There are two quintessential British roles in Film and Television that are so demanding that it takes the heartiest of actor to pull them off. One is Sherlock Holmes, which has been known to defeat and drive actors to madness. The other is The Doctor. which requires a bit of madness to work.
For decades, the role was considered a bit of a joke, especially when DOCTOR WHO became a low-rated show with dodgy sets hanging by a thread until Michael Grade cancelled it in the late 80s, but casting the role was never easy, and always made the news. You'd think casting a 900-year-old time-traveling alien would be easy, but it takes a particular personality to hold the attention of both kids and their parents every week. For the actors who get picked, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it put them in the national spotlight for as long as they were on the show, on the other hand, they were in danger of being typecast for the rest of their careers once they left it.
It didn't use to be like that. When William Hartnell was cast in the first series back in 1963, it was considered the place he went for his career to die after decades as a character actor in film and on stage. While it took a while for The Doctor to evolve from an irascible and possibly homicidal old man to a benevolent alien who saves the day, Hartnell's performance set the standard for every actor that followed him. Hartnell mostly played himself – his health was on the decline and many moments where The Doctor stammered and seemed to loses his train of thought were Hartnell actually forgetting his lines and trying to recall them. His Doctor was also a traditional English patriarch at a time when people could still recall firsthand the Edwardian and Victorian era.
Nobody really thought about the acting behind The Doctor until Hartnell had to leave and they replaced him with Patrick Troughton. Troughton didn't play himself but created a whole new character: the bumbling hobo (partly inspired by Charlie Chaplin) whose persona masked a vast intellect and cunning. That was the other aspect of The Doctor that Troughton established, which was often referenced by the later actors as well.
Jon Pertwee was another actor who largely played himself in the role. He liked to drive cars and run around as a man of action, so the scripts were written to accommodate him, including the line "reverse polarity of the neutron flow", which recurred because he liked saying it. His dandy costume, the frilly shirts, velvet suits and cape, became timeless in retrospect because it was not only current with Sixties and Seventies swingers and lounge lizards, but also with the New Romantics movement of the Eighties.
It was Tom Baker whose performance as The Doctor that, consciously or not, referenced his predecessors. Yes, Baker was playing a version of himself so that his Doctor was barking mad, manic and unpredictable, but his Doctor's tendency to show contempt to the bad guys by refusing them the satisfaction of taking them seriously, his bumbling about harks back to Troughton. His impatience and contempt for people less intelligent than he was referenced Hartnell, and he even punctuated his sentences with an impatient "hm?" exactly the way Hartnell did. I've always wondered if he did that consciously or if it was just a tick that appealed to him. Though middle-aged, his long scarf and scruffy Oxfam-type second-hand clothes might have been based on a Toulous-Lautrec drawing, but it also jibed with the look of university students.
In many ways, Peter Davison's Doctor felt like a palette-cleanser after the seven years of bombastics from Tom Baker. He was also the first actor to have grown up watch the show before ending up playing the lead, and cited Troughton as his favourite, though his performance seemed to be one that didn't draw on any of his predecessors and seemed to reset the character's personality back to a youthful affability and earnestness. Even the Oxbridge cricketer's costume was a palette-cleanser after Baker's Oxfam scruff.
Colin Baker's Doctor was a total 180 from Davison's amiable young cricketeer and seemed to push the irascibility of Hartnell's Doctor to more angry, even borderline-psychopathic extremes. His Doctor was willfully angry, arrogant and unpleasant to everyone. That and the antisocial aspect of the rodeo clown costume also made him in many ways an alienating Doctor who didn't last very long.
A lot of people continue to hate and malign Sylvester McCoy's more clownish Doctor, but the darker writing of his second and third series gave him more to work with. His clownish exterior referenced Troughton's again, but the persona this time hid a more dangerous and calculating bastard who had already plotted his enemies' doom even before he set foot on their planet. This Doctor regarded everyone he met as pieces on a chessboard and might be willing to sacrifice a few for the greater good, which made him the darkest Doctor of the lot. This personality appealed to Russell T. Davies, Paul Cornell, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss so much that they expanded upon it in the Virgin novels in the 90s that took the stories to more adult areas, and also laid the groundwork for the more emotional and complex tones of the revival under Davies and now Moffat. His costume, reminiscent of Davison's, also seemed oddly neutral when his Doctor was anything but.
In just one TV movie, McGann suggested a Doctor that was earnest like Davison's, but also romantic and Byronic, his Edwardian costume suggesting a younger, warmer, more dashing version of Hartnell's. Too bad we never saw where he might have taken his Doctor if he had a full series and better writers, but then the show was clearly not yet ready to be revived, the right producers and writers not in place to pull it off.
The success of the revived show under Russell T. Davies was what pushed it from a nerd embarrassment to a classy flagship success, and Davies achieved this by casting top-rate actors rather than total unknowns. Christopher Eccleston is an actor very much of the Method school, and under his clownish, self-deprecating gurning, with a grin reminiscent of Tom Baker's, lurked layers of guilt, rage and self-loathing. Eccleston was not a fan of the old show and didn't watch it until he got the role, and his black leather jacket and black shirt and pants were kind of reboot, but also an expression of darkness – you don't usually get someone in all black and leather as the hero of a child-friendly show. He basically looked like a pissed off social worker from Salford who really might kick the shit out of you if he snapped. In many ways, he's the one Doctor who looked like someone who wandered in from an adult drama rather than a family show and then acted silly to cover it all up.
David Tennant is notable for being an admitted DOCTOR WHO geek who actually got to play The Doctor, and you can actually break down the techniques of his performance to see the layers. He had Tom Baker's way of opening a sentence with a long "Wellll….", his verbal acrobatics were a combination of RADA training and Baker's line readings, his dashing around swashbuckling references Pertwee, his anger and menace bring up Hartnell, and his brooding continued the melancholy of Eccleston. He played Hamlet at the RSC prior to filming the final specials, and you can see echoes of that performance in his final three specials as Davies scripted the 10th Doctor facing his end. His suit established the "geek chic" look, with the Converse sneakers throwing off the formality a bit so he looked like a geek who knows he's good-looking deciding to go formal but not all the way.
Like Eccleston and Tennent before him, Matt Smith's performance carries layers that aren't always apparent on one viewing, and new meanings and depth can be found when you watch the show again. Younger than Tennent by a decade, Smith is part of the generation of kids who didn't have DOCTOR WHO on telly in the 90s when they came of age. It's interesting to compare his performance with Tennent's, since their Doctors are scripted in very similar ways, with similar outbursts and mannerisms, but Tennent, as a classically-trained theatre actor at heart, is all expansive and projecting outwards, while Smith, being a more introverted performer, holds much of it in so that his reactions are less predictable, less obvious, his outbursts more surprising, and more mysterious than ever, his menace more subtle. Yet his choice to play The Doctor as an old man in a young body often recalled Hartnell in his impatience with the people around him, his clowning and air of distraction recall Troughton and Tom Baker, especially his verbal acrobatics and air of casual intellectual superiority, all acted without conscious awareness of his predecessors' mannerisms. His "earnest young professor hoping for tenure" costume, while expressing his personality of an old man in a young body, is a thematic continuation of Tennent's geek chic look as well.
So the next time you watch an episode of DOCTOR WHO, new or old, try spotting the mannerisms and personality shifts with this primer. It's makes for interesting viewing.
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