A Case for Character: ‘Doctor Who’ as Character Study
[Shorter version of paper presented at Current Research in Speculative Fiction, June 2012]
It’s been nearly fifty years since William Hartnell first appeared on television screens in 1963 and introduced one of the most enigmatic figures not just in science fiction, but all television history. But Hartnell fills only a small portion of those years; his character has carried on in more actors’ incarnations than any other character we’ve ever seen, not as a recasting, but as a rebirth. Often in other shows, when one actor departs, either the character is written out, or less often, another is brought in to take his or her place, usually met with snickers of incredulity from the audience and reviewers, who with either adapt to, or reject, character 2.0. So how has Doctor Who been able to do this, where others failed? Because in 1966, someone noted, ‘Well, we’ve never said that the Doctor couldn’t do this. He is an alien after all.’ The unbound imagination of science fiction, and a creative production team desperate to keep their successful show afloat, gave us the concept of ‘regeneration’, or what a multitude of religions have called ‘reincarnation’, a single soul reborn into new bodies, new lives and personalities, upon the death of the old. What I want to examine here is the making of this unparalleled television achievement.
There are two dichotomies at play when it comes to analysing the character of the Doctor. On the one hand, there is the need to accommodate history and maintain the continuity of character so that he his is still recognisable to the audience. On the other, the acknowledgement that each new actor, each new life, will bring with it a unique set of personality traits. Rote imitation of a predecessor would not just be a disappointment, but a failure in character development. This variety of character is what makes episodes such as ‘The Three Doctors’, ‘The Five Doctors’ and ‘The Two Doctors’ so unique, a chance to watch different actors playing the same – yet different – man in one setting, something that to my knowledge we have never seen before in television. As the decades have progressed, writers, actors and producers have become more self conscious of this dichotomy and brought it to the forefront of the early hours of a new Doctor. As an example of this, upon David Tennant’s entrance as the Tenth Doctor, he is repeatedly asked who he is, and though he has the memories of his past lives and recognises those around him, he can only respond ‘I don’t know!’ When Matt Smith entered as the Eleventh Doctor, there is a humorous scene of him attempting to find something he wants to eat, recalling past preferences but finding that he does not like any of these foods any longer. The difficulties of being born, just as it is for any child, has been played up since the arrival of Jon Pertwee as Doctor number three, emphasising the need for rest, sustenance, and improvised clothing, as a Doctor’s costume will always become a defining part of his incarnation.
But let us move back to the beginning, the character of the old man who lived with his granddaughter in a scrap yard on Totter’s Lane in late 1963, a man we would hardly recognise as the Doctor today, who has been described as crotchety, short tempered, stern, distant, and even dangerous. He kidnaps his granddaughter’s school teachers to prove that the TARDIS is really what he says it is, and to prevent them from revealing what they’ve learned. These teachers are supposed to be our central perspective; the Doctor is not a hero, just a pretended know-it-all grumpy about his exile and willing to bash a caveman over the head with a rock rather than risk his life to save him. Ian and Barbara are the only companions to ever unwilling join the Doctor, stuck with him for two years just trying to find their way home. This is a Doctor who wilfully sabotages the TARDIS to force everyone to go investigate the Dalek city with him because he is curious, a Doctor who drugs his companions because of his suspicions of them, a Doctor who is at times woefully inarticulate, an unfortunate symptom of Hartnell’s deteriorating health more than a designed trait. Over the course of his run, though, the show begins to focus not on the companions, but on the unnamed Doctor, who becomes a new kinds of hero, frail yet clever.
When Hartnell’s visibly ailing Doctor collapses in the last episode of the ‘Tenth Planet’ story, he wakes up on November 5, 1966 a new, younger, darker man, Patrick Troughton, full of life, impish, self-deprecating, player of the recorder, a ‘cosmic hobo’, but still incautious, childishly curious, a bit short on explanations, and capable of defeating the Daleks who recognize. This is the Doctor we know. The Daleks have told us so. Regeneration was new, spoilers on the internet were non-existent, and audiences didn’t know what was happening. But rather than just have Troughton tell us he is the Doctor, he shows us. In the same way that we do not believe someone who comes up to us on the street and swears they are a distant relative we once knew without providing photographic evidence and anecdotes, the producers take a long time to spin out the mystery of this new man, forcing the companions and the audience to do their own sleuthing and deduce for themselves who this strange individual is. But once everyone figured it out, they believed him, accepted him, and moved on. From 1966 to 1969 he continued to blunder about the universe with young companions at his side, surrogates for his lost granddaughter, fighting totalitarian forces wherever he finds them, for better or worse.
With the introduction of Jon Pertwee in 1970 (and in colour) we have our first true action-hero Doctor, capable of throwing his own punches and defending his own person and assistants, without the aid of a male companion. This time audiences were a little more prepared, the Second Doctor having been told by the Time Lords (introduced for the first time) that as punishment for his meddling in the universe, he would be forced to give up his current life and regenerate into a new one, arriving on Earth exhausted and forgetful, and exiled with a stranded TARDIS. Rather than fighting the proverbial man, he worked for the man, or UNIT in this case, as a science advisor, having little better to do while he tried to repair the TARDIS. A dandy scientist/adventurer with a fashionable car, this Doctor is more serious than his predecessor, engaging in the anti-nuclear proliferation and eco-warrior political trends of the day. This is where we see the pattern develop of the Doctor’s personality being shaped by his encounters in the first hours of regeneration, via the people he meets, clothing he finds, and situation he needs to survive. Pertwee’s descendant, Tom Baker, called a ‘watchable nutter’, appeared almost barking in comparison to his more serious colleague. The Fourth Doctor was the longest serving one, and did more to establish the Doctor’s lasting care-free, haphazard philosopher traits than any previous incarnation. Baker himself (like one of his very first lines) has been called The Doctor, the definitive article. He is no longer the play-acting know-it-all, and is growing into a genuine know-it-all only half-blundering his way through the universe, a curious, adventurous do-gooder. The older he gets, the younger he seems.
The strengths of the actors are played upon to help develop their character contributions (though to be fair, Hartnell’s stuttering and stumbling over lines was a genuine disorder). Troughton’s Doctor could more easily put on fear than his predecessor, and even recently, Matt Smith’s football skills were written into an episode. It would be reticent of any producer to not take advantage of a new actor’s special abilities and meld them into new character traits. Unfortunately, it often means that these unique traits must die with that incarnation. Death itself becomes a new factor in regeneration: the First Doctor’s body ‘wore-out’ with age, the Second Doctor was forced to regenerate into a new body, but each instance of resurrection after this involved the untimely death of the Doctor’s body, with much sadness at each subsequent passing of a life not yet fully lived, often given in sacrifice to save others.
By the time we reach the re-launch, and rebirth of Doctor Who in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Incarnation, the Doctor has become something we’re never seen before: he is now capable to trading on his own name, not just as an identity, but as a warning, a promise, a weapon, a prayer. It’s not just all of us, the viewers, who know the Doctor and what he means – his own universe has learned. He has become what Kim Newman calls ‘a dangerously perfect being’ (p. 12). But this is a kind of Doctor we’ve never seen, one terribly scarred by war and the atrocities he has committed, a character development that has been carried over into the next two Doctors. We’ve never seen a Doctor so prone to bouts of melancholy as we have over the last six seasons, and are not likely to see that change in the near future. But this melancholy for a lost people and a lost past has opened the door to discussing the past lives and adventures of the Doctor with a new generation.
In the 2007 Children in Need sketch, ‘Time Crash’, Tenth Doctor David Tennant and Fifth Doctor Peter Davidson come face to face in character, and though tongue in cheek, also addresses some of the sentimentality of regeneration, the Tenth crediting the Fifth with his taste in spectacles and trainers, as well as a squeaky voice when excited. He explains his past character traits of being old and grumpy and important as something you do when you are young, but by his Fifth life, he learned to relax and enjoy life more.
How you chose to define science fiction will determine how you feel about the Doctor’s lives. Do you consider rebirth and reincarnation to be science fiction? There are certainly religious sects in the world who do not think so. Is it simply the manner in which he is reborn that makes it seem like science fiction or fantasy? Buddhist thought has certainly played a role in script ideas and show philosophy for decades.