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?"

     "An Unearthly Child" was not the strongest way to start the series, but the show went "viral" (to coin a phrase from the future) with "The Daleks", and Hartnell's tenure on Doctor Who was marked with highly imaginative storylines, several outstanding and surprising episodes and a handful of great companions. Unfortunately, many of the episodes are lost, but there is enough there to show that Hartnell was an outstanding Doctor.

     At first, Hartnell was unsure about being on the series,  but as Doctor Who'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.

Good Show, Man!
: 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, recommended by Hartnell himself, 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. He wore ill-fitting clothes that made him look like he just stepped off the stage of an English Music Hall. Occasionally, he played the recorder. 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."

Above: The First Doctor regenerates into The Second.

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. He was also in three Classic Era adventures: "The Enemy of the World" and "The War Games" (both 1968) with his father, and "The Curse of Peladon" (1972) with Jon Pertwee.

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.
Doctor Who: "The Purge of The Archives!": Due to the practice of wiping older video programs to re-use the tapes for new shows, many early shows from the original Doctor Who series are now missing, mostly from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras. In some cases, entire episodes are gone (all of 1963's seven-part "Marco Polo"), while in most cases, individual parts are gone (the six-part "Reign of Terror" is missing episodes 4 and 5). Perhaps the two greatest losses were the 1965-66 "The Daleks' Master Plan", a massive 12-part epic featuring William Hartnell, and 1966's "The Tenth Planet" which features the first appearance of the Cybermen as well as the series' first regeneration, from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.

     Amazingly, while many of the the video portions of Doctor Who are lost, the soundtrack for every missing episode is accounted for, thanks to fans around the world who used to record the audio portion of the shows directly off television for their own private audio libraries. Through the use of animation, still pictures and captions, matched with the audio tracks, several early Doctor Who adventures have been somewhat restored. "The Power of the Daleks" (pictured above) was given a complete animation restoration. If it's a bit stiff and awkward at times, it's still very much worth watching, as being able to watch The Second Doctor's first adventure in animation is better than not being able to watch it at all, especially when you consider how many Troughton episodes are not available at all.

     A handful of Jon Pertwee's episodes could only be found in blackand white, but have been colorized. They look fine.

     The practice of wiping old tapes stopped in 1978, when the emergence of home video created a new market for old shows that would have otherwise been destroyed.

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 without a working TARDIS. With The Doctor now limited to more Earth-based stories, the show changed drastically. Jon Pertwee starred as a dashing, heroic Doctor with expertise at Venusian karate who fit right in with an era that had James Bond movies still going strong. Of course, in this more action -packed time, The Doctor would not be traveling around with schoolteachers, granddaughters or Scotsmen from the 1700s. Instead, he had three excellent companions: UNIT scientist Liz Shaw, followed by Jo Grant, Shaw's replacement, and finally journalist Sarah Jane Smith, possibly the most beloved and popular Doctor Who companion of all time. Doctor Who now sometimes felt like a continuation of The Avengers, which had gone off the air the year before. This would have an effect on the show from here on in, with female companions becoming the norm (see my thoughts in the Jamie McCrimmon section of the Classic Companion page next for more thoughts on this).

     The Third Doctor didn't have a souped-up, gadget-enhanced Aston Martin like James Bond, but he did have a fun little antiquated roadster named "Bessie", which he then souped-up and gadget-enhanced.

     Many of The Third Doctor's adventures featured the evil rogue Time Lord known as The Master, deliciously played in grand Bondian style by Roger Delgado.

     The show was also now in "colour".

     All of this added up to one extremely popular Doctor, still beloved by many fans who grew up with the original series.

     The "Earth Only" policy made it difficult for writers to come up with fresh ideas beyond "The Master teams with an alien race to take over the world", so it was gradually amended and eventually dropped. When The Third Doctor, with the help of his two previous incarnations, defeated the evil rogue Time Lord Omega in 1973's "The Three Doctors", The High Council of Time Lords granted his freedom once again to galavant around the Universe in his beloved blue box.

     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.

Like Doctor, Like Son:
Sean Pertwee, son of John Pertwee, has had a great career of his own on stage, in film and in television. Most recently he has played Inspector Lestrade CBS's Elementary and Alfred Pennyworth, butler of Bruce Wayne in Fox's Gotham.
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. A cross between Harpo Marx and Bob Dylan from the cover of Blonde on Blonde, Baker was The Doctor everybody knew, and even today, many fans rank him as the best of all time. He even became popular in the United States, when, in 1978, American PBS stations started broadcasting a selection of Fourth Doctor episodes.

     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 bizarre 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, armed with leading man looks, solid acting skills and an iconic outfit, Davison took on the unenviable task of following Tom Baker and made a success out of it. Because of his normality, compared to those who came before and after, his Doctor is usually ranked in the middle of the pack, which makes sense.

     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, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison became Tenth Doctor David Tennant's father-in-law when the younger Doctor married the older Doctor's daughter Georgia Moffett, who played the title character of the fourth season "New Who" episode "The Doctor's Daughter".

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.”     

     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 one of the great companions in 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.

     As good as McCoy was, it was not enough. After 26 seasons, Doctor Who was "suspended", a more pleasant word than "canceled", and The Seventh Doctor's ongoing story was left in limbo, until the 1996 TV movie brought The Seventh Doctor back to end his story, after which he regenerated into The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann).

      In 2017, McCoy spoke to Doctor Who Magazine about his time on the show, and how his reign as The Doctor was different from what came before: "[S]ome say it was too funny at the beginning. But we changed that, and made it the darkest the Doctor had ever been. And I think that’s rather good too.”

Pictured directly above: Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies.

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."

Pictured above: Paul McGann as The Doctor in the 2013 mini-episode "Night of the Doctor".

"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, due to Eccleston's ultimate decision not to take part in the special.

     Any more on this subject would be too spoilery. By the way, because he has been shoehorned into the back story, The War Doctor is left unnumbered.

     While working on the 50th Anniversary Special in 2013, he offered his thoughts on the series: "I think that the continuing popularity of Doctor Who over so many years relies on its ability to reinvent itself. The style of writing, the format of the programme and the excellent casting have all kept pace with contemporary idioms and of course, the possibility of the regeneration of the Doctor himself means that the programme never becomes stale... It has been a great experience to be involved in the anniversary programme and I have huge admiration for David and Matt.”

     In a Doctor Who Confidential, he also mentioned how much he loved working with Billie Piper. Which I can readily understand.

     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".
The Doctor and a Half on Holiday: Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant starred in the classic 1987 film Withnail and I about two drug-abusers fed up with life who take a holiday which proves disastrous. As mentioned above, McGann would go on to play The Doctor in the 1996 TV movie and Grant, in animated form, would play The Doctor in the "Scream of the Shalka" in 2003.

Next: Classic Companions (1963-1989)

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"A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points,
but it is by no means the most interesting."

  - The Third Doctor