewhat poorly, leading to an earlier than expected end for the Sixth, in spite of all that carrot juice …
Seventh Doctor (1987-1989) —
Sylvester McCoy was given a difficult task as the seventh incarnation. The producers at the time wanted to move the show forward in a more popular way with less ocular migraines. So, he had a simpler outfit with lots of layers, an admittedly cool question mark shaped umbrella, and a panama hat that was always McCoy’s. The question mark-laden jumper he often wore was silly but still fitting. This subtly Scottish Doctor started as rather buffoonish, seemingly fighting his enemies through confusion. He somewhat quickly shifted to a darker, more coldly calculated Doctor. Significant to the later Last Great Time War story arc, in Remembrance of the Daleks, he successfully manipulated the Daleks to destroy their homeworld, which was brought back not long after anyway. He later dispassionately convinces the Supreme Dalek to destroy itself in the same episode. This Doctor became quite haunting at times, and that was the point. The Cartmel Master Plan, which is not dissimilar to the “Doctor Who?” story arc featured during the Eleventh Doctor’s time, was intentionally designed by the head script editor at the time to make the Doctor darker and more mysterious. Whatever mysteries were to be planned were not meant to be, the show being put on unofficially permanent hiatus in 1989.
However, the New Adventures novels, which featured some of the same writers for the show after the 2005 rebirth, did continue the Master Plan themes, culminating in Lungbarrow (1997). That Seventh Doctor spin off story featured a possibly hinted at unknown incarnation of the Doctor from the time when Galifreyans became Timelords. This backstory was in arguable conflict with the story featured in the already aired Eighth Doctor TV film in 1996. There were different versions of the Ninth Doctor later as well. That breakdown of continuity might be the very reason why the spin offs were largely ignored in the 2005 continuation, similar to what happened with the overly coveted Star Wars spin off continuity.
Regardless, the Seventh Doctor’s song came to an end largely because of the Master, but the story never ends …
Doctor Who Franchise