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The ten most important characteristics of The Doctor


John spans decades of Doctor Who in search of those moments that truly define our hero...

Who IS Doctor Who?

Well, Matt Smith has captured the nation’s hearts already. In only a handful of episodes, he has demonstrated a whirlwind of emotions: Wit. Genius. Crabby temper. Compassion. And a tendency to make weird hand movements.

But let’s not forget his illustrious predecessors, who made some of the most vital contributions to the development of everyone’s favourite Time Lord. So let’s remind ourselves of just what makes The Doctor The Doctor (this last bit was written by River Song, incidentally). In no particular order, apart from chronological, let’s begin. Say wheeee!!

Defining moment: Fury From The Deep, Episode 6

Patrick Troughton shows compassion in 'Fury From The Deep'

"Troughton's Doctor, while goofy and calculating by turns, is capable of really looking after his companions and putting their welfare first"

The Second Doctor always takes a parental approach to his companions. In particular, it’s hapless Girl Child Victoria that brings out the paternal instinct in him. There are two important book-ending scenes between The Doctor and Victoria that demonstrate the Time Lord’s great compassion. There’s the one that everyone knows in The Tomb Of The Cybermen when The Doctor asks Victoria if she is happy travelling with him and Jamie. At that point she is, but after encountering a menagerie of monsters, reality crashes in…

Leading to the other book-ending scene. Fury From The Deep is normally connected with pant-wetting terror, what with Oak and Quill’s bad breath scene and killer seaweed on the rampage. But it also contains some of the most poignant scenes in Who’s history. These all revolve around Victoria’s unhappiness at her dangerous life.

Victoria faces a paradox – she loves her new-found family of The Doctor and Jamie, but by contrast, hates the terrifying situations that she’s plunged into. The Doctor comes to realise this over the course of the story, and so in a moment of great compassion, spares her the guilt of having to make the choice to stay behind. He asks the Harrises if they would mind being her new parents, and allows Victoria to make the choice for herself – except that in his hearts of hearts, he knows what choice she will make.

It’s a lovely scene, not one that’s commonly known, thanks to its absence from the archives, but it really highlights what a great Doctor Patrick Troughton really is. His Doctor, while goofy and calculating by turns, is capable of really looking after his companions and putting their welfare first. Compassion’s a noble sentiment, and Fury From The Deep plays upon this perfectly.

Defining moment: The Green Death, Episode 6

The Doctor - soon to be alone again (naturally) in 'The Green Death'

"As UNIT celebrate, The Doctor is left all alone once more with the mournful reminder that he can never really have a proper relationship"

When Jo Grant first blundered into the Doctor’s life, he wasn’t a happy man. In fact Jo might as well have walked in with a crate of rotten eggs to tip all over his experiment, such was his reaction. And yet by the end of The Green Death, all that’s dramatically changed.

Jo became the reason that the Third Doctor not only accepted his exile on Earth, but actually started to quite like it. So when Jo chooses to marry Professor Hippy Jones, his close friendship with Jo (one of the closest he has had or ever will have) is about to come to an end.

The seeds have been sown throughout The Green Death for Jo’s departure. In the first episode, she chooses to head down to the Nuthutch rather than accompany the Doctor on a manic tour of Metebelis Three. “So, the fledgling flies the coop,” he says, sadly.

It’s a relationship that’s slowly and painfully coming to an end – whichever way you choose to look at it, romantic or paternal. It’s only after BOSS and Stevens have been destroyed that the end inevitably comes. The Hippy proposes in the bluntest way possible. “Oh, you will of course?” he asks Jo (now why didn’t I choose that line when I proposed to my wife?) causing The Doctor to make an embarrassed exit to a non-ringing telephone.

During the fastest-organised engagement party ever, The Doctor is left quietly devastated. That final awkward conversation between The Doctor and Jo is spoken in hushed, barely audible sentences, as if either one is afraid they’ll start bawling like a baby. It’s only when The Hippy promises that he’ll look after Jo that reality sinks in for The Doctor. It’s that sad last nod of the head that he gives to himself as he downs his champagne that really shows how gutted he is.

And as the hippies and UNIT celebrate, The Doctor is left all alone once more with the mournful reminder that he can never really have a proper relationship – something that would be looked at in depth during the 10th Doctor’s time. But for now, there’s no OTT orchestras. No pompous choirs destroying the atmosphere with an ill-judged shriek. Just a subtle tear running down The Doctor’s cheek (yes, it seems to be there if you look hard enough) as he starts up Bessie and drives off into the sunset.

Jon Pertwee always seemed to play characters that made the viewer cry along with him – whether it was Worzel getting the brush-off from Aunt Sally or The Doctor losing Jo. And he played them so perfectly. No wonder Katy’s reduced to barely-concealed tears on the DVD commentary.

Defining moment: Planet Of The Spiders Part 6

It is a far far better thing that Jon Pertwee does now [Planet Of The Spiders]

"The Doctor realises that he will have to give up his third life in order to resolve the crisis. And in that moment, The Doctor shows the greatest humility of all"

Say what you like about the Third Doctor. He’s vain. He’s prone to being arrogant from time to time, and is even a bit pompous. But at least he knew when he was in the wrong. And all of this incarnation’s character flaws are brought home to roost in Planet Of The Spiders where he demonstrates great humility – but at the cost of his own life.

Having stolen the Crystal from Metebelis 3, The Doctor has triggered off a whole series of events that have led to the Eight-Legged Conquest of Metebelis Three, and now, possibly Earth. He quickly finds that even he is out of his depth. He’s nearly at Death’s Door when he’s felled by a blast from a Spider-influenced ray. And then in Part 5, the proverbial really hits the fan as he’s forced to confront the Great One, a spider that’s grown to lofty and loony proportions. The Doctor feels the full force of the Great One’s insanity when he is forced to do a dancing jig against his will. Up until this point – give or take a Keller Machine, the Third Doctor has been unshakably confident. So to see him genuinely frightened is a jarring experience, and Jon Pertwee’s outstanding performance really sells it – the close-up of his terrified face and the unconscious hand spasms convey the Doctor’s fear perfectly.

All of this is brought home to him in the final episode when he enjoys a reunion with his old guru, the oft-mentioned hermit who now goes by the name of K’anpo Rinpoche. The reunion goes awry when K’anpo subtly tells The Doctor that he has to go back to return the Crystal and face his own personal demons in order to bring the reign of spider terror to an end. “There’s no other way?” asks The Doctor quietly. And with a blunt “None!” from K’anpo, The Doctor realises that he will have to give up his third life in order to resolve the crisis. And in that moment, The Doctor shows the greatest humility of all.

Defining Moment: Genesis Of The Daleks Part 6

Tom Baker in a moral quarry, err, quandary, in 'Genesis Of The Daleks'

"Only four stories in, and Baker was already proving that he had what it takes to become the best Doctor of all"

The Doctor’s morality is seriously put to the test in the granddaddy of all Dalek stories, Genesis Of The Daleks. Of course, it’s the infamous “Do I have the right?" scene, in which The Doctor is just one step away from destroying the Daleks once and for all.

It’s funny – put another character in this situation, and they may well take the plunge and press the two wires together. But The Doctor is a shade more complex than say, James Bond. Bound by the ties of morality, he questions what would happen if he were to press the two strands together. He realises that he too, would become a mass murderer and outlines possible scenarios to Sarah.

Supposing that someone picked out a random kid in a room and then they told you that they’d grow up to be an evil dictator. The Doctor is put in this situation, and to complicate the issue further, he muses that the Daleks could be a force for good rather than evil, just as Davros had said in the previous episode. Races would unite in their hatred of the Daleks, even bringing about peace.

Just at that crucial moment, the decision’s taken out of his hands by Gharman, who announces that they’ve achieved victory – well, so he thinks, anyway. And so, The Doctor, more relieved than words can say, pulls the cables, saving him from one of the most agonising dilemmas that he would face in his lives.

Oddly, this was due to be a cliffhanger moment, but had to be changed because of time constraints. In the end, Part Five ended with The Doctor wrestling with what looked like an angry piece of fried chicken around his neck – suitably grim for the kids, but I wonder how the Doctor’s dilemma would have gone down before the theme tune and credits kicked in.

This is a defining moment, not only because of the sophisticated, intelligent script, but also because of Tom Baker’s spot-on performance as The Doctor. Baker really conveys the moral dilemma that he’s thrown into, intoning his speech with genuine anxiety and an almost pleading tone in his voice to Sarah to help talk him out of it. Only four stories in, and Baker was already proving that he had what it takes to become the best Doctor of all.

Defining Moment: Pyramids Of Mars Part 1

He's friendly, but VERY weird [Pyramids of Mars]

"Another piece of brilliance from Big Tom, who brings out the real alien persona of his Doctor here"

Well, duh. We all know that The Doctor’s an alien. It’s like saying that Vernon Kay can annoy for Britain. Or that Bruce Forsyth’s long in the tooth. But sometimes those weird alien moments in Doctor Who leap out and grab you when you’re not realising.

Take Pyramids Of Mars, a story that revolves around The Doctor’s weird alien-ness. So many of the familiar moments throughout: The Doctor ranting at Sarah over his Second Banana status to the Brigadier. The casual brush-off of Laurence Scarman’s death. And then there’s that little scene tucked away in Part One, when The Doctor and Sarah introduce themselves to Laurence.

No sooner has Laurence suggested that they get the police involved, The Doctor growls “NO!” like an angry lion that’s just been poked with a stick. Presumably he thought that Sting and co would get involved. The Doctor then gravely intones to Laurence “Something is interfering with time, Mr Scarman. And time is my business…” before staring into the distance with the boggle eyed expression of a madman.

And yet after this reverie, he flips his aloof mood on its head with an outburst of gleeful jollity when he works out the purpose of Laurence’s Marconiscope (“To receive radio emissions from the staaaaahhhhs!!”) A rightly befuddled Laurence is left wondering how The Doctor could know of this – to which the Time Lord revels in confusing him with his alien ways even more. “I see,” mumbles Laurence blankly. “I’m sure you don’t,” retorts The Doctor, leaping to his feet. “But it’s very nice of you to try.”

Another piece of brilliance from Big Tom, who brings out the real alien persona of his Doctor here – brooding intensity one minute and amusing frivolity the next. From one to the other in the space of a minute, The Doctor has never seemed more alien.

Defining moment: The Pirate Planet Part 3

The doctor starts to 'lose it' in 'The Pirate Planet'

"What makes this instance stand out is that up until now, The Doctor’s been in a jovial mood all throughout The Pirate Planet"

Even in his 11th incarnation, The Doctor’s more than capable of getting in a strop when all’s not right with the world. However, out of all his incarnations, no one can do rage better than the Fourth Doctor. Whether he’s shrieking at Scorby to bring Sarah back or bellowing at Borusa to stay behind and listen to his insults, the Fourth Doctor is capable of decibel-shattering yelling that would make Mr Noisy look like an amateur by comparison.

The most celebrated instance of Fourth Fury is of course, in The Pirate Planet Part 3, when he lashes out at The Pirate Captain who’s been too busy bragging about his collection of planet trophies to give a damn. Initially, it looks like The Doctor manages to keep his alien detachment (“Then it’s the most brilliant piece of astro-gravitational engineering that I’ve ever seen. The concept is simply staggering. Pointless but staggering.”) It’s only when the Captain says that he’s gratified by The Doctor’s appreciation that the Time Lord completely flips – astounded that he thinks that The Captain could assume that he’d condone the deaths of millions.

Tom Baker is absolutely brilliant in this scene, and the whole build-up to the oft-quoted “Then what’s it FOR??!!??” shriek is delivered magnificently. In fact, Tom’s stumble over the “Mummified remains of planets” line only adds to the raw, impassioned anger.

What makes this instance stand out is that up until now, The Doctor’s been in a jovial mood all throughout The Pirate Planet – chiding Romana over her landing skills, duping gullible guards with sweets and gleefully introducing himself to his captors on the Bridge. Which all demonstrates that the comedic approach to late ‘70s Who worked like a charm, since it made the more serious moments stand out even more.

7: WIT
Defining Moment: City Of Death Part 2

Words always Tom Baker's greatest weapons, as here in 'City Of Death'

"Wit is always an integral part of The Doctor’s persona, and this is the best example of clever strategy and entertainment for the viewer"

So many people remember the Fourth Doctor for his unique brand of humour. It’s used regularly as a tool to put his adversaries off-beam, and a great example of this comes in City Of Death Part 2, when he’s taken prisoner by the Count and Countess Scarlioni.

Right from his over-exaggerated trip when he’s shoved by butler Hermann, The Doctor’s in typically playful form, using his humour to not only take charge of the situation but to turn the tables on the Countess, whose poor attempts at getting information are going belly-up.

And even when Count Scarlioni mercifully enters to add support to his wife’s botched interrogation, The Doctor is trying to throw his enemies off guard with flippant, amusing comments (“My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems”). It’s only in the next episode that Scaroth (in his Tancredi splinter) realises just what a powerful adversary The Doctor is (“I can see that you are a dangerously clever man, Doctor.”). All the comedy has just been a smokescreen to fool the last of the Jagaroth.

What’s great about this scene is that not only does it demonstrate the Doctor’s brains in fooling his enemies, it’s also hugely entertaining to boot. Big Tom reels off countless funny lines like a one-man comedy roadshow, all expertly delivered in that unmistakeable booming voice of his. No wonder he’d be the saving grace of Little Britain.

Wit is always an integral part of The Doctor’s persona, and this is the best example of clever strategy and entertainment for the viewer. C’est magnifique!

Defining moment: The Caves Of Androzani Part 3

Peter Davison showing the Galiffrean spirit in 'The Caves Of Androzani'

"The Fifth Doctor was a true hero"

Poor old Doctor Number Five. Even 26 years after bowling his last, some people still regard him as The Wet Vet In Space. Well, you only have to look at The Caves Of Androzani to see that he was one of the bravest Doctors of them all.

In contrast to the Fourth Doctor’s swansong, the stakes are smaller in scale in Androzani. The Doctor just wants to make it back to the TARDIS in one piece after making another blatant mistake of indulging in misplaced curiosity. And more to the point, he wants to save his new friend Peri from the clutches of pervy old Sharaz Jek, who’s too intent on feasting his eyes on Peri’s delicacies to focus on reality. Problem is, politics are getting in the way of The Doctor’s mission, as he is captured by bloodthirsty Stotz to take him back to his amoral boss Morgus. Even in the future, politics ruins everything.

The Doctor, having been treated like a human Hacky Sack by Stotz, is also facing the effects of the dreaded Spectrox Toxaemia, having blundered into a great big ball of sticky candy floss. And yet despite the signs showing (cramps and spasms), the Doctor is determined to make it back to save Peri. Even when he’s on the point of regeneration, The Doctor pulls it together to land the ship in dangerously haphazard fashion. He’s facing no less than three possible deaths – Spectrox; crash-landing explosion; and bullets from an angry Stotz who’s just woken up – and yet, he’s still determined to save Peri’s life.

Which all culminates in that dizzyingly manic cliffhanger to Part 3. The Doctor’s brash humour (“Ah, Stotzy, have you had a good rest?”) barely masks his furious rage at the way he’s been treated in his fifth incarnation by the universe. Ground down by Adric’s death; the slaughter of the humans, Silurians and Sea Devils; and the mass extermination of humans by the Daleks, the Doctor lets loose one final burst of rage proving that he’s not beaten, and will save his friend, no matter what the cost.

He could have regenerated into the Sixth Doctor at that point, who probably would have buggered off and abandoned Peri. Fortunately, we get one last half hour of Davison greatness – his manic delivery of these fast and furious lines is boosted by Graeme Harper’s intense direction, all fast cuts and manic, hand-held camerawork. All of which combines to prove that the Fifth Doctor was a true hero.

Defining moment: Bad Wolf

Chris Ecclestone tells it like it is in 'Bad Wolf'

"Even though the general consensus is that The Doctor’s nearing the end of his brief ninth life, he’s going to go out in a blaze of glory. Defiant to the very last"

If The Caves Of Androzani proves that The Doctor can be defiant with the best of them, then Bad Wolf takes this concept and hollers it from the rooftops.

Bad Wolf has incredibly high stakes. And personal stakes for the Ninth Doctor, who’s gutted to learn that his deadliest adversaries have not only survived but are numbering more than just a handful. The Daleks are back with a vengeance, not only hell-bent on destroying the universe and The Doctor, but also forcing a non-stop diet of rubbish TV on unsuspecting millions. Now that’s bad.

And it looks like the Daleks hold all the cards – well, The Doctor’s beloved Rose anyway. Initially delighted at Rose’s survival, The Doctor now learns that she is a prisoner on the Dalek space ship. So with the episode coming to a conclusion, Joe Public assumes that The Doctor’s going to submit to the Daleks’ demands. Instead, the cliffhanger is cleverly turned on its head, with the Daleks apparently in danger from “The Oncoming Storm”.

And that speech is delivered amazingly by Christopher Eccleston. It’s a full 60 seconds of sheer, fury-filled determination from his initial surprising “No.” He gradually builds the stakes higher and higher. “I’m going to wipe out every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!” he roars. Even though the general consensus is that The Doctor’s nearing the end of his brief ninth life, he’s going to go out in a blaze of glory. Defiant to the very last.

Defining moment: The Waters Of Mars

David Tennant in 'The Waters Of Mars'

" Even The Doctor’s not immune to bad personality traits, which paradoxically make him just like us flawed humans now and then"

It’s a funny story, these last five years of Doctor Who. When we first saw the Ninth Doctor, he was what was known as ‘Damaged Goods’. Battle-scarred, abrasive, reckless – all brought about by the constant references to the Time War. But ironically, by his last gasp, the Ninth Doctor had at last found that long-lost compassionate streak – all thanks to Rose. And so, he became a new man, cheerful to the point of lunacy and with a brand new zest for life.

Of course, it couldn’t last, and gradually, events brought The Doctor back full circle. By the time The Waters Of Mars took place, the Tenth Doctor had lost three companions and had been significantly rattled by a prophecy that his incarnation was about to come to a sticky end. All of which combined to throw him off the wagon.

It all reached a pinnacle during The Doctor’s visit to Bowie Base One. Instead of leaving the crew to a soggy fate and keeping history intact, the Doctor then realises that he can apparently rewrite history. So when he comes striding back into the Base, the audience for once, isn’t egging him on to save the day. The Doctor has become a lunatic, not only attempting to ward off the Flood, but also the threat of the prophecy. What makes a bad situation worse is the aftermath.

Ferrying Adelaide and her buddies back, The Doctor now proclaims himself “The Time Lord Victorious” in a display of power-mad arrogance. With no companion to keep him on the straight and narrow, The Doctor has taken his arrogance to the worst possible extremes. It’s only Adelaide’s shocking suicide that brings him back down to snowy, Ood-infested-Earth. “I’ve gone too far…” he whispers in horror, realising just what he’s done.

With the new regime of Smith and Gillan making an impact, it’s easy to forget just how brilliant David Tennant could be as The Doctor. His scenes as the manic Doctor are among some of his best work, and contrast neatly with his usual cheery persona. It’s a bravura performance and terrifyingly heightens the depths that even The Doctor can plummet to. Even The Doctor’s not immune to bad personality traits, which paradoxically make him just like us flawed humans now and then.


John Bensalhia limbered up for his complete stories reviews of ALL TV Doctor Who episodes with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

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#1 RE: The ten most important characteristics of The Doctor Mark Cotterill 2011-03-21 06:08
"hearts of hearts" very clever, I loved that!

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