As some of my longer term readers may know, I taught myself to read at a very early age, partially through stubbornness, partially through loneliness, and partially because I wanted to know what Tintin and Asterisk were saying and no-one would tell me. It was a long journey until I could read properly, and even then I pronounced some words incorrectly (such as “saliva”), but by the time I started school I was better than most of the kids in my class would be for four or five years. By the time I was six or seven I’d grown tired of the giant comic books at the local library and was looking for more interesting things to take me out of my life and into a world of adventure. I hadn’t quite discovered the fantasy game books that proved to be my greatest escape back then, and the adult section was full of boring looking tomes by authors who sounded boring like Agatha Christie (yeah, I know now) so I went through the teen section looking for something that could capture my young imagination. It was at this point in my life that I discovered a new book to the library by Terrence Dicks – An Unearthly Child.
The book thrilled me with it’s concept. Originally set in 1950’s London, two teachers were concerned about one of their young students. Susan was a bright girl who excelled in her classes but seemed to be distracted easily and have some odd thoughts. The book makes a mention of her talking about metric money in a country that still had an imperial system of money and how her teachers, Ian and Barbara, were worried about her welfare due to things like that. At one point they follow her home to the junkyard where she seems to live and find she’s disappeared. They hear her voice coming from an old police box that stands in the junkyard and enter to find her, getting the surprise of their lives as they find that the police box is bigger on the inside than on the outside and contains a computer control room. It’s there that the pair run into Susan’s grandfather, who simply calls himself the Doctor, and who is outraged that they’ve burst uninvited into his home. Worried that the pair will give his secret away, the Doctor activates a control on the console and the police box disappears, whisking all four into the past. By this point in the story I was hooked and took out all the books I could find of that series and learning all I could about this strange man with his time machine and his adventures through time and space. It was my first encounter with Doctor Who but it would be far from my last. I soon found out that the books were based on a television series which I tuned into religiously when it was on, until it was cancelled in 1989 at least. Even with the show off the air I continued to catch up on the history of the stories via the books, which my library had learned to set aside for me.
The Doctor himself is from a race of time travellers who have dubbed themselves Time Lords and who hail from the planet Gallifrey. While the Time Lords do feature in some of the stories, it’s set up early on that he’s a fugitive from them, having stolen a Tardis (see the relevant section below) and broken several of their laws including the primary one which states that Time Lords should not interfere in the lives of those they observe when travelling in time. As the series continued we began to learn more and more about the Time Lords, including their creation of the first black hole and how they were able to harness its power to help shape their culture. Due to their inability to breed the Time Lords have a genetic stew that they each contribute to throughout their different incarnations (see Regeneration below) and that Time Lords are born from this stew of genetic material and nurtured as test tube babies. We learn much later (in the books after the series has been cancelled in fact) that the Doctor is the reincarnation of one of the founding members of the Time Lords due to this genetic stew and that his despair over how the society had developed caused him to steal a Tardis and escape from them.
Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than… No, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King.
Throughout his adventures the Doctor has regularly taken action when he sees things that go against his strong sense of what is right, and isn’t above changing history here and there to ensure people survive situations they aren’t prepared for. The Doctor is shown to love the human race, seeing in us the gift of potential like no other species and seeking to protect that. No other species in the universe has both the capacity for destruction and creation in the same way as humans and he is fascinated by this duality, showing excitement and even reverence when he meets a famous figure from history and sees them creating something that will last for centuries. It has been hinted that this interest in humans originated when he discovered Jelly Babies for the first time and determined that any species who could create them was obviously worth paying greater attention to, and for several books he was stated to always carry a paper bag of Jelly Babies in his pocket. This love of humanity has caused him to take companions along with him on adventures whenever he comes across them. While this is never really explained in the original series, the recent reboot makes no bones about the fact that the Doctor needs someone there with him to help keep him on the right side, telling him when to stop and providing a line he can’t cross. Without his companions it’s been hinted that the Doctor may well become the worst threat the universe has ever faced.
He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing – the fury of the Time Lord – and then we discovered why. Why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden.
He was being kind…
Oddly for this type of hero, the Doctor is rarely portrayed as getting involved in physical confrontations with his enemies, instead preferring to outsmart them and cause them to defeat themselves through their arrogance. Often he is shown running from his enemies, although this has recently been shown more as a positioning maneuver than cowardice – at one point the spent three months hiding from an enemy until they passed him over and it was revealed at the end of the story, when they found him and he defeated them and ensured they wouldn’t threaten anyone ever again, that he hid to save them from him and not the other way around. Another sign that he’s different from most science fiction heroes is his weapon of choice – a screwdriver. This sonic screwdriver is actually a device that uses soundwaves to operate and reprogram devices, having multiple preset settings that allow the Doctor or a companion that he tells the right setting number to quickly perform almost any task the script calls for. This iconic device has recently made its way into news headlines as scientists have perfected an actual sonic screwdriver that uses sonic energy to turn screws. It’s not able to reprogram an alien mothership just yet, but it can certainly help put some shelves up in a way that makes you feel like you’re safe from the aliens. In fact, the fictional screwdriver has a weakness when it comes to wood so our version does have at least one advantage.
Towards the end of the third season of Doctor Who it became clear that William Hartnell, the first Doctor, was too ill to continue with the role and that the majority of scripts were having to have last second rewrites to allow the Doctor’s companions to take over the bulk of the work. It was decided at this point to recast the Doctor as a younger man, and the end of the season was rewritten to include that as a plot point. At the end of the last story the Doctor collapses and dies of old age combined with the exertion of the events that had just taken place. His face then begins to shine brightly, whiting out the screen and then dulls to show another man (Patrick Troughton) in the place of the Doctor. This is explained as a renewal which happens to ailing Time Lords and is later explained as regeneration, a term that has stuck. This opened the door for the producers of the show to periodically recast the Doctor and keep the show going whenever an actor wanted to leave, and is one of the reasons why Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show on television.
Even if I change, it still feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away… and I’m dead.
Time Lords are originally assigned twelve regenerations, allowing them thirteen incarnations as a result, in an effort to add genetic diversity to the race. However it has been shown that the ruling council of the Time Lords is able to give a fresh batch of regenerations to a Time Lord who has used all of theirs up. When the Doctor regenerates he doesn’t just change his look, his entire being is changed. His tastes, style of clothing changes and even the way he thinks is changed as he is reborn. This is partially so that more genetic diversity can be added to the quite literal gene pool that all Time Lords are born from on their home planet, and partially to protect them from dangers while they’re visiting and documenting the past.
In all there have been eleven official Doctors at the time of writing (played respectively by William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and the latest one being Matt Smith), each one supposedly being a new regeneration. Now it should be mentioned that two of these changes happened off screen (one of them currently unexplained and one being a forced punishment by the Time Lords) so there is a chance that these don’t count towards the total of thirteen incarnations that had been the series final ending point for years now. Another point worth mentioning is that the tenth Doctor decided to skip a regeneration as he liked his current self and, after using the initial energy release to heal, redirected the rest of it away from him. While this kept his actual incarnation the same, it should really count as one of his set regenerations being used up. Using these details, the current eleventh doctor may be anything from the ninth regeneration to the twelfth one. One final point on this is that the Doctor is said to have fought on the side of the Time Lords during the great Time War that took place while the show was off the air. It would make sense that the Time Lords would provide their soldiers with a fresh set of regenerations to make them hardier soldiers, and there may not have been a limit of thirteen given in those circumstances. Realistically speaking we just don’t know how many regenerations the Doctor has left, and that can only be good for the continued longevity of the show.
Time And Relative Dimensions In Space
Or T.A.R.D.I.S. for short. This is the Doctor’s stolen time machine and a constant source of plot developments. While it is referred to as “the Tardis” most of the time, it is actually one of many developed by the Time Lords on Gallifrey, and despite its futuristic technology it was already an older and decommissioned model when the Doctor stole it 500 years before the first episode of the show. The Tardis craft are supposedly grown on Gallifrey from a special type of coral able to withstand the rigors of time travel. It has been shown that the Tardis is alive from time to time, activating features it feels is needed to protect it’s inhabitants of it’s own accord. As Time Lords have a psychic connection to their Tardis’ and are imprinted upon it to get it functioning, and as the Tardis itself seems to imprint upon anyone who travels in it from then on, it’s possible that the same process (especially in a model that was due to be scrapped and has had repairs neglected over the years) has allowed the Tardis to become sentimental towards the Doctor and his companions. Another sign of the Tardis being alive is the way it occasionally shifts things around when repairing itself. Of course this feature is mostly mentioned as a way to incorporate set redesigns into the long running show, but it has become a part of the Tardis mythology, and it’s well documented that the Doctor regularly gets lost when trying to find things in there. One very interesting point the series likes to raise is that the Doctor taught himself to pilot the craft, causing him to be both more familiar with it than most Time Lords and unaware of certain features until they’re made clear to him. One recent episode had the traditional throbbing hum that the Tardis always makes when landing attributed to him leaving the brakes on, a fact the Doctor denied before defensively saying he likes the noise.
Every time the Tardis materialises in a new location, within the first nanosecond of landing it analyses its surroundings, calculates a twelve dimensional data map of everything within a thousand mile radius and determines which outer shell would blend in best with the environment.
And then it disguises itself as a police telephone box from 1963.
As the show started in the 1960s and the producers wanted to show a futuristic craft that would stand up to the test of time, but without spending their entire budget, they came up with the idea of a chameleon circuit. This would allow the craft to blend in with the features of the landscape that it landed in, which is why the craft first shows up as a police box in 1950s London. The idea was that each episode they could have a new external look for the Tardis and it would be something that fit in with the area they landed in, meaning it would be a natural part of the set anyway and not cost more money. However, due to the expense of the original police box prop it was used for the first season to get their money’s worth from it. The in show explanation was that the Tardis’ chameleon circuit wasn’t working for some reason, with the intention being that the Doctor would fix it at some point. It was a good idea but one that they never followed through on, and the blue police box has become one of the defining features of the show as a result, to the point that the BBC own the rights to the design despite the Metropolitan police who designed them and used them for so long protesting in court. The Doctor has at times tried to fix the chameleon circuit but these repairs have always failed (or gone too well in the case where the Tardis thought it actually was the whale it had turned into and swam off into the ocean) and he seems to have given up now. He’s also claimed that he likes the police box design as it’s unique, and I agree with him there as it’s instantly one of the more recognised science fiction icons. As a viewer I’d be sad if the circuit ever got fixed and the ship wasn’t a police box anymore. Having said that, the box does change shape every now and then, changing the style of the doors slightly or the size of the windows. This has been explained as the chameleon circuit working to change the shape of the Tardis but always working to create the same general design.
Oh, that box. You’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big and little at the same time. Brand new and ancient, and the bluest blue ever.
If the external design of the Tardis is one of the defining features of the show, the internal is just as important. To coin a phrase that has been said on the show more than any other, it’s “bigger on the inside” than on the outside. Stepping through the door of this police box makes people enter a control room that could fit four police boxes inside it if it weren’t for the large control panel in the centre of the room. While this control room is the internal part of the Tardis that is shown the most, there are many other rooms and corridors in there, with some of the books describing it as an infinite space within. One plausible idea put forward is that this is linked to how the Tardis works, as the infinite dimension within reaches every time and space at the same moment with the control room and external form shifting position within that dimension to open up into the new time and spatial area that they have been aimed at. In the books and television series it has been explained as the Time Lords mastery of dimensional engineering, fitting a larger space into a smaller one and has been compared to a tesseract cube, but it’s probably more to do with dimensional displacement, where one point (the interior) is connected to another (the exterior) even though the realities are in different universes at the same time with the door as a crossing point between the two.
Any hero can be defined by his adversaries and the Doctor has some of the most recognisable ones in the history of science fiction. Sadly the budgets of the era the series started prevented it standing up against modern day efforts with it’s effects, but the ones it created have stood the test of time and have continually had their mythology expanded on by the show. One of the most recognisable enemies in the series are the Daleks, which are basically pepper pots with a plunger stuck on the front. Here, have a look.
As ridiculous as it sounds to the uninitiated, those were the creatures that had audiences hiding behind their sofas in the 60s and 70s. Their story begins on the planet Skaro where the Kaleds and Thals had been having a long and brutal war that had ravaged the planet. A scientist for the Kaleds created the Dalek war machine as a way to win the way and began illegally genetically engineering the Kaleds into a new form (essentially a green blob) which could be installed in the machine and use it as a new body. In order to survive the process psychologically the new life form had their emotions removed as part of the conversion, leaving them as heartless killing machines. All that remained was their genophobia and, by the time the Doctor had his first encounter with them (but thanks to the miracle plot device of time travel, not their first encounter with him) they were out to destroy anything that wasn’t Dalek, usually after screaming their intention to “Exterminate!” in their screeching, robotic voices.
Those are only one example of course, and there are hundreds to choose from, but when fans think of Doctor Who, the Daleks are never far behind and they’ve become as iconic of the show as the Doctor himself. The cold hearted xenophobia that drives them to destroy everything that is different in any way (even causing a war between two Dalek factions as one mutated further from their original pattern) is as bold a statement against xenophobia as you can find in those days, and still allows for interesting stories featuring them even today. The most loved of the Doctor’s enemies all seem to have been designed the same way as the best comic book villains, with them having some relation to the Doctor in some way (the Master for example is a fellow Time Lord who has more than once proven to be the Doctor’s equal) and standing for things that the Doctor cannot allow in his universe, and it’s this design principle that has allowed the best to still be relevant in todays version of the show.
Each of the returning creatures gets redesigned slightly with each iteration of the show (the Daleks shown above have had details added to the design to make them appear more metallic and so that every piece looks heavier and more threatening) to bring them more up to date although some of the redesigns tend to be a little more dramatic than others. One has to consider the Cybermen, another enemy created in the original series that has tormented the Doctor throughout time, as a prime example of this. As you can see in the image below, their evolution from their first incarnation in the 60s, through the 80s version and into the newer modern day versions has meant some drastic changes to the design.
Most of these are explained by the story of the creatures. In the case of the Cybermen, they began as a humanoid race who started adding cybernetic parts to themselves to help them survive the harsh environment on their home planet. As time went on they bred out individualism and started changing others into one of them against their will, and have been known to protect those they wish to change against other threats that would kill them. Each time the Cybermen were shown in the original version of the show they had some new upgrade added to them, changing the original guy in a ski mask look until they looked more metallic and threatening. This commitment to the established creatures and their evolution over time has kept the show interesting for viewers and always given the Doctor some new menace to overcome even if facing old foes he’s defeated countless times before.
In 1996 an attempt was made to restart the franchise with a film starring Paul McGann. The film was a joint production between the BBC and an American company, but the American backers pushed too much for changes to the format, and the result was a confusing mess that a lot of fans hated or forced themselves to love through some misplaced sense of loyalty mixed with stockholm syndrome. The franchise would stay off television for another nine years, although this movie did reignite interest enough to publish several new novels and radio plays. By this time in my life I was working more hours than existed in a week so I didn’t get to experience this new wave of books but they were the key to the final return of the Doctor. 2005 was the year Doctor Who finally came back to television with an all new format to the show. Russell Davies, a long time Doctor Who fan who had been involved in some of the novels, had been pitching a new science fiction show to the BBC that would follow the style of popular shows in the US at the time, particularly Joss Whedon shows like Buffy and Angel. Each episode would tell it’s own standalone story, with a few double episodes scattered about, and would also contribute to a larger season-long narrative. This approach would allow new viewers to jump right into any episode they stumbled across without feeling they’d missed something important, while at the same time allowing a large unifying story to be told throughout the season that would compel viewers to watch further episodes. The BBC turned down his proposal but were interested in the format he’d described and offered him the opportunity to reboot the Doctor Who franchise. And so it was that 42 years after the Tardis had first been shown on television the ninth Doctor, played this time by Christopher Eccleston, stepped out of the familiar blue box and brought the Doctor to a new generation.
Now, I have an admission. I never really bought Ecclestone as the Doctor. Don’t get me wrong here, he played it well, but he just didn’t look the part for me. His military hairstyle and leather jacket were just a little too imposing as far as I was concerned. However, as we learned more about what had been going on in the universe while the Doctor was off our screens, I began to agree with the choice and style they chose for him. This Doctor had fought in a mysterious Time War (a plot device used to remove much of the chaff the series had gained over the years and start anew without losing out on any of the good parts of the mythology) against the Daleks that had ended when his home planet of Gallifrey burned, killing off the Time Lords and Daleks and leaving him as the very last of his race. It makes sense that a regeneration triggered in the middle of a war like that would have produced a bigger and more imposing looking Time Lord, although sadly the details of the war and how it changed the character were kept pretty much in the dark until Eccleston had left the role, so it was only during his successors reign that the stylistic choices for Eccleston really made sense. Going back now I can understand why he played it the way he did and what sort of character he was aiming for. I also think it’s a shame he didn’t get more time with the role as he had a very interesting take on the character.
Some of the other changes to the format were much more welcome at the time such as Davies plan for tighter single episode stories that had elements that foreshadowed a season closing event (in this case the words “Bad Wolf” kept showing up wherever the Doctor was and were noticed by him a while after viewers had picked up on it), an enhanced role for companions (Billie Piper took the role of Rose in this series and was finally an equal to the Doctor as so many companions before had never quite managed), and the mix of computer generated effects with model shots and costume effects to create a more believable world. Each episode still had the budget of your average thirty second beer commercial, but the quality of the acting and scripts carried the show back into the hearts of the nation, while the new format made it much easier to market overseas. The Doctor was back and better than ever, yet thirteen episodes later he died again as Ecclestone felt he didn’t fit the role and wanted to move on.
David Tennant was chosen as the tenth Doctor, made his debut in a Christmas special at the end of the year, and took the crown successfully from all the previous ones. While people had always had their own favourite Doctor (usually the one they grew up with), the fan favourite had always been Tom Baker’s portrayal of the fourth Doctor, and he had repeatedly been voted as such by the fans. Tennant changed that as he became the first actor in the role to take that accolade from Baker. Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor was still the eccentric little man from the books I’d read as a child, he was still the explorer who loved his adventures all the more when he was getting into trouble, and he was still able to take down armies with his disarming banter and a little twiddle of their controls, but there was something else. This was a Doctor who’d not only seen civilisations burn and planets destroyed but who had been responsible for it (as we found out when further details of the Time Wars were divulged), a Doctor whose loneliness and fear of who he could become if left alone caused him to bring humans along into situations they weren’t suited to, and he was played by an actor who could put all of that emotion into a single look. Tennant’s last words before his regeneration were “I don’t want to go” (the opposite of the actor’s feelings as he was afraid of being typecast) an delivered with such emotion that it touches at your heart strings like no other Doctor’s demise before had.
Of course, every Doctor has to have an ending so that the new man can take the role, and in this case it was Matt Smith who took over. When I first saw Matt in the role I wasn’t sold on him at all. He was a young actor following the guy who had played what was the definitive version of a character, and he needed some time to find his own place in the series. It didn’t help that a lot of the writers were still aiming their scripts at the Tennant version of the Doctor, so a lot of what Matt was doing was overshadowed by what David had done before. The only things that were really different about his portrayal was that he was playing up the alien aspect of the Doctor in a way that hadn’t been seen much in the new series. As a result it turned off a lot of fans.
However, those that persevered found that Moffat (who had taken over the series from Davies) was playing a long and subtle game with his writing and Smith’s Doctor was perfectly suited to that plan. Little throwaway lines and events from the episodes could come back and mean something deeper in the ongoing narrative. Time Travel had become a feature instead of the set-up it had been relegated to. And Smith was dead centre in the plan. He played a much more alien Doctor than many viewers of either version of the show had been used to, but also played him as the old man he really is in a way that the other actors hadn’t attempted. This Doctor was weary of his travels, and had so many secrets behind his eyes.
And so we come to a paradox, which is to be expected in an article about a time traveller, I suppose. That’s almost everything there is to say about my long running love of the show and yet there is so much more to say – how could there not be for a character so old and a mythology so rich? I could spend as long as I already have just on the Cartmel masterplan, or the relationship the Doctor has with the Master (another renegade Time Lord, considered one of his greatest enemies). I could debate for hours which of the non-canonical books should really be made a part of the canon and which episodes should be removed from it (my loathing of The Happiness Patrol is legendary) in an effort to streamline the show. If I did all that this article would never end, and I’ve got to draw the line somewhere but how can one end something like this? Perhaps a line from the show? Something that pretty much sums up the Doctor neatly and acts as a decent ending to this article all at the same time…
He’s like fire and ice and rage.
He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.
He’s ancient and forever.
He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe.
And, he’s wonderful.