The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 1

As many probably know by now, I am obsessed with the BBC tv scifi Doctor Who.  I honestly believe it is the best scifi television show ever. Period. And I mean that to include both the original run that began in 1963 and the new revival that began in 2005.  (And yes, Star Trek is a very close second.)

Doctor Who began in 1963 in England as a family educational television show with the characters traveling backwards in time in order to teach children about different points of history.  However, the writers quickly added in the alien plotlines, which became the more famous and important elements of the show, beginning with the second serial: The Daleks.

The basic run-down is this: The Doctor is an alien from a species called the Time Lords (and Gallifreyans, as they come from the planet Gallifrey), who possess ships known as TARDISes (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), that allow them to travel anywhere in space and time.  The Doctor is a bit of a rebel among his species and stole his particular TARDIS to travel without the restrictions placed on him by the leaders of the Time Lords.  The Doctor, who has a strong affection and curiosity for humans, always has at least one human companion with him as he travels around (also sometimes having aliens and robots along as companions as well).

It was not until the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell, became ill and decided to leave the show, that the writers came up with an ingenious way to switch actors while leaving the series continuity and mythology alone: they decided that as the Time Lords have a special ability to heal themselves when dying or gravely injured, a process called regeneration which results in changing into a different body/face each time.  Each time the Doctor regenerates, his is played by a different actor, and even his personality changes to some extent or another, but he is still essentially the same person.

Here is a brief explanation of Doctors 1-5:

The First Doctor: played by William Hartnell (1963-1966)

Hartnell’s Doctor was cantankerous, bossy, and occasionally ruthless, though the character was softened slightly and made more paternal in later episodes.  He was accompanied by his granddaughter, Susan, who is generally considered to be Gallifreyan and able to regenerate, though it is never explicitly stated in the show.  In the second Hartnell serial, we are introduced to the Daleks, a completely non-humanoid alien species who had been mutated by war and were thus fixated on war and the extermination of any species that was not them.  The Daleks became the Doctor’s most dangerous enemy, who return again and again throughout the series no matter how many times the Doctor believes he has defeated them once and for all.

The Second Doctor: played by Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)

Troughton’s Doctor was a little more light and comical, though he retained the same passionate desire to fight evil and oppression (perhaps the most identifying character trait of the Doctor throughout the series).  He did, however, have a darker side that showed up on several occasions, when he manipulated his friends and those around him to influence the outcome and “for the greater good.”  It is during the first serial with Troughton’s Doctor that we are introduced to the Cybermen the Doctor’s second most famous and dangerous recurring enemy.  The Cybermen were originally a humanoid species who became to modify their bodies to become mechanical for survival, until eventually everything but their brains was machine, and they lost all emotion and began a mission to convert everyone else.  (For the Trekkies out there, yes, this could easily be the inspiration for the Borg.)

The Third Doctor: played by Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

Jon Pertwee was originally intended to bring his comedic experience to the character.  However, Pertwee decided to play the character as a the straight man, and though there were some comedic touches, he kept his Doctor serious.  Pertwee also made the Doctor more action-oriented as he liked to ride various vehicles in the show, including a motorcycle, hovercraft, and the Doctor’s vintage roadster “Bessie.”  In 1973 the show celebrated the 10-year anniversary with a special called “The Three Doctors” the first of several specials that would show several incarnations of the Doctor working together.  Hartnell and Troughton returned to reprise their roles for this special.  Also, during Pertwee’s run as the Doctor, we meet The Master he is also a Time Lord, conceived as being like Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes, he is equal in intelligence and power, but evil (like the Daleks and the Cybermen, he is a recurring enemy throughout the series).

The Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker (1974-1981)

Tom Baker was quite a bit younger than the first 4 to play the Doctor.  He is also STILL the actor who has portrayed the Doctor for the longest time (7 years), and arguably the most popular and best-remembered incarnation of the Doctor (though both David Tennant and Matt Smith have been giving him a run for his money in the last couple years). (Baker was my favorite until Tennant came along. I’m sorry, Tom Baker!)  Baker’s Doctor was shown to be caring and passionate at time while cold and aloof other times a conscious choice on Baker’s part to highlight the Doctor’s status as alien and essentially non-human.  During Baker’s stint, the writers began introducing much more humorous storylines, which Baker played up with wonderful eccentricity.

The Fifth Doctor: played by Peter Davison (1981-1984)

To counteract the enormous popularity of Baker’s Doctor, the writers and casting directors made many changes for the Fifth Doctor.  First, Davison was much younger than the first 4 portrayals of the Doctor.  Davison gave the Doctor something of an aristocratic air, in opposition to Baker’s more eccentric portrayal.  The writers also made this incarnation of the Doctor much more human in behavior, with vulnerabilities that were highlighted and played up in a number of episodes.  He also tended to only react to situations, rather than being proactive as Baker’s Doctor often was.  (Davison is my brother’s favorite incarnation, as well as David Tennant’s favorite.  Tennant even did a special short for a fundraiser in which his version of the Doctor meets Davison’s Doctor, and tells him “you were my Doctor.”)

I had originally intended to give a run-down of all the Doctors here, but it has become so long that I’ve decided to split this post into two.  So please come back on Friday to learn about Doctors 6-11.

In the meantime, for those Doctor Who fans out there: which Doctor is your favorite?  And why?

Side Note: all images come from the History of Doctor Who wikipedia page.

10 thoughts on “The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 1

  1. Very nice rundown. I’m looking forward to Part 2. 🙂

    Pertwee was always my favorite, because I saw him first (1970, I think; possibly a few years later – “Inferno” was the first episode I watched). I will admit to having a soft spot for Christopher Eccleston as well, because of how wounded the Doctor was during that season. Really, though, I think they all did a good job of bringing something fresh to the character (although some changes worked better than others).

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I have noticed that people tend to pick the first Doctor they saw as their favorite. Tom Baker was the first one I ever saw, and he was my favorite for a very long time (until Tennant came along). And I agree, all of them bring something different and interesting to the character, and the differing personalities is part of what has kept the show so interesting for so long.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Your short history of the doctors brings up so many questions! Do the doctors remember events from previous incarnations? Do they have all the skills and knowledge that they had in previous incarnations? If Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes had a fight? who would win? Why is your brother’s favorite Doctor the coxcomb? My favorite is Tom Baker. I haven’t watched any of the new series

    • Woah! Clay! You’re commenting on my blog! That’s new! (okay, enough exclamation points).

      Yes, the Doctors remember everything from their previous incarnations. Though his personality changes somewhat with each regeneration, he is still essentially the same person, with the same backstory and so forth. You should definitely give the revival series a try. If you grew up with the original, it does take a little getting used to, but it’s very good.

      As for why my brother likes Davison best… I’ve never really been able to figure that out, except that he was the first Doctor he watched. So, like I said, I definitely think your first sticks with you.

  3. I still think Baker is still the best and will be the Best.. The fondest and still most recent memory i have is watching the episode were he says good bye to Sarah Jane after Elisabeth Sladen passing.. that truly embody what i define as the doctor.

    • I agree, that was a powerful moment. It was so sad when Sladen died. The Tennant episode with Sarah Jane was wonderfully nostalgic too. I was glad she got to return to the show for awhile before she passed.

  4. How true.. She is still my fav companion also. She created what the role should be and gave them a true voice. Also, i love bake simply because of the douglas adams episodes.

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