William Hartnell (1963-66)
First doctor: Albert Steptoe in space.
Today’s Doctors are good-looking cheeky chappies who can’t witness a lonely child or tormented space whale without bursting into tears. The original, however, was a cantankerous old swine who wouldn’t think twice about kidnapping two upstanding teachers for a wild goose chase through time and space (which he did), and once seriously considered bashing a caveman’s brains in for mildly inconveniencing him. But Hartnell’s flinty Doctor was perfect for an austerity-bred generation who could barely afford the sofa they were hiding behind. Sadly his own constitution weakened after three years as a children’s favourite and he grew unmanageable. In an audacious move the producers decided that the Doctor would literally change bodies.
Hartnell was prone to fluffing his lines. Once, instead of instructing a space pilot to ‘Stabilise us, Maitland’, he issued the command ‘Stabilise us, Matron!’
Surprise guest star: Peter ‘Carry On’ Butterworth has great fun tampering with the Battle of Hastings in The Time Meddler (1965).
Tragic monster: the Zarbi – giant fibreglass ants with men’s legs sticking out below – were very ‘of their time’ in The Web Planet (1965).
One to watch: The startlingly creepy and hard-hearted story An Unearthly Child (1963).
Patrick Troughton (1965-69)
The second Doctor: he’s the pied piper, and he’ll show you where it’s at.
To general astonishment the BBC replaced a stern grandad figure with a scruffy tramp who’d rather play his recorder than battle the Daleks. But Troughton’s playful ‘cosmic hobo’ became phenomenally popular. He was a warmer Doctor, with an endearing tendency to panic, but more deeply, shiver-inducingly alien than before. And with Troughton in the TARDIS Doctor Who went very Sixties. The directors modelled his regeneration on an LSD trauma and he sported a Beatle mop. The concerns of the day intruded too: was Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology turning us all into Cybermen? Would North Sea oil exploration unleash deadly intelligent seaweed? Finally we learned that the Doctor had literally dropped out of Time Lord society. You almost expected him to sing ‘We all live in a big blue time machine.’
Memorable moment: Cybermen come clomping down the steps outside St Paul’s in one of British telly’s signature scenes.
Surprise guest star: another ‘Carry On’ star, Bernard ‘I only arsked’ Bresslaw, plays Varga, the titular Martian monster in The Ice Warriors (1967).
Tragic monster: the Fish People – extras in leotards with sequins stuck on them, in The Underwater Menace (1967).
One to watch: A psychedelic trip to the Land of Fiction in The Mind Robber (1968).
Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
The third Doctor: he did kung fu fighting, it was a little bit frightening
Seemingly inspired by the Milk Tray advert, Pertwee’s dashing smoking-jacketed and Inverness-caped Doctor was proficient in the martial arts – OK, Venusian aikido – and liked fast cars, if not fast women (although in real life, Katy Manning, who played companion Jo Grant, did appear in the nude draped over a Dalek for Girl Illustrated magazine, a sight that few young Who fans would ever forget). At last here was a Doctor whose derring-do you could imitate in the playground, with your friends as the Brigadier and his private science army UNIT. To watch Doctor Who in the Seventies was to experience a grim but thrilling kids’ perspective on the crisis-stricken real world. A succession of evil corporations and mad computers threatened mankind, natural resources and pollution kept cropping up – blame the Three-Day Week – and it turned out that we had usurped the planet from a dormant race of intelligent dinosaurs anyway. Bad us!
Memorable moments: the Doctor meets himselves in 1973’s tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors. ‘So you’re my replacements?’ snaps Hartnell. ‘A dandy and a clown?’
Surprise guest star: horror queen Ingrid Pitt is Queen Galleia of Atlantis in the admittedly terrible story The Time Monster (1972).
Tragic monster: Alpha Centauri the monocular ambassador has been unkindly compared to a giant green penis. Those were simpler times. (The Curse of Peladon, 1972)
One to watch: call Ted Heath, it’s Welsh miners versus giant maggots in The Green Death (1973).
Tom Baker (1974-1981)
The fourth Doctor: the K-9 defence league
A former monk and building site worker from Liverpool, Tom Baker was by far the most alien Doctor so far: a bug-eyed oddball in Toulouse Lautrec get-up who could flip from jolly to callous in a beat of either heart. Bloodthirsty young viewers loved his grisly gothic horror adventures – old nemesis The Master returned as a rotting corpse, companion Leela was half-eaten by a giant rat, and some of the fights were genuinely murderous – but they enraged Mary Whitehouse who forced the BBC to tone down the Grand Guignol. An unfortunate side-product was detestable tin dog K-9, a perfect example of the aggravating robot sidekick as harbinger of bad times to come. For many Baker was the best Doctor, a bohemian type who could play Professor Henry Higgins to Pan’s People-clad savage Leela or undermine the Daleks’ creator Davros armed only with a jellybaby. Whenever The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory spoof Doctor Who, Tom Baker is the one they choose.
Memorable moment: in Genesis of the Daleks (1975) Baker’s Doctor can prevent the Nazi dustbins’ birth simply by touching two wires together. But does he have the right to change the future? Find out… next week!
Surprise guest stars: In City of Death (1979) Eleanor Bron and John Cleese are pretentious art connoisseurs who mistake the TARDIS for a gallery installation.
Tragic monster: the giant rat that chomps on Leela in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) is patently a large brown rug with some actors thrashing around inside it.
One to watch: the Egyptological horror masterpiece Pyramids of Mars (1975).
Peter Davison (1982-1984)
The fifth Doctor: Time Lord goes to Lords
After the barminess of Tom Baker’s later years the BBC played safe with an actor who was already famous as Tristan Farnon from All Creatures Great and Small. Davison’s Doctor was also fresh-faced, idealistic, occasionally naive and terribly English, a sort of nerve-calming John Major to Baker’s wild-eyed Margaret Thatcher. The fifth Doctor was charming enough but the stories took a terrible dip, as did the costumes (prevailing look: budget-rail Hot Gossip) and especially the monsters. One notorious aquatic dinosaur called the Myrka was evidently moonlighting from playing Dobbin in nearby panto. Corny guest stars proliferated and the show moved from Saturday to mid-week (sacrilege!) – ‘Doctor Who’ was losing its way. When, in a bid for notoriety, they had infamously wooden young companion Adric blown up by the Cybermen (see below), it took true loyalty not to laugh.
Memorable moment: in Earthshock (1982), Adric dies in an exploding spaceship – and for one time only, the credits rolled in silence.
Surprise guest star: that’s Stratford Johns under a ton of make-up as an immortal talking frog in Four to Doomsday (1982).
Tragic monster: the Raston warrior robot in The Five Doctors (1983). A practitioner of modern dance in a silver leotard does not a convincing android killing machine make.
One to watch: Davison’s heroic swansong The Caves of Androzani (1984) – imagine The Phantom of the Opera down a mineshaft.
Colin Baker (1984-1986)
The sixth Doctor: not a patch on the rest
Poor Colin Baker. Someone had to be the ‘least good’ Doctor. By the go-getting mid-Eighties sci fi had fallen out of fashion and the increasingly tatty-looking Doctor Who was marked for death by BBC controller Michael Grade, a confirmed Who-phobe. To reinject a little jeopardy into a tired-looking show, the producers gamely cast a sixth Doctor who was as haughty and abrasive as Hartnell’s original – then dressed him in a self-consciously wacky outfit that would disgrace Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. Throw in a garish light entertainment approach and the worst companion ever (Bonnie Langford as shrieky Mel) and you could see Doctor Who spiralling towards the cosmic plughole.
Memorable moment: when he awakens from his regeneration the confused sixth Doctor attempts to strangle companion Peri. Not a good start.
Surprise guest stars: Brian Blessed as King Yrcanos, one of his long line of alien monarchs who CAN’T SPEAK WITHOUT SHOUTING, in Mindwarp (1986).
Tragic monster: rebellious walking plants the Vervoids, one of the long line of Doctor Who creatures whose heads resembled genitalia (Terror of the Vervoids, 1986).
One to watch: Baker meets Troughton in The Two Doctors (1985), AKA Last of the Summer Time Lords.
Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)
The seventh Doctor: better than you remember
Britain had all but given up on Who by the time the keys to the TARDIS passed to McCoy, an alumnus of Ken Campbell’s alternative theatre troupe who reputedly once held the world record for keeping ferrets down his trousers. His swivel-eyed, tartan-trousered Doctor – who was half Spike Milligan and half Wilf Lunn from Vision On – didn’t exactly promise a return to the glory days of the Sixties and Seventies. But against expectations the seventh Doctor turned out to be rather good. He was now a time-travelling Machiavelli and once again as deliciously mysterious as Troughton or Tom Baker. Though he couldn’t save Who from cancellation, McCoy is the Doctor most likely to surprise you.
Memorable moment: a Dalek finally climbs the stairs in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) – it’s flying!
Surprise guest stars: Nicholas Parsons is quite wonderful as a vicar wracked by doubt in the brilliantly claustrophobic vampire tale The Curse of Fenric (1989).
Tragic monster: the Kandy Man, a Bertie Bassett lookalike sadistic robot who drowns you in ‘fondant surprise’, in The Happiness Patrol (1988).
One to watch: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988) is as chilling and psychedelic as any Troughton tale.
Paul McGann (1996)
The eighth Doctor: blink and you’ll miss him
Tousle-haired scouser McGann could have been a splendid Doctor. Sadly he only appeared in a much-delayed TV movie that contained so much gobbledegook about the Master, the Daleks, Gallifrey, Skaro and so on, that casual viewers turned away in bafflement.
Christopher Eccleston (2005)
The ninth Doctor: a working-class Time Lord is something to be
The Reithian grandees who created Who as a vehicle to enlighten children about science and history would have had a fit if they’d foreseen Eccleston in the part, with his cropped hair, leather jacket and genuine Salford accent (‘Lots of planets have a north!’). Where were the frock coats and the improving homilies? Isn’t he a little common for a Time <i>Lord<i>? But reviving the show with a heavyweight actor – of Our Friends in the North and Hillsborough fame – proved to be a masterstroke, banishing Doctor Who’s reputation for cheesy performances and wobbly sets. Though Eccleston’s comic gurning could be a little CBBC, his serious moments were supremely eerie, and for the first time since the Seventies the show was actually frightening, with unstoppable Daleks and a pervasive sense of dread. Sparky shopgirl Rose added some EastEnders-style appeal and – more heresy – a love interest. The result was the most successful revival in British TV history.
Memorable moment: the Doctor’s electrifying eyeball-to-eyestalk confrontation with the lone monster in Dalek (2005).
Surprise guest stars: Simon Callow as Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead (2005) was just one of many A-listers who suddenly wanted in.
Tragic monster: the creatures were all pretty well realised by now, although flatulent invaders the Slitheen tried the patience somewhat (Aliens of London and World War Three, 2005).
One to watch: wartime chiller The Empty Child (2005) is a candidate for most terrifying episode ever.
David Tennant (2005-2009)
The tenth Doctor: he’ll come to your emotional rescue
For those of the stiff-upper-lip persuasion Tennant’s hugely popular four-year stint marked the final triumph of soapy values and modern emotional incontinence over good old-fashioned nameless terror. This young, lean, cheeky, even fanciable Time Lord became the first heart-throb Doctor, experiencing so many tearful partings that there must have been an infinite supply of tissues in the TARDIS. Though Doctor Who could still summon up the horrors of the black and white years – sentient statues the Weeping Angels, spaghetti-faced monstrosities the Ood, Satan himself imprisoned on an asteroid – it now had to compete with Britain’s Got Talent and Big Brother as lip-wobbling mainstream entertainment. Then, in real life, Tennant married Peter Davison’s daughter, thus becoming his own father-in-law. You couldn’t make it up.
Memorable moment: Rose falling into an alternate universe to be parted from the Doctor forever in Doomsday (2006), the series’ greatest heartbreaker.
Surprise guest star: Peter ‘Malcolm Tucker’ Capaldi is a thankfully non-pottymouthed Roman in The Fires Of Pompeii (2008). Little did he know…
Tragic monster: Peter Kay’s corpulent alien the Abzorbaloff in Love & Monsters (2006) was designed by a school boy, and it showed.
One to watch: in Human Nature (2007) the Doctor temporarily becomes human himself, and falls in love with an Edwardian school matron. It’s properly moving.
Matt Smith (2010-2013)
The eleventh Doctor: return of the Great Eccentric
The current owner-operator of the TARDIS splits opinion like no Doctor before him. To some he’s a floppy-haired, face-pulling ponce, a children’s light entertainer with none of the danger of his illustrious predecessors – a typical family-friendly BBC creation. To others he’s a mash up of the best of every previous Doctor, an old man in a young body who combines Troughton’s eccentricity, Tom Baker’s alien qualities, Davison’s innocence and even Hartnell’s melancholic darkness. This is what happens when you have to please all the people all of the time.
Today’s cynical audiences are no longer terrified by a man in a rubber suit so the show concentrates on bottomless conspiracies and the time-twisting tale of the Doctor’s relationship with his enigmatic on-off wife Dr River Song. Sometimes you suspect they’re making it up as they go along but, when it works, Doctor Who can still create the enthralling sense that you’ve fallen into a larger and more mysterious universe, just like in 1963. Smith leaves the role at Christmas and the twelfth Doctor will have to win over the show’s new American audience. You have to hope they’ll keep the schmaltz at bay. But if Doctor Who proves anything it’s that change is always – almost always – a good thing.
Memorable moment: the Doctor stands atop Stonehenge and frightens away literally every alien species in the Universe in The Pandorica Opens (2010).
Surprise guest star: Mark ‘Fast Show’ Williams was so good as Rory’s dad that there was clamour for him to become the Doctor’s first retiree travelling companion.
Tragic monster: an invisible giant turkey menaces Vincent van Gogh – now that’s skimping on the effects budget.
One to watch: the Doctor finally encounters the soul of the TARDIS in the form of a woman, in The Doctor’s Wife (2011).
This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.