Check out the first part of our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who,
So, as we’ve mentioned before, Doctor Who has , as of this upcoming November, been around for fifty years. If it hasn’t been on television (and there was a long stretch where it wasn’t), the adventures of The Doctor have been portrayed in radio plays, novels, comic books and, as far as we know, street theater puppet shows. Throughout it all, they’ve been about that one time & space travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey simply known as The Doctor. But, who is he? And how has he managed to be played by eleven different actors (twelve, if you count the Dr. Who films starring Peter Cushing [Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars])?
The Doctor, as he prefers to be called because apparently his actual, real name is a big goddamn deal (seriously, the last couple seasons were about a collective of aliens from around the galaxy plotting to kill him just to prevent him from revealing that very detail), is an alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time in space in a machine called a TARDIS which, stay with me here, looks like a police call box from England in the 1960s (it’s bigger on the inside). Got that?
Our titular hero is from a race of beings called Time Lords named so because although they may be keen on being able to see the past, present and future all in one form of perception of the universe, the one thing they aren’t big on, apparently, is subtlety. In addition to that whole mastery of time and space thing, the other distinguishing features of a Time Lord are their two hearts (literally) and the ability to regenerate into a new body when they’re about to die.
As with most iconic sci-fi tropes, the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate bodies wasn’t some element planned during the conception of the show (in fact, most of this stuff was made up as they went along, which those involved with the show over the years freely admit) but instead was an ingenious way to work around a casting issue. William Hartnell was the first person the play The Doctor, which he did splendidly for three years (from 1963 to 1966) despite the fact that he was 119 years old at the time . Eventually, Hartnell simply became too old to play the role (and when you’re too old to be on the BBC, that’s saying something).
So, what to do? You can’t exactly throw another actor into the role with no explanation and hope no one notices. It’s not like this was Bewitched. So, the writers came up with the concept of “regeneration” (a term not actually explicitly used until they finally got around the the fourth actor to play the role) – in which a Time Lord not only gets a new body but, in most cases, a brand new personality (all while retaining his original memories). This allowed the original series to continue on until 1989 and the concept still holds true for the character today.
The Doctor rarely travels through the cosmos helping people by himself. Over the years he’s brought along companions with him – a role that has served as an audience surrogate and to seek out the answers to the question that we, ourselves, the viewers at home, would be asking if we were in their position (usually “what exactly in the name of Jesus is going ON AROUND HERE?!”). They also tended to be extremely attractive women, too
The biggest element of the character of The Doctor is his tendency to solve any problem – even problems that could result in the end of the Earth, the Universe or even reality itself – using his wits and rarely ever using weapons. The closest thing he’s ever carried to a weapon is a tool called a Sonic Screwdriver. In the earlier years, it was a tool that did pretty much what it sounds like – it manipulated objects, much like a regular screwdriver – using a high frequency sound. Recently it’s been a tool that does pretty much whatever the writers feel like making it do, although it’s never been used as the Deus Ex Machina it has the potential to be.
Let’s take a look at the eleven different Doctors and the men who have played them:
The 1st Doctor – played by William Hartnell - debuted November 23rd 1963. Portrayed as an elderly and mischievous older man, Hartnell’s Doctor traveled through time and space with his granddaughter and two of her teachers.
The 2nd Doctor – played by Patrick Troughton - debuted October 29th, 1966. Younger than his original form, this version of The Doctor has often been referred to as a “cosmic hobo”. Acting bumbling and childlike at times, he was actually quite clever and almost always a step or two ahead of his enemies. He also, apparently, enjoyed rocking the classic Moe From The Three Stooges haircut.
The 3rd Doctor - played by Jon Pertwee – debuted January 3rd, 1970. It was at this time in the Doctor’s history that he found himself exiled on Earth. Not as happy-go-lucky as his previous incarnation, he had three things going for him. First, he was a much better dresser. Two, he was a technological genius, inventing awesome stuff left and right. Third, and most importantly, dude knew motherf&^kin’ karate. Check out this animated video featuring The Third:
The 4th Doctor - played by Tom Baker - debuted June 8th, 1974. The longest running and possibly the most recognizable of The Doctor’s incarnations, he’s known for his distinctive floppy hat and trademark scarf. This version of the character becomes a more complex character than the other three – at times warm and jovial while at other times cold and aloof.
The 5th Doctor – played by Peter Davison – debuted March 21st, 1981. The “youngest” of The Doctors at that point, Davison’s version of the character was more reactive then proactive and more sensitive. He also had a habit of wearing a stalk of celery pinned to his jacket lapel for some reason. Interesting fact: his daughter, Georgia Moffett, would appear as the “daughter” of the Tenth Doctor (played by David Tennant, see below) in an episode. Ironically enough, Moffett and Tennant would eventually get married.
The 6th Doctor - played by Colin Baker – debuted March 16th, 1984. This version of the Doctor, while heroic, was also much more of an egotist, although this egotism would slowly subside as Baker’s run as the character went on. It was evident that his narcissism was a cover for an even stronger desire to fight evil than he had before, making him occasionally unstable. He also loved cats.
The 7th Doctor – played by Sylvester McCoy – debuted September 7th, 1987. McCoy’s Doctor was a bit of a throwback to Patrick Traughton’s Second, as he came across as a buffoon who was actually more clever than he would ever let on. While dark and devious, sometimes seemingly almost to the point of being sociopathic, he was also virulently opposed to violence of any kind. Rumor has it that The Doctor was actually God, traveling around in order to “atone for His mistakes”. The show was cancelled in 1989 before this ridiculous idea could have been implemented, if it had even ever intended to be.
The 8th Doctor – played by Paul McGann – debuted May 26th, 1996. In 1996, the Fox Network attempted to revive the character with a TV movie intended to kickstart a new series. McGann’s Doctor was, like many iterations before him, an enthusiastic, nearly childlike adventurer with an old, troubled soul behind it. The Eighth was also the first Doctor to have a romantic relationship with his companion – most likely due to the fact that the film was produced for American audiences, and they love that sort of crap.
The 9th Doctor - played by Christopher Eccleston - debuted March 26th, 2005. A lot happened after the TV movie that introduced the 8th Doctor. The Time Lords and their greatest enemies, The Daleks (more on them in another installment), wiped each other out in what became known as the Last Great Time War. The Doctor finds himself the only survivor and travels the universe not only with London department store worker Rose Tyler but also with a healthy amount of survivor’s guilt. Despite carrying a warehouse full of angst, the 9th Doctor also had his jovial and giddy moments, as well.
The 10th Doctor – played by David Tennant – debuted June 18th, 2005. After Eccleston left the role after only one season, the BBC hired an actor who loved Doctor Who so much growing up, he drove his teachers nuts talking about it. David Tennant’s trenchcoat and Chuck Taylor clad bespectacled (though he didn’t really need the glasses) Doctor let a lot of the Time War guilt go, but he still had his dark moments. The Tenth was clearly confident in his abilities, but at times was plagued with self-doubt – which made the episodes where he traveled without a companion some of the darker ones of his run.
The 11th (and current) Doctor – played by Matt Smith – Matt Smith’s portrayal of The Doctor is the first one in its near 50 year history to be nominated for a BAFTA award (sort of like England’s Oscars/Golden Globe awards). This latest version of The Doctor is saddled with a lot less self-doubt than his predecessors. So much so, in fact, that he’s let his legend grow to the point where not once, but twice, his adversaries have worked together to put an end to him. When Charlie Anders of i09 compared him to Batman (in which he, in a way, created his own enemies), he wasn’t far off. Still, this bow-tie clad, fez wearing will, we’re sure, be considered one of the classic versions for years to come.
It’s possible that this current season may be the final season for Smith and, if it’s true, we’ll just have to wait and see what kind of Doctor we get on our screens over the next few years.
A hero is only as interesting as his enemies and, next month, we’ll take a look at some of the classic bad guys that have plagued The Doctor for the past nearly-50 years.