For a role that is over 40 years old and had over 12 actors play the part (including Peter Cushing back in the 1960′s theatrical releases and Richard E. Grant in the weird online animated series just to name two), there really are many options open for an actor to pursue. With so much diversity, how can you really nail down what makes the Doctor the character that he is? Some fans would argue that by the program’s nature he is not a consistent character and that is certainly valid.
However, allowing for some wiggle room from the production team, there must be some set of character traits that are viewed as ‘Doctor-ish.’ In my opinion, though, the current series Doctor is an entirely different character from the Classic Doctor Who, sharing very few of the consistent traits that I think of as essential.
It’s important to note that since I wrote this article, it has gained a strong response from fans of both the old and new series. I had intended the article to be a broad analysis of the character in preparation of Doctor No. 11, but as I wrote it started to become clear why Doctor No. 10 does not work for me and why the new series functions far better as its own entity. There are many fans who do not share this point of view who appreciate both the classic and new versions, but in my view the more I watch both the more disparate they become. There is also the matter of perspective.
During one instance when David Tennant’s performance as the Doctor came under fire on a message board, one fan pointed out that Tom Baker generated a massive negative response from fans when he first arrived, transforming the heroic role that Jon Pertwee had developed into something comical. I don’t know how much truth there is to that statement, but it is definitely food for thought.
As such, I ask that you bear all this in mind as you read my thoughts on what makes this character who he is.
Uncanny intelligence- With a 500 year diary in one hand and a leash leading to robot dog containing a vast database of information in the other there seems to be little that the Doctor doesn’t know. Despite the fact that we are told on several occasions that he scored very poorly in school, the Doctor knows so much about the history of the universe that you often wonder why he even bothers with the robot dog (I know that I wondered).
This intelligence was at one time played up as a kind of cosmic omniscience, making the Doctor into some kind of grand manipulator (see the McCoy era and the TV movie).
The Doctor of the new series knows everything and anything that the writer knows but seems far more obsesses with tabloid magazines, pop bands and cult movies. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the Doctor sing the Ghost Busters theme song or call out the Master for being gay. Maybe the Doctor lost a large portion of his intelligence during the Time War?
An alien persona- Straight from the first episode we are exposed to the idea that the Doctor is not one of us. He obeys a different set of standards as far as morals and operates on a different plane of right and wrong. This is essential given the fact that he dispatches alien menaces so often. The best examples of this alien-ness appears in Tom Baker’s ‘lost bohemian’ Doctor and oddly enough Colin Baker’s brash and inconstant Doctor. But it must be said that it all stems from the masterful performance from William Hartnell who so perfectly nails the part right out the gate that it still impresses me to this day.
The First Doctor is unlike anyone we had ever seen before.
This alien-ness is often played up as being quirky (see the entirety of David Tennant’s performance) and loses any of the subtlety that the other actors have imbued the role with over the years. Just look at Troughton’s touching scene with Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen and compare it to this image from Idiot’s Lantern. The current Doctor does things that make little sense possibly to hint at his alien nature but it ends up looking more like a British answer to Jim Carey on ecstasy who reacts to everything as if he has just noticed it and it’s all so very amazing and fantastic.
A wanderer through space and time- The Doctor is constantly on the move and this has to be addressed in the context of the program. If the character is without a reason to be traveling, the plot has to accommodate with some kind of plot contrivance (getting Ian and Barbara/Tegan back home). In some adventures the Doctor appears to be investigating a mystery that has long eluded him, in others he is answering a summons for help but he always moving and for a reason. Tom Baker’s era fluctuated madly for why he was going from planet to planet, but his very performance allowed the viewer to let it go. Tom himself seemed to be wandering about, perhaps looking for himself.
This wanderlust angle was played up surprisingly well in the first season the new Doctor Who as Chris Eccleston seemed to be incapable of being still lest he deal with his immediate tragic past. The following three seasons have given very little reason for the Doctor to move from point to point as evidenced by David Tennant’s Doctor taking Rose to see Ian Drury and the Blockheads (seriously, who thought of that gem!?).
In the 25th and 26th seasons of the classic program the Doctor was taking care of a kind of laundry list of loose ends as he eliminated foe after foe. This really impressed me at the time simply because it was so novel but really raises some serious questions about the Doctor’s motives.
Ingenious inventor/freedom fighter- In Sydney Newman’s pitch for the character of Doctor Who back in 1963, he described the Doctor as a both despising technology and being an inventor. This is a fantastic character trait that has long appealed to me. The Doctor is capable of putting together a weapon to confuse the Daleks out of anything the BBC programming budget can give him yet he absolutely hates societies reliant on technology. In fact, it can be said that his mission is to free cultures from oppression of any kind, including dependence on others.
The third Doctor was one of the most inventive incarnations, as evidenced by his endless series of gadgets thrown together during his exile on Earth. He also staunchly stood up against ‘the man’ even though he was working with the United Nations at the time. It always struck me as poor writing that Pertwee’s Doctor was such a reactionary while paradoxically part of the military, but in retrospect I think it was rather sophisticated. It hinted at the truth that we all have to work together to get the job done.
David Tennant, on the other hand, relies almost exclusively on the sonic screwdriver which is capable of more extraordinary things from week to week.In addition, Tennant destroys anything and anyone that gets in his way no matter what their story is. This lack of any hands-on inventiveness coupled with a lack of any moral conscience at all has greatly soured my enjoyment of the new program.
Not what he seems- You can roll this into the alien persona, I suppose, but most of the Doctors have two ‘faces,’ if you will. Tom Baker was mad and serious all at once (and such a magnificent actor that he could pull off both). Peter Davison came off as young and inexperienced when in reality he was a wise and brave soul far more powerful than he let on. The best examples of this double personality trait are Patrick Troughton and Sylvester McCoy who are both slight people seeming to offer no resistance whatsoever but underneath the shy facade lies another person entirely. We see this in Evil of The Daleks where the Doctor willingly subjects Jamie to testing by the Daleks and in The Curse of Fenric where the Doctor plays on Ace’s emotions to gain the upper hand on the villain. Admittedly, McCoy’s performance was in large part an homage to Troughton, but there it is.
Bad examples of this ‘I’m not what you think I am’ are rife in the Russel T Davies regime and mainly due to the poor quality of the scripts. If the lame dialogue in the 1988 adventure Silver Nemesis ‘Doctor, who are you?’ didn’t make you roll your eyes, the incessant reminders that the Doctor is a ‘lonely God’ and is ‘like fire’ surely will. Apparently this new Doctor is a walking poem just waiting to be found in some teenager’s diary.
In addition to telling you how great the Doctor is, the scripts are grossly inconsistent, making him both a miraculous hero and an obnoxious clown. These inconsistent moments can be narrowed down to RTD scripts but when this is the influence of the head writer, it tends to seep into almost every episode. If the program is honestly intent on presenting this dichotomy of character, that’s all well and good to want to introduce some dynamics, but you should have some faith in your audience to decide what they think rather than just telling them.You can do this by action rather than a radio drama-like narration just telling the viewers how astounding the Doctor is while Tennant pouts up at the stars or just acts like an ass as the companion giggles.
Why not just show us how amazing he is? Why not give him humorous dialog? The program is capable of this but hardly consistent and leans far too heavily on others proclaiming how great the Doctor is on sight. In the words of Mystery Science Theatre 3000′s Tom Servo ‘This is a MOTION picture, remember?’
A prince in exile- For all of his friendliness and down-to-Earth qualities that he exudes, the Doctor is not one of ‘us.’ By that I’m not referring to his alien origins but more to his aristocratic demeanor. It is this quality that allows him to saunter through military bases like he owns the place and namedrop kings and queens to anyone he meets. Some may call this arrogance, but I think it comes from who he is rather than how he is behaving, leading me to think that even amongst his own people he is both an outcast and a recognized superior (sure Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor is often treated as a joke, but he also singler-handedly saves the universe by deciphering Gallifreyan lore with just a few clues). Colin Baker’s Doctor in particular wears this quality well, but that may just be down to his ability to take himself seriously in that terrible costume.
The only exception to this is the 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston who played the role with a decidedly street-level approach. This is also adds fuel to my gut feeling that the new series was initially intended as a reboot rather than an extension to the previous program. This new Doctor is just so different to what we have seen that in my opinion it works better as its own program (much like the new Battlestar Galactica in comparison to the original).
Coupled with this character trait is the sadness that he is genuinely alone in the universe. No one, not even his own people can understand him. At best a few villains can think on his level and see the cosmic picture in a similar light, but they’re crazy. His short-term friendships with companions offer some relief but they always end with the companion moving on with their life while the Doctor is left to wander. This is a key character trait that the new program misunderstands and instead treats him as a galactic bachelor looking for the ‘right woman’ to set him straight.
Protector of the Earth- This is a tricky one.
From story to story the Doctor either hates humanity or loves humanity. He simply cannot decide. In fact at one point he was part human! But no one really likes that story so it doesn’t ‘count’ apparently. Due to the budget constraints and the limitations of the production team’s imagination, Doctor Who usually takes place on Earth… in England to be exact.
It’s like my filming a global espionage action adventure series in my home town and setting every adventure in the immediate downtown area. It’s a conceit and I can deal with it.
In any case, due to the fact that the Earth is almost always dead center in the sight of any number of alien baddie, the Doctor has to put himself in harm’s way to defend the planet. This was handled very well in the late Troughton/early Pertwee stories and while the stories became almost exactly the same (alien X invades- Doctor thwarts alien X’s plot), the tiny details and innovations were what kept it interesting.
This heroic angle was revisited in the Davison era and to some extent succeeded simply because they were playing against type. Doctor #5 was often bewildered and tripping over his three companions attempting to stop alien menaces. Not exactly action hero material. Nevertheless, Peter Davison’s Doctor showed his true colors in his final adventure where he went up against sadistic madmen and mercenaries and sacrificed all to save the life of his companion (the fact that it was Nicola Bryant didn’t hurt).
The danger is that in over-simplifying this trait the Doctor becomes a cartoon character in the same vein as Captain Planet defending nature against the horrible polluters. It makes things so cut and dry that enemies are mustache-twirling no-goodnicks that are far too laughable for even children’s entertainment. It also eliminates the moral dilemma that the Doctor faced in many earlier adventures and turns the program into a kind of ‘Earth Defense Squad’ series. It a;so turns the Doctor into a racist as he boldly defends humanity from any and all aliens with extreme prejudice (witness the Christmas Invasion) and has a laugh about it over tea. This is a far cry from the Doctor of old who often played the part of peace maker between alien races, such as Warriors of the Deep or The Silurians.
No, the new Doctor has made a direct statement to all aliens everywhere, ‘stay away from Earth or I’ll kill you’ either by jamming his sonic screwdriver in your chest, draining your children down to the center of the planet or throwing you into a star.
As many have pointed out, a lot of my criticism revolve around the writing of Doctor No. 10. I used to take the time to separate Tennant’s performance from the character as written but in the past year just gave up. When I’m speaking about the Tenth Doctor, I am of course talking about how the character has been written, as well as how he is performed.
I have noticed that the Doctor as written by RTD is more of an indestructible cartoon character telling the writer’s bad jokes, hamming it up and waltzing around villains. He’s like Daffy Duck in a suit against Daleks.
I recently found an email that I giddily wrote to a friend after watching the ‘Christmas Invasion’ in which Tennant debuted, expounding on my enjoyment of the latest version of the Doctor. In retrospect, I was quite taken with his charisma and energy but in a short time his characterization turned into that of an unwanted house guest. I laughed at his jokes but grew uncomfortable then they turned rather rude and obnoxious, then he jabbed me in the ribs and blinked when I winced, saying we were ‘mates’ even though we had just met… then he stayed the night… then he stayed four years.
… But I did like him at first.
As written by Stephen Moffatt in Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, and Silence in Library, the Doctor still has his decidedly humorous side but also has a certain bold heroic quality that struggles to break through. As head writer RTD is no doubt influencing the portrayal of the Doctor in Moffat’s scripts and imposing his cartoon hero traits, but there are some good ideas in there if you look. Doctor No. 10 may be lacking in intelligence (I just cannot forgive the new series for being so very dumb) but he comes up trumps in bold courage. When this quality of bravery in the face of adversity is used well, it really comes together.
When the heroic bravery is used poorly, the Doctor comes off as a self-appointed authority who is obviously charmed by the script as impervious to harm. Add an adoring group of companions and it’s all very obnoxious- witness the conclusion of the Christmas Invasion as ‘regular Joes’ clamor by the Doctor’s side damning the alien menace. Add RTD’s savior kick and it’s downright insulting to the audience’s intelligence- witness the glowing angelic Doctor infused by the faith of a planet forgiving the Master.
When he first arrived, I was very taken with Tennant’s exuberance (like many others I was not a fan of Eccleston’s glum shoe-gazing defeatism), but as the episodes wore on it turned into a kind of manic behavior used as exposition for lazy writers (We’re on the moon! We’re in Rome! Isn’t it FANTASTIC!’).
The awkward alien bit can work and there have been moments of success. Just look at the Doctor in the episode Fear Her (by Life on Mars creator Matthew Graham). The character is shown as awkward and unsure of his behavior, kept in check by Rose, something that really worked on screen. Compare this to the Doctor’s behavior in The Idiot’s Lantern where both he and Rose are smug and self-righteous with everyone they meet or when they have a case of the giggles over the doomed moon base crew in The Impossible Planet. This isn’t the heroic adventurer at all, just a joy-riding buffoon.
Looking at all of the varied and consistent qualities that the character possesses, what do you think are the key factors that make up a Doctor and how do you think they should be addressed as Doctor #11 Matt Smith takes the helm of the TARDIS in 2010?