Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Doctor's Dozen: Favorite Portrayals of Doctor Who, Part One

Peter Capaldi: The 12th Doctor


It's official! The bookies and rumor mongers were right. Peter Capaldi has been cast  as the 12th incarnation of "the Doctor" for the long running British television program Doctor Who. Although I haven't seen him in a lot of his roles, aside from his appearance in the Doctor Who episode "Fires of Pompeii," I'm rather pleased with the casting.

Now I know that many people were vying for mixing it up and making the Doctor's next regeneration a political statement by making the Doctor female or a minority (which I totally would have been fine with, by the way, if they made the casting purposeful and organic to the story and the character). Yet I find it super interesting to see them cast an older Doctor (Capaldi is 55, the same age as William Hartnell, the first actor to play the Doctor), bucking the trend of casting younger, hipper Doctors since the show came back on the air in 2005. An older doctor is a nice throwback to the classic series, and is especially poetic considering the 50th anniversary. What makes me even more excited, however, is that Capaldi himself is a passionate fan of the series, having watched it since he was a kid. You want somebody who is invested and passionate about the show and has a history with it and who isn't just callously using it as the next rung in his career.

Doctor Who's showrunner, chief writer, and producer Steven Moffat has also mentioned that he already had Capaldi in mind for the role before this round of casting, when Tennant left the show in 2010, but Matt Smith ultimately landed the role that time around. That sort of lasting impression bodes well for us viewers. If he won over Steven Moffatt so readily, I'm ready to give Capaldi ample time and mileage to win me over. Frankly, I'm more than a little excited to see what he, Moffat, and the rest of the Who Crew do with the role in one of the most exciting periods in the show's history.

Thus as my own way of welcoming this new era of Who into our lives, I wanted to iterate my own personal favorite list of the 11 previous doctors, from first to last. In all honesty, I like all the doctors, and think they all brought something valuable, even special, to the role. But, come on, we know that we all play favorites. And I know many lists will be different than mine, and I expect those writers to defend their choices as vigorously as I'll defend mine. So with the big question mark of Peter Capaldi already factored in, let's get to the remaining of my "Doctor's Dozen":

1. The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant): The Soulful Doctor
David Tennant: The 10th Doctor
No big surprise or controversy here. There's a reason that David Tennant currently tops so many polls as a lot of people's favorite doctor, displacing even Tom Baker's iconic portrayal of the Fourth Doctor in many people's minds. Despite the excellent first series of the show after it re-started in 2005, it wasn't until Christopher Eccleston's Doctor regenerated into David Tennant's version that the show really got cooking. It seemed to be then that the show accumulated the fan base that it did.  I believe we can trace back the show's current success back to David Tennant's powerful and emotionally poignant portrayal of the role.

David Tennant did something very important with the role. Doctor Who had traditionally been very tied with logic and reason and, despite his charm and brilliance and general morality, he could often seem emotionally distant with his companions and the others he interacted with (there are exceptions here, of course, especially with Peter Davison's 5th Doctor being an especially warm hearted and sensitive soul). Yet with David Tennant's arrival, we found an emotionally and even spiritually connected Doctor who, despite (and at times because of) his occasional dark moments of angst or anger, seemed to be the most human of all the Doctors. He was a man of sorrows and loneliness, a man of compassion and emotional complexity, a man who had experienced both trauma and true love.

And that "love" was a controversial element to David Tennant's stint as the Doctor as the then showrunner and producer Russel T. Davies wasn't afraid to bring a little romance into the Doctor's life. With the rare exceptions of the chemistry between the Fourth Doctor and his fellow Time Lord companion Romana, as well as the Eighth Doctor's general romantic sensibility, most of the Doctors in the classic series had seemed rather asexual, showing little of that kind of interest in the romantic possibilities with all of these "companions" he brought onto his TARDIS.  He often had a grandfatherly influence as the older incarnations, and a jovial, friendly tone with with his companions as younger incarnations like Peter Davison.

Yet Tennant's Doctor and his companion Rose obviously had romantic feelings for each other, while his next companion Martha Jones was also clearly in love with him (although with Martha it was not reciprocated, as the Doctor's heart was still tragically with Rose).  This trend, of course, opened up Matt Smith's Doctor to have his relationship with River Song later in the series.  Again, all of the touchy-feely dimensions of the new direction of the show have been controversial additions with some classic Who fans, but I think it is this deeply human aspect of the new Who that has made it as popular as it now is and opened it up to a whole new audience (including a growing female fan base that I have noticed become devoted to a show that used to be dominated by male viewers).

Tennant's selflessness and heroism made you admire him. His ultimate sacrifice at the end of his stint as the Doctor made you honor him. But it was his plaintive vulnerability encapsulated by his final words, "I don't want to go," that made you sincerely and deeply love him. Tears were not common things in the classic series, but the new iterations of Who have deep wells of that kind of soulfulness, led by the moving portrayal of David Tennant.

2. The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith): The Magical Doctor
Matt Smith: The 11th Doctor
Now I know that some fans of the classic series will cry heresy that Tom Baker didn't claim either of my top two spots. But Matt Smith and David Tennant are pretty neck and neck in my admiration regarding their portrayals. Tennant really only wins by a hair, as I'm really fond of Smith's whimsical, wise, and witty Doctor. It also helps for me that the 11th Doctor has had some of my favorite companions/supporting characters, and that Steven Moffat has been in charge of the series since Matt Smith came on board. Moffat is definitely my favorite writer of Doctor Who and I was very gratified to see him take the reigns after the very capable Russel T. Davies exited the show.

Smith was something new for the show, being the youngest actor to play the role, but you hardly notice his age as his portrayal reflects an interesting dichotomy of the young and the old. Smith draws a lot from the Patrick Troughton's 2nd Doctor's whimsical but secretly wise Doctor, to great effect. On one hand you have this energetic and completely barmy sort of energy from Smith's 11th Doctor, but underneath it is this aged, ancient wisdom and tiredness that also emerges. Matt Smith's portrayal is like an old man telling a fairy tale, and it is in that telling where the Doctor finds his youth again.  It is that underlining fairy tale sensibility of the 11th Doctor that really marks the 11th Doctor's tenure in the TARDIS as something remarkable and beautiful. So, yes, he even beats out Tom Baker for me.

3. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker): The Trickster Doctor  

Tom Baker: The Fourth Doctor
Now Tom Baker, in the minds of many, is the THE Doctor of the classic series. For many of us Americans, it was the re-runs of Doctor Who on PBS that featured Tom Baker that gave us our first taste of the Doctor (I remember my brother Mark watching the show when I was a kid and being drawn to this bizarre but fascinating show that he was engaged in). Baker's iconic knitted scarf, toothy grin, floppy hat, and witty dialogue was the portrayal that paved the show's future for decades afterwards and dominated the landscape. When people thought of who the Doctor was, Tom Baker was the face who appeared before them. 

Now Baker's Doctor is extremely eccentric (as is Baker in real life), but easily lovable. His odd charm as he offered his enemy jelly babies, or made funny quips that caught other characters off guard, were the elements that made him so memorable. He has a kind of trickster quality that is playful and that throws his enemies off guard, all the while out thinking them and outmaneuvering them when they have underestimated him (not unlike Troughton's Second Doctor in this regard). His intimate enemies, however, understood his genius and it's when he's facing off against the Master, or Davros, or the Daleks, that you get to see the true power underneath the goofy grin and mugging, and it was in those breath taking moments that it became clear that Baker's 4th Doctor was a true force to reckoned with. 

It's interesting when you watch interviews of Baker and those who worked with him, you find that it was often a very difficult working situation. Baker was opinionated, self centered, hard to work with, and impossible to control. He constantly butted heads with directors (he did not like to be told what to do and felt that he understood his character better than they did), changed his lines (which frustrated the writers), and was sometimes distant with his fellow actors (except Lalla Ward, who played his companion Romana II, who he had a romance and brief marriage with... although their relationship deteriorated into a divorce).

And yet Baker was one of the actors who really loved and owned the role. He has often referred to his time on Doctor Who as the happiest in his life. When he went out in public he often kept on the persona of the Doctor when in the presence of fans and children. In so many ways, he WAS the Doctor and embodied the Who mythos. It's not surprising that Tom Baker didn't get a lot of work as an actor after Doctor Who (although I loved him as Puddleglum in the BBC's old adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair), as he was such an odd looking fellow to begin with (not exactly James Bond material), but also because he fused himself so much with the role of the Doctor that it became difficult to differentiate the man from the character. 

Now there is much more discussion of the rest of the Doctors on my list to come in the next few days. With 12 actors who have now been cast in the role, and 50 years of history, there is a great deal more I want to mention. Who makes it to the upper echelons of my list and Who is closer to the bottom may surprise you. So stay tuned!  

UPDATE: Here's Part Two:

Also feel free to leave comments about Who makes it on the top of your list!


  1. Thanks for your post, Mahonri. I appreciated your hawk-eyed and nuanced take on the Doctors' personality. It's hard for some of us to take a step back and analyze something so big, and I think you did a great job.

    I had forgotten how much I was into the original Dr. Who series. I, like you, got into the series after the 1989 cancelation, when it was on late night reruns on PBS. I remembered that I had only seen a few episodes, but I realized reading your post that I remembered far more than that. I must have watched most of the episodes from the middle of the 4th Doctor to the end of the 7th Doctor. How did I do this, being a teenager who believed in sleeping, like you? I think I recorded them with a timer and watched them later, goodness knows when. I remember, too, being mad that after the series concluded, PBS (after canceling them for a while, maybe?) stopped showing the episodes in chronological order, also stopped showing the entire 1:15 serial in one piece as they had before, instead showing only the small parts of an episode at a time, the way they originally aired. Personally, when I only saw 15 or so minutes every Saturday, it was hard to keep interest. (Of course I saw the TV movie live, and even watched the flash-animated never-produced Douglas Adams episode, Shada (

    But I must have loved the old series, and I can't for the life of me remember exactly why. As for the new series, I have seen a few episodes here and there, as people have said "You'd love it!" and sat me down to their favorite episodes. So I have seen most of the best-loved and oft-quoted of the new series episodes, but I have yet to really get into it. I'm not sure why. Any guesses? What are the big differences between the old and new series, besides episode length?

    PS I had no idea that my sister played a large part in hooking you on Who.

    1. Thanks, Peter!

      I think I may have watched the TV movie with you. I remember watching it at Bill's house, but can't remember if you were there with us.

      I like Shada! Just watched the flash-animated version for the first time the other week. The story has held up well, which probably had a lot to do with the brilliance of Douglas Adams (his few other Who episodes are fun as well).

      I'm surprised you haven't gotten into the new series. Maybe because you have only seen isolated episodes, instead of chronologically? It's a show that really does build on itself.