The Context of 'Doctor Who' Part 2


When Patrick Troughton took over as the Doctor in Doctor Who in 1966, the producers probably thought that they would be wrapping up the series soon. Never before had the lead character in a television series changed actor while a) still pretending to be the same man and b) acknowledging that there had been a change. This was the magic of ‘regeneration’: clearly, in shows before Doctor Who, a lead actor had been replaced, but either this had been glossed over in the script with the audience expected just to swallow the change and go along with it (as in the American sit-com Bewitched, in which the actor who played the husband was replaced with a look-alike without any mention of it in the show), or the new person was recognised to be a distinct character, not the same as the one who had departed. Only in Doctor Who was this remarkable transformation in the Doctor supposed to be a transformation in the character himself. His companions at that time, Ben and Polly, were as shocked as the rest of the watching nation as this new figure regained consciousness after the change had occurred:

The Doctor: [the Doctor awakens and mutters to himself] Slower. Slower. Concentrate on one thing. One thing. It's over. Hmm, hmm, hmm. It's over.

Ben: Doctor?

The Doctor: [the Doctor turns and stumbles over the console. Mutters to himself] The muscles are still a bit tight.

Ben: What are we gonna do?

Polly: It is the Doctor. I know it is... - I think.

We take this for granted, a dozen regenerations later - it’s part of the woof and warp of the series now. But in 1966 it was on a parallel with having King Lear suddenly regenerate into the Fool while remaining the same person: a ridiculous idea, surely? The first thought on the part of the millions watching, in the days before this kind of thing would have been ‘leaked’ via social media or even discussed beforehand through magazines, was that this must be a temporary change, part of the storyline - William Hartnell’s Doctor would be back soon enough, and all would be explained as part of some kind of techno-magical trick on the part of some enemy. Even those who suspected that Hartnell was very ill - and again, this would not have been very many back in the days before social media chatter - would have presumed that a new actor had been drafted in for a story or two to give Hartnell a rest. Someone as stable and central as the Doctor could not possibly be switched in this way. And even if he had been, surely it should have been with someone equally old and wise-looking? Geoffrey Bayldon had been approached but turned the part down, afraid of being typecast as an old man (ironically he would going on to achieve stardom as the ancient wizard Catweazle in his own show). Producers were taking an enormous risk by choosing a younger, almost completely different actor, who would portray aspects of a personality totally at odds with Hartnell’s interpretation.