Actors come and actors go, but the essence of Doctor Who remains unchanged, ensuring that it will continue to regenerate and enthrall its fans, writes Nick Jury
When I was about four, Doctor Who came to Edinburgh. Actually, it was Tom Baker who came as the most famous alien to have trod the Earth for an autograph session of Doctor Who merchandise at John Menzies in Princes Street. But as far I was concerned, it was Doctor Who – and I was going to meet him. So my mother and I queued for hours and just as I was about to meet the Doctor, my hero, he left the store and left me broken-hearted and inconsolable for weeks. How could the Doctor do that?
Then, about three weeks later, an amazing thing happened. I got a typewritten letter from a BBC press officer who said that she had been asked by Doctor Who to get in touch with me to say how very sorry he was to have heard that he had just missed me, but that he had had to get back to Gallifrey in a hurry. He had added photographs of himself, signed “The Doctor” and of Sarah-Jane Smith, and for my little brother, who he knew liked monsters, there were some pictures of Daleks, Cybermen and Silurians. How could the Doctor know all that about my brother and me?
I still have that letter and pictures somewhere. Of course, I didn’t know then that my father had written to the BBC. All that mattered to me was that the Dcotor had written to me. It wasn’t Tom Baker; it was the Doctor. That letter encapsulates everything that Doctor Who is about. Playing the titular role is a life-changing experience for the actor who gets to take control of the Tardis because they become a household name, immortalised in television history. Everyone has their favourite Doctor.
When the ever-so-serious Christopher Ecclestone, the Doctor with the northern accent, announced he was hanging up his leather jacket after just one series, I was convinced he had done something that even the Daleks could not do: killed off Doctor Who. His departure had, with what – perhaps irrationally – I described to anyone who would listen, been a betrayal of every Whovian that thought the Tardis would be travelling through time and space for many more adventures.
However, had it not been for Ecclestone’s performance in the revamped (I don’t like to use the word “rebooted”) Doctor Who by Russell T Davies, there wouldn’t be a Doctor in the house, let alone the Tardis.
Someone had to be the next regeneration, but who?
David Tennant became the Doctor for a whole new legion of fans. The tenth Doctor was a generally light-hearted, chatty and easy-going Time Lord, but repeatedly demonstrated a vengeful and unforgiving streak as well. This was coupled, however, with an intense sense of loss at the death of friends and enemies, but with a sense of loyalty and wonder to the human race.
Nobody could portray that sense of wonder quite like David Tennant, or do “Technobabble” like him either. Of course, it helped that he was a lifelong fan of Doctor Who.
Then there was Matt Smith. I almost gave up watching Doctor Who because of him. At 26, I thought he was too young and too inexperienced. “I’m 903-years-old and I’m the man who is going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below,” said Tennant. I believed that Doctor could do that. Somehow, I didn’t think Smith had it in him.
I remember watching his early episodes with the annoying ménage-a-trois in time and space with the Doctor, Amy Pond and the irksome Rory. The Tardis might be larger on the inside than the outside, but it isn’t big enough for three in my book. I would sit there wishing for either the Doctor to regenerate or for Rory to get his comeuppance. Neither happened, but then it dawned on me that I watched not because of the actor playing the Doctor but because it was Doctor Who.
As a child, it didn’t matter whether it was Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker or Peter Davison who was the Doctor. As long as it was Doctor Who. Lead actors may come and go, but the Doctor remains. How else could the programme still be going strong after all these years? One might argue the star of the programme is the Tardis – the Doctor’s battered old time machine – after all, without the Tardis there would be no adventures.
It all started in 1963 with William Hartnell, who at the age of 55 would create one of the most enduring and coveted television roles for an actor. The show became a success and Hartnell loved the idea of working for a young audience.
He left Doctor Who at the right time, unaware of the legacy he would create by doing so. The BBC wanted the programme to continue and the idea of regeneration took shape to allow for another actor in the role and for the series to reinvent itself. Patrick Troughton became the second Doctor, who regenerated into Jon Pertwee, who became the Doctor of my generation: Tom Baker. Now we’re on the 12th incarnation with Peter Capaldi. What an amazing idea!
Through it all though, the Doctor has remained the same, a hero – but with flaws. We know that he has killed, but he is not proud of it. Nowadays the Doctor would rather save an enemy, but if that enemy threatens his friends or Earth, then there is no telling what will happen.
Here is a hero who doesn’t need to be an action man to win the day. Wit, brainpower – and not forgetting a sonic screwdriver – is all the Doctor needs to save the universe. A basic theme of good defeating evil has always prevailed in Doctor Who. Each actor who plays the Doctor has a responsibility to the youngest of viewers, those who live and breathe the show. They might know the name of the actors playing the part, but that doesn’t mean the character isn’t real to them. As a boy, the Doctor was part of my life, and remains so in adulthood. The Doctor has always been there.
Capaldi, the third Scotsman to play the Time Lord – the second being Sylvester McCoy – in the programme’s 50-year history brings something new and exciting to the role. Being a fan of Doctor Who, he will know just what is needed to keep the role fresh and introduce a whole new generation of fans to the programme. For those who believe, he will be the Doctor.
Following any actor in the role is difficult. Peter Davison was a worthy successor to Tom Baker, who was a hard act to follow. Matt Smith probably experienced that feeling when he became the Doctor replacing the popular David Tennant.
There was resistance to Smith’s portrayal to begin with because Tennant was so popular. But hearts and minds were won over and everyone, myself included, realised it was still the Doctor doing what he always did: helping people and for, that brief moment in time, making the world and universe a better place for us all.
Audiences passed judgment on Smith almost from the moment his Tardis spun out of control. It was as if we had made our minds up, unfairly, as he made the role his own.
As Doctor Who has shown over the years, you can write off the actor, but not the character. No matter how brilliant the previous actor was, be it Baker, Tennant or Smith, the ingredients that made the Doctor still existed and each actor had them sown into them. The Doctor goes on.
There will be a tinge of sadness when Matt Smith leaves the Tardis, but there will be happiness as well in the knowledge that the Doctor will always be there watching out for us and inviting us along for a trip in the Tardis.
Who could refuse an offer like that, after all aren’t we, all of us, the Doctor’s companions, and are we not all a little possessed of the spirit and wonder of Doctor Who?