If you’re a newbie, and haven’t watched anything before David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston, watching William Hartnell could be a bit of a culture shock, especially his earlier stories. His Doctor is not the nicest of men. He’s selfish, mean spirited and more than a little insular. There’s a murderous bent to him too. Underlying in that though is the urge to do what’s right.
It’s his companion – his hostage – Ian Chesterton who’s the hero and Ian’s friend Barbara who teaches the Doctor morality. One thing that happens with Hartnell, and something that is missing for many years after this, is the growth in the Doctor’s personality. From that darker character to a hero, his development is pretty startling. Perhaps it’s his revelation of what his wanderings are doing to his granddaughter, Susan, or perhaps it’s the sense of what’s right coming from Barbara and Ian, but by Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Doctor has changed, and the darker undercurrents are all but gone. On the Daleks, here, he says “yes they dare, and we must dare to try and stop them!” – a far cry from his original meeting with them. Perhaps he feels some kind of responsibility. Make no mistake that William Hartnell loved the Doctor, and he loved the development. Sick of being a hard man and a grouch, he loved being a hero to children. For the Doctor himself, by the time he had a new team in Vicki and Steven, he was an adventurer, and a crusader.
This was only underlined by the arrival of Patrick Troughton. Troughton made Doctor Who immortal. Without his effortless reworking of the character – whilst essentially keeping him the same – there would have been no new Who. Troughton of all the classic Doctors probably influences the new series more than ever, with his whimsical humour tinged with a steely darkness, and the sense of wonderment about where he was going and what he was doing.
In many ways, Jon Pertwee is an oddity in the format and character. He’s the least “Doctory” Doctor. He’s part of the establishment – and whilst balking against it takes time to enjoy fine wine and canoodling with MPs in Gentlemen’s Clubs – and works with the military, a right wing authoritative figure with left wing morals. But Jon is what Doctor Who needed, and his no nonsense, unsubtle performance gave the series a gravitas and seriousness it had been lacking.
Tom Baker picked up Troughton’s mantle and ran with it, being a bombastic bear of a man crashing through conventions with a crazy grin, he was as much the Doctor off screen as on. If Hartnell gave the Doctor life, Troughton gave him immortality and Pertwee gravitas, Baker made him an icon, and his image would resonate for ever after his on-his-heels origins.
Peter Davison allowed the Doctor to be vulnerable, and approachable. One minute he’s travelling the universe with a Time Lady and robot dog, unassailable, the next he’s bickering with petulant children, not all of whom he can protect. Davison allowed the Doctor to be human, in a Time Lordy way.
Colin Baker is the most complex Doctor, at least to this date, and, despite Colin citing Hartnell as his influence, owes more to Pertwee than any other. Assured to the point of arrogant, detached to the point of conceit, he none the less clashes, like his outfit, with uncomfortable juxtapositions of immense emotion and furious morality.
With Sylvester we get to explore (eventually) the darker side, hinted at, particularly, with the second Doctor, as the Seventh lays traps for his deadliest enemies and shows tough love to his companion, herself, perhaps a misfire, but none the less an attempt at bringing real life into Doctor Who. McCoy’s Doctor was one of council estates and single mums, as much as the Ninth Doctor’s was, and as much as the third Doctor’s was one of passed-their-best industries and government interference. Again, Doctor Who reflected society.
Paul McGann didn’t get much of a go at the role, to be fair, but in his two television appearances to date, the one thing he is is romantic. He gives the Doctor wimsy and romance, a glint in his eye, an innocent that he didn’t want corrupted. Eccleston is a survivor, an old soldier. He’s as important to returning the Doctor to tv as Hartnell was for bringing him there in the first place.
The intensity and complexity of Christopher Eccleson can’t be understated. We get to see the Doctor cry. He has a same sex kiss. He hesitates to kill, preferring to inspire others, and is so, so delighted when everybody lives.
David Tennant is a step back towards traditional Doctors. He’s more mad hair and crazy grins, whilst remaining true to the new ethos of geek chique and cool Britannia, a cocky cockney with a motor mouth who, much like the Seventh and Eighth, found himself taking darker and darker paths. It’s not as subtle or layered a performance as Eccleston, but it is very, very Doctor.
Matt Smith finds that old man in a young body thing and runs with it. He channels Pat Troughton and, as his tenure has gone on, he’s become more and more the traditional Doctor, and is now back in his frock coat, waistcoat and bow tie, the iconic Doctor silhouette, whilst maintaining the coolness of Tennant with funky boots and too-short trousers.
So, when people ask me who my favourite Doctor is, I scratch my head and I think all that. How do you choose?