Doctor Who: Doctor Who? A look at each incarnation of the Doctor

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction property (1963-1989, 1996, 2005- ) in television history that is unique in the manner that it handles the unavoidable fact that the lead actor has to change on a semi-regular basis. The original lead, William Hartnell, grew too ill to carry on the demanding role and so the BBC nudged him out despite his wishes (a good dramatisation of these events can be seen in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time). Yet a further choice was made when Bill left the show, that not only would the actor change but also the personality of the main character – it was a huge gamble but one that ultimately paid off. As we are just a week or so until the 13th Doctor makes her debut, it seems fitting to take a glance at the Doctors who have come before.

1st Doctor (William Hartnell. 1963-1966)

Hartnell had a tough job in terms of being able to sell a character who, at least at the start, you did not even know was a good guy or not but he managed to do it very well indeed. This version of the Doctor started off being an antagonistic jerk but, as he gained more exposure to humanity through his companions, he became calmer and more accepting. At the start, the Doctor was incredibly condescending and dismissive of Ian and Barbara yet it was clear that by the time they left the TARDIS that he had come to both respect and care for them, this burgeoning acceptance only grew as more companions arrived and left. This character growth is important and actually not seen in a lot of the other incarnations, with later revelations about the character’s origins showcasing the difference between Gallifreyan attitudes and those that the Doctor would go on to embrace. The Doctor had a great affection for his granddaughter Susan and his farewell speech to her is still one of the highlights of the show. Hartnell’s wonderful acting keeps the 1st Doctor at the top end of my favourite versions of the character.

2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton 1966-69)

If Hartnell had a huge responsibility in starting the show, then Patrick Troughton had the incredibly difficult job of warming the audience over to a new lead actor. It is said that Hartnell named Troughton as the only actor that could take over the role and it seems that he was correct. This version of the Doctor was far less the grumpy grandfather and was often described as being a cosmic hobo, with an often warm fatherly personality and regard for his companions. A lot of Troughton’s episodes remain missing which can mean that judging the 2nd Doctor’s stories can be problematic, yet it is clear to see that they range from great adventures such as Evil of the Daleks to less regarded tales such as The Space Pirates. The 2nd Doctor did have some of the best companions, notably Jamie and Zoe.

3rd Doctor (Jon Pertwee 1970-74)

The 3rd Doctor seems to be a response to his previous self, as many Doctors are. Instead of the shambolic hobo this incarnation is more of a refined gentleman; instead of a rough black coat, there was a styled velvet jacket and ruffled sleeves, gone was the standing back and directing events but a far more hands on adventurer, instead of wandering the Universe this Doctor was largely stuck. This era focused on the Doctor being stranded on Earth and being forced to work with UNIT, firmly establishing the relationship between Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart and the Time Lord. Companion-wise, apart from the Brigadier, the audience would also be introduced to Sarah-Jane Smith who would remain a favourite of fans for a very long time indeed. Also in terms of fan favourites, the 3rd Doctor would often face off against The Master (as portrayed … masterfully … by Roger Delgado).

4th Doctor (Tom Baker 1974-81)

In response to the refined adventurer, this Doctor was the larger than life eccentric bohemian. This Doctor was no longer the self assured scientist but an aimless wanderer who would often make mistakes and be called out on them by companions such as K-9 and Romana. He was a far from perfect figure but one who remained very charismatic and achieved a great deal. This Doctor had, perhaps, the greatest genre range of stories of any incarnation – from the laughable Robot to the Victorian horror of The Talons of Weng Chiang. The audience saw more than ever before of Gallifrey, with the Time Lords now appearing less as a powerful cosmic force and more incompetent paper pushers. This incarnation is often cited as being THE Doctor for the classic series and it is understandable why this might be, but it is hard to argue against the notion that Tom Baker stayed on too long and a good time to have said goodbye would have been the end of the E-Space saga. Nyssa, Adric and Tegan were (mostly) solid companions but it often felt as if they were filling in the space left by Baker’s apparently increasing boredom with the role.

5th Doctor (Peter Davison 1981-84)

Tom Baker was a very hard act to follow but Davison managed to do so, even if he was still constantly compared to be predecessor. The larger than life Time Lord became perhaps the most human and vulnerable of any Doctor, certainly he showed great empathy for those around him and took great care to take a pacifist approach to events. The TARDIS was crowded with companions, continuing the trend of the end of the previous Doctor, and so he sometimes appeared to have less of a spotlight than other incarnations. Some companions, such as Turlough and Peri, never seemed to work that well. The most memorable story would most like be Earthshock, though more for killing off a certain companion rather than being great storytelling while Warriors of the Deep boasted what is possibly the worst action scene in the show ever. At this time you could see that the budget was not keeping up with the show which could even damage the suspension of disbelief at times.

6th Doctor (Colin Baker 1984-86)

Poor Colin Baker was cast when the BBC really did not like Doctor Who any longer. The budget issues that became clear during Peter Davison’s run only became worse and Michael Grade’s vehement opposition to the show made Baker’s tenure tumultuous at best. The 6th Doctor started off as a violent, unbalanced jerk and things did not improve all that much – instead of the humble 5th we now had a Doctor whose arrogance was out of control. The show was put on literal trial and only survived on the condition that Colin was removed. Stories such as The Twin Dilemma were horrendous but there were gems such as The Two Doctors. It is a good thing that Colin was able to shine later, starring in excellent stories from Big Finish. I am lucky enough to have met Colin Baker in person and I found him to be a charming, respectful man who had a great deal of time for Doctor Who fans.

7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy 1987-89)

In terms of quality, the 7th Doctor had the most up and down tenure. Few can possibly defend tales such as Time and the Rani or Delta and the Bannermen but other stories, such as Remembrance of the Daleks and Ghost Light, are widely regarded as being some of the best of the classic series. This huge variance is directly mirrored by how the Doctor was played by McCoy; the first season he was a bumbling clown who gained victory more through luck than planning, then he became an incredibly shrewd, cunning (almost ruthless) manipulator who was always many steps ahead of everyone else. The 7th Doctor was paired with Ace and they formed one of the best duos in the history of the entire series. I have met Sylvester McCoy twice now, the latest being just last year in 2017, and he has always been a delight – he’s the sort of celebrity who refuses to stay on stage and instead goes all throughout the audience answering questions with an incredible wit and insight.

8th Doctor (Paul McGann 1996)

There are parts of the 1996 US Telemovie/pilot that are likeable; the theme music is fantastic, the TARDIS interior is beautiful (though the console itself could be bigger) and the Doctor’s outfit continues the mix of classic and not quite fitting anywhere. Poor Paul McGann was handed a pretty awful script and did what he could with it, while Eric Roberts was handed a script and made it even worse by going full Shatner. Much like Colin Baker, McGann’s chance to shine came in the form of Big Finish and the 8th Doctor audio stories are generally excellent. It was pleasing to see that the 8th Doctor got at least some send off in the BBC short Night of the Doctor which led up the 50th anniversary of the show.

9th Doctor (Christopher Eccleston 2005)

I did not like the first episode of the renewed series terribly much, I found the special effects to be second rate while the storyline was rather trite. However, it was a heck of a lot better than anything else we had at the time and just hearing the theme music play again was fantastic. This incarnation was obviously suffering from the loss of the Time Lords and what, as we later found out, he did during the Time War against the Daleks. The stories ranged from the juvenile Aliens of London/World War Three to the much better Empty Child/Doctor Dances. This season also introduced the companion Rose, who I quickly learnt to have zero fondness or regard for; she would prove herself to be incredibly selfish and lacking in empathy for anyone not inside her immediate circle. The console room had a coral motif and a hodgepodge of a console for reasons that were never explained.

10th ( &11th, sort of) Doctor (David Tennant 2005-10)

When the 10th Doctor came along he was a brooding figure that proclaimed that he gave “no second chances” and I liked that approach. It quickly changed, however, as the relationship between he and Rose built..The costume worked even if it was more modern than what the series was used to. This tenure featured one of the best Doctor Who stories in the form of Blink but also gave us some of the worst, such as the widely derided Love and Monsters and Fear Her. It can be easily argued that Tennant stayed on too long and that by the time of the specials the 10th Doctor was long overdue for a change. The later reveal that he had regenerated but had managed to retain the same body is indicative of this versions arrogance and unwillingness to let go – exemplified by his final words “I don’t want to go”, as opposed to previous incarnations who managed to leave with dignity.

11th Doctor (Matt Smith 2010-13)

This version was more eccentric than any other and seemed to have lost some of his comprehension of humanity, mostly seen in not recognising social cues and norms. He was excited by everything he found but could also turn to anger. This Doctor also had a tendency to rely on his reputation to get out of trouble instead of having a real solution at hand. Some highlights of this Doctor’s tenure include The Doctor’s Wife and The Impossible Astronaut but The Rings of Akhaten and Curse of the Black Spot should be avoided. Amy and Rory made fantastic companions with their married status contrasting the Doctor’s solitary life, yet the inclusion of Clara was not a wise move as she was another companion who was declared special without having done anything to earn such proclamations.

12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi 2014-17)

The jump from the youngest Doctor to one of the oldest was a bit jarring for some, especially those who liked their Doctor to be physically attractive. Capaldi’s love of the show was clear from the start and he embraced the role with gusto. Clara’s rise to unfailingly amazing often shunted the 12th Doctor away from the spotlight which hurt a lot of the stories. This tenure also included more of the Doctor’s back-story than ever before which is one of the traps parts of the classic series fell into; the Doctor should be fairly mysterious and enigmatic, almost an eternal figure of the Universe. Seeing the Time Lord as a crying child appeared to undermine much of what makes his appealing. The 12th Doctor had a share of solid stories, such as Heaven Sent, but there were some shockingly bad scripts that not even Capaldi’s acting expertise could save – The Return of Dr Mysterio and In the Forest of the Night were truly some of the worst in the show’s history.

13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker 2018-)

If you are already judging this Doctor, before any episodes have been aired … get stuffed.

Obviously, any person’s favourite incarnation of the Doctor is going to vary wildly (there’s even a poor saying that your favourite will be the one you saw first) but we all know it is the 7th. Fight me.

12 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I’m gonna commit heresy and say it……I like Peter Cushing, as the Doctor. Cushing gets left out for being the “Movie Doctor,” and for, essentially, being a different character. However, I always felt he does a credible job as the hero, even in a modified form. It was played more for children; but, the Doctor and Susan have a great relationship and young Roberta Tovey played the character very well (I found her to be far more interesting than Carol Forman). I enjoy these two films a heck of a lot more than the Fox telefilm and Eccleston’s episodes, not to mention much of Colin Baker’s time.

    It is a shame that so much of Troughton is lost. The War Games and Invasion really demonstrate how good he was.

    Pertwee is as much a counterpoint to Troughton as he was a nod to the success of ITV’s adventure shows, like The Avengers, as the Doctor becomes a consultant to a security organization. Quite frankly, that is my favorite era (reversing the polarity of the neutron flow notwithstanding). Superspy Doctor is great fun and UNIT charging in to save the day (or vice versa, as the Doctor bailed them out multiple times) was quite exciting, especially with things like the Autons. Plus, the Brigadier! “Sgt Benton, chap with the wing; 5 rounds rapid!” He was always a delight, when he would reappear.

  2. Le Messor

    I was gonna mention Peter Cushing, because the article didn’t, but I’ll let Jeff Nettleton speak for me since he seems to have actually seen the movies!
    Though I think the reason he got dismissed was because he wasn’t really in continuity with the others. (Might as well bring up Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley.)

    Though there is one more who is in continuity who wasn’t mentioned. Was it because he’s a spoiler? Or because he never even got a full episode to himself?

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Since I have never watched a single, complete episode of Dr. Who (I’ve watched a few episodes of Torchwood, though), I don’t have much to contribute here. However, whenever the name Dr. Who is mentioned, the first, and pretty much only, image that comes to mind is Tom Baker, probably because in the US in the early ’80s, PBS (Public Broadcasting System for you non-Yanks) often showed those episodes and I just remember seeing Baker with his hat and scarf before I’d flip the channel. Also, two Dr. Who comic book stories published by Marvel (in an issue of Marvel Premiere and a short back-up in the Starlord Special Edition) used the Baker version as well.

  4. Ecron Muss

    Hartnell was my ‘first’ Doctor, but I was so young… the regeneration scene was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen! (as a five year-old).

    So Troughton was ‘my’ Doctor. Web of Fear perhaps the defining storyline for me. When it screened Troughton appeared in TV ads talking to young viewers, asking them that although the episodes were going to be very scary, “please remind your parents that it’s only make believe.”

  5. Interesting to see your take on certain episodes…the one you pick as exemplars for what is good and what is bad. Of course everyone has different opinions on this–I’m always stunned by the number of people who seem to think “Rings of Akhaten” is good–but I find that I agree with most of yours. “Dr. Mysterio” is an exception–quite silly, obviously, but I overall I thought it was pretty good.

    One Tom Baker comment was a little strange, I thought. You think he may have stayed too long…but suggest that he should have left just two stories earlier?

    1. Matt

      Looking back, I didn’t phrase that well regarding Tom Baker. I found the whole E-Space thing and then suddenly new companions from everywhere very tiresome – it stank of trying to pump life into the stories by chucking in new characters.
      Adric was annoying. Tegan was annoying. Nyssa was better. Having them all join the TARDIS at roughly the same time was grating.

      Rings of Akhaten was awful, not the level of face palm terrible as Fear Her but still awful.

  6. I started with Hartnell (Dalek Invasion of Earth) and never liked the imposter Pertwee. The past decade I’ve been slowy rewatching the whole series (I just finished the first Tom Baker season) and now that he’s just one of many Doctors I appreciate how good he is (his double role in Enemy of the World is outstanding).
    The jump from England to the US meant I didn’t catch any Pertwee until years later. Picked up again when PBS began showing Tom Baker, probably my favorite doctor.
    I much prefer Eccleston to Tennant, though I’m in a minority on that I believe. It was really with Tennant that they started writing the Doctor along the lines of Bat-god, vastly more dangerous and more powerful than before. By the way I believe Doctor Dances (which is wonderful) is Tennant.
    I do like Cushing too.
    While Delta and the Bannermen is a mess, it does boast a fun character in Rae (who was being considered as a companion, but didn’t make the cut). And it totally nails the tinny atmosphere of that kind of holiday camp. Doesn’t redeem the whole, though.
    Eric Roberts has a voice that grates on me beyond measure.

  7. jccalhoun

    Tom Baker was my first Doctor. I caught Ark in Space on PBS as a kid and I was hooked.

    Eventually my local PBS looped around to Hartnell and I caught all those episodes.

    Of the current incarnation, I don’t know if I have a “favorite.” I liked Whittaker in the first episode and I am glad to see a totally new production crew on Who and look forward to seeing where it goes.

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