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TV Waffle - Doctor Who: The First Four Doctors

With the BBC celebrating 50 years of 'Doctor Who', Nick Sauer takes a look back at the first four incarnations of the Doctor.

Doctor Who is celebrating its 50th anniversary this November and, while I am a fan of the current series, I started watching the show back during the original, or what is more commonly being described as the classic, era. While the modern run has been pretty amazing, I think a good part of that is owed to the excellent foundation created by the classic series. While there were a total of seven doctors during the classic era, I feel the first four were instrumental, each in their own way, in establishing the series as one of the best and longest running genre TV series of all time.
William Hartnell easily had the heaviest lifting to do in that he not only had to establish the central character but had to do it in a completely new program as well. It may come as a surprise to some people that Doctor Who was originally created as a family program, meaning that children were as much the intended audience as adults. In fact, the show was originally pitched to Mr. Hartnell as a children’s program. The one complication here was that Hartnell was largely known for playing thugs and heavies, so to cast him as the lead on Doctor Who was seen as a move that could potentially alienate younger viewers, and there were some people at the time who honestly didn’t believe that he could pull it off. I think that casting Mr. Hartnell was actually a brilliant move and the reason I say this has to do with what would become the very core of the Doctor’s identity. At the time, it hadn’t really been decided whether the Doctor was an alien or not. In the original pilot episode, which was ultimately re-shot, Susan mentions that she and her grandfather are from the 49th century. This line was changed to them being from another time and another world, but Hartnell’s some times belligerent performance very effectively cemented the Doctor as being an alien. While he looked human, it was quite clear from his actions that he was most certainly not, which is why I think the casting of Mr. Hartnell was a great idea. Of course, the show’s tremendous success to a large extent vindicates that decision today.
Unfortunately, after a few years Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis was affecting his health enough that he was no longer able to carry on as the Doctor. The show was still tremendously popular, so what was the BBC to do? By this point, it had been made clear that the Doctor was, in fact, an alien, so the production team came up with the novel idea of regeneration. The only problem was, would the audience accept a new actor in the leading role? This unenviable task fell on the shoulders of Patrick Troughton, who had actually been hand picked by Mr. Hartnell to replace him. No pressure there. Troughton, with the help of an awesome script in the form of The Power of the Daleks, managed a largely seamless transition of the character. It is a tragedy that so much of Mr. Troughton’s work has been lost. Having watched all, or as close as I can get thanks to the Loose Cannon reconstructions, of Mr. Troughton’s run on Doctor Who, I feel he very smoothly took the baton handed to him from Hartnell and managed to keep the series going.
In the recent BBC specials The Doctors Revisited, the claim was made that Mr. Troughton’s performance so solidified the character of the Doctor that every actor since has been following his lead. I feel this is a bit of an oversimplification myself but will grant that he did shift the character of the Doctor to the more amiable one we know and love today. As if keeping the series going and establishing the credibility of the regeneration process wasn’t enough, the second doctor introduced two more important parts of the series. The first was the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) and the second was the sonic screwdriver which would go on to be a regular feature and occasional plot device throughout the classic, as well as current, series, although upon its introduction it was really just a screwdriver.
Jon Pertwee led Doctor Who into the color era. Along with this came a more gritty hard science fiction tone to the stories. This was a pretty huge shift in the overall style of the show that would only be out done by the beginning of the current series in 2005. With this change, UNIT would now become a regular part of the series, with the Doctor acting in the role of the organization’s scientific adviser. Another big change was the situation with regard to companions. Until Jon Pertwee, the Doctor generally traveled with a group of companions with a fairly even mix of genders. The third Doctor would only have one female companion over the entirety of his run. It was the Third Doctor’s run that introduced the lone female companion with Liz Shaw. She only lasted through his first season and was replaced by Jo Grant. The chemistry between the Third Doctor and Miss Grant was strong enough to lock in this single companion model, which would be used regularly throughout the classic era and become a staple of the modern era as well. Of course, Jo Grant would ultimately be replaced by one of the most famous companions of all time in the form of Sarah Jane Smith. It was also during Mr. Pertwee’s time that we finally got into the background of the Doctor himself. This is largely done through the introduction of the Master but with The Three Doctors we also get the first real introduction to the Time Lords, as opposed to the brief glimpse we got at the end of The War Games.
And then came Tom Baker. While there had always been international sales of Doctor Who serials, it would take Baker’s popularity in the role to bring the show to the American television audience. The first such attempt was through a handful of local cable channels but the real success came through the various PBS stations across the country that picked up the series in movie format for once a week airings. Mr. Baker’s popularity as the Doctor brought the series to a cross-Atlantic audience relatively rapidly for those pre-internet days. During this period, Doctor Who conventions in America would rival Star Trek conventions in terms of attendance numbers and information on the series became world news. This success would firmly establish Doctor Who as an international franchise. So, even though eight years later the series would be cancelled due to a change in BBC leadership, I honestly felt it was only a matter of time before the Doctor would return to television screens across the UK and US to defend the Earth from whatever new alien threat presented itself next. Granted, it ultimately took 16 years and a failed attempt at an American series to do so, but the success of modern Doctor Who owes a large amount to the gradual but tremendous foundation built up by the first four classic series Doctors.
Finally, for fans of the modern series who are unfamiliar with the classic and might be interested in a brief look, I’m going to recommend a serial from each of these Doctors' runs on Doctor Who to watch as a kind of overview of the classic series. For the First Doctor the very first serial An Unearthly Child holds up quite well today and also gives you the first glimpse of the series that television audiences got back in 1963. For the Second Doctor, given the rather limited choices, I would have to go with The Tomb of the Cybermen. The Enemy of the World is also an outstanding serial as well but I feel that Tomb captures more of the overall spirit of the Second Doctor in addition to being currently available. For the Third Doctor I have to go with Terror of the Autons, as it introduces both the Master and Jo Grant. With the Fourth Doctor there are a lot of choices but I’m going to go with my first instinct and recommend Genesis of the Daleks, as it not only shows off the Doctor’s principle enemy, but introduces another that will ultimately reappear in the modern series as well.
And keep in mind that if you like what you see there is always plenty more classic serials to watch.  Enjoy.

Nick Sauer
For more from Nick, visit his site 'Fantastic Television'.