The Doctor as Warrior

We have been tracing the development of the character of the Doctor as part of charting the three successful pillars upon which the programme is built.

With the series’ return in 2005, under the watchful eye of fan and well-known TV writer Russell T. Davies, we glimpsed those three pillars of Doctor Who being rebuilt: human protagonist Rose gave us our eyes, acting as an effective bridge to the audience; the Doctor was the outsider; the story was not centred around him, i.e. our sympathies as an audience were with humanity, not with the cosmic nature of the character who gave the programme its name. The enigmatic quality of the Doctor had been restored; the form of the story had held to its most successful pattern, in which the Doctor intervenes in a crisis already taking shape; and all of this had been firmly anchored in the identifiable world of the viewing audience, full of references to contemporary culture. Ratings soared, and it seems as though the new-born series’ future was assured.

To understand this more fully, and to grasp why this success eventually teetered on the brink of failure again after a few trail-blazing years, we have to closely examine the three pillars again.

In 1963, we saw the Doctor initially introduced to us as the potential antagonist in the series: he had kidnapped Ian and Barbara in the opening episode, and in the following story had sabotaged his own vessel in order to fulfil his scientific curiosity. Then, with the appearance of the Daleks, something began to change: the story gained a real antagonist and moved the character of the Doctor over into the role of the archetypal ‘old man with a stick', the wizard-like role in which he exhibited wisdom, compassion and a deeper understanding of situations than other characters.

This then evolved, under Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor and particularly with Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, into a more standardly heroic protagonist, the central character in the show. In effect, the programme gradually became more and more about the Doctor himself. Tom Baker’s larger-than-life portrayal as the Fourth Doctor, coupled with the loss of vulnerable but likeable human companion Sarah Jane Smith, exacerbated this. Eventually, the situation deteriorated until the Doctor became a caricature, dressed in a clownish outfit as though desperate to draw attention to himself.

We saw, over roughly the same period, the stories move away from presenting the Doctor as an outsider intervening in a crisis which had already commenced, going into orbit around the Doctor himself until, in the time of the Third Doctor, adventures had to be brought to him. In later stories, the pattern of the Doctor as a kind of cosmic interventionist was restored to some degree, but by the late 80s the programme had built up considerable baggage and was highly self-referential in terms of storylines.

As for the relationship between the series and the audience, a large part of this was throughout the 60s and 70s the human companion, who brought with him or her an understanding of the culture of the viewers. When this kind of companion began to be replaced with non-Earthling fellow travellers, along with a pre-occupation with non-20th century Earth-based settings, this pillar too began to crumble and the series began to drift away from the audience.