If Star Trek symbolizes American science fiction, Doctor Who does the same for British scifi. The Doctor, for the uninitiated, is a nearly immortal time traveler whose ship, the TARDIS, looks like a phone booth on the outside. Because of its interdimensional properties, the TARDIS is actually vast on the inside but no bigger than the police box it masquerades as on the outside. Confused? That was actually one of the few things writers came up with before the series began. The rest?
Made up on the fly, which has resulted in a large, intriguing, and intentionally disjointed history for a series that has run, with a decade-plus interruption, for 53 years at this point.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Doctor (his name is never given) is his ability to regenerate when old age, illness, or injury force bring him to the brink of death. The Doctor’s personality and appearance change with each regeneration, he is still always The Doctor. Thirteen actors have played the Doctor. Rumors have had Idris Elba and Rowan Atkinson playing the good doctor, and a line by Matt Smith in his debut suggests that a female Doctor is not out of the question. But while Elba would make an intriguing Doctor (Hey, the guy’s so good many want him for James Bond, and Elba is most definitely not a Scotsman), it seems the Doctor’s fondest wish for regeneration has been to become a ginger.
When we first meet him in 1962’s The Unearthly Child, he’s a really old man, far older than actor William Hartnell, the First Doctor. (Current actor Peter Capaldi is older than Hartnell when Hartnell played the role, but plays a decidedly “younger” Doctor.) We know absolutely nothing about him, his adventures, or anything like Daleks or Cybermen or the Master. So who is he?
As Don Henley once said about Joe Walsh, the Doctor is a great bunch of fellas. Meet them after the jump.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell) 1962’s The Unearthly Child introduced the world to the Doctor. When we see him, he’s a grandfatherly old man who lives in a phone booth. Only the phone booth is a huge spaceship on the inside. And a time machine. We don’t know anything about the Doctor when we meet him. He’s not particularly likeable or trustworthy, but even Hartnell picked up on that and demanded changes to the way he was written. Hartnell would go on to be one of Doctor Who‘s best stewards over the years, schooling newer directors on how to keep the show consistent and having a say in naming his replacement. (Of two choices, he liked Patrick Troughton best.) But Hartnell’s run would be characterized by literally making up the Doctor Who legend on the fly. Often plot points, such as the behavior of the Daleks, would be dictated by prop limitations or some quirk in the actors’ personalities. Hartnell himself would become the source of many of the Doctor’s mannerisms over the years. In fact, Hartnell’s declining health led to that most famous Doctor Who trope, regeneration, which made room for…
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) Hartnell’s First Doctor succumbed to old age when the actor’s health prevented him from continuing on a hit series. Producers hit on the idea that, hey, the Doctor is an alien. He regenerates. He can do this twelve times. Well, they said that not realizing the show would still be on the air in 2015. Patrick Troughton stepped in and further refined the character. It’s Troughton, who came off more as an absent-minded professor than a curmudgeonly grandfather, who gives the Doctor his more whimsical aspects. Troughton’s Doctor played the bungler only to spring a surprise trap on his enemies. His American counterpart was not Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock but Lt. Columbo, another seemingly dim bulb hiding a brilliant mind. Troughton’s Doctor is often cited as a favorite by later actors, including David Tenant and Matt Smith. The Second Doctor, who sadly is in most of the lost episodes of the series, made the Doctor more action oriented.
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) How do you reinvent Doctor Who for the 1970s? Stand him on Earth and make him more James Bond. But of course, the Doctor’s Bond is not Sean Connery’s Bond or Roger Moore’s or George Lazenby’s. Exiled to “present day” England by his fellow Time Lords, the Third Doctor finds a niche saving Earth from alien threats. Pertwee’s Doctor blended equal parts Bond and Quatermass (the latter an inspiration for Doctor Who), including a car only the Doctor would drive. Pertwee’s Doctor was older like his predecessors, more like Sylvester McCoy and Peter Capaldi later on, but played with tongue firmly in cheek.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) This is the Doctor most Americans met for the first time. While Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee were older, producers opted for a younger Doctor this time. Baker’s Doctor went back out among the stars and history, bringing his trademark oversized scarf with him. Tom Baker would have one of the longest runs as the Doctor and would be responsible for some of his most memorable moments, including the Doctor’s most famous companion, Sara Jane. Baker’s Doctor was closer to Troughton’s somewhat daffy portrayal but more maddeningly reticent. Baker would reprise the role as the Doctor in the well-received “Day of the Doctor” Christmas special in 2013, appearing to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor as, it’s hinted, a later incarnation “revisiting a favorite face.” But if Pertwee’s Doctor echoed James Bond – suave, dashing, and flamboyant – Baker’s paralleled another scifi icon who would make his debut during the Fourth Doctor’s run. Like the Fourth Doctor, Han Solo would face danger with a bit of a smirk and shrug it off when he got into trouble.
Hmm… How might Chewie look in that scarf?
The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Peter Davison could be called the Handsome Doctor. Rather than the mad scientist garb of Hartnell, the rumpled, almost homeless look of Troughton, or Pertwee’s post-psychedelic Edwardian getup, Davison looked dapper in a casually worn cricketeer’s jacket. Like Baker’s Fourth Doctor, the Fifth Doctor was cool and unflappable and would later meet the Tenth Doctor during the revival run. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Davison starred in “The Five Doctors,” which featured Troughton, Pertwee, archival footage of Baker, and a stand-in for the late William Hartnell. Moreover, the famous meeting between the Fifth and the Tenth Doctors is notable as Davison is David Tenant’s father-in-law. How’s that for being the ultimate Doctor Who fan? Marry the Doctor’s daughter and become the Doctor himself.
The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)
If the Fourth and Fifth Doctors were suave and cool under pressure, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor was a bit insane. Baker played him as a clown, dressing in outlandish colors and getting in the face of his enemies. His companions were just as manic, one torturing him with an exercise bike because, hey, the Doctor’s pushing 1000 years. He ain’t getting any younger just because he regenerates. We didn’t get to see much of the Sixth Doctor. The BBC, worried that the show was getting stale, replaced him with a more staid, older Doctor. Baker was not even there for his character’s regeneration. They used a mask. Like Paul McGann later, Colin Baker really didn’t get a fair run. On the other hand, it was the late 1980s, and it was getting hard to keep the series fresh, which is why they brought in…
The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
A friend of mine wondered why an alien would always regenerate into a conservative Englishman when he wasn’t even human. My friend might have been watching Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh (and then likely the final) Doctor. If Colin Baker (and to some extent, Tom Baker) was flamboyant and over the top as the Doctor, McCoy marked a return to Troughton’s Second Doctor, a seemingly oblivious bungler whose personality masked a brilliant and often ruthless mind. When it came time for the Doctor to kill off the Daleks (again. They’re kind of the roaches of science fiction. At least you have to manufacture Cybermen, and the Master regenerates like the Doctor), McCoy’s dry, purely English delivery launches one of the funniest insults to Whovians’ favorite collective villains. But alas, while McCoy and his companions proved interesting and fun, the writers had run out of steam. It looked like the end of the line for Doctor Who until…
The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann)
Like Colin Baker, we didn’t get to see enough of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. With Sylvester McCoy aboard for the required regeneration of our favorite Time Lord (which was great to see, by the way), McGann played a uniquely American take on the Doctor. Himself English and borrowing cues from Tom Baker and Peter Davison, McGann’s Eighth Doctor finds himself alone and hunted by the Master in 1990s San Francisco. I’d have liked to have seen more of McGann as the Doctor, but this was a back-door pilot for a Fox version of Doctor Who. While Fox gave us The X Files, remember they also botched handling Firefly and passed on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Maybe that last was for the better.)
We did, however, find out the Eighth Doctor’s fate. He did not, as all supposed, regenerate into Christopher Eccelston’s Ninth Doctor. In “Night of the Doctor,” a very well-done webisode leading into “Day of the Doctor,” the Eighth Doctor is mortally injured in the Time War and offered a chance to become whatever he wants. He realizes that there is no longer a need for the Doctor and demands to become a warrior. Our first glimpse of this new Doctor is a very young John Hurt (thanks to some video trickery) muttering “Doctor no more.” Oh, but he is the Doctor. He’s…
The War Doctor (John Hurt)
The War Doctor appears as a reflection in “Night of the Doctor” and only appears in “Day of the Doctor.” He was created to explain why Eccleston (who declined to appear in the Christmas special) played a Doctor very much trying to forget his substantial past. Hurt’s War Doctor is sad, racked with guilt, and about to destroy his homeworld to keep the Daleks from destroying the universe. With the help of his Tenth and Eleventh selves, he saves Gallifrey and defeats the Daleks. (Actually, they get a hand from all thirteen Doctors, including Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, who appears very briefly as all thirteen Doctors pull the power of their collected TARDISes. (TARDII?) He also seems ready to move on when he begins to regenerate into…
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)
This Doctor talked different, dressed different, acted different. Prone to wearing leather jackets and seemingly amused by everything, Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was a Doctor Who for a new generations, one disappointed more wasn’t done with McGann’s Eighth Doctor. Of course, this Doctor seems to be trying to forget his past. As we later learn, he blames himself for the destruction of Gallifrey. But did he really kill off his own race in a mad gambit to stop the Daleks? We learn otherwise in “Day of the Doctor.”
The Tenth Doctor (David Tenant)
After only one season, gone is Eccleston’s leather jacket-clad, gum chewing, Scottish accented Doctor. In his place is the boyish Tenth Doctor, prone to wearing oversized suits and seemingly a fugitive from Monty Python. Consistently ranked as a fan favorite, the Tenth Doctor takes the ball from the Ninth and runs with it. It doesn’t hurt that Tenant is a huge Doctor Who fan. Much of his manic babbling and distracted mannerisms are lifted from Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor. And Tenant has a very good source for Doctor Who lore. His father-in-law is Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor.
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)
The Eleventh Doctor is something of a continuation of the Tenth. And actor Matt Smith has said he’d like to do another one-off with David Tenant where their two Doctors meet. But Smith is considered probably the best of the recent Doctors. The youngest actor to play the role, Smith’s gaunt and thin appearance actually gives the Doctor a sense of great age. He’s been described as a very young old man, though much of his personality parallels Tenant’s portrayal. He also passes on to the Twelfth Doctor the most compelling companion since Sara Jane, the lovely Clara Oswald.
The Tweflth Doctor (Peter Capaldi)
Not counting the War Doctor (whom we saw at the tail end of his life anyway) the past four doctors had been thirty-somethings or younger. (Matt Smith was 29 when he started out as the Eleventh Doctor.) An older Doctor was in order. Enter Peter Capaldi, a veteran Scottish actor who was actually older than William Hartnell at the time of the First Doctor’s debut. Capaldi’s Doctor is still reeling from the Eleventh Doctor’s final ordeal. Yet Capaldi gives the Twelfth Doctor (Really, the thirteenth, since the twelve regeneration limit was rebooted) a bit of gravitas. Capaldi seems to take cues from Jon Pertwee, an older man with a youthful energy, though he retains some of the flighty nature from Tenant and Smith’s tenures.