Chances are that either you know who Doctor Who is or you don’t care. Aside from commenting that Doctor Who is a British science fiction television show that has been broadcast, off and on, since 1963, I don’t feel the need to offer a long description and explanation of the show.
The first time I saw Doctor Who on television was New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure of the year, but it was some time around 1980. My parents were out for the evening, I was home alone and bored, so I turned on the television to see what was showing. I joined an episode called “The Pirate Planet” in progress. That episode was a good introduction to Doctor Who, although it took me a while to figure out what was happening, particularly since I was assembling a jigsaw puzzle while watching the show.
A few weeks later my parents and I found the show again and made a habit of watching. Channel 11 showed Doctor Who on Sunday nights. They took the original four-part shows and edited them together into a single movie without interruption. The episodes were broadcast in Chicago several years after they were originally shown on BBC. Like many other Americans, I was familiar with the fourth doctor before I understood that three other actors had played the Doctor before Tom Baker.
The Doctor traveled in a Tardis (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) which could take him to the past, present, or future of any planet. Sometimes he planned his trips; more often he was drawn off course or trusted to random traveling. Most of the time, he saved a planet or the entire universe from certain destruction. The Doctor was a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but most Time Lords did not interfere with the course of history on other worlds. In this the Doctor was different.
He had recurring enemies, of course: the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master (another Time Lord), among others. He had companions for most of his adventures, sometimes from Earth and sometimes from other planets—sometimes even another Time Lord from Gallifrey. The scenes and costumes and special effects were not the point of the show. Writers presented interesting situations, and the actors conveyed the story to the audience. Occasionally the Doctor was injured in a way from which even he could not recover. At such times, he would regenerate, moving the same abilities and memories into a new body with a new face (which allowed different actors to portray the Doctor over the years).
Tom Baker played the Doctor in more episodes than any other actor. Moreover, he is the first actor portraying the Doctor that many of us experienced. Of the first seven actors who played the Doctor, he is perhaps remembered with the greatest fondness. All things must come to an end, though, and by the end of the 1980s, Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC.
Doctor Who, like the American show Star Trek, had too many fans to die a peaceful death. Episodes continued to be rebroadcast and were sold on VHS and then on DVD. Whovians gathered in conventions. Some wrote novels based on the characters in the show. One movie-length episode was created and broadcast with an eighth actor playing the Doctor. Only in the 21st century, though, did the BBC begin creating new episodes of its most famous science fiction show.
Over seven years three more actors portrayed the Doctor. New companions were introduced, new enemies were invented, and some of the old villains returned. Modern technology allowed for spectacular special effects. Scripts were designed to carry story arcs across an entire season, with resolution of the larger story sometimes not even happening at the end of a season.
For a while I watched the New Who, but it never had for me the charm of the earlier version. Some of the stories, especially those involving the companions of the Doctor, carried too much emotional drama and too little adventure to suit my tastes. The use of special effects often seemed to obscure the actors and scripts instead of helping them. Some of the adventures were memorable—“Blink” is one of my favorites—but many were not memorable. I gave up the habit of watching before David Tennant’s time was through, and I never got to know Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.
All that changed with the fiftieth anniversary episode. While it managed to keep everything that was good of the New Who episodes, it also restored the magic of the original show. Based on my delight in the anniversary episode, I began back-tracking to learn about Clara, and I waited eagerly for the Peter Capaldi era to begin. When the eighth season began, I quickly found it a mixed bag. Peter Capaldi firmly convinced me that he is the Doctor—more about that in a moment—and Clara remains one of my favorite companions from all fifty years. Yet many of the scripts left much to be desired. Even as I wait for season nine of the New Who to be broadcast, I remain faithful in my preference for the earlier Doctor Who.
Of the actors who have played the Doctor, I have my favorites, as is the case for most Whovians. Tied for fourth, in my opinion, are David Tennant of the New Who and Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. A solid third place is Peter Capaldi, the most recent Doctor. My second favorite Doctor is John Hurt, who played the War Doctor in the fiftieth anniversary special. Top honors go, of course, to Tom Baker, who will always be the first to come to my mind whenever I think of Doctor Who.