The Doctors
(Timeline: 1963 - 1989, 1996 and 2013)

"It was so much better than real life." - Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

The First Doctor - Played by William Hartnell
1963 to 1966 (Series 1 to 3)

    In 1963, the BBC unveiled Doctor Who, a science fiction series created by Sydney Newman featuring a time-traveling alien called "The Doctor" played by veteran actor William Hartnell. While the show was initially intended to be educational, with The Doctor and his friends flying back in time to meet historical figures, the second seven-part serial of the series featuring The Doctor battling the murderous race of aliens called the Daleks made such a huge splash with the public that the show shed its mission statement and became a straight, though highly wacky, sci-fi adventure show, with only the occasional meeting of historical figures.

     The show's title works as an in-joke. Having established that The Doctor never reveals his real name, the series had a running dialog gag that occurred in both the classic years and the modern years which at its basic elements went like this:

     "I'm The Doctor."
     "Doctor who?"

     William Hartnell was at first unsure about being on the series,  but as the show's popularity grew, so did Harnell's confidence as well as his fame. In an interview with The Mirror in 2013, his granddaughter Jessica told this amusing story about his popularity: "He once went drinking with a friend and they were stopped by the police. He swept out of the car, said ‘Leave this to me’, and told the police ‘I’m Doctor Who’. They let them go!"

     Hartnell played the role of The Doctor for three years, but by the fourth, he was no longer in the best of health and after a few episodes, it was clear he had to be replaced. While there have been many Doctors since 1963, William Hartnell will always be honored as The First.

THE TWO OTHER DOCTORS: In the  20th Anniversary special "The Five Doctors" (1983), Richard Hurndall played the role of The First Doctor, as William Hartnell had passed away in 1975. Sadly, Hurndall himself died a few months after the episode aired.

     In 2013, actor David Bradley, best known playing the creepy Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, played William Hartnell in a wonderful TV movie titled An Adventure in Space and Time. He also played The First Doctor in the the modern series Season 10 finale "The Doctor Falls" and will reprise the role in the 2017 Christmas special, in which The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) will regenerate into the Thirteenth Doctor.

This is a photo of a younger William Hartnell.
So this was The Doctor's true appearance
for many years before getting older and regenerating.

: Two years before he created Doctor Who, Sydney Newman (pictured left) created the spy-adventure series The Avengers, yet another classic show that is well-remembered today.

The Second Doctor - Played by Patrick Troughton
1966 to 1969 (Series 4 to 6)
     When William Hartnell's health began to falter, the part of The Doctor needed to be recast. But how to replace a beloved figure like Hartnell? They could have found a similar looking actor, adorned him with a white wig and continued on as if nothing had happened. Instead, they made a bold move that came to define the entire series: they had the doctor "renew" himself (later known as "regenerate") and completely change into a new body with a new personalty, while still being the same man. It was a gamble that paid off, and with each new Doctor, the show got a new fresh start.

     Actor Patrick Troughton became The Second Doctor in 1966 and despite the stature of Hartnell as THE Doctor, the show remained popular. Troughton's take on The Doctor was nothing like Hartnell's. Where the First Doctor was grumpy and grandfatherly, The "Second Doctor" was eccentric, fun, goofy and affectionate. Looking like he had just stepped off the stage of an English Music Hall, this Doctor also had the worst sense of style of any Doctor until the Colin Baker years. Thanks to Troughton's new, wackier version of The Doctor, good stories, and a cast featuring several popular companions, the show went on without a hitch.

     Photographer Don Smith had nothing but praise and admiration for Troughton. "He was a nice man," Smith said on the RadioTimes page in 2016. "I got on with him very well. If I said to him, ‘Please Pat, would you lean on the TARDIS?’ he was happy to do it. Nothing was too much trouble.”

     Troughton was much respected by many fans through the years, including Matt Smith. In 2011, the quirky Eleventh Doctor had this to say to Newsarama about the equally quirky Second Doctor: "What I think is wonderful about Troughton is he's weird and peculiar but he never asks you to find him weird and peculiar. He was a great actor."

Like Doctor, Like Son: In the episode "Midnight" (Fourth Season, New Who), Patrick Troughton's son David, a fine actor in his own right, played Professor Hobbes.

You Can Always Count on The Doctor: Although The Doctor is the same man regenerating himself when necessary, meaning Peter Capaldi's Doctor is the same man as William Hartnell's Doctor, each incarnation of The Doctor is known to fans by his own number: William Hartnell is The First Doctor, Patrick Troughton is The Second Doctor (as in "The Second [Incarnation of] The Doctor), David Tennant is The Tenth Doctor, and so on. When writing about a particular Doctor, many fans use a shorthand nickname; Matt Smith might be called "Eleven", for instance. I don't usually use that type of nickname, but it will pop up here and there.

The Third Doctor - Played by Jon Pertwee
1970 to 1974 (Series 7 to 11)
     At the end of The Second Doctor's final adventure (the ten-part "The War Games"), the Time Lords punished him for interfering with history, and forced him to change his appearance and be banished to Earth and remain there without access to his TARDIS.  With The Doctor now limited to terrestrial stories, the show changed drastically. Jon Pertwee, one of the most popular Doctors of all time, starred as a dashing, heroic figure that fit right in with an era that had James Bond movies still going strong and spy shows popping up everywhere on TV. The Third Doctor even had a cool remote control car which he named "Bessie". Most of the stories featured the evil rogue Time Lord known as The Master, played deliciously by Roger Delgado. During this era, Elisabeth Sladen entered the cast as journalist Sarah Jane Smith, a a strong-willed companion to The Doctor who quickly became a fan favorite and remains one of the most memorable and beloved characters of the entire series.

     The show was also now in "colour".

     Andrew Blair from Den of Geek summed up John Pertwee's Doctor nicely: "This Doctor was a man of action. Hoverboats, jet skis, vintage roadsters, fights to the death, diving bells, flying cars, Pertwee took them all on. Next time you watch Casino Royale, imagine Pertwee doing the opening free running chase sequence. Sure, you'd have to add in a bit where he stops for a glass of wine and a sandwich, but otherwise it'd be exactly the same."

     It was at the end of Pertwee's run that the meaning of "regenerating" was solidified. In this case, Jon Pertwee's Doctor regenerated into the most popular Doctor of the era, Tom Baker.

Bess, You Is My Car: Although The Third Doctor used the car most often, other Doctors through the years have taken Bessie for a spin now and then. The Seventh Doctor even changed the license plate from "WHO 1" to "WHO 7".

     Unfortunately, Bessie was not one of the items from the classic  Doctor Who years that would make a return in the new series. How fun would it have been if in at least one episode, one of the new Doctors (I'm thinking Peter Capaldi mostly) decided to skip running around everywhere and just hop in Bessie for a scene or two?

     Archival footage of Bessie, driven by John Pertwee, can be seen in "The Name of the Doctor" when Clara Oswald ends up in the The Eleventh Doctor's personal time stream. (It can happen).
If You Like Your Doctors, You Can Keep Your Doctors: Elisabeth Sladen, as companion Sarah Jane Smith, shared her time with Third Doctor Jon Pertwee and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker. In the 20th Anniversary Episode "The Five Doctors", she met The First Doctor, played by Richard Hurndall, The Second Doctor Patrick Troughton and the then-current Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. Years later, she appeared in the new Doctor Who series, meeting up with Tenth Doctor David Tennant in the episode "School Reunion", and later, in her own series The Sarah Jane Adventures, she ran into The Tenth Doctor again, and later met Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith. Sadly, Sladen passed away in 2011.

     There is more on Sarah Jane Smith and Elisbeth Sladen on our "Classic Companions" page.

The Fourth Doctor - Played by Tom Baker
1975 to 1981 (Series 12 to 18)
     Even though there were three Doctors ahead of him, Tom Baker could be considered the Sean Connery of the classic Doctor Who years. He was The Doctor everybody knew, and even today, many fans rank him as number one. He even became popular in the United States, when, in 1978, American PBS stations started broadcasting a selection of Fourth Doctor episodes. The series had also turned back into a "time travel" show again by this time, giving Baker and his companions lots more interesting places to go.

     Baker had the longest run of any actor playing The Doctor, and fittingly, he had a special part in the 50th Anniversary episode "The Day of the Doctor" in 2013. After his run as The Doctor, Baker never stopped working, and capitalized on his Doctor Who connection by lending his voice to video games and participating in audio Doctor Who adventures from Big Audio Finish. He was also the hilarious announcer of the British comedy series Little Britain and its spinoffs. ("Britain, Britain, Britain! Land of technological achievement! We've had running water for over ten years, an underground tunnel that links us to Peru, and we invented the cat.")

     Before the 50th Anniversary, Tom Baker spoke about his life on Doctor Who: "Being 'Doctor Who', I used to look at the clock and know at half past four we were going to stop rehearsing - and that was a sad moment for me because I wanted to stay in this beautiful, unreal world."

The Fifth Doctor - Played by Peter Davison
1982 to 1984 (Series 19 to 21)
     The Fifth Doctor was the most normal Doctor of all, with very few quirky touches except for his cricket outfit and the admittedly off the wall touch of wearing a sprig of celery on his lapel. And a Doctor without quirky touches is a less interesting Doctor. Still, he took on the unenviable task of following Tom Baker and made a success out of it, considered by many to rank among the best Doctors, and in later years was always ready and willing to promote and celebrate Doctor Who anyway he could, whether in a short sketch with David Tennant for the Children in Need telethon or starring in the fun short film "The Five(ish) Doctors" along with Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann. "I will always be the Fifth Doctor," he said in 2013, "but I didn't have a problem getting another job. I got another job almost immediately. And because of that I felt I never needed to run and hide from the series at all. I'm very happy with the way it worked out."

     In real life, Peter Davison is David Tennant's father-in-law.

The Sixth Doctor - Played by Colin Baker
1984 to 1986 (Series 22 to 23)
     Colin Baker's Doctor got off on the wrong foot with many fans by not only being full of himself and dismissive of others, but also by physically attacking his companion Peri  almost immediately after regenerating. It was an interesting idea; Doctors are often discombobulated for a time after regenerating. But it was too over the line for many fans to see The Doctor choking his companion. The clownish costume, while memorable, also made him look like a circus performer more than a Time-Traveling hero. It's hard to blame Baker himself, who was a fine actor just doing his job. He truly excelled at playing the pompous character written for him, but his Doctor is often listed as the least popular of the first seven.

      On the DVD/Blu-ray extra titled Tales of the TARDIS, Colin Baker revealed something that might have changed the course of his Doctor Who history. His original concept of The Sixth Doctor was a man in a simple black coat, a forerunner to Christopher Eccleston's Doctor. Unfortunately, his idea was voted down and he wound up with the exact opposite type of costume, the multi-colored nightmare that became his trademark. Would the Sixth Doctor's pompous personality have been more acceptable to fans if he was dressed in such a simple, stark outfit rather than the buffoonish costume he was forced to wear? Who knows?

     In an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, Baker vented some of his feelings on the subject: “I know there are some people who rate my Doctor quite highly. It’s just there’s an even greater number of people who don’t rate him at all. And it wounds me. I should be able to rise above it, and pretend I don’t care, but I actually do care.”

      My pal and fellow Whovian Derek has told me that Peter Davison's Doctor left him cold, but he thought Colin Baker's Doctor was excellent. So there.

     Flying Fish-Finger Factoid: Colin Baker's arrival featured the first time The Doctor mentioned the word "incarnation", as in "This will the sixth incarnation of The Doctor".

The Seventh Doctor - Played by Sylvester McCoy
1987 to 1989 (Series 24 to 26), 1996 TV Movie

     The Seventh Doctor, portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, was almost "the last of the  Time Lords". While one of the more intriguing Doctors, one who evolved from a clownish persona into a darker, more mysterious one, he unfortunately came into the series at a time when the BBC was considering dropping the show altogether. Not only was he one of the more interesting and lively Doctors, but he also had a great companion, Ace (played by Sophie Aldred), a smart and streetwise young girl who was handy with explosives and insisted on calling The Doctor "Professor". The final two series (1988 and 1989) of the McCoy era are often considered to rank with the show's best episodes. Be that as it may, the BBC was not impressed and in 1989, Doctor Who went off the air, leaving The Seventh Doctor's story in limbo until 1996.

      Although I've only had a relatively small sampling of the original Doctors, so far, I like Sylvester McCoy's Doctor best of all from that era (with John Pertwee a close second) and Ace is my favorite original series companion. They're just dynamite together.

The Eighth Doctor - Played by Paul McGann
1996 TV Movie, 2013 Mini-Episode "Night of the Doctor"

    By 1996, The Doctor had been missing from television for six years when the Brits, Americans and Canadians teamed up to create a Doctor Who TV in the hopes of reviving the TV series. It opened with The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) bringing the remains of The Master, a major villain from the original series, back to his home planet Gallifrey. An emergency forces The Doctor to land in modern-day San Francisco, where he is shot by a street gang. In the hospital, he dies and regenerates into The Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann.

     As one of my friends describes it, and not in flattering tones, the rest of the movie plays out like an '80s cop show. Fans may debate the quality of Doctor Who: The Movie - I thought it was entertaining as a one-off "Doctor Who in America" story, although, yes, it did play out like an '80s cop show. Many fans of the original series, though, considered Paul McGann as one of the finest Doctors of all time, and rightly so. Based on his one and only appearance as The Doctor (until 2013), McGann would have been a very excellent Doctor indeed. He was a nice guy like The Fifth Doctor, but quirkier, dressed in a frock coat that made him look like he had just finished playing a gig with The Kinks. For a guy who played The Doctor only once on TV (again, until 2013), McGann is still a fan favorite. His Doctor found new life in a series of audio Doctor Who adventures.

     In an interview with Digital Spy, McGann had this to say about his short but significant time as a Doctor: "People say it's a shame that it never went to series and I go, 'OK, well, let's just take a minute to imagine that it had. How much do you like Matt Smith and David Tennant? They might never have happened if there'd be some other history!'...  It's a good family to be part of - and it's still going places. It's a lovely thing to be associated with."

"The War Doctor" -
Played by John Hurt

2013 (The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special
"Day of the Doctor")

    When the new show began in 2005, show runner Russell T Davies simplified the series' back story by making The Doctor the last of the Time Lords. Though not seen, the "Last Great Time War" between The Time Lords and The Daleks resulted in both races wiped out by The Doctor, in the desperate last-ditch attempt at saving the rest of the Universe.

     "The War Doctor" was a character invented by Steven Moffat in 2013 for the 50th Anniversary episode. Before this, most fans assumed that the Christopher Eccleston Doctor of the new series regenerated from the Paul McGann Doctor of the 1996 movie. However, Moffat had a personal problem with this, feeling that it would feel wrong for either McGann or Eccleston be the man who committed genocide on two different races. He let both Doctors off the hook by writing a mini-episode, "Night of the Doctor", in which McGann, playing The Doctor for only the second time on film, is granted a special regeneration into what has come to be known as The War Doctor, played by none other than John Hurt. This mini-episode was broadcast around the time of the 50th Anniversary Special and can be found on YouTube and on the appropriate official DVD and Blu-ray releases of Doctor Who.

     "Night of the Doctor" was shortly followed by the 50th Anniversary Special "The Day of the Doctor", in which The War Doctor is ready to end the Time War, and meets two of his later selves, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, played by David Tennant and Matt Smith respectively. At the end of the special, The War Doctor regenerates into the Eccleston Doctor, although we only see the beginning of the regeneration, most likely due to Eccleston's ultimate decision not to take part in the special. Also appearing in the episode were Jenna Coleman as The Eleventh Doctor's current companion Clara Oswald, Billie Piper, who had last appeared on the show in 2006, and Tom Baker, whose last official appearance as The Doctor was in a 1993 charity special.

     Any more on this subject would be too spoilery.

     The War Doctor is left unnumbered.

     John Hurt died in 2017.

THE NOT-SO-NINTH DOCTOR: When the Fortieth Anniversary of Doctor Who rolled around in 2003, the series had been off the air for years and the TV movie had come and gone. Still, something had to be done to mark the occasion so the official Doctor Who website unveiled "Scream of the Shalka", a flash-animated serial that starred the voices of actor Richard E. Grant as The Doctor and Derek Jacobi as The Master. The BBC promoted this Doctor as The Ninth Doctor, but when the series officially came back in 2005, Grant's Doctor was deported to Doctor Whoville, where non-official Doctors such as his and Peter Cushing's live out their imaginary lives drinking "sonic" screwdrivers and chatting about which companion was the prettiest. Or, to put it plainly, Grant's Doctor was made unofficial, paving the way for Christopher Eccleston to be The Ninth Doctor.

     Grant had previously appeared as The Doctor, along with several other actors portraying the same role, in the 1999 Steven Moffat spoof "The Curse of Fatal Death" made for Comic Relief. Grant would return to Doctor Who in the Matt Smith years, playing the villainous Doctor Walter Simeon in the Christmas Special "The Snowmen" and the equally villainous Great Intelligence in "The Bells of Saint John" and "The Name of the Doctor".

Next: Classic Companions (1963-1989)

Go Back: Confessions of a New "New" Doctor Who Fan

Doctor Who Main Page

The Secret Vortex

"You're so smug and self-satisfied, Doctor."
"I try."