Doctor Who through the Ages


With the latest Doctor Who series having hit our screens last Saturday, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the Doctors of years gone by. Give you a little lowdown.

William Hartnell, 1963-66 

When the first Doctor Who was originally pitched to William Hartnell as a children’s programme, the actor was reluctant to accept. It wasn’t hard to see why – the 55-year old was known for his portrayals of military men with the quintessential stiff upper lip. But with a couple of grandchildren of his own, Hartnell came to love the role. In fact, it was only when his health began to fail that the show’s producers came up with the idea of transforming the Doctor into another man. In episode four of the fourth series, the first Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton’s second. 

Did you know?

Throughout his tenure as the Doctor, Hartnell wore a wig when playing the part.  

Patrick Troughton, 1966-69

Patrick Troughton was an established character actor when he took the role of the Doctor in 1966. After being cast, Troughton deliberated on how to play the part, before it was decided that a ‘cosmic hobo’ in the mould of Charlie Chaplin was the way to go. Despite largely shunning publicity and interviews during his time as the Doctor, Troughton would return to the show three times after originally leaving. The first time was in 1973, then ten years later for the 20th anniversary special, and finally in 1985 alongside the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker.

Did you know? Troughton's decision to leave the show after three years became something of an unwritten law (the “Troughton Rule”) among actors, in order to prevent becoming typecast.  

Jon Pertwee, 1970-74

Unlike Hartnell, Jon Pertwee required no convincing in taking the role as the Doctor. In fact, Pertwee had asked his agent to apply for the role on his behalf and was pleasantly surprised when he made the shortlist. Once he’d secured the part, Pertwee’s Doctor actively moved away from the previous incarnations and was instead portrayed as an active crusader with a penchant for action and fancy clothes. The role also gave Pertwee the chance to indulge in his real-life love of various vehicles, including motorbikes, hovercraft, the ‘Whomobile’ and the Doctor’s vintage roadster, ‘Bessie’.

Did you know? Jon Pertwee was not the first-choice Doctor of producer Peter Bryant. That honour went to Ron Moody, the actor best known for his turn as Fagin in the 1968 film, ‘Oliver!’.  

Tom Baker, 1974-81

When Jon Pertwee left the role, the producers favoured a return to an older Doctor akin to Hartnell. In the event, the part was given to 40-year old Tom Baker, who went on to become arguably the most remembered and revered Doctor of the lot. Baker gave the character a more eccentric personality that was at times compassionate and caring, but at others aloof. This was a deliberate move to remind viewers that the Doctor was an alien and wouldn’t always demonstrate human characteristics. It was also during the Baker era that the series temporarily became darker, before newly appointed producers were instructed to lighten the mood once again.

Did you know? Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams, was appointed as a script editor on the show in 1979.  

Peter Davison, 1981-84 The late Richard Griffiths had originally been in line to play the fifth Doctor, but when he proved unavailable, the part was given to the younger Peter Davison. This was a deliberate move in order to avoid unfavourable comparisons between Davison and the hugely popular Tom Baker. In the event, Davison would play the Doctor for only three years, before departing in 1984. In that time, the Doctor was played with a greater sense of vulnerability and was reactive rather than proactive. He was also portrayed as more aristocratic when compared to Baker’s bohemian depiction.

Did you know? During the Davison era, the show moved from its Saturday slot and was instead aired twice-weekly on weekdays.  

Colin Baker, 1984-86

The Colin Baker era proved a tricky one for the Doctor. Baker’s portrayal of the sixth incarnation was far more bombastic than previous depictions, while his use of deadly force against his enemies also met with criticism. There was plenty going on behind the scenes as well, from a change in episode length to slot movements back and forth. In the end, Baker was released from his three-year contract at the behest of the BBC 1’s Controller, Michael Grade, who had never been a fan of Baker or the programme. Baker had completed the equivalent of just a season and a half’s worth of work.

Did you know? The Doctor’s woes during the Colin Baker era were compounded by the success of ‘The A-Team’, which ITV aired during the Doctor’s Saturday slot.  

Sylvester McCoy, 1987-89, 1996

For the Doctor’s seventh incarnation, the BBC turned to the little-known Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy. McCoy had been a comedy actor and initially played the role with a good degree of humour, before developing the character into a much darker figure. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, things were coming to a close and by the time the 26th series concluded in 1989, the BBC had decided it would be the last ever, with McCoy closing the final episode with a rather sad monologue. Yet within seven years the show was back, along with McCoy, who promptly handed the character over to Paul McGann.

Did you know?

McCoy had a small role in the 1979 film ‘Dracula’opposite Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. Far more recently, he played the wizard Radagast in ‘The Hobbit’ films.  

Paul McGann, 1996

Paul McGann assumed the role of the Doctor for 1996’s television film. This was a joint venture between the BBC, Universal Studios and Fox, and although the viewing figures in the UK were decent, they were very poor in the US. As such, no American network took up rights to the series and the franchise was canned until 2005 when Christopher Eccleston became Doctor number nine.

Did you know? Although McGann played the Doctor only once, he gave permission for his likeness to be used on the covers of the BBC’s novels. He also reprised the role in an extensive series of audio plays.  

Christopher Eccleston, 2005

After Paul McGann’s brief stint came another one in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor. In a move away from the traditional approach, the new series comprised of 13 45-minute programmes that were mainly standalone or two-part episodes. Eccleston had previously made a name for himself in films, appearing in the likes of ‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘The Others’ and ‘28 Days Later’. So it was perhaps unsurprising that he chose to quit his role as the Doctor after just one year for fear of being typecast. Did you know? Eccleston was voted ‘Most Popular Actor’ at the 2005 National Television Awards for his portrayal of the Doctor.  

David Tennant, 2005-10

David Tennant took on the role in 2005 and in doing so fulfilled a childhood dream, commenting in a radio interview, “Who wouldn’t want to be the Doctor? I’ve even got my own TARDIS!” In 2006, Tennant’s Doctor was voted ‘Best Doctor’ by readers of ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, while a year later he was voted ‘coolest character on UK television’ in a Radio Times survey. In terms of how the Doctor was portrayed, Tennant went for a light-hearted, talkative, easy-going, witty and cheeky manner, but repeatedly demonstrated a vengeful and unforgiving streak.

Did you know?

Prior to his TV role as the Doctor, Tennant recorded a number of audio plays for the series, including one in which he played a Nazi lieutenant at Colditz Castle.  

Matt Smith, 2010-present

At 26, Matt Smith was the youngest actor to be awarded the role of the Doctor. No mean feat, given the producers had intended to plump for a middle-aged actor. He joined the show in 2010, and has subsequently played the part in a brash, lively and eccentric fashion. What’s more, as the producers noted, Smith has been able to be young and old at the same time, boffin and action hero, cheeky schoolboy and wise old man. The result has been hugely positive, with fans and critics alike almost universally acclaiming the actor’s performance. Smith is scheduled to portray the character past the show's 50th anniversary and until at least 2014.

Did you know?

Matt Smith had wanted to be a professional footballer, having played for the youth teams of Northampton Town, Nottingham Forest and Leicester City.