I cross the void beyond the mind
The empty space that circles time;
I see where others stumble blind
To seek a truth they’ll never find.
Eternal wisdom is my guide;
I am – The Doctor.
–Jon Pertwee, 3rd Doctor
The longest running and one of the most influential science-fiction television shows ever created, Doctor Who is a titan amidst pygmies, larger than life in every direction and three times as confusing. Beginning in the early 1960s as a children’s adventure show, it quickly drew a much more diverse and complex audience – and the producers responded.
Initially, there was no certainty about who “The Doctor” really was – whether he was a traveller from the future, an alien, or something else. Played by William Hartnell, the Doctor travelled in his “TARDIS” – short for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space – at seeming random, visiting locations in the past, present, or future on this world or others, and somehow always involving himself in the events transpiring there and trying to leave things better than he had found them. He was an eccentric, irascible old codger but one with surprising skills and a powerful presence, and a constant air of mystery.
As the show progressed, some questions were answered, which began to build the immense, complex, often self-contradictory mythology of Doctor Who. The Doctor was revealed to be an alien called a “Timelord” from a planet called Gallifrey, with the peculiar power to “regenerate” from lethal injury; a regeneration literally rewrote his body, and to a certain extent his mind, allowing him to be reborn as a person with the same overall memories and history but with a personality and physical form significantly different.
This is one of the most brilliant plot MacGuffins ever invented; it allows the show to have complete continuity, with the same main character, for any length of time, and at the same time be able to put the main character at lethal risk, and in no case being restricted to a single actor to play a popular role. You can literally kill the Doctor – and it will still be a dramatic, and traumatic, event – and not have killed your franchise.
From the early 60s through the 1970s, the show built on these foundations, creating some of the most memorable adversaries for the time-travelling Doctor: the Cybermen, half-human, half-machine, who had “resistance is futile” and cybernetic infections to convert people long before the Borg were a gleam in Trek’s eye; the clone-warrior race of militaristic conquerors, the Sontarans; the diabolical Master, a Timelord rival of the Doctor’s and as evil as the Doctor was good. And the omnicidal Daleks, whose electronic shrieking cry of “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” could send children diving behind the sofa in terror.
After Hartnell’s stint, the role of the Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton, followed by Jon Pertwee, both of whom gave excellent performances and new interpretations of the character of the Doctor; Troughton would often play the Doctor with a huge dose of Obfuscating Stupidity, pretending to be a confused, frightened old fool out of his depth… until you suddenly saw him shoot this little smile out from under lowered brows, and the trap came down. Pertwee’s Doctor was a dandy, a gentleman, and not at all afraid of a bit of physicality; he and the Master came to blows more than once.
And then came Tom Baker.
Baker played the part of The Doctor for seven years, longer than anyone else to take the role. In addition to his powerful voice and excellent acting ability, he had a tremendous physical presence and one of the most striking costumes the Doctor ever adopted, which solidified his image as “The Doctor” in the minds of most people for the next couple of decades; to this day, the floppy hat, immense multicolored scarf, and broad-swept coat are still one of the strongest images from Doctor Who.
It is also very likely that the other thing that made Baker such a standout in the role was that he took elements of his predecessors and used them shamelessly to build his own. Tom Baker’s Doctor was most often “crazy like a fox”; he didn’t seem so much clueless (like Troughton) as he did “out there”. But at the same time, he had the ability to dominate a situation just by his presence, and when necessary overwhelm people by assuming they’d go along with him and continuing right on his path, talking all the while. This version of the Doctor could manipulate you into sabotaging yourself, while you were convinced that he was the one being sabotaged.
After Baker, the mantle passed to Peter Davison, known best for his role as Tristan Farnon in “All Creatures Great and Small”; Davison made a milder, more human, less larger-than-life Doctor, which I think suffered badly following so immediately after Tom Baker’s epic madman; Davison left after a short run, to be followed by Colin Baker, whose Doctor was a darker, edgier, moodier person, and then by Sylvester McCoy, whose Doctor was perhaps the most ruthless of them all; having ended up in charge of Gallifrey (at least for a while), he was apparently less tolerant of madmen bent on world conquest and destruction, something Davros and the Daleks learned to their great distress.
There followed a multi-year hiatus, with the series stopping in 1989. In 1996, the BBC and the Fox Network reached agreement on an attempted reboot in America, producing a Doctor Who movie. This regenerated Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor into Paul McGann and for the first time gave the Doctor an overt romantic interest; there was always implied potential in this direction (after all, in the very first episode he has a granddaughter, and he often had very attractive female companions), but this was the first time the Doctor was directly shown to be subject to such attractions. The movie received mixed reviews (I happen to be one of those who liked it) and caused the most controversy not because of the romantic issue (although there were certainly those who protested against that heavily), but because it introduced the idea that The Doctor was half-human, which partly explained his particular fascination with Earth and humanity.
While audio plays (from The Big Finish) and novelizations continued, it wasn’t until 2005 – nine years after the movie, and sixteen years since the initial cancellation – that Doctor Who returned to television, this time under the helm of Russell T. Davies and with Christopher Eccleston as the new Doctor.
And it was then that the show exploded back into the collective consciousness. The earlier show had been noted for a lot of things, but slick production values and action sequences… weren’t two of them. The new show pushed the limits of what the BBC could manage, and it showed. The producers were also determined to do something almost impossible; make the show modern, fresh… and yet keep its direct connection and history to the literal decades of material built before. Eccleston himself only stayed for one season, but in that period of time literally rebuilt the character and history of the Doctor, solidifying the character’s pathos and his power and capability enough so that when David Tennant took over, the new mythology was already running strong.
Tennant defined the new era, however. A Doctor Who fanboy himself, David Tennant was quite straightforward about this being a lifelong dream, and he brought a manic, brilliant energy to the character that obviously and deliberately incorporated elements of all the classic Doctors, most prominently Troughton, Pertwee, and Tom Baker, but added in Tennant’s own twist. He kept the role for several years, finally stepping down to allow Matt Smith to take the helm; Smith is the current incarnation, youngest-looking, yet sometimes playing the Doctor as a bitter, sour old man who needs to be yanked out of his cynicism on occasion, then suddenly turning into a hyperactive five-year-old supergenius.
I have been a Doctor Who fan in both generations. There is a charm to the older series, with its clunky sets and cheesy melodrama, that hearkens back to the earliest days of science fiction, and that works because of the characters and the stage presence of the actors. My favorite of the Old Doctors is always a tie between the elegant nobility of Jon Pertwee and the bombastic insanity of Tom Baker.
In the new series, we have been given deeper stories, better visuals, and a new life for the universe; David Tennant is the symbol of the New Doctor for me, though both Eccleston and Smith did not do the role any disservices – they were/are fine choices and I enjoy their work, even if there are particular gripes I may have with specific stories.
I don’t think, however, that I can choose a single “favorite Doctor”; the Doctor is too complex a concept to be selected from so simply.
The Doctor himself has been primarily defined by two groups of people: his enemies, and his Companions, the people who join him for a time in his wanderings through the cosmos. These companions have ranged from confused schoolteachers to a robotic dog, a barbarian warrior, another Timelord, an alien in the form of a human boy, an immortal man, an intrepid girl reporter, and many others. Each group of Companions have provided a mirror to reflect the Doctor and his choices in each series of stories, and each group comes away… changed by the experience.
The other definition of the Doctor comes from the other side; it is often said that you know the quality of a man by the quality of his enemies, and in that case the Doctor is a hero second to none, for his enemies are almost without number, and almost all terrible to contemplate. The Daleks and their megalomaniacal creator, Davros, who have more than once nearly achieved their goal of wiping out all non-Dalek life in the universe; Sutekh, greatest of the Osirans, would-be destroyer of worlds; the Weeping Angels, chronovores with fearsome powers; the Black Guardian of Time, godlike being seeking control over all reality; The Master, insane genius and once friend of the Doctor; the Vashta Nerada, living manifestations of darkness; the militaristic and nigh-unstoppable Sontarans; the mind-altering Silence; and dozens, hundreds of others, all ranged against this one man in a traveling blue box… and all defeated, again, and again, and again, by this one lonely, strange man and the odd assortment of companions who travel with him.
Doctor Who is a show and a universe of high adventure, occasional slapstick humor, quirky characters, dark drama, and often surprising moments of pathos, warmth, and a lot of doses of unmistakable awesome. It is also one of the greatest science-fiction creations of all time – though it is not, in any sense of the word, “hard” science fiction. Doctor Who raised technobabble to a fine artform long before Star Trek really got its teeth into the concept, and in some ways Doctor Who makes Star Trek look like an account of the real-life space program, in terms of how realistic/believable the universe is. It’s true that, as a show with ESTABLISHED time-travel, alternate timelines, and ability to change history as basic operating procedures, Doctor Who can get away with a lot more self-contradictory material than just about any other show, but even so, it’s … pretty extreme. Yet there’s a consistent tone about its technobabble, most of the time, and the writers usually know enough about their craft to let the handwaviness “explain”, but not by itself be the solution, to the problems the Doctor and his companions face; they still have to find a solution and put it into action, which is probably what keeps Doctor Who a working franchise. It’s still believable that the Doctor can make mistakes, can fail, can be injured; there’s still risks for everyone involved.
The Companions themselves provide a sort of touchstone viewpoint,and each Companion, or group of Companions, usually defines their own era, at least as much as the current Doctor does. How they react to the dangers in which they are placed, how they confront their own fears and opponents, and how they choose to stay or leave is usually a strong commentary on the events during their tenure. Some Companions were short-lived and unmemorable; others became powerful and significant forces in the show and even beyond it.
The most notable of these is undoubtedly Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen. Sarah Jane Smith was the archetypal spunky reporter when she first joined the cast during Jon Pertwee’s era, and quickly became a popular companion of the Doctor. She transitioned into the Tom Baker era and accompanied him for quite some time before finally leaving.
But her popularity did not decline; she made occasional appearances in attempted spinoffs and other sidelines, and then, in New Who, was reunited with The Doctor as played by David Tennant, who made explicit the affection the Doctor had implied for her in her earlier presence. From this, she gained her own show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which showed that her encounters and travels with the Doctor had made her a force to be reckoned with by anyone’s standards – and made Elisabeth Sladen a symbol of what a woman could do in a show and role normally reserved for young, male protagonists. The Sarah Jane Adventures was a brilliant show, slanted more towards the younger viewer but keeping the essence of Doctor Who’s universe – and often touching on subjects of serious and even darker nature.
She was of course not the only Companion to get a separate show; the omnisexual, heroic, irrepressible Captain Jack Harkness became the leader of Torchwood, a sort of dysfunctional X-Files-like organization dedicated to defending the United Kingdom from alien threats, and K-9, the robotic dog companion, has also gotten his own series.
It’s hard to choose a favorite companion – as hard, I think, as choosing a favorite Doctor. I can point to companions I know aren’t my favorites – Turlough, Tegan, Amy Pond, etc. – but choosing between the remaining competition is not easy. Sarah Jane Smith will come into the top three against any competition, but rounding out the other two… hard call. Backed into a corner, I think one of them has to be Donna Noble, the self-centered gold-digging “temp”… who turned into a hero, the Doctor’s moral compass, and saved the multiverse.
The last one, though… Hard to say. Leela, Martha Jones, Romanadvoratralundar, K-9, Captain Jack Harkness, even Adric and Rose Tyler and Jamie and Jo Grant … so many to choose from.
I’m not so conflicted in choosing my favorite villain, though. There just isn’t much competition against Davros, a lone, mad genius who has no Timelord powers, no extraordinary alien abilities, no connection to the Ancient Races or anything else, just an incomparable mind filled with limitless malice and insanity which is capable of unravelling the very secrets of creation… and turning them against all reality. After him, Roger Delgado’s Master – debonair, saturnine, diabolical. My least favorite villain – at least of those that repeat, rather than one-off annoyances – is undoubtedly the Weeping Angels.
Doctor Who‘s greatest influence on me has been to reinforce the idea of a universe so huge and complex that it contains countless adventures, even for someone with nigh-infinite skill and resource. The Doctor – placed in just about any other setting – would be what RPGers call a “munchkin”. He knows almost everything, he can do almost anything, he’s virtually impossible to permanently kill, and he can get away with things that would get most people arrested or shot. But in this setting he’s often backed to the wall, because he’s up against things that don’t play on a mortal level. There’s no need to make The Doctor any less epically skillful and wise than he is, because his universe is epic. Davros isn’t going to blow up a planet or two. He’ll “DETONATE THE REALITY BOMB!!” and wipe out all of existence. An accident at a deep-drilling project isn’t just going to contaminate the local area, it could poison the entire Earth. A child in contact with the wrong alien influences could eradicate out the human race. This is the level the Doctor plays at, the danger he confronts every day, and for that you need a character as ludicrously omnicompetent as Doc Smith could ever have envisioned.
In addition, Doctor Who has often shown that things that may appear ludicrous don’t have to be treated as ludicrous. I admit that my sense of humor is very picky; I don’t generally like comedy of most sorts. Yet no story can be (or at least should be) unrelieved seriousness. Doctor Who manages to be somehow infused with a vaguely lighter tone, even while dealing with often-horrific events. I’ve tried to find ways of using this same approach in my own material; I don’t want to have “comic relief” per se, but I also want my readers to come away feeling reasonably good about what they read, which means it can’t be a big indigestible brick of unrelieved drama and angst. Doctor Who helped show me how you can take the story seriously without making everything … serious.
The sheer magnitude of Doctor Who inspires (and occasionally intimidates) me; almost five decades of worldbuilding in a rambling, inconsistent-yet-maybe-not universe of hundreds of species, planets, and stories large and small, built by many, many people over the course of those years.
I heartily recommend the series – old and new. Unfortunately, the earliest seasons are missing many episodes – there was no expectation that the show would become some cult hit early on, and there were no archivists insisting on preserving it. Both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s era have significant chunks missing.
Deciding which episodes to start with is… not easy. The obvious is to start as reasonably early as one can – say with Jon Pertwee, or with what of Hartnell and Troughton is available – and just so straight on. But that’s … a lot of episodes, and certainly some are going to be a lot worse than others. Any early Who – prior to the reboot – is also going to require more suspension of disbelief, if for no other reason than that the special effects and stunt work are in many cases barely above high-school play level.
Still, I do have some recommendations. For a relatively short, self-contained story, and one on a smaller scale than the others, The Horror of Fang Rock is one of my favorites, placing Tom Baker’s Doctor and his barbaric companion Leela in a lighthouse under seige by… something. The Pyramids of Mars is also excellent Tom Baker fare, showing a typical Whovian take on ancient Earth legends combined with alien threats. The Green Death is one of Jon Pertwee’s best adventures, and Planet of the Spiders brings us to the regeneration of the Third into the Fourth Doctor.
The New Who seasons are a bit harder; they’ve been woven more tightly together overall and if you don’t understand the mythology and adventures you can get somewhat lost. That said, Eccleston’s finest moments were probably in Dalek and then in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, with the latter also introducing Captain Jack Harkness.
I’m something of a heretic in that I consider several of the most acclaimed episodes – Blink, Human Nature/Family of Blood, Midnight – to be abysmal. OTOH, almost everyone agrees that Silence in the Library is one of the best episodes of Tennant’s tenure, though pretty much everything with Donna Noble in it is good-to-awesome. Matt Smith has been mostly handed less impressive episodes in my opinion, but his first adventure ends with one of The Doctor’s greatest Moments of Awesome EVER, and so is well worth watching.
If you are one of those who has never heard that eerie theme tune and sat down to view the adventures of the Last of the Timelords… give it a try. Odds are you’ll find yourself watching another episode… and another… and another…