On August 23, Doctor Who fans will witness the season 8 premiere and the first full debut adventure of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. First impressions can be tricky, especially when audiences just spent a few years getting used to the previous incarnation of the heroic Time Lord. Before we see how well Capaldi’s first story delivers, why not take a look at the debuts of the classic era Doctors? Some were hits right from the start, while some had shaky beginnings but became beloved incarnations later on.
The list begins after the break!
“An Unearthly Child”
FIRST DOCTOR: William Hartnell, Age 55
AIR DATE: November 23, 1963
In the very first episode of the classic series, we saw a police box standing in a junk yard for some reason, humming with power. We met Susan, a teenager who spoke of history as if she’d been there and understood science better than her teachers. She said she lived with her grandfather, a doctor of some sort who didn’t like visitors or strangers. This made the Doctor a question mark to the audience before we even met him. He finally appeared as a strange silver-haired man living in a scrap yard, in clothing decades out of date and of slightly clashing styles. He seemed a trickster, playfully dismissing questions and easily distracted by interesting junk and a broken clock. He was sly, a little whimsical and short on temper, telling Susan’s teachers, “I tolerate this century but I don’t enjoy it!”
The First Doctor, only recently departed from Gallifrey and its society, seemed like a wizard of myth and not necessarily the friendly kind. Whether he was on your side or not could change with the wind. Yet there was a child-like joy and pride he took in his ship, even though it was clear immediately that it wasn’t too reliable and he wasn’t the best pilot. While the following story arc didn’t impress many, the very first episode and the First Doctor still hold up today. Actor William Hartnell and producer Verity Lambert had agreed that the Doctor should start off shady and seemingly dangerous and then, as he became influenced by new human friends, soften into a combination of Santa Claus and the Wizard of Oz. You could see those elements immediately.
“The Power of the Daleks”
SECOND DOCTOR: Patrick Troughton, Age 55
AIR DATE: November 23, 1963
When the Doctor had his first regeneration, fans didn’t have to wait until the next season to meet the new guy. This had never been done before and children in 1966 (the target audience of Doctor Who) were not used to lead roles being recast. The regeneration happened half-way through the season and viewers only had to wait a week to discover why the Doctor had transformed into a shorter, younger man whose clothes no longer fit him. Along with this short waiting period, two things helped us accept the concept of regeneration. First, traveling companions Ben and Polly openly acknowledged that the Doctor growing a new body for himself was absolutely bizarre, providing a voice for audience reactions. As they became more comfortable with the idea, so did we. Second, the story was an excellently written Dalek tale and the evil villains instantly recognized the Doctor despite his altered form.
Patrick Troughton was the first actor who had the responsibility of convincing the Doctor Who audience that the hero could alter in appearance and mannerisms and yet still be the same person, as well as still be exciting to watch. Fortunately, he pulled it off in this six-part story. We’d gone from grumpy Grandfather to a weird and affable uncle, one who quickly won over audiences.
“Spearhead From Space”
THIRD DOCTOR: Jon Pertwee, Age 55
AIR DATE: 1970
After six seasons on the run as a fugitive, the Doctor was captured by the Time Lords and sentenced to essentially do community service on Earth for a number of years. The seventh season started in color with a newly regenerated Third Doctor crash landing in the countryside, soon found by his old friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Task force).
No longer able to fly away in his TARDIS, the Doctor was now short-tempered and more sarcastic. Yet there was still a sense of the absent-minded scientist who embraced being a little immature. Pertwee very quickly seemed like an action scientist who might’ve worked with James Bond but didn’t take himself too seriously. Although he is entertaining, this first adventure of his that involved the Autons (who were also present in the Ninth Doctor’s debut) is a bit slow paced and padded for modern audiences.
FOURTH DOCTOR: Tom Baker, Age 40
AIR DATE: 1975
The Fourth Doctor’s debut adventure seems a bit like one of the Third Doctor’s mediocre stories. Despite the fact that the Time Lord’s exile has been lifted at last, this tale still has him on Earth working with U.N.I.T. against a mad-scientist and a secret cabal of villains, a typical experience for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. The titular robot is not very impressive nor is the story all that dramatic, but Tom Baker’s performance is spot-on from the get-go. Suddenly, our world weary though charming Third Doctor was replaced with a space-born Willy Wonka, a big kid whose mind would race at 100 mph, who could think so hard that he forgot you were in the room, and who didn’t understand why wearing viking armor was out of fashion in 20th century Earth. Tom Baker wanted to emphasize the alien nature of the Doctor and it worked immediately. For all its faults, it’s worth seeing “Robot” just to enjoy the Fourth Doctor leaping into action with a grin and a jelly baby.
FIFTH DOCTOR: Peter Davison, Age 28
AIR DATE: 1981
The Fifth Doctor came about in an era where showrunner John Nathan-Turner wanted Doctor Who to appeal to a slightly older audience. Humor and silliness were deliberately pushed back for deeper discussions of science fiction technology and concepts. This opening story takes its time unfolding a mystery for you and the Fifth Doctor is out of sorts for half of it, recovering from a traumatic regeneration. It’s also a bit hampered by having such a strange TARDIS crew: two alien scientists who don’t know each other well and a flight attendant who really doesn’t want to on board in the first place. Despite all this, “Castrovalva” is an interesting introduction to the new incarnation, who comes off as a more vulnerable and human Doctor than had ever been seen previously.
“The Twin Dilemma”
SIXTH DOCTOR: Colin Baker, Age 35
AIR DATE: 1984
Colin Baker was a victim of circumstance. He was and is a fine actor and was passionate about playing the Doctor. His audio dramas by Big Finish have made him an immensely popular Doctor with modern day audiences. Unfortunately, the Fifth Doctor’s fans didn’t have time to mourn his heroic sacrifice and prepare for a new Doctor because John Nathan-Turner decided to follow it up immediately with Baker’s debut story rather than wait until the next season. The Sixth Doctor’s abrasive nature, temporary madness due to his difficult regeneration, and dismissal of his previous incarnation, all made him seem a bit like an ungrateful successor to the Doctor Who legacy.
On top of that, “The Twin Dilemma” is simply a poorly paced story with an undramatic plot. The only really interesting thing we learned about it is that if a Time Lord tries to regenerate after they’ve used up all their lives, they’ll die.
“Time and the Rani”
SEVENTH DOCTOR: Sylvester McCoy
AIR DATE: 1987
Showrunner John Nathan-Turner was convinced that Colin Baker, despite being fired, would return to Doctor Who to do a final adventure where he would regenerate into the Seventh Doctor. But for various reasons, Baker turned down the request and this led to his final adventure having to be re-written at the last minute. There was also the added problem of the new script editor Andrew Cartmel wanting a very different story and atmosphere than what the story writers Pip and Jane Baker intended, leading to arguments. Plus, JNT added a few last minute changes to make the Seventh Doctor seem more fun and goofier than the previous incarnation.
As a result, “Time and the Rani” is a strange, patchwork story that definitely feels rushed. It feels even more out of place when you consider how dark and morally ambiguous the Seventh Doctor became starting in his second year. Most notorious of all, “Time and the Rani” begins with the Doctor regenerating but doesn’t explain how. Did the Sixth Doctor suffer a fatal head injury as his TARDIS crashed in the first scene? Did something happen to him beforehand? It was almost twenty years later before the novel Spiral Scratch by Gary Russell finally answered that question.
Doctor Who (The TV-Movie)
EIGHTH DOCTOR: Paul McGann
AIR DATE: 1996
Context is key. When the TV-movie came out, seven years after the end of the classic series, it looked to be the last chance to bring Doctor Who back to television. But the story was oddly paced, didn’t introduce the new Doctor until about halfway through, made a classic villain into a parody of himself, expected you to know a few things about the hero already, and broke the un-spoken rule that the Doctor was not a romantic being by actually having him kiss a lady! Despite many criticisms, one thing that seemed to get universal agreement: Paul McGann was a great Doctor. Some said it was clear from that one TV-movie that he could have been the best.
Russell T. Davies admired much of what happened in the TV-movie, despite its flaws, and took some inspiration from it and the Eighth Doctor when he ran the new series starting in 2005. Today’s fans often look at the TV-movie very differently. They’re so used to the Doctor being dashing and a little romantic that McGann’s behavior doesn’t seem out of character or shocking. Since they know that good things came later, they can look at the TV-movie not as a last chance that was squandered but merely as a mediocre story, not as good as many episodes but not as bad as others.
McGann has become a popular Doctor in his own right thanks to the many audio dramas he’s recorded with Big Finish for thirteen years now. After appearing in the mini-episode “The Day of the Doctor,” he’s found a surge of new interest from modern Doctor Who TV fans. Perhaps one day he’ll return in some TV-special showcasing a “lost adventure” of the Eighth Doctor. We can only hope.