The History of Doctor Who

The eleventh season of Doctor Who premiered on 7th October with the episode, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’. It featured the show’s first female incarnation of the Doctor.
No doubt there are some viewers out there who watch the revived version of the show. Some of them may not know the full history of it. If you’re one of them, stick around: I’m going to run through it all for you.
Sydney Newman, a fan of the science-fiction genre, became the new Head of Drama at the BBC in December 1962. When he was informed of a gap between programmes on Saturday evenings, he subsequently came up with the idea of having a science-fiction show fill the 25-minute slot. He co-wrote the show’s first formal document with two BBC staff writers, who heavily influenced the format of the show and the characters. But it was Newman who created the character of the Doctor, and who came up with the idea for the TARDIS. Producer Verity Lambert then took over production with a story editor named David Whitaker. The script for the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, was written by staff writer Anthony Coburn. Composer Ron Grainer created the show’s iconic theme music with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Actor William Hartnell was persuaded to play the Doctor, and when the other actors were brought on board, production got underway.
‘An Unearthly Child’ was broadcast on 23rd November 1963, but was understandably overshadowed by news coverage of the JFK assassination (which happened the day before); so it was repeated the following Saturday before the second episode. The fifth episode was the first to feature the now iconic Daleks. The show quickly became a success, with large amounts of viewers tuning every Saturday night to watch it.
Production continued smoothly throughout the rest of 1963 and 1964. But difficulties arose during the third season in 1965: Lambert was replaced by a new producer, whom William Hartnell did not get along with; and it was getting harder for Hartnell himself to remember his lines (he was suffering from the early stages of arteriosclerosis, which would go on to cause his death). By 1966, it was obvious Hartnell couldn’t continue playing the Doctor: his health was deteriorating fast. Innes Lloyd, who replaced the producer who replaced Lambert, talked to Hartnell about the possibility of leaving the show, and Hartnell agreed it’d be the best thing to do.
This was how the ingenious idea of regeneration came about. Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis needed a viable way to write Hartnell out of the show, and both decided that since the Doctor was an alien, he could change his body when it was mortally wounded or deteriorating from old age. They initially called this process ‘a renewal’; it wasn’t until much later that it would come to be called ‘regeneration’. Patrick Troughton was cast as the Second Doctor, and first appeared at the end of the 1966 episode The Tenth Planet. Troughton had big shoes to fill after Hartnell left, but he did an outstanding job. Troughton maintained the character’s hatred of evil, but played the Doctor in a more light-hearted way.
After three years, though, Troughton was burnt-out due to the show’s gruelling production schedule, and was also worried about being typecast. He eventually decided to leave at the end of 1969, and Jon Pertwee was brought onboard to replace him.
Pertwee’s debut as the Third Doctor in 1970 was a significant moment in the show’s history: it was the first time it was filmed and broadcast in colour. Pertwee played the Third Doctor in a very straight and action-orientated way. Because of a tight budget and the possibility of cancellation in 1969, the decision was made to shake things up and set the majority of the Third Doctor’s episodes exclusively on Earth. This decision seemed to save the show from cancellation and saved money. But having almost every episode set on Earth became stale over time, and the production team decided to go back to having more episodes set in space and on other planets. It was also during the Pertwee era that the character of the Master was introduced.
The actor who played the Master, Roger Delgado, tragically died in a car accident in 1973. This, as well as chronic back problems and the break-up of the production team he saw as his family, made Pertwee consider leaving the show. He apparently asked for a pay rise if the new production team wanted to keep him on, but his request was denied and he subsequently left the show in 1974.
Tom Baker replaced Pertwee, and played the Doctor on TV for seven years, far longer than any actor before or since. It’s because of this longevity that many people who grew up during his era on the show always think of him when Doctor Who is mentioned. Baker played the Doctor as a more eccentric, aloof, and alien character. When new producer John Nathan-Turner came onboard in 1980, he made numerous changes that Baker fundamentally disagreed with, leading him to resign the role. His last episode was broadcast in in 1981.
Peter Davison was then cast as the Fifth Doctor, with his debut season being broadcast in 1982. Davison was the youngest actor to play the Doctor at the time. He played the character as more human and more vulnerable. The show’s twentieth anniversary took place in 1983, during Davison’s tenure. The occasion was celebrated with a special feature-length episode called The Five Doctors, which saw the return of Troughton and Pertwee as the Second and Third Doctors respectively. Actor Richard Hurndall was brought in to replace William Hartnell (who had died in 1975) as the First Doctor. Tom Baker declined to take part in the episode, and footage from an unfinished episode from his era was subsequently (and cleverly) inserted into the episode to portray the Fourth Doctor. Davison had been advised by Troughton to only play the role for three years, and Davison followed this advice, leaving in 1984.
Colin Baker was selected as the Sixth Doctor, and debuted in the final episode of the 1984 season. He’d previously played another character (also a Time Lord) on the show in 1983. Baker’s Doctor was often overbearing and bombastic, more so than his predecessors, and this sparked criticism from viewers. There was also an increase in violence on the show during Baker’s time as the Doctor.
A man named Michael Grade became the new BBC 1 Controller in 1984, and he disliked Doctor Who so much that he wanted to cancel it. In 1985, he decided to move the show’s production back a financial year, leading to the belief that Doctor Who was going to be cancelled for good.
There was a huge public outcry, and those who worked on the show were frustrated because they’d already began preparing for the next season. Despite this, Grade stuck to his decision. Eighteen months passed before the next season was aired in 1986. All previous plans for this season were dropped and an overarching story arc was incorporated into it.
Grade allowed the Doctor Who to continue beyond 1986, but ordered John Nathan-Turner, who was still the show’s producer, to dismiss Baker and find a new actor to play the Doctor. Grade also moved the show from its traditional Saturday slot to a mid-week one.
Nathan-Turner quickly chose Sylvester McCoy, a well-known comedy actor, to play the Seventh Doctor. McCoy initially played the part in a light-hearted, clown-like way, but new script editor Andrew Cartmel developed the character into a much darker one who was very manipulative. The show started receiving praise again, but viewing figures were plummeting because episodes were broadcast opposite the very popular soap opera, Coronation Street.
Grade left as Controller of BBC 1 in 1987, and was replaced by Jonathan Powell, who suspended production indefinitely at the end of the 1989 season.
The show remained off the air for sixteen years, though novels and comics picked up where the show left off. In 1996, after much negotiation between the BBC and the Fox Network in America, a Doctor Who television movie was filmed and edited in the U.S. and broadcast there and the U.K. The movie depicted the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth, played brilliantly by Paul McGann. McGann, whose costume was reminiscent of William Hartnell’s, played the Eighth Doctor as a boyish figure who viewed the universe with glee and wonder. People were hoping the movie would spark a new series, but it didn’t.
An animated episode called Scream of the Shalka was produced for the show’s fortieth anniversary in 2003, starring Richard E. Grant as the Ninth Doctor. The episode debuted via webcasting.
Shortly after Scream of the Shalka was released, it was announced that Doctor Who would finally return to TV, with renowned scriptwriter Russell T. Davies as Executive Producer and head writer. Christopher Eccleston was cast as the Ninth Doctor, with the Ninth Doctor played by Richard E. Grant re-named as the “Shalka Doctor”. Eccleston’s Doctor was less eccentric than previous Doctors, spoke with a Northern accent, and was traumatised by the Last Great Time War, which wasn’t depicted on-screen until 2013.
The first season of the revived show was broadcast in 2005 to much praise, but Eccleston only did this first season. He was replaced by David Tennant at the end of 2005, whose Tenth Doctor was energetic, friendly, and human in nature. Tennant quickly became the Doctor for many new viewers, so when he announced in 2008 he was going to leave Doctor Who at the start of 2010, people were devastated. Russell T. Davies also decided to leave alongside Tennant, and Steven Moffatt, who had scripted some of the most popular episodes of the revived version of the show, replaced him at the start of the fifth season.
Little-known actor Matt Smith took over from Tennant, and became the youngest ever actor to play the role. Smith played the Doctor similarly to the Tennant, only more youthful and alien. Smith’s first season was broadcast in 2010.
The year 2013 was Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, and it was treated as a momentous occasion (and rightfully so). A special anniversary special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’, was broadcast on 23rd November, the date An Unearthly Child was broadcast in 1963. It starred Smith, who was still playing the Eleventh Doctor. David Tennant reprised the Tenth Doctor in the special, and all previous Doctors featured via archive footage. Tom Baker also appeared as a character called the Curator, who was later revealed to be a future incarnation of the Doctor.
Smith stepped down at the end of 2013, with Peter Capaldi taking over as the Twelfth Doctor. Capaldi had played a different character in the Tenth Doctor episode ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ and also appeared in the third season of Torchwood, which was a spin-off of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor, a blend of the Third, Fourth, and Ninth Doctors, was even more alien than the Eleventh was, and was also more removed as a character.
Both Capaldi and Steven Moffat left the show at the end of 2017. Moffat was replaced by Chris Chibnall, who occasionally wrote for Doctor Who in the past and was the head writer of the first two seasons of Torchwood. Capaldi was replaced by Jodie Whittaker, who’s playing the Thirteenth Doctor and is the first female to play the character.


Words by Callum J. Jones