Doctor Who: The Contemporary Doctors
When actor William Hartnell—the original Doctor of 1963—was forced to leave the show due to deteriorating health, the producers of Doctor Who gave the Doctor the ability to regenerate his body when it approaches death in order to keep the show alive. The concept not only enabled Doctor Who to last for 26 initial seasons but has also allowed the new Doctor Who to continue for seven seasons and beyond as three actors have played the title role since 2005, with a fourth taking the reins in 2014. Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith have all portrayed the Doctor over that time period, both rising to the task and leaving a personalized, indelible mark on the Doctor in the process.
Although the idea of three different actors playing the same character, albeit with slightly different personalities and wardrobe tastes, may seem like a confusing narrative structure for television viewers to follow, the opposite is actually true. Far from being a revolving door, the trio of actors who appeared on Doctor Who from 2005 through 2013 not only brought their own unique interpretation of the character to the small screen but lifted the mythology of the legendary Doctor to even greater heights as well.
More importantly, it doesn’t matter who is portraying the Doctor because, in the end, the Doctor is the Doctor. It is the character itself that matters more than any actor or what kind of clothes they wear.
When the Ninth Doctor of Christopher Eccleston, for instance, regenerates into David Tennant, the newly minted Tenth Doctor proclaims, “I’m the Doctor, but beyond that, I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested.” When the leader of an alien species intent on enslaving mankind later asks, “You stand as this world’s champion?,” the Doctor finally has his answer. “Thank you,” he replies. “I’ve no idea who I am, but you just summed me up.”
Champion is indeed one of the many epitaphs that the Doctor of the Twenty First Century has embraced. And not just champion for the human race, but any species. The Doctor has his own unique value system, a sense of right and wrong from which he is unable—as well as unwilling—to deviate. He ultimately sees the world in a simplified black-and-white with no shades of grey, which continually leads to his interference in the times and places he visits despite an oath of non-intervention. He simply cannot witness suffering of any kind, or the tyrannical ambitions of any species, even if such actions have no direct bearing on his own existence.
The Doctor is also forgiving—or at least willing to forgive. He repeatedly warns those opposed to him of his intentions, and always offers them a chance to walk away. In the episode “The Poison Sky,” he is even willing to sacrifice his own life in order to defeat another alien race because “I’ve got to give them a choice.”
Of course, none of these enemies ever take up his offer, and inevitably meet their demise at the hands of the Doctor. Despite his role as champion, suffice it to say that the Doctor has a lot of blood on his hands. “Never forget, Doctor, you did this,” his archenemy Davros tells him at the end of season four. “I name you. Forever, you are the Destroyer of the Worlds.”
The Doctor is more than the champion—and destroyer—of worlds, however, but also displays a childlike wonder in regards to the time and places that he visits. Although he can be cold-hearted and deadly, he continuously wears a broad smile as he meets people both famous and otherwise during his many adventures. The Ninth Doctor, for instance, was genuinely excited to stumble across Charles Dickens in the same way that the Tenth Doctor was when he encountered William Shakespeare, or even when the Eleventh Doctor met Vincent Van Gogh.
In the season four episode “Midnight,” meanwhile, the Doctor dismantles all of the audio and video entertainment systems on a four-hour commercial flight in order to talk to his fellow passengers simply because he enjoys getting to know people “and variations thereupon.”
Loneliness is another concept embedded within the Doctor. Despite his childlike wonder and fascination with the places that he visits, the Doctor still carries the weight of many worlds on his shoulder, as well as the consequences of the decisions he so often has been forced to make. The Doctor thus does not travel alone but continually invites some random human to join him on his journeys.
Unfortunately, these relationships do not always end well either. Rose Tyler served as companion to both the Ninth and Tenth Doctor until she was eventually lost in an alternate universe, Martha Jones left because of the unrequited love she felt for the Doctor, Donna Noble sacrificed her memory of him in order to save the universe and Amy Pond was sent back in time by the Weeping Angels. It is not an easy task to travel with the Doctor, because despite the magnificent adventures he embarks upon, his life is inevitably filled with tragedy.
Arguably the most defining moment of the Doctor came at the end of David Tennant’s reign as the Tenth. A prophesy had foreseen his death, but he survived the final confrontation with his fellow Time Lords—who were intent on destroying time itself, and thus the entire universe—despite the foreshadowing. His survival is short lived, however, as Wilfred Mott, the grandfather of former companion Donna Noble, accidentally locked himself into a glass chamber that was about to fill with radioactive energy. The chamber could hold the radiation, so there was no threat to the outside world, but Mott would not survive. Although Wilfred Mott accepted his fate, the Doctor could not leave him to die regardless of Mott’s insistence that he do so.
“You had to go in there, didn’t you?” the Doctor rhetorically asks “You had to go in there and get stuck. Because that’s who you are, Wilfred. You were always this. Look at you, not remotely important. But me? I could do so much more.”
At that point the Doctor looks at Mott and says, “Wilfred, it’s my honor,” then switches places with him—ensuring that the Tenth Doctor of David Tennant would perish despite being regenerated into the Eleventh Doctor of Matt Smith. The Doctor who just saved the world, as well as the entire universe, was willing in the end to sacrifice himself in order to save the life of one “insignificant” human. It is actions like this that makes the Doctor a hero to millions and one of the truly iconic and fascinating characters in the annals of science fiction, as well as the major reason that it’s ultimately the Doctor that matters more than any actor portraying him.