Written by: Chris Hallam. Originally published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2017…
Fifty-three years. Thirty-five series. 827 episodes. Twelve Doctors. Doctor Who is a phenomenon without equal in TV or science fiction. Yet with series 10 and a new Doctor the way following news of the planned departure of Peter Capaldi at Christmas, is it still possible to put the show into some sort of perspective or is it doomed like the TARDIS to forever escape our comprehension? Join Chris Hallam as he explores…
The 7 Ages of Doctor Who…
Doctor Who is like nothing else on Earth.
In the UK, it remains the eighth longest series of all time rubbing shoulders with the likes of Coronation Street, The Sky At Night and Blue Peter. It is one of only a dozen or so programmes still showing to be old enough to have once been in black and white.
But in the realm of science fiction it is truly a world beater. Nothing else comes close to it in terms of longevity. Not Stargate, not Red Dwarf, not even Star Trek. Even if you collect all the different Star Trek series together and add them up (already an unfair comparison really) then Doctor Who still wins, in terms of both episodes and the span of time it’s been on. So if you think watching The OA on Netflix was a bit of a long haul recently, this should hopefully put things into perspective. It’s as if The OA was still on in 2069.
Science fiction isn’t really supposed to be like this, of course. Although in theory it should be more timeless than other genres, somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. It’s hard to imagine Blake’s 7 lasting into the 21st century, for example or Lost In Space even lasting into the Eighties. Most science fiction reflects its own times very strongly. Doctor Who owes its survival to a formula which ensures it can survive an ever-changing cast, its success in reviving itself after a sixteen-year hiatus and its evolution over the decades.
The history of the series so far can be divided into seven distinct phases…
THE FIRST AGE: GENESIS: 1963-1970
Star Trek had Gene Roddenberry. Star Wars had George Lucas. Harry Potter, JK Rowling. But there is no equivalent figure for the creation of Doctor Who.
The series emerged partly from a desire to fill the gap in BBC schedules on Saturday evenings, bridging the void between the end of Grandstand and the start of the then popular Juke Box Jury. But there was much more to it than that. it also formed the culmination of a collective effort to provide an ambitious new science fiction programme for the channel, following in the footsteps of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series in the 1950s and other experimental shows like A For Andromeda (1961). The new series would be more ambitious and longer running than either.
A group effort it may have been but certain individuals certainly deserve credit for Doctor Who notably the Head of TV Drama, Sydney Newman described by author James Chapman as “the most important single figure in the history of the history of the golden age of television in Britain”. Another was producer, Verity Lambert who was keen to ensure that Doctor Who would be more than just a kids’ show from the start. It was Lambert who chose William Hartnell, the star of the first Carry On film Carry On Sergeant and a familiar figure from TV sitcom The Army Game as the Doctor. The first episode was broadcast, coincidentally, on the day after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
To a modern viewer, only the title, the basic theme tune, the TARDIS and the presence of a character named “the Doctor” would link the first episode to the current series in any way.
Four basic factors partly explain why Doctor Who has endured for so long. For one thing, the original creators were ingenious enough to make the basic premise sufficiently vague to allow future writers plenty of leigh-way to develop it further. The Doctor himself, for example was initially described as:
“A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him the name because they don’t know who he is…he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a ‘machine’ which enables them to travel through time, through space and through matter.”
A second key factor was the creation of the Daleks. Their immense popularity from their first appearance in 1964 ensured the series a place in the national psyche. The Doctor’s battles with the Daleks also enabled his character and the series to develop in unforeseen ways.
Another essential element was the introduction of the Doctor’s ever-changing companions – several, at first, but generally only one at a time from the 1970s onwards – which kept the format fresh.
But crucially it was the Doctor’s ability to occasionally renew himself (the term “regeneration” was not used initially) which enabled the series to survive Hartnell’s decision to retire on health grounds in 1966. “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” Hartnell’s Doctor uttered shortly before collapsing onto the floor of the TARDIS and beginning a dramatic transformation. Sadly, as with many other episodes from the period, the actual episode has been wiped by the BBC. Thankfully, this crucial sequence has survived.
The younger Patrick Troughton brought humour to the role and was clearly a very different figure from his predecessor. Indeed, Newman characterised The Second Doctor as a “cosmic hobo”. The Troughton era would be characterised by a more diverse range of monsters (including the Cybermen, Yeti and Warriors). But it was the idea of regeneration – initially conceived as a stop gap measure to deal with a series crisis – which ensured that the show could still survive when an overworked Troughton himself gave way to Jon Pertwee in 1970.
THE SECOND AGE: THE GOLDEN ERA 1970-1980
The 1970s was ultimately to prove to be the heyday of Doctor Who. The year 1970 itself indeed saw many crucial changes.
First, there was the new Doctor himself. Although traditionally associated with comedic roles up until that point (he had starred in radio’s The Navy Lark and came very close to being cast as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army), Jon Pertwee took a decision early on to play the Doctor straight, distinguishing himself from Patrick Troughton’s more comedic approach immediately.
There were other changes. Pertwee was to be the first Doctor to have only one companion at a time: Katy Manning followed by Elisabeth Sladen. The series would also be broadcast in colour for the first time.
Finally, and crucially, following the Second Doctor’s trial by the Time Lords, Pertwee’s Doctor spent much of his entire tenure banished to exile on 20th century Earth as punishment for his violation of non-intervention laws. This is often cynically seen as a budgetary measure by the BBC. In fact, budgets rose for the series under Pertwee. Despite concerns that the Earth-bound setting might make the series resemble a 1970s version of Quatermass, the Pertwee Era (1970-74) is generally remembered with affection by fans.
Then came Tom Baker. The most eccentric of the Doctors, Baker’s relative youth and bohemian eternal student appearance raised eyebrows at first. In time, he would become the most enduring, the most popular and the most internationally recognised Doctor Who. His seven-year tenure (1974-81) witnessed a classic era for the series.
It is unusual for a series in its sixteenth year to be at its peak, indeed statistically after 16 years, most TV programmes are not only finished but long forgotten. But despite a growing Mary Whitehouse-led campaign concerning levels of violence within the series, such was the case with Doctor Who in 1979. Ratings were generally as high as nine to eleven million, peaking at 16.1 million for the final episode of City of Death in 1979. Admittedly, this was during a strike which had shut down production at ITV but even so, this remains an all-time high for the series. Critically, the show was doing well too, partly due to the contribution of talented young writers like Douglas Adams. Doctor Who was at a high.
Clearly, the only way was down.
THE THIRD AGE: FALLING SLOWLY 1980-1984
At just thirty, Peter Davison was already a likeable and familiar face to audiences having appeared in All Creatures Great and Small amongst other things and cameoing as the Dish of the Day in the 1982 TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy during his time as the Doctor. He nevertheless had a tough act to follow. The scripts reflect this insecurity; for example, on spying his new reflection the Doctor muses: “well, I suppose I’ll get used to in time.”
It is sad then, that the Davison era is associated with the beginning of a steep ratings decline which ultimately ended in the shows cancellation in 1989. This probably wasn’t Davison’s fault. Viewing figures had actually began to fall during Tom Baker’s last year, perhaps in response to radical changes introduced by flamboyant new producer John Nathan-Turner after 1980. These included a new heavily synthesized version of the familiar theme tune, new stylised costumes for the Doctors and updated filming techniques.
Fans generally welcomed the changes and Nathan-Turner was arguably only combatting an inevitable post-Star Wars decline for the series anyway; both budgets and expectations had suddenly risen dramatically. But whatever the truth: ratings did fall. Davison’s first series averaged only 5.8 million viewers with one episode dropping to 3.7 million: an all-time low for any Doctor Who episode up until that point.
Although in general Davison (now father-in-law to the Tenth Doctor David Tennant) is remembered fondly.
THE FOURTH AGE: DECLINE AND FALL 1984-1989
Who killed Doctor Who?
On the face of it, Michael (now Lord) Grade, the former head of BBC programming has often been happy to play the role of the biggest bogeyman in this story.
“The show was ghastly. It was pathetic,” he has said. “It just got more and more violent…it was just horrible to watch. It lost its way… I cancelled it. It was absolutely the right decision at the time.”
Grade indeed is right to take responsibility for the ultimate decision to pull the plug. But even ignoring his animus, there were other factors too. Ratings were now typically as low as four or five million and the show was becoming overly self-referential, appealing to its hardcore of fans but alienating everyone else. Attempts to attract publicity through unusual casting decisions such as Richard Briers and Alexei Sayle did not always help.
History has not been kind to the Sixth Doctor and in truth Colin Baker was dealt a rotten hand during his stint between 1984 and 1986 with most of this time spent in a period of enforced 18-month hiatus imposed by Grade. Baker’s spell as the Doctor ended acrimoniously, with the effect that the now traditional regeneration sequence had to be filmed without him.
Always vulnerable to the charge of being “just a children’s programme,” some scepticism met news of the appointment of Sylvester McCoy, an actor then primarily known for roles on kids’ TV (such as the Horrible Histories forerunner Eureka!) to succeed Colin Baker. In truth, McCoy soon warmed to the role helped (after a brief unhappy pairing with scream queen Bonnie Langford) by an especially able companion Ace (real name Dorothy) played by Sophie Aldred who had “been written with a greater sensitivity and subtlety than had usually been afforded by the role of companion” according to James Chapman in his book Inside The Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who. As Aldred’s confidence grew, Chapman argues, her initially tomboyish character was allowed to grow and develop in ways previously unseen in a Doctor’s companion.
But it was not enough. Chapman also argues that by the end, the BBC had lost interest in the show to the extent that they deliberately scheduled in slots where it was “doomed to fail” making its cancellation in 1989 inevitable.
Ultimately, the real question should not be who killed Doctor Who but why it endured for an impressive 26 years in the first place.
And even after that, it never really went away.
THE FIFTH AGE: LIMBO (1989-2005)
Years passed. Speculation about whether the series might yet return continued throughout the Nineties. The series’ cult following never went away and was reflected in the continuing fanzines and by sales of Doctor Who novels and magazines. But it was 1996 before a new Doctor Who came along and when it did it came in the form of what turned out to be a one-off TV movie.
By many usual criteria, the movie entitled simply “Doctor Who” was a success. Around nine million UK viewers watched it, certainly enough to suggest there was an audience for the new Doctor. Much of the critical feedback was positive. Certainly, most seemed happy with the choice of the new Doctor: Paul McGann best known for his role in the cult comedy Withnail and I (1987) and the BBC First World War drama The Monocled Mutineer (1986). The result of an audition process which had apparently included everyone from Mark McGann (Paul’s brother, one of an acting dynasty), Tony Slattery, Michael Crawford and John Sessions, McGann’s Doctor was styled as “a Romantic hero in the mould of Percy Bysshe Shelley” by writer James Chapman and was described as “the best” and “the sexiest Doctor ever” by others.
Probably the main failing of the TV movie, however, was with US audiences. Despite a US setting and the casting of American actors like Eric (brother of Julia) Roberts, the TV movie underperformed in the US and this ultimately ensured it would not continue as a series. Some have attributed this to poor scheduling choices – the film was put up against the final episode of long-running US sitcom, Roseanne. But in fact, it was more likely to have been let down by a simple fact; Doctor Who had never been on network TV in the US and so most American viewers were unfamiliar with the character, series and the concept.
It would take another later version of the show to slowly establish a foothold amongst US audiences. And it would need to establish itself in the UK first.
THE SIXTH AGE: THE RETURN (2005-2010).
Apparently, it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time. Well, maybe that’s true but the 21st century revival of Doctor Who certainly came damned close. By delivering a new Doctor Who imbued the all the production values the show deserved, the comeback pleased core fans, critics and newcomers alike.
Partly this was down to excellent casting. Although he only chose to play the Doctor for one series, Christopher Eccleston was one of the best known actors to have ever played the Doctor with a career encompassing memorable roles in TV dramas like Our Friends In The North and Russell T. Davies’s Second Coming to films like Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave to Gone in Sixty Seconds. He was ably assisted by ex-pop star Billie Piper in the role Rose Tyler, one of the most popular companions ever.
Although much less well known on his appointment, David Tennant, star of Russell T. Davies’s Casanova, soon blossomed in the role of the Doctor, his performance developing from a rather uneven one in his early days in the TARDIS. By the time he left the series in 2010, he was rivalling Tom Baker for the position of most popular Doctor Who ever.
For to visit the Doctor Who of a decade ago is to see the show at an all-time high. Ratings for the 2007 Christmas special for example were almost higher than they had ever been, over 13 million. The show had furthermore spawned two successful spin-offs the more grown-up Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Things had never been better.
THE SEVENTH AGE: INTO THE FUTURE (2010-?)
The last decade as seen a slight decline in the series’ fortunes. Since the departure of Russell T. Davies as show runner in 2010, ratings have fallen. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures have ended but have been replaced by a new spin-off series Class. Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have both been well-received as the Doctor but there has been a growing sense that Doctor Who has gradually less compulsive viewing in the last few years.
Veteran actor Peter Capaldi has indicated that the forthcoming Series 10 of Doctor Who will be his last. But what does Series 10 have to offer? And what does Capaldi’s departure potentially mean for the show?
Ultimately, the future of Doctor Who is as yet unwritten. We do not even know much about Series 10. Yes, a few old favourites will return: Matt Lucas will reprise his recent role as Nardole. After a long build-up Pearl Mackie will finally take up her role as companion Bill to Capaldi’s Doctor. The likes of David Suchet and Ralf Little are also expected to appear.
Who then will be the new Doctor? Speculation has already been rampant although ultimately the decision as to replace Steven Moffat who his leaving his position as show runner after this series with Chris Chibnall might be as crucial.
For ultimately it is how Doctor Who responds to such changes, how successfully it renews and refreshes itself which will determine Doctor Who’s future. It is these qualities which have ensured its survival in the past half century and will maintain it in the future either as a cult or a show with a committed mass audience.
DOCTOR AT LARGE: BIG SCREEN TIMELORDS
One thing that might have made the idea of William Hartnell turning into Patrick Troughton a bit easier to swallow was the fact that many viewers had already seen the Doctor by someone other than Hartnell already. Veteran actor and future Rogue One star Peter Cushing had played the Doctor twice in the films Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) both directed by Gordon Flemyng (father of the actor Jason Flemyng). Unsurprisingly, neither of these films is quite the same as the series. Despite his horror background, Cushing is a more good-natured Doctor than Hartnell in films which seem very specifically aimed at children. Roy Castle and future 21st century series star Bernard CribbIns provide comic relief respectively while the titles for both films suggest an attempt to capitalise on the early Daleks craze. Neither are bad films but after the second (probably superior) film did less box office than the first, no more films were made. Today, the two present an interesting curiosity as well as the earliest example of Doctor Who in colour.
ALL CHANGE PLEASE!: THE REGENERATION GAME
What brought on the Doctors’ big change each time?
- FIRST DOCTOR (The Tenth Planet, 1966): Old and worn out, Hartnell’s Doc collapses on the floor of the TARDIS. A few minutes later, Patrick Troughton gets up again. Clever eh?
- SECOND DOCTOR (The War Games, 1970): As punishment for his interventionist ways, the Time Lords force a “change of appearance” on Troughton’s Doctor as well as exile to Earth.
- THIRD DOCTOR: (Planet of the Spiders, 1974). Poisoned by radiation, this saw the term “regeneration” used for the first time. In Doctor Who, that is.
- FOURTH DOCTOR (Logopolis, 1981): Falls from a radio telescope. We’ve all done it.
- FIFTH DOCTOR (The Caves of Androzani, 1984): Succumbs to poisoning while staring at Nicola Bryant’s cleavage. It’s what he would have wanted…
- SIXTH DOCTOR (Time and the Rani, 1987) Colin Baker’s Doctor regenerates into Sylvester McCoy following a crash landing for the TARDIS. An irked Baker refused to participate, so McCoy was filmed throughout the process using clever special effects and a blond curly wig.
- SEVENTH DOCTOR (The 1996 TV film): In a fridge in a morgue after being shot in LA.
- EIGHTH DOCTOR (The Night of the Doctor, 2013): Paul McGann’s Doctor dies in a spaceship crash regenerating into the War Doctor (the late John Hurt) after drinking a special potion in this mini-episode. The War Doctor then himself regenerates from old age in the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor (also 2013). Do keep up please!
- NINTH DOCTOR (The Parting of the Ways, 2005): Christopher Eccleston perishes after absorbing the time vortex.
- TENTH DOCTOR (THE END OF TIME, 2010): Absorbs a vast amount of radiation thus saving Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins). Tennant wasn’t even born when Cribbins appeared in the Sixties Who movie.
- ELEVENTH DOCTOR (The Time of the Doctor, 2013): Receives a new lease of life after receiving a regeneration cycle from the Time Lords before regenerating into Peter Capaldi.