Eleven top writers who’ve all worked in the Whoniverse in one way or another write their own personal tributes to the eleven Doctors so far…
It’s hard to overemphasise William Hartnell’s contribution to establishing the character of the Doctor, and the show. Back in 1963, here was a senior actor with a distinguished career behind him taking on a show which must have seemed half-baked even as production started, and a role which was confusingly and unpromisingly defined: “DR WHO: A frail old man lost in space and time ... He remains a mystery.” So runs BBC’s earliest description of the Doctor’s character from April 1963. But the Doctor had to be the pivot of the show.
It took two pilots to get it right, but in the end Hartnell was able to define a character who was indeed frail, old, mysterious, difficult, cantankerous and alien – and yet also authoritative, and at times even likeable.
It was surely necessary that the Doctor had to be old in his first incarnation; that sense of age has always lingered. Even today a key part of Matt Smith’s reading of the role is that he is an old man in a young man’s body. And that agedness is rooted in Hartnell’s authoritative playing. My favourite single line of Hartnell’s actually came in tenth-anniversary special “The Three Doctors” when he berates his successors: “So you’re my replacements – a dandy and a clown. Have you done anything?”
After nearly 50 years, all Who fans must have their own favourite Doctors. But for the elderly band of us who remember the launch of the show, William Hartnell, the First Doctor of all, will always be the Doctor.
Perhaps the mark of a great actor is how unafraid they are: willing to experiment, always creating. Patrick Troughton boldly claims the Doctor as his own, within 25 minutes. He could have performed it as a carbon copy of his predecessor. Instead, the irascible patriarch is gone and Troughton is the first to take that bold step of making the new Doctor recognisably the same man, yet totally different.
Over three years, Troughton just keeps broadening and deepening the Doctor’s character, building on Hartnell’s creation, but taking it in new directions. His Doctor contains multitudes. His contradictions define him: serious yet frivolous, kind yet short tempered, a fast-thinking genius who’s easily distracted, a grave clown.
What you get is a great character actor working as leading man: a performer so talented, so agile that he can turn the mood of a scene from funny to sombre within a line, and then spin it back again. Just look at the variety of roles he’d play after leaving the show. He was definitive, yet not defined by it. How we’d all queue to work with him today.
But what I love most is the joy of this Doctor. Particularly once Jamie McCrimmon joins, we get a chemistry, and, yes, a love between the Doctor and his companions that’s new. This era is the first to feel like friends travelling together, having fun. And at the centre, a Doctor who is simultaneously child and adult: the central character beautifully mirroring the point of the show.
It has to be Jon Pertwee of course. Who else? The Doctor I worked with for five exciting, dramatic, traumatic and fun-filled years. It isn’t an easy choice. I’m very attached to Pat Troughton’s whimsical charm. Mac Hulke and I wrote his last show, “The War Games”, exiling him to Earth. I’ve a great admiration for Tom Baker, and am very proud to have launched him with “Robot”. And when the show made its comeback, David Tennant, with a big claim to be the best ever, strained old loyalties.
But it has to be Pertwee. Jon was an actor all through with all that that implies. Charming, kind and amusing – and underneath deeply insecure, with a need to be the centre of attention and a constant need for reassurance.
(Almost every show, an anguished call from the director: “Could you come over to rehearsal, Jon’s not happy about the script...” “Jon’s never happy about the script,” I’d reply. Then I’d go over, talk through his worries, change a word and adjust a line here or there, and send him away reasonably happy.)
But it was all worth it. On-screen the elegance, the confidence, the charisma! You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Doctor Who above all is the Doctor’s show – it becomes less interesting whenever he’s off the screen. Jon carried the show brilliantly, demonstrating wisdom, charm, compassion, courage and a high moral tone. It was all in the script, but never mind. He was the Doctor, he was our hero. There’ll never be another like him.
Tom Baker became the Doctor before I was born, so as far as I was concerned, he had always been the Doctor. Later I became aware that other actors had played the part, but because Tom had been there for my whole life, I just assumed he’d do it forever.
If they’d designed an actor in a laboratory to be the perfect Doctor, they’d have made Tom Baker. As the Doctor, he made everything fun, and always saved the day in style. Nothing worried him, and he had no respect for authority in any form. Just when things got a bit too scary and threatening, he would bound in, flash a manic grin, offer everyone a jelly baby, and then casually ruin the villain’s plan. More importantly, he’d undermine the villain while he was at it, teaching me valuable lessons about refusing to let people intimidate or scare you.
He was too silly to be a grown-up, too old to be a kid, and occupied a strange middle ground that I found oddly comforting. He was also definitely an alien – I suspected he was one in real life as well, he had far too many teeth for a human. In those pre-internet days, I had no idea he was leaving, and was heartbroken when he regenerated. He was my TV best friend. And he always will be.
I’m still convinced he’s an alien. It’d explain a lot.
I don’t really remember the Fifth Doctor as a kid so my first real experience of him was when I borrowed a friend’s VHS copy of “The Five Doctors” in the ’90s. What struck me then, and still does today, is just how brilliant Peter Davison is in the role. His Doctor could so easily be overshadowed by the others. The First Doctor is old and grumpy. The Second, sweet and loveable. The Third is heroic and arrogant and the Fourth, only appearing briefly, is witty and charming. The story is full of old monsters, old companions and even Dinah Sheridan and the High Council of Gallifrey.
And yet, at no point is the Fifth Doctor overshadowed. A lot of this is down to Terrance Dicks’ fab script which is a brilliant big old adventure, both funny and exciting. But most of it is down to Peter Davison’s performance. Lacking the obvious hooks of the other Doctors, he’s simply a young bloke having an adventure. He’s clever, heroic, charming and occasionally irritated. The other Doctors bicker whereas he appears to be faintly embarrassed by them – as if his family has turned up at the school disco, something that would have chimed with the show’s audience, both young and old. Davison’s performance is fantastic – he seems genuinely pleased to be reunited with old friends, excited to be off on new adventures and is clearly upset by Borusa’s downfall. In a story in which he’s surrounded by so many fab things, Davison, through a nuanced, pitch-perfect, unshowy performance, never lets you forget that he is the hero. There may be five Doctors in that story but he easily keeps his place as THE Doctor.
Colin Baker was the one out of all of those who played the role who had the short shrift – the “fired Doctor”, the “other Baker”, his tenure was hampered by strikes, delays and slashed budgets, his episodes far weaker in comparison to previous Doctors’ as his true enemy, BBC TV executive Michael Grade tried to destroy him better than any of his villains could.
However, the one thing that couldn’t be said was that he was a bad Doctor. In fact, Baker built upon the core arrogance, bluster and self belief of a Time Lord so well, that even David Tennant utilised aspects of it.
This was a Doctor who would take charge without any psychic paper to give him an advantage. This was a Doctor who wore bright-coloured clothes and didn’t care what anyone thought of it. And this was a Doctor who, thanks to a better level of characterisation and story in other media, lived on past his short-lived television existence, finding new fans and followers in the world of tie-in books and Big Finish audio dramas. Allowed to truly experiment with and expand the character, Baker took the chance and ran with it, creating in the audio adventures one of the best, most memorable Doctors out there – and the fact that he did, shows that he could have been so much more on TV – if they’d have let him.
Colin Baker underwent his TV Trial of a Time Lord – and lost. But luckily, all Time Lords have a second chance…
I once shared a train ride with My Doctor.
Sylvester McCoy and I were working together on a truly terrible cop show (don’t ask) and ended up in the same carriage heading to the read-through. I’d just started writing on new Doctor Who , so with a certain amount of nervousness I introduced myself to The Great Man and explained my connection to the show. Sylvester, it turned out, was an utter gent and only too happy to talk about his time in the TARDIS. As I’d just started writing for David Tennant, it was fascinating to get a take on the Doctor I was working with from the Doctor I’d grown up with. I remember asking Sylvester if he ever considered the fact that the man he was portraying was the same character who had been portrayed by six other actors previously, and Sylvester responded that sometimes he would think “That’s a Jon Pertwee line” or “That’s very Tom” and try to play it accordingly.
Sylvester’s Doctor was a strange hero to an eight-year-old boy. He wasn’t young or athletic or sexy in the way Doctors are these days. He was a clownish, fumbling, rhapsodic little man in a sweater. But I loved him, not in spite of those things, but because of them. I loved that he was funny and dark and sly and silly and old, all at the same time.
These days I’m biased. I think Matt’s the best we’ve ever had. Writing for him is a dream. But there’s a reason for this, and it might be controversial, but just hear me out. Look back at the words I used to describe Sylvester’s Doctor. Magic. Dark. Sly. Silly. Old. Remind you of anyone?
He was on screen for little more than an hour, 15 years ago; a couple of stolen kisses and gone. But the Eighth Doctor didn’t turn out to be the Gallifreyan George Lazenby that Paul McGann supposedly feared he might end up as – a footnote, a dead end. Nature abhors a vacuum, we’re told, and the very lack of a follow-up to that so-so TV movie of 1996 caused the most intriguing Doctor of all to come about.
We might call him the “open source” Doctor, where multiple creators of novels, comic strips and audio dramas – myself included – have granted him a dizzying number of disconnected futures, sometimes wildly disparate in approach. Sometimes accompanied by a comics geek, a lesbian superspy, an Edwardian adventuress, a 1960s wideboy, a living TARDIS, Mary Shelley and/or a mouthy bint from Blackpool… Pick any or all of the above.
We know his beginning. We know the middles we choose for him. But chances are he’ll never have the one thing that fandom desperately wants for him: an end. A regeneration scene, McGann’s features blurring into those of Christopher Eccleston. There was a time, I think, when that made me sad. Now I wonder if that’s not the best thing about Doctor Eight – the one “past Doctor” who can go on and on without ever losing his mystique, for whom cliffhangers will always dangle in the present tense.
So let’s never see that regeneration, be it in a Time War or due to a nasty paper cut. Let’s have him journey on and on, into a never quite certain future. An eternal champion; the undying Doctor.
I’m cross with myself. I’ve just tried writing about why Chris Eccleston was a great Doctor, and I’ve come out with all the usual stuff. That in the series revival it was his casting that defined how seriously the BBC were taking it. That he approached the role with such gravity that it guaranteed the show’s survival through at least two more interpretations of the role. All true, of course. But somewhat mealy-mouthed. As if Chris was a stepping stone.
It’s obvious why this happens. Chris is defined by his short tenure. For the viewers that watched Chris’s Doctor there was always that shadow over it, that this was a man we would get to know only to lose. That made him harder to trust. Who wants to give your heart to someone who’ll break it 13 weeks later?
It was different for me. I was lucky. He was my Doctor for a full year, and he worked on my script. I wrote a scene where he met a Dalek, and I’d written it arch and lofty and mocking, the way I remembered the Doctor. When I first saw what Chris did to that scene, all the anger he brought to it, and the fear, and the truth, I was appalled. And then amazed. Because this was an actor who wasn’t going to be held back by any baggage. This fanboy was writing familiar words, but Chris made them feel dangerous. Doctor Who felt dangerous. It could do anything again. And would.
They’re amazing, those 13 weeks. Chris acting not as a placeholder, but as something burning and new, inventing the role from the ground up. It’s not an incarnation cut short, it’s one lived to its fullest extent, and it’s beautiful.
In recent returning drama, it is hard to think of an actor who has so perfectly, brilliantly become the embodiment of the spirit of the writer who penned him. David Tennant is not just the Doctor – he is Russell T Davies’s Doctor. He carries forward the passion, the elan, the sheer breath-taking cheekiness, the impish brio of the man who dug up the TARDIS, dusted her off and set her loose again.
Hard to believe that when we first met him, the Tenth Doctor was mumbling in a council flat bedroom through the first half of “The Christmas Invasion”. Even when he dragged himself upright he was scatty, distant and difficult to like – as both Rose Tyler and we all felt. And then he saw a big fat red button squatting inside a Sycorax spacecraft and he gave what was to become a trademark Tennant-era speech. “My problem is when I see a big red button I just have to press it.” Or something along those lines. Point is – THAT’S the defining speech of Tennant’s Doctor. Naughty, rebellious, child-like but running on cosmic certainty and reverberating with the absolute authority of the Last of the Time Lords. That’s Russell. That’s the Tenth Doctor. They are one and the same.
I fell in love with David’s Doctor at that precise moment. And I trusted him ever since. I believed in him the way I never even believed in the Doctors of my youth. Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker should have occupied that special place in my heart. But in the end it took this 40-year-old father of two completely by surprise that at the moment David thumped that big red button, he thought, “You are my Doctor.”
One of the things I admire most about Matt’s interpretation of the Doctor is his lack of vanity. Every choice he has made, from the costume “inwards”, implies a deliberate decision to shy away from any clichéd idea of a hero. Can you imagine Tennant or Eccleston (glorious though they were) saying, “I wear a fez now”?
But that doesn’t mean to say he isn’t courageous or intimidating. When, in Neil Gaiman’s episode, he advises House to fear him because he killed all the Time Lords… you believe him.
Matt also understands the Britishness of the show. The Doctor at his best is a Victorian character, and given that the stories can take us to anywhere in time and space, oddly it’s in that era that the show feels most at home. Hartnell was a Victorian, and as much as Matt is reminiscent of Number Four’s wild eccentricity, his is the closest Doctor we’ve seen in living memory to Number One’s liberal, bookish,
Given that Matt wasn’t necessarily a passionate viewer of the show when he landed the job, it’s interesting that he had such an instinctive understanding of the role. Perhaps it was an advantage. There were no preconceptions, just a history to be discovered. He didn’t project his own ego onto it, he let the history of the part bleed into him, and it is that willingness to just give himself up to it that makes him my favourite Doctor.
• Article taken from SFX ’s Doctor Who: The Fanzine , now available at half price