It started as a Saturday evening children’s programme with a shoestring budget in 1963. It died out in the 1980s, mostly as a result of bad scripting, and in the 90s you were lucky if you could find a handful of adventures on VHS tape. In 2005, the show was revived and given new impetus and there are fans worldwide. It’s even beginning to infiltrate non-English-speaking countries. The Time Lord soldiers flamboyantly on.
Doctor Who is frequently referred to as science fiction. It’s not. It’s fantasy. And when the script’s well written, it can be damn good fantasy too, which is unusual for such a long-running series. This is partly due to the fact that there are plenty of guest writers (when one writer starts hogging the limelight, be he Terry Nation or Russell T. Davies, the quality must perforce suffer over time), and partly due to the nature of the Doctor himself, bless both his hearts. It’s the longest running S-F show in the history of TV, and has so many instantly recognisable memes, plot situations, and punchlines it has easily earned its own trope page.
For the Doctor is a time-and-space-travelling alien with the ability to cheat death by completely regenerating his body. A device originally introduced to allow an ageing, ailing William Hartnell to retire, it has also proved a godsend for the series as a whole. Each new actor brings something different to the role, in addition to his personality, thus renewing the series. At every regeneration, the fans chew their nails, argue in the forums/fanzines about whether the new one will be any good. Then they rip each other apart over whether the new Doctor is great or irritating. Then they get nostalgic over him when a new one takes over.
I was 5 when the series began, and I can remember watching the pilot series. One of my earliest memories is re-enacting the latest episode with my friends in the school playground on a Monday (I was a Dalek). It was different to everything else on TV, appealing directly to children’s imaginations. We didn’t care that the TARDIS (his time-machine, which looks like an old British Police telephone box, and is bigger on the inside, due to some crafty temporal engineering) was obviously made out of cheap plywood, or that the monsters were people dressed up. The Daleks, those eternal adversaries of all other life in the Universe, were terrifying even though originally they couldn’t leave their electrified metal flooring and were incapable of doing more than temporarily incapacitating anyone with their built-in weapons.
Wintry Saturday evenings rapidly became part of a ritual. We’d go mad with boredom waiting for the bloody football results to finish (did St Mirren or Partick Thistle ever win a game?), then it was hot tea and toasted crumpets dripping with butter while we absorbed the latest installment. If Cybermen were involved (in the classic series they almost never spoke, which only made them more scary, despite the cheap costumes and silver paint), it took a lot of effort not to hide behind the sofa. Happy days.
Nowadays, the hot crumpet tends to be wielding the sonic screwdriver.
Anyway, I left the UK in 1983 during Peter Davison’s stint, so I missed the remaining three “classic” Doctors. The general consensus is that I didn’t miss much, although this is usually blamed on abysmal scripts rather than the actors themselves. In any case, although the episodes are generally considered ‘canon’ for mythical continuity, this period is usually diplomatically glossed over.
The “Classic” series
The first Doctor, many of whose adventures are lost to posterity due to an unfortunate BBC policy of wiping videotapes for reuse. It never occurred to them that many of the programmes they were making would be of historic interest, and domestic VCRs (which in any case the Beeb were slow to see the merits of) were still a long way off. Some have been recovered, or reconstructed, but a good half is gone for ever. His Doctor was grumpy, brilliant, occasionally frightening, and a Beatles fan. As I recall, he originally claimed to have built the TARDIS in his garage and the first companion, Susan, called him ‘Grandfather’.
Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee
The second and third doctors, respectively. It was Troughton’s idea to make the Doctor a completely different man, a bit of a clown. Hence the loud braces (suspenders, to Americans. They keep your trousers up), the horrible haircut, and the recorder. Upon having his collar felt for TARDIS-stealing by the Time Lords, he is marooned on Earth and forced to regenerate. Enter Jon Pertwee, who chose to make his Doctor a slightly camp (<>gay in those days, please note) dandy with a fondness for vintage cars.
The 10th anniversary of Dr Who led to the very first adventure with multiple Doctors: The Three Doctors, and great fun it was. It included William Hartnell’s last screen performance: seriously ill, he died a couple of years later.
Pertwee’s Doctor also introduced Roger Delgado as the Master, the Doctor’s nemesis (all superheroes must have one, by law). A childhood friend of the Doctor’s, with the looks and class of a Spanish Grandee, he made the perfect good-guy-gone-bad. Delgado’s untimely death was greatly mourned and I personally felt that none of his replacements even came close until Derek Jacobi and John Simm reprised the role for the revived series. Then again, I’ve always been a fan of Derek Jacobi.
Larger-than-life Tom Baker was the Doctor for many people, including a young Scots lad named David John MacDonald, who would one day change his name to Tennant and become the Tenth Doctor. He brought a floppy-brimmed hat, an interminable multicoloured woolly scarf and an addiction to jellybabies to the character. At some point during his turn of duty he also acquired the sonic screwdriver and that wretched robot dog, K-9.
What? WHAT? The Doctor played by a slip of a lad who’s not even 30, when he’s always been portrayed by actors at least 40? How can he possibly have the experience or breadth of personality to depict a being who’s been alive for centuries? Monstrous!
Away with all the fancy gadgets, the fifth Doctor only employed a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles he didn’t actually need when he felt he ought to look more intellectual. Being physically younger, he tended to rush around a bit more than his predecessors, although – since the Doctor is quintessentially English (more specifically: English, male, white, and Not Ginger) his favourite sport was cricket, hardly the most physically taxing activity in the Universe. And he was good, despite the quality of the scripts starting to decline dramatically. Check out his final adventure: Doctor Who – The Caves Of Androzani, widely reckoned to be one of the best Dr Who tales ever.
End of an era
The 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors, respectively played by Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, were probably doomed at birth, with a BBC that no longer believed in the series, and an audience that got cooled off by some really bad scriptwriting. Nevertheless they existed, and deserve some recognition. Someone, somewhere, discovered Dr Who because of them.
I suppose, if you want to be completely honest, the new series is official fan fiction, with nearly everyone involved, from scriptwriters to actors to technical staff, having been fans of the series when they were young. David Tennant is certainly a complete nerd for it (“I’m such a pathetic fanboy,” were his precise words). Rumour has it that the current head writer Steven Moffat, is worse. From the BBC’s official Dr Who site: “My entire career has been a Secret Plan to get this job,” said Steven Moffat. “I applied before but I got knocked back ‘cos the BBC wanted someone else. Also I was seven.”
I rest my case.
Anyway, forward the lovely lads who have played the title role so far:
A somewhat atypical Doctor, with no apparent quirks or eccentricities apart from a penchant for corny jokes, and full of barely suppressed anger – presumably because, in between the last time we saw Paul McGann and Ecclestone’s first appearance with a big friendly grin and a bomb in the basement of a major London store, the Time Lords and Gallifrey have been destroyed as the result of a terrible decision he had to make. From now on, the Doctor’s sinister side is something he is continually fighting back, and the companions he chooses aren’t just for company: they’re there to keep him sane, to stop him turning into the monster he’s terrified he’ll become.
Ecclestone seems at first a slightly odd choice for the role: he openly admits he wasn’t a fan of the original series, preferring instead to go play outside like the soft Southerner he obviously is (I call Karen Gillan, Steven Moffat and David Tennant to witness here), only going indoors to watch the spectacular stuff like Daleks being taken apart to reveal the pathetic blob of flesh controlling the sleek killing machines. OK, so those were the best bits. It’s not a reason.
Ahem. Anyway, he slingshot the series back into high-figure prime-time viewing, helped by excellent scripts (and a well-focused marketing machine, but you can’t sell sizzle without the sausage, as Moist von Lipwig would point out). He only stayed for one season, but it’s required viewing, whether or not you’re familiar with the classic era.
Lots of good stuff in it, including Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead fame) and the genesis of Capt. Jack Harkness.
Purely out of interest, after seeing Christopher Ecclestone morph into David Tennant, I would suggest you dig out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, skip to the scene where Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eye Moody turns into Barty Crouch Jr, and try to decide which is actually more scary.
The Tenth Doctor appears to be someone you either love or hate, from what I can make out from online comments. This must be the first Doctor to have more fangirls than freckles. Of the antis, some object to the pop culture references, but since the Doctor has always been rather more hip than some of his companions would believe I suspect these are people who want to enclose the Doctor in a little glass, timeless bubble to be left on the mantelpiece and dusted occasionally. Possibly the worst fate that could ever befall him. More serious are the charges of overacting, although the instances I’ve noticed seem to be mostly to disguise awkward scripting. Tennant is a fine actor, with excellent comic timing, and from the moment he really took over the role (I don’t count the inaugural Christmas special, where the Doctor spent most of his time unconscious) the quality of acting from all concerned improved noticeably.
Of the seasons, it’s hard to choose. The best scripts are mostly in the first season (although you shouldn’t miss the return of the Master, or Midnight, or the two-parter in that terrifying library), but on the other hand the quality of the companions improves over the three seasons. The two-parter that ends Tennant’s second season has an absofuckinlutely dreadful script, but John Simm is fantastic as the Master. And no wonder he’s got a thing about redheads after teaming up with Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). Aficionados of Scots accents can enjoy spotting the times where Tennant’s own natural accent breaks through the assumed horrible London twang. Does he do it on purpose, or is he just incapable of pronouncing ‘dalek’ as ‘daah-lek’?
Like Peter Davison, he’s surprisingly young. Like Patrick Troughton, he has a bow tie (which he stoutly defends as cool while his new companion Amy loathes it with a passion) and braces/suspenders. He’s maybe not as pretty as Tennant but he’s still kind of cute. And he’s brought a fresh outlook to the role: the eleventh Doctor has serious overtones of Oxbridge donnishness, alleviated with a clownishness reminiscent of Monty Python (the first time he popped his head out of the crashlanded TARDIS he looked a dead ringer for Michael Palin). He’s awkward around other people – about the only people he can talk to are fiery Amy Pond and her fiancé Rory – and he has bad dreams. Really, really bad dreams.
I think he’s going to be good. Love the new steampunk look for the TARDIS, too.
For the Doctor’s companions, series trivia, fan conventions and the rest, feel free to check out the impressive number of fansites on the web.
- Dr. Who Montage – Past to Present (reginajeffers.wordpress.com)