For 16 long years, one of the greatest shows this country has ever produced was cancelled…a fond memory for older fans; who would have to make do with a smattering of ‘Doctor Who lite’ related serials, such as Comic Relief pastiches, Children in Need specials and the failed reboot of the American film. Meanwhile, a whole generation of kids were growing up without ever knowing who the Doctor was, or having chance to see such a dynamic and stalwart hero of the small screen in new adventures.
But the fans never lost hope…clutching to their Doctor Who magazines, new audio adventures and the many rumours that circulated about the show being brought back. Finally, in 2005, they got their wish; thanks to a Doctor Who super-fan producer.
Already rated for his award winning work on dramas such as ‘Queer as Folk,’ Russell T. Davies marshalled the troops in Doctor Who’s new home of B.B.C Cardiff and started working on a new series.
There would be many changes to the show, the Doctor, the run-time, the production values. But the heart of the show would stay the same. The excitement was palpable…and thankfully well justified. The series was in good hands again, and finally, after all those years in the dark…
The mighty Time Lord hero was ready to take on a new era, and please generations both old and new. The Doctor…had…returned!
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) – 2005
The Ninth Doctor Era In Short: Exciting, camp, funny, moving, revitalised.
After the unpopular last years of the ‘classic’ run and the ‘failed’ relaunch with the T.V Movie, the Modern era managed to finally bring the show back with a bang. Christopher’s Eccleston’s Doctor lost the Edwardian gentleman look and opted for an edgier, darker, more ‘modern’ portrayal of the character. In just one season, he managed (with help from show-runner Russel T. Davis) to revitalise the show and to make the Doctor relevant to a whole new generation.
The show felt fresh and new, whilst retaining a lot of the charm of the classic era. Yes, the production values shot up (you could tell that this was a show that the BBC believed in and took seriously again), but at it’s heart this was the same show; the same combination of warmth, eccentricity and originality which had made the ‘original’ show so enticing to family audiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The Ninth Doctor is a hardened war veteran, having lived through an off-screen ‘Time War’ between his people (the Time Lords) and the Daleks since the last time we saw him. He is alone again, until he runs into his first new companion Rose Tyler; a streetwise girl from a modern British council estate. In a similar way to former companion Ace, Rose represents the most modern and ‘human’ companion; in contrast to the Doctor’s alien ‘otherness’ and difference.
The Ninth Doctor’s adventures by today’s standards can seem a little small-scale and underdeveloped when compared to the larger scales and breadth of the later show. But they have a great deal of charm, humour, wit and emotion to really warrant a lot more attention than they get. In just one season and one year, Eccleston and Davies manage to thrust the show back into the public consciousness again; to make it relevant, dramatic and utterly watchable. After so many years in the dark, the show was truly back.
Recommended stories to begin with:
* Rose (The first episode to introduce the new show and its characters)
* Father’s Day (Rose discovers the pitfalls of travelling in time in this tragic and heartbreaking story – the first to make me well-up since 1989’s ‘Curse of Fenric’)
* The Empty Child (future show-runner Steven Moffat’s first story for the show is utterly spellbinding)
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) – 2005-2010
The Tenth Doctor Era In Short: Romantic, filmic, iconic, grand-scale
For many, the Tenth Doctor era is when the ‘Modern’ show really took off and came into it’s own. David Tennant, already a respected actor for his appearances in dramas such as ‘Casanova’ and ‘Blackpool’ was a great choice for taking the next step in bringing the show to a wider audience. The show’s popularity really soared in Tennant’s 5 year stint on the show, and viewers grew from being regarded as a ‘cult’ audience to a much more ‘mainstream’ one, thanks to his wonderfully varied and rounded portrayal of Ten’s ‘lonely romantic immortal hero for a modern age.’ Tennant was dashing, handsome and multi-layered and appealed to a much more diverse demographic. This gave rise to the ‘fan-girl’ phenomenon; a particularly patronising term given to the show’s attracting of younger female fans, as opposed to the ‘middle-aged geek’ and ‘young, awkward boys’ cliche Doctor Who fan of old.
Tennant’s era begins with a romantic connection between the Doctor and his companion Rose. This romantic theme continues with his next companion, Martha, who falls in love with the Doctor but who’s affections are unseen by the Doctor who grieves for his past companion. This is then flipped when the ‘no-nonsense’ Donna comes in during series 4, before the Doctor once again becomes a lonely traveller in a series of ‘Specials’ to round off his adventures.
With a few notable exceptions, the writing is excellent during the 10th Doctor’s tenure, and this era of the show is essential viewing for anyone interested in the show as a whole.
Recommended stories to begin with:
* Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (Not a dry eye in the house for this emotionally charged series 2 finale)
* Human Nature/Family of Blood (The Doctor takes on human form in an attempt to shake off an alien threat, forgets who he is and has the chance to lead a normal life and fall in love, only to have to give it all up)
* Blink (Perfect, stand-alone ‘rainy day’ story)
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) – 2010-2013
The Eleventh Doctor Era In Short: Fairy-tale, complicated, fantastical, story arcs
As is often the case, when the show changed hands to a new executive producer the feel changed dramatically. Gone was the dashing, romantic hero of the 10th Doctor, replaced by the mercurial and fantastical 11th. Matt Smith, the youngest actor to play the role (replacing the former holder of that title Peter Davison, who was 3 years older, at 29 when he first took on the part) brought a new energy and different layers to the character. In his first season, this took on almost a ‘fairy-tale’ approach; weaving tales of wonder for his new companions Amy and Rory. The ‘will they, won’t they’ romance became a ‘love triangle’ as Amy agonised between her love for her to-be husband Rory and her exciting new would-be lover the Doctor. For his part however, Smith showcased more of an ‘alien’ portrayal; becoming uncomfortable with the affections of his companion and not quite understanding the emotions they had. In this way, the show returned to more of the ‘shared’ approach of the Fifth Doctor and his companions; as they were all the same age (at least in appearance) and the Doctor sometimes had to refer to his more ‘human,’ emotionally experienced allies.
As the show progressed throughout the 6th and 7th series; head-writer Moffat’s intelligent and complex approach to storytelling started to swamp the show. The series ‘arcs’ became more and more complicated and far-reaching and the stories became more epic, with the audience often left scratching their heads. At it’s best, the 11th Doctor’s era continued to push the boundaries of the show; to create memorable enemies and wonderfully intricate plots. At it’s worst, the show fell into a ‘mid-80’s’ style inaccessible exclusiveness, where only the most committed of fans had any clue what was going on or why.
The 11th Doctor’s era is definitely worth checking out, and is really impressive in the scope and diversity of stories it brings to the programme.
Recommended stories to begin with:
* The Eleventh Hour (A charming tale to begin the 11th Doctor’s era; starting the special connection between him and his new companion Amy)
* Vincent and the Doctor (The show proves once again that it can elevate past the sum of its parts and approach serious issues in this incredibly poignant examination of the mental illness of an historical figure – Vincent Van Gogh)
* The Day of the Doctor (This 50th Anniversary special is a love letter to ‘Doctor Who;’ featuring so many special elements in an epic feature-length celebration. It’s also a damn good story in its own right)
– The 50th Anniversary, The ‘War’ Doctor and a change of the rules.
For the 50th anniversary year, Steven Moffat decided to ‘change the rules’ of the show somewhat. In the 50th celebration episode ‘The Day of the Doctor’ we discover that there is a ‘hidden’ incarnation of the character, the ‘War Doctor.’ Played by the late great John Hurt, this Doctor shed the name because of the difficult and uncharacteristic choices he had to make during the ‘Time War’ between the Time Lords and Daleks (as first mentioned in the 9th Doctor’s season). Once regenerated into the 9th Doctor, this ‘War Doctor’ became a part of the Doctor’s history that he hid and hoped nobody would find out about.
In the Christmas finale for the 11th Doctor however, we find out that he isn’t the ’11th’ at all, but rather the 13th (still with me?), because of the hidden ‘War Doctor’ and an aborted (but still counted) regeneration by Doctor number 10. Although sending fans into a tailspin ever since about how to ‘number’ the Doctor (things like this really matter to long-term fans of the show!) it essentially gave the writers a chance to press the ‘reset’ button for the next 50 years, starting the Doctor on his next cycle of incarnations (conveniently gifted to him by the Time Lords at the end of the episode).
This Doctor is often overlooked as a result, which is a real shame because in the very short space of time Hurt got to play the role, he really makes it his own, and it’s tragic that we won’t get to see him acting the role in any further stories.
The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) – 2013-2017
The Twelfth Doctor Era In Short: Changeable, evolving, divisive, emotional
By 2013, Doctor Who had written itself into somewhat of a ‘corner.’ We’d had the dashing young heroes, increasingly complex and long-winded story arcs and an ever further-reaching approach to what the show could attempt.
So for the next Doctor, the show decided to change things around and risk a very different approach. The Doctor would return to being ‘old,’ ‘grumpy,’ ‘alien’ and ‘mysterious’ again. They had tried this approach with Colin Baker some 30 years previously, but their intention to evolve the character from disagreeable and flawed to warm and fatherly had stalled before it really got chance to get off the ground. The show decided to try this approach again with the 12th Doctor in what would become a decidedly changeable 3 seasons. In his first season, the Doctor is irascible, angry and almost dis-likeable; slowly being schooled in how to act around other people and how to grow in his compassion for others by his companion Clara. In the second season, he has some sort of ‘mid-life’ crisis; taking on rock guitar and ‘sonic shades’ in an attempt to find himself and who his new persona is. And then, in his third and final season (where I believe he really comes into his own), the series completely flips; returning to a more serialised ‘classic’ approach, as the ‘nicer’ version of Twelve takes on monsters and villains with his new friend Bill.
The Twelfth Doctor’s era is one of the most divisive and evolving of the modern show. A lot of fans found it difficult to warm to the older and more ‘difficult’ portrayal of the Doctor in his first season. This was a real shame, as Capaldi brought a renewed gravitas and timelessness to the role that hadn’t been seen to the same degree since the early days of the show. In some ways his full potential is wasted through many less-than-brilliant stories, and it’s not until the last series that he really gets to spread his wings and show what an incredible Doctor he is.
Recommended stories to begin with:
* Flatline (The programme shows that it still has the ability to push the boundaries of the media its working in, through this fascinating tale of ‘dimensions’ attacking each other. It uses our perception of the 2 dimensions of the television format in such an inventive and impressive way, and is definitely worth watching)
* Heaven Sent (Capaldi shows what a truly unique acting talent he is in this solo vehicle for the Doctor, who is trapped by the Time Lords in a world of their own creation)
* World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (Possibly my favourite finale of the modern era (so far), this epic tale combines the original Cybermen and two versions of the Master in this captivating epic)
Doctor Who has once again been front page news recently, as the new actor to play the Doctor is to be an actress for the first time. Jodie Whittaker is a well respected actor from series such as ‘Broadchurch’ and ‘Black Mirror,’ and will no doubt take the show down new and exciting avenues with the new showrunner Chis Chibnall.
It’s exciting to see where the show will go next!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my introduction to all of the Doctors so far, 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 the first 53 years of this iconic show, and thank you for reading!