On November 23, 1963 at 5:15 pm on a Saturday, the BBC premiered a program that was intended to educate children on some basics of science and history and was expected to last perhaps a year. It became popular with people of all ages, delved into science fiction, history and fantasy, and created a franchise that has lasted for 47 years now.
The hero of this program is the mysterious Doctor, a Time Lord who travels in a “Type 40 TT Capsule”, also called a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a ship that goes anywhere in space and time and seems determined to take the hero to places in the universe where serious trouble is about to occur. Though he’s more interested in adventure than any quest for justice, the Doctor fights evil whenever he stumbles across it. Blessed with the ability to regenerate his entire body twelve times, he has thirteen lives and so far has been portrayed by eleven different actors in his many television adventures.
The original program lasted 26 years, after which there were the “wilderness years” where the Doctor’s adventures were only continued in novels, comics, a few audio plays and even in stage productions. Fox then got the rights did a made-for-TV movie in 1996 introducing the 8th Doctor, but while this did very well in England the numbers in the US weren’t good enough to bring the show back. The wilderness years continued, but now with surging interest, a deluge of new audio plays starring the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors. People realize that the public truly wanted this show to return and in 2005 the new series began, continuing an undetermined amount of time after the events of the TV-movie, introducing a new 9th Doctor who had recently suffered a terrible loss thanks to the Last Great Time War.
The new show is easy enough to get into since the first season and the latest fifth season are both written to be new-viewer-friendly, not requiring major knowledge concerning the Doctor’s past for you to enjoy them. But still, what about you folks who want to get to know the classic Doctors and aren’t sure where to start? Well, just for you, here is a primer on each of the Classic Doctors with some story recommendations for each one.
WHO IS THE DOCTOR?
As revealed in the classic series, the Doctor was raised in the Prydonian Clan of Time Lord society, a clan known for cunning and manipulation. As a boy, he was called “Theta Sigma” by classmates at the Time Lord Academy. Two of his friends were a boy and a girl who, like him, did not believe in their society’s rules against meeting and interfering with “lesser races” of the universe, who believed that the mysteries that Time Lords deemed beneath notice were worth firsthand investigation.
Theta Sigma failed his final exams but then (barely) passed on the second try, finally earning the title of “Time Lord.” He fathered at least one child and then later had a grandchild named Susan. And then, like his two schoolmates, he decided to turn his back on the rules of Time Lord society and explore the universe. It’s been said that if a Prydoninian leaves their clan, they leave behind everything, including their birthright. Thus, our hero could no longer use his own birth name, nor would any other Time Lords ever use it again. The man once nicknamed Theta Sigma now chose to now call himself the Doctor and his two former friends, who became two deadly enemies, took on the titles of the Master and the Rani.
To leave his planet, the Doctor stole a broken down, near-obsolete Type-40 time travel capsule from a repair shop. He hot-wired it and then left Gallifrey, taking his granddaughter Susan with him, his first traveling companion. And that brings us to discuss…
1ST DOCTOR – William Hartnell (1963-1966)
When we first met the Doctor, he was already in the latter years of his first body’s life. He was crotchety, short-tempered and extremely open with his rather cynical opinion that everyone around him was inferior in some way. In other words, he was very much a typical Time Lord. In the show’s first television story, Susan and the Doctor wound up bringing two human school teachers named Barbara and Ian with them on their adventure. A broken “year-o-meter” meant the TARDIS trips couldn’t be controlled and so the school teachers couldn’t return home immediately. Being with Barbara and Ian brought out a different side of the Doctor and by his third television adventure he had begun to become the heroic traveler fans would know and love for years to come. He was grumpy and had no patience for people who wasted his time, but he clearly cared for his friends and would not stand by when he saw people victimized.
Knowing that she had longed for a stable home for some time, the Doctor left Susan to live her own life when he realized she’d fallen in love with a human named David Campbell during one of their adventures. After that, other traveling companions came and went and the Doctor realized how lonely he was without the company of others. During an adventure against an invading army of Cybermen, the Doctor’s health was affected by a weapon meant to drain energy from the Earth. He began to feel weak, remarking that his body was now “wearing thin.” After the Cybermen were defeated, the Doctor was in a daze and told his friends, “It’s far from being all over.” He then returned to the TARDIS and regenerated for the first time, apparently using the time ship to jump start and stabilize the process.
Recommended DVDs: “The Beginning” trilogy; “The Keys of Marinus”; “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”; “The Time Meddler”
2ND DOCTOR – Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)
After explaining to his friends that his body could cheat death through a process of “renewal” (later called “regeneration”), the Second Doctor went headfirst into a life of adventure. He was an effervescent man who showed great joy at discovering new things. The Second Doctor played a recorder when he needed help thinking and often acted as an idiot or a coward in order to manipulate his enemies. It was the Second Doctor who began using the alias of “John Smith” and it was during his adventures that we first saw the now-famous sonic screwdriver.
During his second incarnation, the Doctor first met Army Col. Alistair Gordon Lethbrige-Stewart. After his adventure with the Doctor and learning that aliens were now coming to Earth more often due to satellite and transmissions being broadcast into space, Lethbridge-Stewart helped form U.N.I.T. (U.N. Intelligence Task force), a global organization that the public believed to be a mere security agency but was actually intended to protect the world from extra-normal threats. Lethbridge-Stewart was promoted to the rank of Brigadier and put in charge of UNIT’s UK branch. The Brig would wind up fighting alongside the Doctor in many incarnations, including the 1st Doctor later on (thanks to time travel).
Eventually, the Second Doctor faced a situation that he could not handle without help and was forced to call on the Time Lords for aid. As he expected, he was captured by his people and forced to stand trial for his crimes of interfering with the outside universe. Though they decided not to execute him, the Time Lords decided the Doctor still needed to be punished and so they exiled him to Earth for a time, removing his knowledge of time travel science. Before they sent him to Earth though, he was apparently sent on several missions for the Celestial Intervention Agency, a black ops division of the Time Lords. We learned this from the TV adventure “The Two Doctors” and the was expanded on in The Dis-Continuity Guide by Paul Cornell and the novel The World Game by Terrance Dicks.
Recommended DVDs: “Tomb of the Cybermen”; “The Invasion”; “The Mind Robber”; “The War Games”
3RD DOCTOR – Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
An undisclosed amount of time after his trial on Gallifrey, the Doctor was not only exiled to Earth but, as part of his punishment, forced to regenerate again. This was a short-tempered Doctor, furious with his situation, stranded with a TARDIS that could no longer travel through time and that he wasn’t sure how to repair, forcing him to accept a job as U.N.I.T.’s scientific advisor “Dr. John Smith.” This forced the Doctor into a position where he was now part of a group rather than calling the shots and he developed a sibling rivalry relationship with the Brigadier, both liking each other more than they were willing to admit but sometimes shocked by each other’s different approach to life.
It was during the Third Doctor’s tenure that we first met the Master and the two renegade Time Lords shared many battles on Earth. After saving Gallifrey from destruction, with the aid of his first and second incarnations (you gotta love time travel), the Doctor was given back his freedom and his knowledge of time travel. However, as we learned later, part of being a tolerated renegade meant that he’d still have to do the occasional mission for the Time Lords, whether he liked it or not.
Aside from being stranded on Earth during many of his stories, the Third Doctor stood out from other Doctors in two other major ways. First, he loved old cars, leading him to own and operate a special jalopy named Bessy, which later inspired a shorter-lived hovercraft that fans called the “Whomobile.” And second, perhaps due to his shorter temper, he was more prone to physical confrontations, leading to many stories where he displayed martial arts skills on enemies or people who simply got in his way. More than once, he proudly explained that he was well versed in not only Earth martial arts but also in Venusian Aikido (though he occasionally called it Venusian Karate instead).
Eventually, the third incarnation of the Doctor met an end due to extreme radiation exposure on the planet Metebilis III. He returned to U.N.I.T. headquarters in England, telling his friend Sarah Jane Smith, “While there’s life, there’s…” and then lost consciousness. The radiation exposure damaged his body so much that he should have died permanently, but a fellow Time Lord arrived and aided him in regenerating.
Recommended DVDs: “Terror of the Autons”; “The Claws of Axos”; “The Time Monster”; “The Three Doctors”; “The Time Warrior”
4TH DOCTOR – Tom Baker (1974-1981)
For an entire generation, this guy was THE Doctor, spending seven years on the television airwaves. Known for wearing scarves that varied between ten to eighteen feet in length, the Fourth Doctor was a laid-back bohemian driven by wanderlust, so absorbed in his observations that he’d occasionally voice his thoughts aloud and completely forget there were other people in the room with him. The Fourth Doctor took pride in being childish and finding things to laugh at most of the time, but could turn on a dime and let loose with righteous fury if he saw someone deliberately harming others or ignoring what he considered to be obvious facts. He was also known for offering jelly babies to enemies and allies alike, sometimes at the strangest of times.
This Doctor’s career revealed many things about Time Lord history to us, such as their war with the ancient Great Vampires. The Fourth Doctor also wound up witnessing the beginnings of the Dalek race, which would help lead to the Last Great Time War and involved a decision that would haunt him later. Along with the famous Sarah Jane Smith, his Doctor spent a lot of time traveling with a Time Lord named Romana and his other companion Leela was the inspiration for the Futurama character of the same name. It was the Fourth Doctor who first traveled with the robot dogs called K-9. The Fourth Doctor also had two epic adventures that took place entirely on his home world of Gallifrey and showed us the strange, manipulative society of his people.
The Doctor’s fourth life came to an end when he fell to his death after preventing the Master from threatening the existence of the entire universe. Before he regenerated, he smiled and told his friends, “It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for…”
Recommended DVDs: “Genesis of the Daleks”; “Pyramid of Mars”; “The Brain of Morbius”; “The Hand of Fear”; “The Deadly Assassin”; “Underworld”; “The Pirate Planet”; “City of Death”; “State of Decay”; The “New Beginnings” Trilogy
5TH DOCTOR – Peter Davison (1981-1984)
The Fifth Doctor was more reserved and introspective than his previous incarnation, but could still hit enemies with a sarcastic remark and manipulate them with his seemingly-innocent behavior. He was not just a friend to his traveling companions, he was a teacher and a guide. He also was more open with his emotions, letting his vulnerable side show even when he didn’t want it to. He enjoyed peaceful afternoons, sporting events and the company of others. In facing enemies, he was very serious and forthright, chastising and mocking many villains to their face. This Doctor became a bit more serious after the death of one of his companions.
When he and his friend Peri Brown were both poisoned, the Doctor had only enough antidote to save one of them. He gave it to Peri and then succumbed to the poison. Just before the Fifth Doctor regenerated, he wondered aloud: “Is this death? Feels different this time…”
Recommended DVDs: “Earthshock”; The “Black Guardian” Trilogy; “The Five Doctors”; “Resurrection of the Daleks”; “The Caves of Androzani”
6TH DOCTOR – Colin Baker (1984-1987)
Due to the difficulty of his regeneration, the Sixth incarnation of the Doctor was temporarily insane before settling into the personality of a brash, self-righteous scientist who was proud of not being a human being of Earth. The idea was that as the stories went on, this Doctor would begin to mellow into a true hero, but due to a variety of circumstances we only saw this more relaxed version of the Doctor in a few stories before the actor was told to leave by the new BBC Controller who was outspoken in his dislike of Doctor Who.
Colin Baker was allowed to continue as the Sixth Doctor in audio plays by Big Finish and has proven just how interesting and fun his incarnation can be. In his televised adventures, he fought against classic enemies such as the Cybermen and the Daleks and also introduced fans to new villains such as the Rani. He had an entertaining team-up with the Second Doctor and was later put on trial on Gallifrey by the Valeyard, an evil Time Lord with a strange secret. The Sixth Doctor’s existence came to an end when the Rani forced his TARDIS to crash land. The events leading up to this crash, and showing that other circumstances were involved in bringing the Doctor’s sixth life to an end, were covered in the novel Spiral Scratch.
Recommended DVDs: “Attack of the Cybermen”; “The Two Doctors”; the “Trial of a Time Lord” saga
7TH DOCTOR – Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)
Initially, the Seventh Doctor was the same aloof, oddly behaving adventurer that had been seen in many previous incarnations. After a few adventures though, he became concerned that he’d been wrong in only being reactive in fighting evil and decided that he would now be proactive, hunting down specific villains and setting up complex schemes to bring them down for good. As he became more and more involved in manipulations and master plans, he came to be darker and colder towards his friends and companions, sometimes forcing himself to look at them as pawns in his larger schemes. As the novels explained, he now saw himself as “Time’s Champion” rather than just a wandering adventurer.
The Seventh Doctor spent many adventures with Ace, a young girl who enjoyed a good fight, refused to scream in fear, and made a habit of cooking up her own explosive chemical called “Nitro-9.” Ace became a popular companion and with the Doctor she fought not only Daleks and Cybermen but Morgaine le Fay and other strange enemies such as the demonic Destroyer and the angelic-being called Light. Ace was sometimes shocked and appalled at the Time Lord’s behavior, such as when he scored her as a meaningless pawn in order to trick an enemy and when he willingly allowed a planet to be destroyed to ensure that he won a battle.
The Seventh Doctor was the final incarnation to star in the classic series before it was canceled. He later showed up on the Fox TV-movie that was intended to be a pilot for a new series. It was said that he was now nearing the end of his life in his seventh body and we saw that he was traveling alone. Arriving on Earth, he was shot when he stumbled into the middle of a gang war and then was killed on the operating table due to the surgeons not understanding his physiology. His last words were a plea that the Master had to be stopped, as he knew that the villain was once again loose on Earth.
Recommended DVDs: “Remembrance of the Daleks”; “The Silver Nemesis”; “Battlefield”; “the Curse of Fenric”; “Survival”
8TH DOCTOR – Paul McGann ( TV: 1996 ) ( Audio Plays: 2001-present day )
Introduced in the Fox TV-Movie, the Eighth Doctor was a man who cherished his existence, taking joy in simple things such as comfortable shoes and fire works. He was quick-witted, name dropped at any given opportunity, and thrilled in accomplishing the seemingly-impossible.
Since a new series did not get the green light after the pilot, Paul McGann has not returned as the Eighth Doctor on screen. But the 8th Doctor had several novels (which I personally wasn’t crazy about for the most part) and many comic strip adventures (which I loved). McGann was later able to develop the character further thanks to Big Finish Productions. Thanks to Big Finish, he has acted in several dozen audio plays on a regular basis for the past nine years and continues to perform in more to this day, giving him more adventures as an actor playing the Doctor than Christopher Eccleston (9th Doctor) or David Tennant (10th Doctor). In these audio plays, we learned that whereas the Seventh Doctor was all about precision and making sure his TARDIS went exactly when and where he wanted, the Eighth deliberately set his TARDIS to be more random in its travels, believing it was simply more fun. He loved telling stories, was a great fan of Earth pop culture and, like the Fourth Doctor, had a habit of speaking his thoughts aloud.
After some trying experiences and being forcibly separated from a companion, he became a more somber Doctor, with more biting sarcasm and increased cynicism. Despite this, he continues to fight for life and justice whenever he can and he refuses to ever give up.
We’ve yet to learn about the Eighth Doctor’s final adventure, but it is fairly clear that he met his end during the closing of the Last Great Time War. The Ninth Doctor indicated that in his Eight incarnation he might have ended the war in some way that he had expected would kill him as well, saying his regeneration was “not by choice.”
Since I can’t recommend any TV adventures, I suggest instead that you read all the collected comic strip adventures (starting with the trade “Endgame”) and then check out some of these great audio plays: “Storm Warning”; “Minuet in Hell”; “Chimes of Midnight”; “Terror Firma”; “The Company of Friends”; “Blood of the Daleks”; “Sisterhood of the Flame”; “The Vengeance of Morbius”; “The Earthly Child”; “Situation Vacant”
And that’s your primer on the Classic Doctors. Now go out and enjoy some Doctor Who adventures. This is Alan Kistler, signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.