There are some things that you bring with you from childhood, some things that you just never grow out of. Tantrums, laughing at farts and pulling stupid faces, to name but a few. But for me, and for many of us Brits, there is also Doctor Who. The 50th Anniversary of this very British sci-fi show is fast approaching (okay, it’s still two years away, but when you’re nearly 50 that isn’t very long). With such a lengthy life there are very few these days who didn’t grow up with this unusual, time-travelling alien forming part of their childhood, and for many their adulthood, too.
For those of you who have no idea who or what I’m talking about, allow me to illuminate. The Doctor, as he calls himself, is a member of an old and significantly advanced race known as the Time Lords. Disgruntled and bored with the Time Lords’ policy of observation and non-interference in the affairs of the universe, The Doctor ‘borrows’ a TARDIS (a vessel for travelling through time and space) and roams the cosmos righting wrongs, fighting evil and generally poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. The TARDIS is bigger on the inside, almost infinite, and is supposed to be able to change appearance to match its surroundings. However, The Doctor’s TARDIS is stuck in the shape of an old police phone box (something that was a common sight on the London streets when the series first aired in 1963). You with me so far? Excellent.
When I was a kid, back in the seventies and beyond, Saturday nights were all about the next episode of Doctor Who, of that glorious half-hour spent cowering behind a cushion as the renegade Time Lord faced down Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons, Zygons and, of course, the iconic Daleks. Those must have been more innocent times because my son now finds it incredible that entire generations of children could have found moving pepper-pots with wobbly protuberances scary. But hey, we also though the Atari was the coolest piece of technology known to science. Trust me, when you’re that naive there’s nothing scarier than a wobbly protuberance. Stop sniggering at the back. Anyway, now I’m an adult (probably) and I must confess that, while I no longer find the Daleks scary, Saturday nights are still defined by the next episode of the show. I don’t know why it has endured the way it has. That is the secret formula that TV producers have always been searching for (and if I knew that I’d be watching Doctor Who while cowering behind a huge pile of cash). However, I can tell you what I love about it.
Doctor Who was always a masterclass of writing over production. Perhaps not so much these days, since it has returned with a much increased budget, but back in the day the show consistently overcame its meagre means with razor-sharp scripting, great performances and an abundance of creativity. So what if the sets were often flimsy and some of the monsters looked like they were created for a local school pantomime. It didn’t matter because with the boundless conviction of Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee at the centre of events, delivering superlative dialogue, you believed it completely. Yes, even the Daleks and their wobbly protuberances.
Doctor Who is just a little bit offbeat and there is something quintessentially English about it. The central character is eccentric, well-spoken and, with his peculiar taste in clothes and often quirky features, far removed from the conventional image of a hero. Time Lords have the handy ability to cheat death by regenerating their bodies, resulting in a change of appearance and, to a degree, personality. There are certain traits that always remain the same, however. The Doctor is extremely intelligent, slightly unhinged, scientifically gifted and passionately opposed to violence. He abhors weapons, refusing to pick up a gun and preferring instead to use his brain as his most effective attack. It is an amazing feat that so much action and adventure has been consistently created around a character who is essentially a pacifist.
Anti-authoritarian and rigidly individualistic, here is a champion for misfits everywhere. The Doctor is a rebel with a brain, bringing down tyrannical governments and seemingly invulnerable despots for fun. He is always the smartest man in the room (and the first to point that out) and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be in that position whenever possible?
Perhaps it is these qualities that have made Doctor Who so popular for so long. He is certainly the kind of role model you would want your kids growing up with and I’m forever grateful to have grown up with him myself.
Splendid chap. All of them.
Of the eleven incarnations of The Doctor so far, here are my top five. Are you a fan of the show? If so, who are your top five Doctors?
5) Patrick Troughton – The 2nd Doctor
1966 – 1969
Scatterbrained, fretful, mercurial and manipulative. When William Hartnell, the 1st Doctor, quit the role the notion of regeneration was introduced into the character to keep the popular show going. Enter Patrick Troughton who, while retaining the character’s core identity, delivered a very different personality. The 2nd Doctor was the classic hidden genius, an inter-galactic Columbo masking his great intelligence beneath the facade of a bumbling fool. It became a defining trait for The Doctor, adopted by many of the subsequent actors.
Trademarks: Playing the recorder, the woolly coat, ‘Oh, my giddy aunt’.
4) Sylvester McCoy – The 7th Doctor
1987 – 1996
Enigmatic, dark, brooding and something of a clown. Sylvester McCoy brought an air of mystery back to the character, with his story arc often hinting at untold secrets in The Doctor’s past. You could say he put ‘who’ back into Doctor Who, while contrasting the gloom with sudden outbursts of circus trickery. McCoy got a raw deal when the show was cancelled in 1989, only to make a brief appearance when it returned for a one-off movie in 1996, and he was regenerated into Paul McGann. A shame because there were still depths to mine.
Trademarks: Question marks everywhere, rolling R’s, juggling and magic tricks.
3) Jon Pertwee – The 3rd Doctor
1970 – 1974
Suave, avuncular, petulant, haughty and dependable. The show’s first Doctor to be seen in colour was the one that you would probably choose to travel with. You would always feel safe with Jon Pertwee, who delivered the character at his most heroic and dynamic. Swordplay and Venusian Aikido ranked among the many skills in this Doctor’s repertoire and no other incarnation was quite this dashing. Pertwee was the Time Lord as a perfect gentleman, impeccably attired and mannered but with a razor-sharp tongue for those who earned his ire.
Trademarks: The cloak, frilly shirts, various gadgets and his car, Bessie.
2) Matt Smith – The 11th Doctor
2010 – Present
Gangly, energetic, childish, bewildered but confident. The current Doctor has brought the character back to his outlandish best. At 26, Smith is the youngest actor to take on the role but has all the natural personality quirks to portray the Time Lord the way he should be. After years of David Tennant’s often overplayed and forced eccentricities, Smith makes it all look so easy and is the most assured and funniest Doctor to come along for years. Some actors are just a natural fit for the character, getting it right from episode one. So it is with Matt Smith.
Trademarks: Bow ties (are cool), Jammie Dodgers and a Fez.
1) Tom Baker – The 4th Doctor
“First things first, but not necessarily in that order.”
Slightly insane, irritable, stubborn, unpredictable and hilarious. For almost everyone of my generation Tom Baker is the quintessential Doctor. His unhinged, effortless and often improvised portrayal of the Time Lord was helped in no small part by the fact that Baker is just as eccentric in reality, perhaps even more so. Baker set the standard by which all other incarnations are measured, with ‘not as good as Tom Baker’ an overused judgement of subsequent actors. Who else has ever disarmed their enemies by offering them Jelly Babies?
Trademarks: Long scarf, Jelly Babies, K-9 and that toothy grin.