“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?” (from An Unearthly Child).
Today marks fifty years since we first entered the TARDIS, fifty years since we first met a strange old man who whisked us off into space and time, fifty years since terrifying creatures drove us to hide behind the sofa… and fifty years since the birth of a TV legend. For five decades Doctor Who has enthralled millions of children and adults throughout the world, whether they watched in the monochrome days of the 1960s, or during the colourful 1970s and 1980s, or discovered the Doctor on CD or in print during his hiatus during the 1990s, or even encountered him for the first time only since the series’ revival in the 21st century. Doctor Who was first broadcast on British television on 23 November 1963 (just a few hours after the assassination of President John F Kennedy) and was intended originally to appeal to a family audience. As such, in its early days it was mainly an educational programme, using time travel as a means to explore scientific ideas and famous moments in history. The success of such stories as The Daleks (which introduced the Doctor’s most iconic and enduring foes) ensured that it became much more and as a result the series had an original 26-year unbroken run of episodes, which saw it explore the furthest reaches of space and time. Whilst it was cancelled in 1989, its dedicated fanbase ensured that Doctor Who never really went away – surviving initially in a popular series of paperback novels before a brief movie revival in 1996. The Doctor enjoyed a far more lasting return in 2005 and now, in its fiftieth anniversary year, appears more popular than ever. Let’s explore the mystery of Time’s Champion.
Doctor Who (who is never referred to as such on screen, but only ever as ‘The Doctor’) is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He is a renegade, a troubled man, who initially left his own people in search of fulfillment. When he was unwillingly drawn back into his own people’s affairs during the Last Great Time War between the Gallifreyans and the Daleks, this inadvertently led to the destruction of his home planet. Now the Doctor is the Last of the Time Lords, a perpetually solitary figure who walks alone in eternity. Although in theory the Doctor has all of space and time to explore, for some reason he has always found himself drawn irresistibly to our own Earth. He has an acknowledged weakness for humans and their affairs: “Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species… They’re indomitable” (from The Ark in Space). This contrasts with his often ambivalent feelings towards his own kind: “The oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core… Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt” (from Trial of a Time Lord). The writers came up with the handy concept of regeneration to explain the regular changes of lead actor which the show has necessarily had to go through in its fifty years on air. A Time Lord, so the idea goes, can entirely alter his appearance (each time emphasizing a different aspect of his personality) at the point of death, making him all but immortal. This trick can only be performed on twelve occasions, meaning there can be no more than thirteen incarnations of the Doctor in all. For those keeping count, the twelfth actor to play the Doctor will debut next year, meaning that the series as a whole may well be drawing to a close whether there is a demand for it or not (unless the writers come up with another neat trick of course).
The experience of watching Doctor Who as a viewer is for me largely defined by the show’s different eras. Back in the 60s the character of the Doctor, as played originally by William Hartnell, was stern and patrician. He was more likely to try to extricate himself and his companions from danger, rather than dashing headlong towards it like later Doctors, and was never himself the focus of the action. His successor Patrick Troughton was altogether more fun, a cosmic hobo who injected some much needed warmth and humour into the character, as well as a certain madcap energy and élan into the storytelling. This paved the way for the most successful period in the show’s history, the 70s, which saw the two longest-serving actors in the role of the Doctor, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, bring the show to a younger, wider audience in an era of glorious technicolor. Pertwee was a dashing dandy with a fondness for gadgets and fast cars, while Baker was even more eccentric and bohemian, with his penchant for jelly babies and never-ending striped scarves. The 80s started well with Peter Davison’s era of more mature stories, before taking a decisive nosedive into silliness with Colin Baker’s tenure in the role (although the actor who played the Doctor was certainly not to blame). Thankfully the 80s (and the show’s original run) ended on a high with Sylvester McCoy’s deceptively clownish Doctor hiding a much darker and more manipulative take on the character. Paul McGann was denied the opportunity to make much of an impact with his one-story-stint as the Doctor in the mid-90s but today he’s seen as the vital bridge between ‘classic’ Doctor Who and the 2005 revival, which may well not have happened had the Doctor not remained in the public consciousness through the 1996 TV film. Christopher Eccleston’s brief but memorable take on the Doctor as a grim survivor of a terrible Time War was followed by David Tennant’s populist Tenth Doctor, the ultimate ‘spiv in space’ who had geek-chic to spare. Bringing us right up to date Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, played by the youngest actor to date, provides what will be a pleasing contrast with the soon-to-debut Twelfth Doctor, who will be played by Peter Capaldi, the oldest actor to take on the role since William Hartnell.
Despite the changes in actor and character over the years, several things about the Doctor never really change. He is a fundamentally decent man, for instance, who has spent a millenia-long life battling against evil in many forms: “There are some parts of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought” (from The Moonbase). The Doctor disdains physical combat, of course, preferring to use what in State of Decay is referred to as ‘the greatest weapon of all’ – knowledge. In all his incarnations the Doctor also strives the maintain the appearance of a typically English gentleman of the Victorian/Edwardian era. The Time Lord’s favourite apparel has always been some kind of frock coat, often accompanied by a waistcoat and tie, although there has been the occasional odd lapse into dressing as a cricketer (5th Doctor), a clown (6th Doctor) and a vagrant (9th Doctor). What doesn’t change is that the Doctor is always accompanied by the ‘Children of Time’ – his largely young, mostly female human companions. The companions are the Doctor’s true family, closer to him by far than his fellow Time Lords (he once recites their names to himself when fending off the vampiric haemavores in The Curse of Fenric – thereby implying that the Doctor’s faith is his companions). The other icon of Doctor Who is the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), a Gallifreyan time machine which bears an odd resemblance to an English police public call box but is bigger on the inside than the outside. Like the Doctor the TARDIS is out of its time and place, such boxes having been decommissioned for real back in the 1960s, which makes it an oddly appropriate symbol of the series.
While the past fifty years has seen the Doctor in hundreds of adventures, there are just a few that stand out as essential viewing for the uninitiated. Genesis of the Daleks is perhaps the finest story for the actor commonly agreed to be the most definitive Doctor Who, Tom Baker. Baker was able to combine gravitas and genuine acting talent with comic timing and a certain madcap energy intrinsic to the Doctor’s character. He is truly given a chance to shine in this, a superb science fiction story with a strong moral element. The serial also introduces Doctor Who‘s most chilling villain, Dalek creator Davros – a nightmarish wheelchair-bound fusion of human and machine, whose single effeminate claw is poised at one point over a switch that could eradicate all life. My personal favourite Doctor is Peter Davison, the youngest actor to play the role at the time he was cast. He had a vulnerability which was new to the character and somehow managed to convey an appearance of great age through the quality of his acting, despite his relative youth (he was 29-31 while in the role). His finest moment comes in the heartbreaking Caves of Androzani, which sees the Doctor make the ultimate sacrifice to save one of his companions. Lastly, just to show that the new, post-2005 series is in many ways just as good as the ‘classic’ Doctor Who of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, David Tennant deserves an honourable mention. Whilst his predecessor Christopher Eccleston had the tough job of re-introducing the character to the public when the series was revived in 2005, it was Tennant who really made people take the Doctor back into their hearts with a series of powerful, moving performances in stories such as Human Nature, Last of the Time Lords and The End of Time (all of which bring a tear to the eye even now).
There’s so much more that I could talk about with regards to Doctor Who. There are his companions, many of whom have become almost as popular and recognisable as the Time Lord himself: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his UNIT chums, the robotic dog K-9, leather-clad Leela, the voraciously omnisexual Captain Jack and, of course, Sarah Jane Smith, who went on to have not just one but two spin-off shows all of her own. Then there are the Who monsters and villains: Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons, Ice Warriors and renegade Time Lords like the Master, the Rani and Omega. But for me the heart and soul of the show has always been the character moments, the sense of charm and whimsy, the often tricky plots and folksy appeal of the Doctor himself and his many companions. The vast body of myth and continuity that the series has developed in the past fifty years is interesting but peripheral. Such matters as the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, the Celestial Intervention Agency, the Faction Paradox and the Shadow Proclamation, while intriguing, don’t really explain the show’s lasting appeal and should not ever, in my view at least, become too central a concern. Therefore, while I’m looking forward to the many revelations that fiftieth anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor will no doubt reveal, I’m much more happy just to celebrate a show that I’ve grown up with and which I hope, with any luck, will be around for another fifty years.
“I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls… And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty” (from Ghost Light).