Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Doctor Who: A History

Doctor Who: A History

With the 60th Anniversary and Christmas Specials now released, Ben Holdstock gives a summary of every decade of Doctor Who, noting actor changes, developments in technology, and key episodes to watch from each era- from the 1960s to Present Day.
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Image: Johannes Kalliauer via Wikimedia Commons

The 1960s: Mission to the Unknown (Series 1-6)

“That is the dematerialising control and that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me.”

The Time Meddler, 1965

On a cold, late November evening in 1963, Doctor Who set off on what would become the first of three hundred televised adventures (and counting). The initial concept for the programme, which it has always tried to stay true to over the years (with varying degrees of success), was a fantasy adventure series for the whole family, with as much educational and moral content as possible. In the first series, The First Doctor (William Hartnell) was joined in the time-travelling TARDIS by his young granddaughter Susan, and her schoolteachers Ian (science) and Barbara (history). This grouping was no accident – stories from the early days were split roughly fifty-fifty between science fiction adventures (such as The Daleks, the second ever story) and purely historical ones with no sci-fi elements (like The Aztecs and The Romans), allowing both teachers to educate the audience in their respective areas. Susan, the intelligent and curious youth who was occasionally a bit scared by all the monsters, played the role of audience surrogate, while the mysterious Doctor helped to explain the sometimes confusing plots (some things never change). 

There were to be two major changes to the feel of Doctor Who over the course of the sixties. The first occurred slowly – pure historical stories were phased out gradually in favour of adventures set in the past, but featuring some kind of extraterrestrial influence. The Time Meddler is a particular highlight of this genre, pitting The Doctor against another member of his yet-unnamed species, who is attempting to change the course of the battle of Hastings in 1066. The other change was more sudden. In 1966, following his first encounter with the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet, Hartnell’s First Doctor transformed into Patrick Troughton’s Second. It was a momentous decision – yes, Hartnell couldn’t carry on forever, but would the audience accept a new actor as Doctor Who? Yes, as it happened, helped in no small part by a couple of memorable encounters with the Daleks early on (The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks), and many more Cybermen stories (my favourites from this period are The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion) to reinforce that this was still the same Doctor Who it had always been. 

The Second Doctor is particularly fondly remembered by fans (well, those old enough to remember watching the initial broadcasts, as the original tapes of many sixties stories have now been lost), and with good reason – where Hartnell was the first to play the character, Troughton was arguably the first to play The Doctor in a way that a modern audience would recognise. The First Doctor could, particularly in early episodes, be quite grumpy and unhelpful, only becoming more of a hero figure from series 2’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth onwards. He rarely seemed afraid, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall (occasionally comparing alien weapons to hairdryers, when that was, coincidentally, exactly what the BBC props department had made them out of) as if to remind the audience that none of this was really real. The Second Doctor was very different – his catchphrase, “when I say run, run…” summed him up nicely. He frequently found himself running away from the aliens, usually taking on the role of underdog facing a much more powerful enemy. However, he was an expert at playing the fool to lull enemies into a false sense of security, and of playing them off against each other (memorably in The Faceless Ones, a story filmed at Gatwick airport – I doubt this would happen today), both qualities which would continue well into the 21st century. 

The one to watch: The Mind Robber (Series 6). Everything about Doctor Who in the 1960s was experimental, and this episode is about as experimental as it gets. When the TARDIS malfunctions, The Second Doctor is taken to a place outside of space and time – the land of fiction. Can he escape and remain real, or will he become a work of fiction forever? 

The 1970s: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (series 7-17) 

“The final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?”  

Genesis of the Daleks, 1975 

The 1970s brought a very different look to the programme – and not just because of the switch from black-and-white to colour. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor was marooned on Earth by his own people, the Time Lords, for interfering in the affairs of other planets (in fairness something The Doctor has done occasionally), allegedly in response to the increased costs of colour broadcasting. This meant, for the first time, the programme gained a sizeable recurring cast, in the form of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), fronted by the brave and well-meaning (if occasionally trigger-happy) Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Third Doctor himself reluctantly took on the role of scientific advisor – something which really didn’t suit his new personality (which was more at home in the car-chases of Planet of the Spiders, or engaging in the sorts of physical combat the two previous Doctors would have run away from). However, despite multiple attempts, he never managed to get his TARDIS working properly and escape his exile until the Time Lords pardoned him in the 10th anniversary special The Three Doctors

Restricting the setting to present-day Earth had a major influence on the sorts of story The Third Doctor would find himself in. Modern politics, advancing technology and environmental concerns were now front-and-centre in a way that they hadn’t been before. The Silurians asks whether humans could feasibly coexist on Earth with another intelligent species (the answer is no), Invasion of the Dinosaurs asks whether returning Earth to a time before humans existed would be a good idea (also no), and The Curse of Peladon asks via allegory whether Britain should join the EEC, a precursor to the European Union (the author has decided to leave this one to Exeposé’s politics department). Pertwee finally departed the programme in Planet of the Spiders, a parable about facing fears. Apt, as over the next few years Doctor Who would go down a far more horror-influenced path… 

The Doctor has been referred to as ‘Sherlock Holmes in space’ countless times (including by former showrunner Steven Moffat earlier this year), and this was never more true than in the late 1970s, with a certain Tom Baker in the leading role. There were several stories in the style of a traditional ‘whodunnit’ such as The Robots of Death, and the aliens of this period often took the form of traditional monsters of gothic horror – mummies in Pyramids of Mars, vampires in State of Decay, something akin to Frankenstein’s monster in The Brain of Morbius– the list goes on. This new direction was largely the work of new producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and script editor Robert Holmes. The latter in particular gave Doctor Who some of the wittiest writing it has ever had (particularly in the form of comedic double-acts, such as the two thieves in The Ribos Operation, and Glitz and Dibber in The Mysterious Planet), but also some the most complained-about scenes in the history of the programme (The Doctor having his head held underwater in The Deadly Assassin, and people being suffocated by plastic in Terror of the Autons). Following these complaints, science fiction comedy writer Douglas Adams was appointed script editor in 1979. Darker elements were removed, and humour took the driving seat. 

As Doctor Who transitioned from the sometimes grim, sometimes darkly comic Holmes-style stories such as Genesis of the Daleks to the outright comedic farces of the Adams era such as The Androids of Tara, there were very few elements which remained consistent – and it is largely down to the gravitas of Tom Baker that Doctor Who was recognisably the same programme. He re-introduced a certain alien-ness to the character of The Doctor which had not been seen since Hartnell, and had perhaps the most commanding on-screen presence of any Doctor. Oh, and he had quite an iconic look… 

The one to watch: City of Death (Series 17). Against a backdrop of central Paris (this is where the budget went that series), The Doctor becomes involved in a mad plot to resurrect an almost extinct race of aliens by stealing the Mona Lisa. A beautiful satire on art, a crazy time-travel adventure and hints of romance – oh, and John Cleese is in it. “Duggan! I think that was possibly the most important punch in human history!” 

The 1980s: Trial of a Timelord (series 18-26)

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold…” 

Survival, 1989 

In 1980, Doctor Who was comprehensively rebooted (again) by new producer John Nathan-Turner. He would be the only constant in what would be ten years of trying to find a way to return to the success it had enjoyed in the ‘golden age’ of Baker, Hinchcliffe and Holmes. Ultimately, it would never recover the critical acclaim or viewing figures it had done in the late seventies, but it would produce plenty of memorable stories which stand the test of time. 

The first approach taken, in what would be Tom Baker’s final series in 1980, was to introduce a more serious tone, and more real-world science, into the programme. The change was immediate – watching them back today, 1979’s Shada (a mad satire on universities and the pursuit of knowledge set in Cambridge) and 1980’s Logopolis (a story about how entropy, a thermodynamic phenomenon describing disorder, is bringing about the end of the universe… I’m a physics student and didn’t touch entropy until the second year of my degree) couldn’t be further apart. While this might have won over fans of ‘hard’ science fiction, it alienated a lot of viewers – and the lack of humour in particular greatly annoyed Baker. There were highlights – Full Circle and Castrovalva in particular – but ultimately it was decided that Doctor Who should head off in a completely different direction once Fifth Doctor Peter Davison arrived. 

Into the mid-eighties, the serious tone would remain, but there would be more of a focus on action, drama and characters. The Fifth Doctor’s relationships with his companions were different to those which went before – Adric, Nyssa and Tegan were more like his (occasionally squabbling) children than traditional assistants, and The Doctor became more of a father figure. This served to increase the emotional weight of episodes like Earthshock, in which Adric dies a shocking and tragic death (the first time a companion had died since the Hartnell story The Daleks’ Master Plan), and The Caves of Androzani, where The Fifth Doctor, still scarred by the sour note on which Tegan left the TARDIS two stories earlier, lays down his life to save a woman he had only just met. There was also an increase in violence in stories towards the end of Davison’s run – The Doctor pulls a gun on the Davros, creator of the Daleks, in the gorgeously bleak Resurrection of the Daleks – something which would continue with his successor, Colin Baker. 

Davison had been selected to play The Doctor after careful deliberation – he was already established actor, a safe pair of hands to help ease the transition away from Tom Baker. With Colin Baker, the opposite approach was taken – The Sixth Doctor was written to shock the audience, and initially come across as rude, selfish and occasionally violent (attempting to strangle his companion Peri in his very first story, The Twin Dilemma). Baker planned for The Sixth Doctor to soften with time and mould into the friendly adventurer viewers were familiar with, but after just two series, amid complaints of excessive violence (The Doctor apparently pushing a guard into a bath of acid in Vengeance on Varos and then making a cheeky joke about it, and the disturbing nature of just about everything in The Two Doctors), he was shown the door. 

Time for one final roll of the dice. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor initially marked a return to more light-hearted stories, but this was quickly abandoned (thankfully – I advise giving series 23 a wide berth) in favour of a darker tone, with hints of The Doctor’s mysterious past, and stories which were more political, moral and relevant to the present day. Viewing figures were dwindling, with Doctor Who now airing in midweek while Coronation Street was showing on ITV. Despite this, the episodes produced in 1988 and 1989 were some of the finest that Doctor Who had ever made. Remembrance of the Daleks took viewers back to 1963 and used the Daleks as a metaphor for then-contemporary racist attitudes, while The Greatest Show in the Galaxy used a circus tent as a metaphor for the BBC and its mysterious ‘target audience’ (represented here as a chilling, emotionless nuclear family sitting alone in the back row). Viewers even got to explore a companion’s backstory, something which had never been done in any depth Doctor Who, with The Curse of Fenric (a truly remarkable story set in the dying days of WWII, but hinting at The Cold War). The story that really sums up this final chapter, though, is Survival – a thoughtful, moving parable about growing up, finding love and being kind. Doctor Who was the most relevant it had ever been, and had finally found a new, positive direction after Tom Baker. It was then, of course, that the BBC decided to finally cancel it entirely. 

The one to watch: The Caves of Androzani (Series 21). Politicians, scientists, soldiers… everyone is obsessed with one thing, the rare mineral spectrox, and will go to whatever lengths necessary to secure it. Nobody can be trusted – can The Doctor, or anyone else, make it out alive? 

The 1990s: The Ordeal 

“Oh dear, now look at that. I’ve gone and used up three bodies in just under a minute… That really was terribly silly of me. Sorry about that, my dear. Bit unfortunate.” 

The Curse of Fatal Death, 1999 

Ah, the wilderness years. Between 1990 and 2000, there were only three Doctor Who stories produced for television. The first was the 1993 anniversary special, Dimensions in Time, a crossover with Eastenders hosted by Noel Edmonds. The less said about this the better – why Tom Baker agreed to be in this and not the 20th anniversary episode The Five Doctors (flawed, but a whole lot better than this) I’ll never understand. 

The first serious attempt at reviving the programme came in 1996 with the confusingly titled Doctor Who, a film (intended as a pilot for a new series co-produced with Universal Studios) known today as the TV Movie in fan circles, starring Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor. Audiences were impressed with the raised production values, but the plot was a little confusing- even by Doctor Who standards. All I can say for certain (having watched it three times now) is that it was something to do with going back in time on New Year’s Eve, 2000, to stop the TARDIS melting the world. Or something. Who knows. 

In 1999, another special episode aired – and this one would help to banish all memory of Dimensions in Time. Airing as part of the BBC’s Comic Relief, and written by a little-known screenwriter named Steven Moffat, this attempted to parody Doctor Who rather than continue the established timeline, and so a new actor was hired for the part – Rowan Atkinson. The special, entitled The Curse of Fatal Death, brought back old nemesis The Master, and several other previously-unseen incarnations of The Doctor (namely Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley) for a battle with the Daleks – and some toilet humour. It’s a must-see. 

The 2000s and beyond: A Good Man Goes to War 

“That is so human. Where angels fear to tread. Even now, standing on the edge. It’s that feeling you get, eh? Right at the back of your head. That impulse. That strange little impulse. That mad little voice saying, go on. Go on. Go on. Go over. Go on…” 

The Satan Pit, 2006 

In 2005, Doctor Who finally returned, properly. Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was more human than any that had gone before – for one thing he is perhaps the only Doctor whose costume wouldn’t look out of place on contemporary Earth. He and his successor, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, were both more overtly emotional too, both still reeling from a conflict known as The Time War (which occurred some time between the TV Movie and Rose). The end result was two Doctors who were perhaps the most relatable since the programme began. This, coupled with the increased focus on character and relationships (the immediate family of the first new companion Rose Tyler are recurring characters, a first), meant the audience of the day were put through an emotional rollercoaster like never before. There were tears as The Doctor and Rose were separated for (apparently) the final time in the heartbreaking Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, terror as The Doctor was powerless to stop an invisible monster in Midnight, and laughter as chaos (and monsters made of human fat) reigned in Partners in Crime. Oh, The Tenth Doctor’s emotional demise in The End of Time, giving his life to save companion Donna’s elderly grandfather… and then changing his mind when it’s too late- that makes me tear up even now. “I don’t wanna go”… where are the tissues? 

Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor should really have been the last – it had long been established that Time Lords like The Doctor can only regenerate twelve times, and counting Tennant’s regeneration into himself in Journey’s End and the retroactively added War Doctor from The Day of The Doctor (intended to be between McGann and Eccleston in the timeline), he had by this point exhausted all of them. This, coupled with Steven Moffat’s often dark and highly elaborate plots, many of which take place over the course of entire series, could easily have made this era quite depressing and difficult to watch. Fortunately, we had Matt Smith, who decided to play The Doctor like Patrick Troughton on a sugar high. Yes, The Eleventh Doctor’s era does suffer from over-complicated plotting at times, and a bit of an obsession with killing and resurrecting The Doctor and his companions (The Doctor actually ‘dies’ in the finale of every Matt Smith series – and don’t get me started on how many ‘deaths’ Rory had) but there are far too many highlights to name here – from the madly brilliant The Eleventh Hour, my first introduction to Doctor Who, to the emotional Vincent and The Doctor, and the utterly terrifying The Impossible Astronaut

After cannily acquiring another twelve regenerations in what is perhaps the greatest episode of Doctor Who ever, the 50th anniversary special The Day of The Doctor, Smith gave way to Peter Capaldi, and stories became darker and more adult. His first story Deep Breath couldn’t be further from Smith’s introductory episode The Eleventh Hour – the latter is Doctor Who at its most ridiculous (and I love it, I cannot recommend that story enough), while the former is a thoughtful tale about the purpose of life. The Twelfth Doctor’s stories are also some of Doctor Who’s most inventive – the souls of the dead hide in white noise in Dark Water, The Doctor discovers he is living in a simulation in Extremis, and viewers are left in the dark about whether there is a monster at all in Listen. Capaldi’s finest moment as The Doctor is Heaven Sent, an episode where he is the only credited actor, and spends forty-five minutes trapped in a castle alone with his thoughts, consumed by grief at the death of Clara. It’s part episode of Doctor Who, part art piece, and part meditation on the futility of human existence. Oh, and he can’t help but break the fourth wall in masterful style. 

Following a final confrontation with The Master(s) in the beautiful World Enough and Time, and an encounter with his old self The First Doctor (now played by David Bradley) in Twice Upon a Time, Capaldi was replaced by Jodie Whittaker, and another new era began. Ever since the very first story An Unearthly Child, The Doctor has had a habit of visiting contemporary London frequently. While that is understandable for a programme made in the UK, there is no reason it had to be that way – especially given that it had been produced in Cardiff since 2005! The Welsh capital has made a few appearances (Boom Town with David Tennant, for example), and Matt Smith visited Yorkshire once (in The Crimson Horror), but it was in Whittaker’s era, with Chris Chibnall at the helm, that Doctor Who really became a programme set across Britain, rather than across London. Whittaker’s inquisitive and mysterious Doctor battled Daleks in Bristol (Revolution of the Daleks), the Judoon in Gloucester (Fugitive of the Judoon) and spent her first series based in Sheffield (The Woman Who Fell to Earth onwards). In the stories themselves, current issues such as climate change and disease were dealt with less subtly than previously, with The Doctor lecturing her companions (and by extension the audience) on the environment (Orphan 55) and microplastics (Praxeus). There may have been less focus on the science and the aliens, but these elements were definitely still there, whether inspiring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in The Haunting of Villa Diodati or travelling through time causing chaos in The Power of The Doctor (which features what I consider to be Sacha Dhawan’s definitive performance as The Master). 

Then, somehow, David Tennant returned [to be continued…]

In this anniversary year, and with hundreds of episodes now on iPlayer, there has never been a better time to delve into the back-catalogue of Britain’s favourite science fiction drama. Most episodes I’ve mentioned in the text can be found there, either in their original form (black-and-white live-action up to 1969 and colour thereafter), or animated (where the original tape has been junked, either due to a BBC policy as with several Hartnell and Troughton stories, or strikes halting production as with Shada). The exceptions are The Daleks’ Master Plan which has not yet been animated (an audiobook is available), An Unearthly Child (which is missing due to a rights dispute with the estate of the original writer), The Curse of Fatal Death (which is on YouTube) and Dimensions in Time (which you don’t want to watch anyway… fine, that’s on YouTube too). Enjoy! 

Oh, and if you want more Doctor Who in your life, check out UoE_WhoSoc on Instagram.

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