"Doctor Who" has clocked more than 50 years, transporting fans through time and space on remarkable adventures. Here's a look back at the Time Lord's regenerations over the years. (BBC)Link
William Hartnell, right, played the First Doctor from 1963 to 1966. (Getty Images)Link
Patrick Troughton played the Second Doctor from 1966 to 1969. (BBC)Link
Jon Pertwee played the Third Doctor from 1970 to 1974. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)Link
Tom Baker, center, played the Fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981. (BBC)Link
Peter Davison played the Fifth Doctor from 1981 to 1984 (BBC)Link
Colin Baker played the Sixth Doctor from 1984 to 1986. (BBC)Link
Sylvester McCoy played the Seventh Doctor from 1987 until the show's cancellation in 1989.Link
Paul McGann played the Eighth Doctor in 1996. (BBC)Link
Christopher Eccleston played the Ninth Doctor in 2005. (SyFy)Link
David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor from 2005 to 2010. (BBC)Link
Matt Smith has played the Eleventh Doctor -- the Time Lord's current incarnation -- since 2010. (BBC)Link
In the annals of space, time and television, there is nothing quite like “Doctor Who,” the British sci-fi series that this year is celebrating a 50th anniversary, in your Earth years. Only “Star Trek” comes close for persistence of a franchise, and it does not come close.
What sets “Doctor Who” apart is that, notwithstanding the distance from its paint-and-cardboard, spaceship-on-a-string early episodes to the beautifully realized, seamlessly fantastic creation it is today, the current series is the same one that began on the BBC in 1963 — neither a sequel nor a re-conception, but the identical show.
It has centered on the same character: an extraterrestrial Time Lord who travels all of creation in what looks like an old London police box and who has been played by 11 actors, each new Doctor a “regeneration” of the last, different but the same, the same but different. Whether a clown, a dandy, a toff or a don, curly-headed or lank-haired, younger and older, wilder or milder, tall or short (but mostly tall), they are all one.
It’s an invention whose necessity arose from the retirement after three seasons of the first Doctor, William Hartnell: The moment when the reedy, aristocratic Hartnell was succeeded by the thicker, excitable Patrick Troughton was the moment that fused the DNA of the character and the series that contains him — for, like the Doctor himself, “Doctor Who” lives by dying, by periodically cutting away old growth to let new shoots sprout.
It survived even what might be called an extended state of suspended animation, from its cancellation in 1989 to its revival in 2005, interrupted by a single TV movie (and failed pilot) in 1996 and kept alive through a stream of radio dramas and novels featuring a variety of former Doctors and companions — he has a habit of picking up fellow travelers, usually British earthlings — that continues to this day alongside the recent series.
The cultural penetration of “Doctor Who” is deep and widespread in Britain, where every schoolchild knows what a TARDIS or a Dalek is. (The Doctor’s space-time machine and his greatest enemy, respectively, for you who don’t.)
There is a sense of possession there, and of passion shared across and among generations: Britons speak of “my Doctor” to denote the version they grew up on, or came to love best. (Good science fiction unites young and old: It lets adults play like kids, and treats kids like grown-ups.) And possibly not least, the series gives the nation a central role in the affairs of the universe: The Doctor may come from the planet Gallifrey, but he always speaks with some sort of British accent.
The show didn’t make its way to the U.S. until the 1970s, when it was spottily syndicated with fourth Doctor Tom Baker — with his Harpo Marx eyes and hair, his wide-brimmed hat and absurdly long mufflers, the Doctor previously best known to Americans.
A cult following formed here — there have been “Doctor Who” conventions in this country as far back as 1979 — but it was not until the 21st century revival that the series really caught hold, first on the network then known as the Sci-Fi Channel and now on BBC America.
Former show runner Russell T. Davies, who revived the series and was a fan from childhood, had worked in children’s television and created the original “Queer as Folk,” which reflects the range of sensibilities he brought to the job. His version sings with the show’s traditions and details, to the point that even the rhythmic pulse of its opening theme was converted into a plot point.
He has not so much changed the series as he has plumbed its depths and teased to the surface what it always contained, or at least implied: romance, trauma, humor, sexiness, poetry.
He also gave the TARDIS a soul and, crucially, made the Doctor not only the last survivor of his race (or so he believed) but also the instrument of its apparently necessary destruction; his Doctor is, newly, a haunted man. The character, who always had been a bit of a man on the run — “Run!” is, in fact, the first word the ninth Doctor speaks — was now also on the run from himself.
He’s a savior and a danger, depending on where you stand — a man without a mission except as missions find him. The 21st century Doctors — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith — play him, in different ways (roughneck, charmer, weirdo), with the depth you’d expect of a man nearly a millennium old who has seen the best and the worst the universe has to offer, from one end to the other and from its first moments until its last.
Every regeneration of the Doctor means a parting, and there are further partings as companions come and go. The trepidation and excitement that attend these moments were only multiplied when, in 2009, Davies handed the keys to Steven Moffat, who brought with him new stars — Smith, the current Doctor, darkly goofy, and Karen Gillan, his first, now former companion — and a more cerebral sensibility; he loves making complicated puzzles with time, for dramatic or comic effect.
There are still those mourning the loss of Davies and of 10th Doctor Tennant, who, with companion Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, gave the series its first full-on (if not exactly consummated) romance, but Moffat’s work has its own moving poetry.
Yet loss is the heart of the show — there have been more tears shed or choked back here, surely, than in any other science fiction series — and there are episodes I cannot re-watch unless I am in a mood to weep myself. Loss — and the connection that loss requires — that’s what powers “Doctor Who.”
The time-twisting gives the stories an element of fate; it is a show about people who are meant to be together. And behind all the swashbuckling, the suspense, the horror and the fun, beats a tale of love and friendship and bonds that the farthest reaches of space and time cannot break.
– Robert Lloyd
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