Doctor Who: timeless at 50

Doctor Who: timeless at 50

YP cadet Isabel Lai met two of the actors who have played the Time Lord and learned lots about the TV show.


The 11 actors who have played the Time Lord (from left): William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith
The 11 actors who have played the Time Lord (from left): William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith
Save the date – November 23 – and brace yourselves for the 50th anniversary special episode of the longest running science-fiction television series in history. We are talking about Doctor Who, of course. The much anticipated special will feature a collection of Doctor Who dignitaries including Matt Smith, David Tennant, Jenna Coleman, Billie Piper and John Hurt.

Young Post sat down with actors Tom Baker, who played the fourth Doctor (1974-81), and Peter Davison, who played the fifth Doctor (1981-84) to learn how the show has kept millions of fans across the world entertained over the past 50 years.

“There is nothing quite like it,” Baker tells us. The sci-fi drama centres on a protagonist known by the mysterious yet authoritative name of “The Doctor”, a time-lord who travels through time and space in his Tardis, a machine made to look like a 1960s British police box. On his adventures the Doctor has fought all types of villains – from the Weeping Angel aliens, and wolves to the metal mutants, the Daleks.

“We like nothing more than defeating a good villain!” Davison enthuses.

The Doctor, with his “intention of being non-violent”, is a quintessentially British superhero. Davison recalls his Edwardian outfit and his only weapons being a cricket bat and a piece of string, adding this “almost gentlemanly approach in defeating aliens is rather appealing”. It is a refreshing alternative to the stereotypical American superhero with flashy superpowers or impressive fighting skills, and Davison thinks that is why the show has enjoyed so much success internationally, even in the US.

Davison also attributes the longevity of the show to “the brilliant notion of regeneration”. Since the show started in 1963, starring William Hartnell as the first Doctor, the character has “regenerated” 10 times. To enable the show to continue for so long, without it being unrealistic to have one actor play the part for 50 years, the Doctor’s regeneration takes place when the character is “worn out” or “dying”; we are currently on the 11th Doctor, played by Matt Smith.

“The biggest factor is that [the show] now almost regenerates itself,” Davison says. “It seems to grab people when they are in their formative years and stick with them.” He adds that now it is the hard-core fans who are running the show, referring especially Steven Moffat, the current producer and head writer of the current Doctor Who. Davison says: “You couldn’t find a bigger fan than him.”

The nature of the show has certainly changed over time, particularly the relationship between the Doctor and his Companion. Davison openly admits to being slightly envious of the romantic elements seen in the modern version of the show. “In my time, I was not allowed to put my arm around my female companions” – the producer back then was said to be anxious about the audience developing the wrong idea about the Doctor-Companion relationship.

It goes without saying, the producers were not the only ones concerned with how the viewers perceived the show. Looking back on his relationship with his fans, Baker unreservedly expresses his adoration for them. “I am terribly vulnerable to people who agree with me or would laugh at my stories,” he confesses. Baker’s experiences with fans in the US were particularly memorable: “They used to see me as a kind of messiah,” he says. Some would embrace Baker and afterwards, as if a miracle had really happened, they would yell, “Jesus Christ, I can walk!’”

Speaking of religious connections, one interesting fact about Baker is that he was a monk for six years before becoming an actor. He offers an amusing response to a question about whether his previous occupation complemented his role as the Doctor, noting that Christians, like actors, don’t enjoy much privacy. “[God] is there all the time, watching you closely”, he jokes. “It makes life a bit tough in the bathroom!” This philosophy made the elusive and mythical figure of the Doctor entirely credible to Baker. “When I found that [the Doctor] would disappear and reappear somewhere else, or that he had a sonic screwdriver and changed things, or didn’t sometimes, that was all absolutely easy for me. I wasn’t acting in Doctor Who,” he boldly reveals, “I’ve always felt myself to be a kind of benevolent alien.” As you can probably tell, Baker’s humorous and cheeky persona really shines through, but the juxtaposition with his successor is telling, and Davison confesses that he doesn’t believe he’s as noble a person as the Doctor. “I don’t have intentions of saving the world quite that powerful,” he says. Davison may protest too much: he feels very lucky to have been part of the show, and the part it has played in his life, saying “you really have to embrace it.” Luckily, he finds his fans understanding and not intrusive at all and is, in fact, very grateful for their support. “What I have tried to do this year is pay back.” After all, he says, they are the ones who “kept it alive all through the years when it was off the air” between 1989 and 2005, and no doubt the reason it came back again.

What is apparent is that the fundamentals of the series have survived through the years, even with such a long hiatus. Yet the writers constantly bring new ideas to the table. For example, time and again there have been questions about the possibility of a female Doctor, but the tradition of a male lead continues to prevail. Among the previous Doctors, opinion is split. While Baker would not mind seeing a woman or even “a man dressed as a woman” play the role, Davison finds the concept of a female doctor slightly odd, suggesting it was analogous to having a female James Bond.

Today, the Doctor is sadly nearing the end of his life in Smith’s body. However, we shall see the arrival of the highly-acclaimed Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor this Christmas. What’s interesting is that Capaldi famously wrote a letter to The Guardian at the age of 15, praising the quality of the show, so we will be seeing yet another hard-core fan take the reins and continue this brilliant legacy. Expectations are indeed extremely high; but as Baker shrewdly reminds us, “nobody has ever failed, by the way!”

We've got more on the Doctor, his history and his fans HERE.

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