Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rise and fall and rise again of Britain’s venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.
Doctor Who 101
An icon of modern British culture and the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, Doctor Who has never been more popular than it is today, thanks to producer Russell T. Davies, whose revitalization of the series returns this month under the aegis of new producer Steven Moffatt. Matt Smith, taking over the title role from David Tennant, will become the 11th actor to officially play the time-traveling wanderer.
The original series ran for 26 seasons, each consisting of several feature-length serials broken into half-hour episodes with cliffhanger endings. No matter who’s playing the lead, the basic premise has been essentially the same since the show’s debut: A mysterious, eccentric alien known only as The Doctor (not “Doctor Who,” in spite of the title) travels through time and space having adventures and fighting evil. He’s usually accompanied by one or two humans picked up along the way. They journey with him in a time machine called a TARDIS, which looks like a blue phone booth. If grievously wounded (especially by that fatal condition “actor-quits-itis”), he can regenerate his entire body, gaining a new face, a new personality, and a new name at the top of the cast list in the credits. This has also given the show an easy way to make more sweeping stylistic changes to evolve with changing times, and a way to correct elements after they go stale or otherwise become unworkable. In fact, it’s become expected that a regeneration of The Doctor will also regenerate the whole show. (Fans generally know each Doctor by the order in which they were introduced, so William Hartnell, who originated the role, is the First Doctor, and newcomer Matt Smith is the Eleventh.)
Doctor Who always strained against its budgetary limitations. It’s often been plagued with cheap sets and unconvincing rubber monsters. Rock quarries were used as inexpensive stand-ins for alien landscapes so often that producers indulged in the meta-joke of having the Doctor land his ship in a real rock quarry at least twice. On the positive side, Who’s writers were able to take advantage of a format that allowed the show to literally go anywhere in the universe and sometimes outside it, with virtually limitless storytelling possibilities. When shepherded by creative teams that had a handle on the material, Doctor Who relied on solid, imaginative scripts to create smart science-fiction thrillers with a humanistic, anti-authoritarian heart. Consistently popular through the 1960s and 1970s, the show began to falter in the following decade as tight budgets and questionable artistic choices took their toll. When it was finally allowed to die in 1989, the show had become gratingly ham-fisted and nonsensical. It lived on through the ’90s, as science-fiction shows often do, in the wilderness genres of semi-official novels and radio plays, including a botched attempt to launch an American version in 1996. In 2005, the show sprang back to life with Davies at the helm.
Special mention should also go to Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer’s evocative title theme, a groundbreaking masterpiece of early electronic music created in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. Paired with eerie-looking visuals created with in-camera feedback loops, the song formed a title sequence that set up just the right atmosphere of otherworldly mystery, and looked like nothing else on the air at the time:
Though originally envisioned as a way to lure kids into watching something educational by alternating stories set during real historical events with more escapist stories, Doctor Who found huge audiences when it amped up the action-adventure instead of the lesson plans; the evil, robot-like Daleks in particular became an instant sensation, creating a wave of interest in the show that it happily rode for its first few years. Gradually, the historical stories were phased out in favor of monster-of-the-week thrillers obviously inspired by earlier horror-laced science fiction like Quatermass, The Thing, and Day Of The Triffids.
The style and tone evolved considerably over the years, responding not only to cast changes and moral-minded critics’ complaints about violence, but the tumultuous cultural shifts of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—and often just to keep viewers from getting bored. In spite of that, the peripatetic sense of adventure remained a constant, along with three further essential elements: The Doctor himself; his timeship, the TARDIS; and the humans he befriends and journeys with, a group officially known in the show’s parlance as “Companions.” Let’s expand on those a little further before jumping into the show’s long history.
The Doctor: A centuries-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey in the far future, The Doctor was introduced as a fugitive on the run from his stuffy, calcified civilization in a stolen time machine, a far cry from the freewheeling, manic, nearly omnipotent super-geek portrayed by Tennant in recent years. As portrayed by William Hartnell, an aging actor previously best known for playing hard-nosed drill sergeants, he was a frail, cantankerous old man living in a junkyard with his strangely brilliant, spacey granddaughter Susan. (No further details about his family have ever been revealed, and it was years before his home planet was seen; the man who can travel to the future apparently has no need for a past.)
His real name, if he has one, has never been revealed—“Doctor Who” comes from a misunderstanding in the first episode, when one of Susan’s teachers calls him “Mr. Foreman,” assuming it’s his name because the junkyard bears a sign saying one I.M. Foreman owns it. “Eh? Dr. Who?” is the grumpy reply. The earliest episodes play up The Doctor’s potential untrustworthiness, and the character has gone through many personas as different actors have taken the role, from swashbuckling dandy to avuncular hobo to arrogant pompous ass with incredibly poor dress sense. But a common set of characteristics emerged that define all incarnations of the character: He’s a restlessly curious wanderer, a believer in science and rationalism, and a pacifist who’s nevertheless always ready to fight the bad guys. Over time, the series also played up his innate Time Lord powers, particularly his telepathic ability. He’s also always a weirdo, though usually a charismatic one—it’s fairly obvious, in spite of whatever originally motivated his exile, that he keeps traveling because he fits in nowhere.
The TARDIS: Just as James T. Kirk belongs on the Enterprise and Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street, The Doctor isn’t The Doctor without his home away from home. As a portal to more exciting places disguised as an ordinary object, the TARDIS bears a clear resemblance to Alice’s looking glass into Wonderland or C.S. Lewis’ magic wardrobe into Narnia, and it’s the show’s strongest reminder of its roots as a children’s program. The slightly awkward name is an acronym, standing for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.” That isn’t as inspiring or resonant a moniker as Enterprise or Serenity or Galactica, but in the height of the space age when the show debuted, a clunky, jargony acronym was the best way to sound futuristic. A highly advanced piece of Time Lord technology, the TARDIS can not only move through time and space, but change its external shape to disguise itself, and through some strange twisting of physics, it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. But was also broken-down and obsolete when The Doctor stole it, and it gets stuck in the first shape we see it in: a battered 1950s-era police box, a wooden blue phone booth used by the British constabulary since the 1800s, but rapidly falling out of use in 1963. This remains an essential part of Doctor Who’s setting, for a couple of reasons. As a symbol, the police box ties neatly into its pilot’s own persona: a little ramshackle and careworn, maybe, but always there to help. It also served a practical filmmaking purpose: Scenes inside the TARDIS could be shot in the comfort of a sound stage, while “landings” required no special effects more expensive than a fader, a groaning mechanical sound effect, and a couple of stagehands to cart around a 10-foot prop. Only two iconic visual elements have remained unchanged for Doctor Who’s entire 46-year history: the police-box shape of the TARDIS and the pepperpot design of the Daleks.
The companions: Originally, The Doctor wasn’t really the hero—the perspective characters were Barbara and Ian (played by Jacqueline Hill and William Russell), the two schoolteachers he kidnapped to keep them from revealing his true identity. In the show’s initial iteration as entertainment with an educational edge, Barbara and Ian’s knowledge would help them get out of sticky situations while teaching young viewers about science and history, with The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan standing in for the audience. As cast members left and were replaced, the companions evolved as assistants to The Doctor himself, their general purpose in the stories being to get into trouble, thus advancing the plot, and to give The Doctor someone to talk to, so he can explain what’s going on for the audience’s benefit. The 2005 revival strengthened the role of companions even further, foregrounding their presences as the easily relatable everypeople through whose eyes we could see The Doctor’s universe.
With perhaps one significant exception, the distinct phases of Doctor Who are tied into the regenerations from one Doctor to the next, so we’ll briefly summarize them here:
The First Doctor: William Hartnell, 1963-66
Although creators Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert firmly established many of the ground rules Doctor Who still plays by in the opening serial, “An Unearthly Child” (also known as “100,000 B.C.”) looking back, it’s clear that the show they thought they were making was different from what the show apparently wanted to be. Newman and Lambert worked with Who’s educational mandate firmly in mind, and with this official BBC edict: “no bug-eyed monsters” or “tin robots” allowed. The plan instead was to alternate between episodes set in the future and ones chronicling real historical events such as Marco Polo’s visit to China or the 18th-century Reign Of Terror in France. Anything set in the future had to be grounded in realism. That well-intentioned attempt to hold their noses at what they considered to be science fiction’s inherent silliness was quickly… well, there’s no other word: exterminated.
Due to scheduling and production problems with other planned stories, Lambert wound up with only one workable script she could film in time for broadcast as the second serial: “The Daleks.” The writer, Terry Nation, had a storyline loosely reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, about a planet that had survived a devastating nuclear war hundreds of years previously, with two opposing cultures emerging from the wreckage. The peaceful, tribal hunter-gatherer Thals lived in the jungle. Locked away in their fortified city was the enemy, once humanoid but mutated into pathetic horrors that could only survive inside their mobile metal shells, which served both as iron lung and battle tank: the Daleks. Nation drew his inspiration for the Daleks’ crazed, monomaniacal xenophobia from Nazi Germany, in 1963 not so long ago defeated and still a resonant horror for the British. Filled with hatred and terror of anyone that wasn’t them, the Daleks were driven to annihilate or conquer all other cultures, making them a fascist combination of bug-eyed monster and tin robot. Exactly what Doctor Who wasn’t supposed to do. So of course they were just what the show needed.
In spite of grumblings from the BBC brass, the Daleks turned out to be a crucial turning point for Doctor Who. They caught the public imagination in a big way. Overnight, Doctor Who became a huge hit, and essential weekly teatime viewing. Heralded by their signature war cry of “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!”, the Daleks returned to face off against The Doctor again and again, inevitably joined by new monsters like the Quarks as the producers tried to catch the lightning a second time, which they never really did. The history episodes hung on for several years, but their days were numbered.
Hartnell’s Doctor went through some growing pains as well. In “An Unearthly Child,” the character became devious and mean, even contemplating murdering an injured enemy by bashing in his head with a rock. That characterization softened into a more grandfatherly figure, still tetchy but protective of his younger friends. When Ford, Hill, and Russell all left the show in the second season, he was firmly ensconced as the show’s heroic lead, although his crusty characterization sometimes made the premise seem more like Ebenezer Scrooge: Time Cop.
Even bigger changes came in 1966. Hartnell, succumbing to old age, became too ill to keep up with the role’s demanding physical requirements. Faced with the loss of the show’s central character, without whom they had no series, yet also increasingly unhappy with the limitations of that character, the producers came up with the bold solution of simply declaring that since The Doctor was not human, there was no reason why he couldn’t just become a different person, collapsing on the floor only to get up as a different actor with a completely different take on the role.
Other notable developments: The Monk, the scheming but not necessarily evil antagonist in “The Time Meddler” and “The Dalek Master Plan,” was viewers’ first look at another Time Lord renegade. Hartnell’s final bow, “The Tenth Planet,” brought in The Doctor’s second-greatest foes, the merciless android Cybermen.
The Second Doctor: Patrick Troughton, 1966-69
Often described as a “cosmic hobo,” the Second Doctor was short, mischievous, whimsical, and given to outwitting his foes with sly misdirection, letting them think he was less of a threat than he really was. Where Hartnell was often imperious, Troughton was friendly and clownish, and a much better fit for the burgeoning countercultural sensibility of the mid-1960s. He was also fully committed to travel and adventure purely for the sake of it, and eager to show his companions that the wonders of the universe were worth seeking in spite of any danger, as illustrated in this scene from “Tomb Of The Cybermen” in which he lifts the spirits of Victoria (Deborah Watling), whose father was killed by Daleks in the previous episode:
Subsequent actors tended to alternate somewhat between the Hartnell/Troughton poles in their takes on The Doctor, but Troughton’s influence has generally dominated, in no small part because he’s just more fun. A lighter, livelier energy was immediately apparent, particularly in Troughton’s playful banter with actor Frazer Hines, who played Jamie, an 18th-century Scottish lad easily able to serve as comedic foil or man of action as the story demanded. The other major change ended the purely historical stories; Jamie’s introductory serial “The Highlanders” was the last Who tale that didn’t forefront a strong science-fiction element. Nearly every other Second Doctor story, in fact, cranked up the dial on action, with monstrous alien menaces out for conquest or destruction, with multiple reappearances by the Daleks and Cybermen, and new threats from the reptilian Martian Ice Warriors and the quasi-Lovecraftian, disembodied Great Intelligence, which controlled an army of robotic Yeti.
Other notable developments: The exact circumstances of The Doctor’s theft of the TARDIS and flight from his people has never really been explained. But a brief but momentous half-hour at the end of Troughton’s swan song, “The War Games,” answered some long-simmering mysteries and gave the show an important building point for the future when the fugitive Doctor was finally caught and put on trial. The Time Lords, named here for the first time, were a highly advanced and ceremonial but stagnant civilization resolved against interference in other cultures. The Doctor, finding this morally unacceptable, had broken that law and left. Never mind that this motivation was out of character for the Doctor as he first appeared; Doctor Who has never been all that strict about continuity, and the important thing was that it fit who the character had become, and remains to this day. Found guilty, The Doctor was sentenced to regenerate against his will and to accept exile on Earth, with his knowledge of how to operate the TARDIS telepathically locked off in his brain.
The Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee, 1970-74
The ’70s found Doctor Who more flamboyant and colorful in almost every way, starting with the film stock, which traded up from the black-and-white of earlier seasons. The new Doctor, played by Carry On veteran Jon Pertwee, was urbane and dignified, sometimes to the point of pomposity, favoring ruffled shirts and opera cloaks. Taking a page from James Bond, he also loved gadgets and fancy cars. Most of his tenure was spent on Earth, explained onscreen as the terms of his Time Lord sentence. (It was also a behind-the-scenes decision allowing the producers to save money by building fewer futuristic or alien sets.) The more action-oriented focus of the Troughton era heightened even more: This Doctor was a martial-arts expert, specializing in “Venusian aikido.” The addition of a dedicated stunt team, HAVOC, also opened up the options for fight scenes. To give the character a home base, The Doctor became scientific advisor to UNIT, a United Nations-run military organization designed to protect the Earth from alien threat. He often found his pacifistic philosophy at odds with his nominal boss, the straitlaced Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, most strikingly when the Brig opted to kill off the title villains of “The Silurians”—an act of genocide—because he felt it was the only way to nullify them as a grave threat to humanity’s survival. He may have been right, but The Doctor’s horror at the military solution indicated the show’s anti-authoritarian spirit. In the spirit of the times, stories also increasingly touched on social and political issues like environmentalism and equal rights for women.
Other notable developments: The Doctor was given a nemesis to match his own abilities with the introduction of The Master, a fellow renegade Time Lord played to the hilt by Roger Delgado as a black-clad, goateed villain of the old school driven by a desire to dominate other beings and taking gleeful pleasure in his ongoing battle of wits with his best enemy. The show’s 10th anniversary was marked with a reunion special, “The Three Doctors,” bringing Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee together for the only time. The most popular of all the companions, plucky journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), came on board in Pertwee’s final season; she later starred in two spin-off series, including the current Sarah Jane Adventures. The toadlike, militaristic clone Sontarans made their first appearance in “The Time Warrior.”
The Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker, 1974-81
Before David Tennant’s recent run, Tom Baker’s toothy grin, Harpo Marx hair, and googly eyes formed the face most viewers associated with The Doctor, especially in America, where his shows were the first to be rebroadcast when PBS began importing Doctor Who from the UK. Baker’s seven-year tenure was the longest of any actor in the role, and at its height, the show was more popular than it would be at any point in the original 26-year run. In his later seasons, the first signs of the weak writing and disastrous production choices that would doom the series began to creep in.
A relative unknown who had previously played mad hypnotist-monk Rasputin in Nicholas And Alexandra, Baker was cast after outgoing producer Barry Letts saw his charismatically evil performance as the villainous wizard in the Ray Harryhausen movie The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. Baker represented something of a return to Troughton’s cosmic hobo, presenting a bohemian appearance, including a distinctive multicolored, 20-foot scarf. Baker also played up the character’s essential alienness and eccentricity, often giving the impression that his Doctor was mentally off on some other plane. Still, Baker was charismatic and often funny, and his larger-than-life persona helped sell the onscreen action, sometimes helping a patently ludicrous sequence get across via sheer force of personality.
Along with Baker came new script editor Robert Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who ushered in a more horror-oriented era, bringing the show to its creative peak. Many of the best shows of Baker’s era cheerfully smash together plot elements from earlier science-fiction classics. “The Brain Of Morbius” portmanteaus Frankenstein with Donovan’s Brain, “The Seeds Of Doom” rips off The Thing, and “Robots Of Death” takes ideas from Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie. However, the increasing level of violence brought complaints from conservative watchdog groups that would bedevil the series and ultimately lead the BBC to force a change in direction. Baker’s fourth season added more comedy and kid-friendly elements, like the Doctor’s laser-nosed robot dog, K9, as well as the next year’s season-long hunt for the six segments of the Key To Time.
Writer Douglas Adams, who had worked with Monty Python and was just becoming known for his own science-fiction series The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, took over as script editor in 1979, with mixed success. Though Adams helped create several memorable serials, including the Paris-set “City Of Death,” his focus was split by the rollercoaster success of Hitchhikers, and his emphasis on comedy had the side effect of making the show more difficult to take seriously when it wasn’t trying to be funny. Baker’s increasingly silly performance didn’t help. (Who’s perennially inexpensive effects and set design had always required a healthy suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part, even at the best of times.) An attempt to bring on new writers and new blood also failed disastrously, leaving the next incoming producer with no scripts close to completion.
Which was too bad, because if anyone needed help, it was John Nathan-Turner. Named executive producer of Doctor Who in Baker’s final year, Nathan-Turner steered the ship until it sank in 1989. He inherited a program already becoming shopworn and trite. But while he can’t be solely blamed for the show’s decline and fall, many of the worst aspects of ’80s Who can be traced directly to him. Some of his ideas were simply baffling. Others were clearly driven more by marketing or publicity concerns than any attempt to tell coherent, sophisticated stories. The wardrobe betrayed the first sign of trouble: Instead of having a recognizable style that reflected their personalities, the major characters now were limited to one outfit, as if they were dolls or comic-book characters in costume. In retrospect, Baker got out just in time.
Other notable developments: Dalek creator Terry Nation gave his evil aliens a suitably evil father with the introduction of Davros in “Genesis Of The Daleks.” The psychotically twisted scientist, a decrepit Mengele figure who used the lower half of a Dalek shell as a wheelchair, returned repeatedly, including in the new series’ “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.” The Master returned in “The Deadly Assassin,” which also gave the first extended look at the society of the Time Lords.
The Fifth Doctor: Peter Davison, 1982-84
In a bid to get away from the often-silly whimsiness of the later Baker era, Nathan-Turner made a concentrated effort to crank down The Doctor’s high-wattage personality and bring a stronger element of seriousness into the storylines. Given Baker’s high profile as he exited the series, it became desirable to cast an already-familiar face, and Peter Davison, famous for playing veterinarian Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small, fit that requirement ideally. An Edwardian cricketers’ uniform emphasized The Doctor’s essential Britishness, as well as a more down-to-earth, physical approach. Nathan-Turner also mandated the addition of a celery stick on Davison’s lapel, a costume quirk that apparently had no rationale behind it other than a clumsy attempt to appear whimsical, though writer Eric Saward eventually came up with a half-hearted explanation about celery being the antidote to “certain gases in the praxis spectrum” at Davison’s insistence.
Davison was a more fatherly Doctor than his predecessors, and he and his companions related to each other not merely as friends traveling together, but as a family unit, with all the squabbles and drama that implied. The principal cast changed several times during the Davison years (as was always typical for the show), but the quintessential Davison cast was the one with which he began: Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), an Australian air hostess accidentally shanghaied into the TARDIS and never comfortable on her travels; Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), a quiet, sensitive orphan aristocrat; and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), a precocious young mathematical genius very much like Star Trek’s Wesley Crusher, both in personality and the fan base’s hostile reaction.
The show also took a decidedly darker turn. Nyssa’s parents and later her entire home planet were murdered by the Master, leaving her a refugee with no choice but to travel with the Doctor. Tegan was often horrified by the violence they encountered, and eventually could no longer stand to travel in the TARDIS at all. Two later companions, Turlough and Kamilion, were both sleeper agents for The Doctor’s enemies. Adric’s fate was the most infamous: He died while trying to save the Earth from a crashing starship in the episode “Earthshock,” a genuinely shocking development that would inform the tone of the rest of Davison’s episodes. The grimness was often laid on with a trowel, which probably didn’t help change the downward ratings slide that began in the late Tom Baker era.
Viewership in Britain worsened when Davison left the show after three years, having taken Troughton’s advice to do so to avoid typecasting. (At the same time, American viewership was growing steadily at this point, and for many U.S. fans, Davison was their first and therefore definitive Doctor.) Davison regenerated at the end of the bleakly violent but solid episode “The Caves Of Adrozani,” having sacrificed his life for his companion Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant). He expired with a quiet dignity that also conveniently marked the last time Doctor Who was worth paying any serious attention to until “Rose” in 2005.
The Sixth Doctor: Colin Baker, 1984-86
This was by far the lowest point for Doctor Who, which was now slowly drowning, both in terms of creativity and popularity. Davison’s replacement was Colin Baker, a decent-enough actor who got stuck with the least-appealing personality of any Doctor, and the worst costume in the entire history of television itself:
In his first scene, even before he donned that astonishing eyesore of an outfit, Baker’s Doctor set the tone by undergoing a psychotic break and trying to strangle Peri to death—the same person Davison’s Doctor had just died to save. Even after he came to his senses, he was a tasteless, boorish bully. This was on purpose: Nathan-Turner decided that the Sixth Doctor should be as irritating as possible. The idea had potential: The new Doctor was to begin as an arrogant coward, but slowly rediscover his noblest nature over the course of many episodes. It would have been difficult for even a great writer to pull that off, though, and the creative team just wasn’t up to the task, as witnessed by the dreck of his first episode, “The Twin Dilemma,” notable for a ridiculous-looking slug-like villain later parodied mercilessly by Ricky Gervais in Extras. Nathan-Turner’s penchant for hiring writers with no previous TV experience led to a lot of mediocre scripts, and a desire to keep making the show more “serious” too often meant mistaking ugliness, brutality, and bleakness for realistic depth.
Meanwhile, the show had been unmoored from its traditional Saturday timeslot and moved around the schedule, competing for a time with the soap opera Coronation Street, then by far the most popular show in Britain. BBC head Michael Grade treated the show with overt hostility, eventually forcing an 18-month hiatus. Baker returned with the ambitious but incoherent season-long story arc “The Trial Of A Time Lord,” in which he’s prosecuted for genocide on Gallifrey, only to discover that the trial is actually a plot by his own future self to steal his remaining regenerations. Peri was written out with a stomach-turning death scene in which her brain was replaced by a slug (which was clumsily retconned without real explanation at the end of the season). Behind the scenes, chaos reigned as the death of writer Robert Holmes (from liver failure, not slug) brought tensions between Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward to a head. Saward quit, the final episodes had to be drastically rewritten, and the viewing public mostly chose to watch something else. Fairly or not, Colin Baker was fired.
The Seventh Doctor: Sylvester McCoy, 1987-89
McCoy’s Doctor was initially portrayed as something of a buffoon, given to malapropisms and comical clumsiness; later, script editor Andrew Cartmel brought in a much more devious side, turning Seven into a formidable opponent usually several steps ahead of his foes, and hinted that he secretly had been involved in the very origins of the Time Lords themselves. But the cancellation of the show meant this concept was never fully developed, though something like it crept in to the new series with Davies’ notion of Tennant’s Doctor as a “lonely god.” McCoy’s relationship with his delinquent teenage companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) also prefigured the 2005-era Who’s focus on giving each companion a strong story arc.
While the McCoy era was an improvement over the previous years, it was too late to stop the inevitable. Ratings never recovered from the nosedive during the Colin Baker era, and although at least the main characters were more appealing, the writing was still competent at best, cringe-worthy and nonsensical at worst. Budgets were smaller than ever; the TARDIS console room set, as important a set as the bridge on Star Trek, was dismantled during the 25th season and never used again.
The Eighth Doctor: Paul McGann, 1996
With the BBC temporarily out of the Doctor Who business in the UK, it tried to restart the show for American TV with a 90-minute movie co-produced with and broadcast on Fox. Titled simply Doctor Who (though known in fan circles as The Enemy Within), it would have been the pilot of a new series if ratings had been strong enough. They weren’t. There was no reason they should have been; Doctor Who had never been more than a cult success in the U.S., and then on public television, not a commercial network.
Pitting Paul McGann’s gently romantic Doctor against a Jean-Claude Van Damme-esque Master played by Eric Roberts, the new Who fared poorly in the transition to what American studios wanted out of a science-fiction show. It also flopped in the attempt to appeal to a new audience while staying true to previously established continuity to keep the old fans happy. It wound up neither fish nor fowl. Old fans may have enjoyed the Seventh Doctor’s cameo, in which he steps out of the TARDIS and is immediately gunned down, but that surely only confused new viewers when an apparently dead protagonist kicked his way out of a morgue freezer as a completely different actor. On the other hand, fans found plenty to complain about in the changes, like the new notion that The Doctor was half-human, or that he would pursue a romantic relationship with a human woman. The former element has been quietly dropped in the 2005 revival; the romance angle, though, is even stronger now and seems here to stay.
Though it could easily have been swept under the rug as a failed experiment, the Eighth Doctor’s lone story is considered officially canonical, as affirmed in the 2005 revival. McGann has never (yet?) returned to the role on television, but has appeared in more than 50 of the semi-official audio plays made by Big Finish.
The Ninth and Tenth Doctors: Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, 2005-2010
During its years of exile, Doctor Who proven it retained at least some cachet by keeping a healthy presence alive in other media, particularly novels and audio plays—much as Star Trek did between the end of its first TV series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. A second chance at a return to TV was probably inevitable, but whether it would stick this time remained unknown. When he was given his shot, Queer As Folk creator and longtime Who fan Russell T. Davies didn’t waste it. He astutely focused on Who’s core elements, succeeding exactly where the Americans failed. First, he cleared the decks of continuity cruft with a devastating “Time War” that erased both the Daleks and Time Lords from existence. This ruthlessly eliminated anything from the old show that wasn’t absolutely necessary to the core concept: One Doctor, one TARDIS, one companion, and (per episode, anyway) one monster. Christopher Eccleston, the new Ninth Doctor, was an unambiguous break from the gaudy, silly Time Lord the public remembered: Wracked by survivor’s guilt, he even dressed in muted tones, with a black leather jacket and close-cropped hair. Just as crucial: this wasn’t fundamentally a dark, grim show. Eccleston brooded, but he also had an impish sense of humor, and shared his joy in traveling the universe with Billie Piper as his new companion, Rose.
When Eccleston left after just one season, David Tennant picked up the reins and took off. His Tenth Doctor was cocky, hyperactive, charming, and just plain fun—the very essence, in his best moments, of who The Doctor should be. Davies’ revival had its weaknesses, but they only became apparently over time. The mawkish melodramatics, the overuse of the deus ex machina ending, the ludicrous need to make each successive season end with a bigger, badder all-encompassing cosmic threat, and the inability to let his favorite characters get off the stage when their stories were over—these were real problems, but they shouldn’t take away from his most impressive accomplishment. He made time go forward again.
1. “An Unearthly Child”/”The Daleks”: Forty-six years after its première, the first Doctor Who serials are still a vital introduction to the series as a whole.
2. “Tomb Of The Cybermen”: Few Second Doctor stories still survive in complete form, thanks to a shortsighted BBC policy of erasing and reusing all old master tapes. It’s lucky that this is one of them. Troughton is in top form, and the Cybermen are at their most chilling here.
3. “The Green Death”: Pollution run amok creates deadly mutant insects, which the Third Doctor traces back to a chemical corporation and its all-powerful computer. A solidly plotted thriller with the environmental and anti-authoritarian themes typical of the Pertwee era, “The Green Death” is also a touching farewell for his sweet, daffy companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning).
4. “The Time Warrior”: The Third Doctor investigates the disappearance of the world’s finest scientists, who are being kidnapped by a warlike alien with primitive time-travel technology who has crashed his ship in 13th-century England. Tightly paced and full of action and memorable characters, this episode introduces fan-favorite companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), a plucky journalist with a timely feminist bent, as well as recurrent villains the Sontarans, a race of toad-like clone warriors. Also, incidentally, the Doctor’s home planet is given a name for the first time: Gallifrey.
5. “Genesis Of The Daleks”: The introduction of the Daleks’ insane creator, Davros, would dominate all future Dalek stories for the rest of the original series’ run. The show contains two of the series’ best monologues—one from the Doctor, agonizing over whether he has the moral right to commit genocide against a race who would themselves commit genocide, and the other from Davros, swept away in maniacal passion over the prospect of destroying all life.
6. “The Brain Of Morbius”: Luridly and gothically grotesque, “Morbius” is a perfect example of the horror-tinged tales that dominated the Fourth Doctor’s first couple of years. The story cooks up a heady stew of cult witchcraft, disembodied brains, and a Frankensteinian mad scientist who’s building the perfect monster, and needs The Doctor’s head.
7. “City Of Death”: Written largely by then-script-editor Douglas Adams under a pseudonym, this Paris-set story pits the Doctor and Romana against an alien who has been influencing human history for thousands of years so he can eventually go back in time and prevent a disastrous starship explosion that killed all his compatriots—and also created life on Earth. It’s full of Adams’ typically whimsical humor, and it includes a cameo from John Cleese. Adams shamelessly re-used it (along with the never-filmed Who script “Shada”) for the plot of his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
8. “Earthshock”: Faced with a new threat from the Cybermen, the Fifth Doctor and his companions, a fractured but close-knit surrogate family, are dealt a heavy blow when young Adric dies in a futile attempt to save Earth. Sometimes the good guys don’t win, even when the bad guys lose.
9. “Rose”: Russell T. Davies pulled a rabbit out of his hat, creating something that hadn’t been seen on TV for 20 years: a Doctor Who that was smart, fun, and actually worth watching.
10-11. “The Girl In The Fireplace”/“Blink”: These two Tenth Doctor outings are sparkling with witty dialogue, inventive plotting, and an enjoyable willingness to experiment with the way time travel and its fracturing of narrative chronology can change the way stories are told. They’re both scripted by Steven Moffatt, who is now the showrunner for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor stories—the surest sign we had, before Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour,” that Doctor Who was in good hands.
Generally, the Doctor Who canon is considered to consist solely of the televised stories, to the extent that any of it’s canonical at all. But the Time Lord has also appeared in many other media, beginning with two forgettable 1960s movies, Dr. Who And The Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., starring Peter Cushing and loosely based on Hartnell adventures. Novelizations of the TV stories eventually led to a burgeoning line of original novels. One of them, Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, found its way back into the TV series as a Tenth Doctor tale. Big Finish Productions has made well over 150 Doctor Who audio plays, many of which feature original actors from the TV series reprising their roles as Doctors, companions, and villains. And the show also spawned several TV spin-offs, notably Russell T. Davies’ Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.