I’ve been a huge fan of the show ‘Doctor Who’ for as long as I can remember. The quirky British family sci-fi show has become an international institution, and nearly 54 years since it first materialised onto our screens, it’s the longest running programme of it’s type, with 13 actors so far to play ‘The Doctor.’
Of course, with all this history, approaching the show as a new or casual viewer can feel a little overwhelming. Where is best to begin? Which are the best episodes?
So I thought I would offer my own ‘beginners’ guide’ to each ‘era’ of the show and episode recommendations for where you might like to begin to get to know each Doctor. Even if you are familiar with the show, I thought this might also spur you on to discover more.
First off, a few essential parts of the show:
The main premise: An eccentric alien called ‘The Doctor’ travels through time and space, righting wrongs and battling monsters.
The Timelords: A race of super-powerful aliens; who can travel throughout time and space. The Doctor is a ‘renegade’ Timelord.
The Doctor: A ‘Timelord’ alien, who grew frustrated with his people’s reluctance to help others when travelling in time. He stole a ‘TARDIS’ and went off on adventures through time and space.
The TARDIS: Standing for ‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space;’ the TARDIS is a time machine that can go anywhere in time and space. It has a ‘chameleon circuit,’ which changes it’s appearance to ‘blend in’ with it’s surroundings and make it less conspicuous. Unfortunately, the Doctor’s TARDIS is broken, and stays looking like a 1950’s Police Box! It is much bigger on the inside than the outside.
The Companions: The Doctor meets lots of people on his travels, and many of them decide to come along on his adventures with him. They are usually from Earth, and are mostly there to help ask the questions we, the audience want to know as we’re watching the show. At their best, the companions also help the story to move along or act as counterpoints to the Doctor.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell) – 1963-1966
The First Doctor Era In Short: Charming, Ambitious, Family feel.
The First Doctor is often referred to as ‘the grumpy one,’ as he’s much more confrontational and angry at first than the other incarnations. The character of the Doctor changes so much in it’s first characterisation however (probably the most in any Doctor’s run), and Hartnell’s Doctor can be funny, eccentric, proud, giddy, aggressive, lovable and paternal, sometimes in the same story. Hartnell brought such diversity and so many dimensions to the character, that are still being explored and expanded upon by actors who take on the role today.
When we first meet the Doctor, he is travelling incognito with his Granddaughter Susan, and they have ended up on Earth; hiding the TARDIS in a junkyard. His Granddaughter Susan is trying to fit in with human life at a local school, but her teachers start to suspect there is something ‘Unearthly’ and strange about her; and follow her home to the junkyard, where they run into the Doctor. As they stumble into the TARDIS, the Doctor panics that they will tell everyone about his futuristic technology and that human history will be disrupted. So he ‘kidnaps’ them and takes them with him!
Over time they become the first TARDIS team, and on their many adventures together, the Doctor learns to love the human race and to soften in his approach to outsiders.
The Hartnell era is often overlooked, which is a real shame. Although some of the stories are a little long-winded and dry, there are other stories which are incredibly imaginative (especially for their time and their incredibly limited budget!) and other stories that are heartwarming and a lot of fun.
The original brief of the show was to educate as well as entertain children. The two teachers that the Doctor kidnaps, Ian and Barbara are science and history teachers respectively, and the original idea of the show was to have alternating ‘history’ (back in time) based stories and ‘science’ (forward in time) based stories, which the early show does admirably; with great zeal and vision.
This era is probably the most ‘family friendly’ era of the show, and the TARDIS team represent different parts of the family watching at home. From a rough start, they all grow to love and accept each other through all their adventures and challenges. I find this era the most ‘charming’ of the show’s history, and it’s my ‘go to’ when I’m not feeling 100%.
The stories can be ‘hit and miss,’ with some of the more historical stories being slow in pace (apart from exceptions like ‘The Aztecs’ and ‘The Romans’), but you have to remember that these stories were meant to be watched in 25 minute segments each week when they were broadcast and the budget was next to non-existent. This era will appeal to fans of 1950’s/1960’s B-Movies, classic children’s stories (the First Doctor is a mixture of Merlin and The Wizard of Oz at this stage) and more, and is definitely worth giving a chance!
Recommended stories to begin with:
- An Unearthly Child (part 1 is iconic science fiction – don’t bother with the other parts!)
- The Rescue/The Romans (two stories, but they follow on nicely from each other)
- The Aztecs
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) – 1966-1969
The Second Doctor Era In Short: ‘B-Movie,’ wacky, monsters, base-under-siege.
When William Hartnell had to leave the show due to poor health, the show faced a crisis; how could it carry on without it’s main character?
The way they found to achieve this change was through the revolutionary idea of ‘renewing’ (later called ‘regenerating’) the character from one ‘form’ to another; effectively allowing the show to continue indefinitely. This was a brave and controversial move, and could well have faltered had it not been for the brilliance of character actor Patrick Troughton. He managed to take the character and progress it in new areas; whilst maintaining the essential elements that Hartnell had laid down – the eccentric ‘wizard’ from space who takes on monsters with his intellect.
As the writers realised the huge success of futuristic stories featuring aliens like ‘The Daleks’ and the Cybermen (both introduced in the First Doctor era), the Second Doctor’s era dialled down the ‘historicals’ and replaced them with more of the ‘B-Movie’ staples like the ‘base-under-siege’ approach. Many of the Second Doctor’s stories feature teams of people in a base being invaded by a ‘monster,’ and the Doctor using his brains to save them.
The Second Doctor does this with a very different approach to the First. Whilst the First Doctor would command a room as soon as he walked into it just by using his natural authority; the Second Doctor hid his genius beneath a ‘cosmic hobo’ facade; convincing everyone around him that he was a bumbling idiot, whilst secretly manipulating events from the sidelines. It’s an approach and characterisation that would be utilised by other Doctors; particularly numbers 7 and 11 and makes for an interesting twist on the character.
The Second Doctor era like the First is charming and family orientated. It is also funny, lighthearted and thoroughly entertaining. The perfect ‘rainy day’ television.
Recommended stories to begin with:
- Tomb of the Cybermen
- The Mind Robber
- The Web of Fear
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) – 1970-1974
The Third Doctor Era In Short: Action-packed, adult, military, James Bond.
The series burst into colour and a new decade with a much more ‘adult,’ action-orientated show. Gone is the fairy-tale style of the Second Doctor; replaced by a kung-fu kicking, velvet adorned dandy action-hero for the ’70’s James Bond fan.
After the Second Doctor is captured by the Timelords, they punish his intervention in time and space by forcing him to regenerate and stay under ‘planet arrest’ on Earth (they’re a harsh bunch!). This makes for a decidedly disgruntled Doctor; who is forced to help out Earth’s alien counter-force (UNIT – United Intelligence Task Force) as a reluctant ‘scientific adviser’ until he can find a way to continue his adventures on his own terms.
Jon returned the character to more of an irascible and less forgiving portrayal, whilst retaining the joy of discovery and passion for pacifism (often at odds with the military minds of the team around him) of his predecessor. The monsters were back, with ever scarier effects and stories; but it’s his fractious relationship with ally The Brigadier and his battles with nemesis the Master that were to really characterise the Third Doctor’s tenure.
There are often parallels made of this era with Sherlock Holmes, and you can see the similarities between the Brigadier (a man of action but less practical thought) and Mr. Watson, or The Master (a thoroughly evil ‘mirror image’ of the Doctor) and Moriarty.
Expect gadgets galore, wah-wah synths and the contrasting mixture of ultra-serious acting with gaudy effects and ’70’s colour scheme in this era.
Recommended stories to begin with:
- Terror of the Autons
- The Daemons
- The Three Doctors
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) – 1974-1981
The Fourth Doctor Era In Short: Irreverent, iconic, inimitable. Shades of horror and dark humour.
Although 3 other excellent actors had played the Doctor, for many the quintessential Doctor has to be Tom Baker. He has himself said that playing the part was just like playing a version of himself, and this is perhaps too simple a modesty; yet it’s true that Tom’s larger than life character embodies much of what makes his Doctor so arresting on screen and makes his era of the show so enjoyable. From the beginning of his first episode, Baker infuses his Doctor with a seemingly effortless combination of gravitas, humour and alien ‘otherness’ to keep you glued to the screen, and for many this is where ‘classic’ Doctor Who really comes into it’s own.
He is to date the longest running of the actors to play the Doctor; all the way from 1974 through to the next decade. And obviously over such a long time, the feel of the show was bound to change and develop. In his first season, the Doctor travels with one of his best teams; Sarah-Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan, through spaceships, giant robots and marauding Cybermen. From there it takes on a more of a ‘horror’ influenced tint, throigh the work of series runner Philip Hinchcliffe; referencing Frankenstein, Dracula and other classics and weaving them into exciting new space-aged fables. He then moves onto a super-cute unspoken romance with companion Romana(II) as they flirt around the cosmos. And then in the final throes of his impressive catalogue, Tom’s stories showcase high scientific concepts and surrealist nightmares.
But knitting all the change together is Tom’s wonderfully sardonic, irreverent and anti-authoritarian Doctor; poking holes in the established elite or the over-comfortable space-bureaucrat. In this way, Tom made the show popular with the student fraternity as well as the family audience; bringing a Monty Python sensibility – a gentle yet shrewd attack on the cruel or powerful that he ran into across the galaxy. He could turn on a dime from pure comedy one minute to commanding the situation the next. He also had a strange diction and way of phasing the script that made him seem otherworldly and different; that kept you guessing.
Of course, as with any Doctor, there were times where he wasn’t at his best, and particularly towards the end you could feel his brilliant light starting to fade (or at least his enthusiasm). But for anyone even remotely interested in the show, the best of the Baker era is essential viewing!
Recommended stories to begin with:
- The Ark in Space
- Genesis of the Daleks
- The City of Death
I hope you’ve enjoyed my introduction to the first 4 Doctors, and I hope it inspires you either to give them a first chance, or to revisit some of your favourite stories.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, favourite stories or moments from this first ‘vintage’ era of Doctor Who, and thank you for reading.