This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who, including books and audioplays.
You know the description ‘Doctor-ish’, pertaining to the title character in the long-running BBC TV series Doctor Who? It feels slightly nebulous, defined circularly by virtue of literally anything they do potentially matching this description. Yet, I bet we all carry a vague notion of it, a gut feeling that certain acts and ways are Doctor-ish.
Rather than try to define this then find examples to support the definition, I’m going to list examples of behaviour from each incarnation that I regard as Doctor-ish then leave everyone to come up with their own conclusions/reiterate their existing opinions. And so…
The First Doctor – The Aztecs – “Yes, I made some cocoa and got engaged.”
The Doctor accidentally gets engaged to a woman called Cameca by sharing cocoa with her, and casually mentions his new fiancée to Ian. This is made funnier by the fact that at the time he nearly spluttered with indignation, but relates it to Ian – the nearest thing the show had to an absolute lad at the time – as if it’s not a big deal, one of the few moments where the First Doctor can be compared with Jay from The Inbetweeners.
All at once we have hubris, ego, and that callous edge whereby the Doctor will still use this woman to get access to the trapped ship and escape. Because he’s not the man we first met though, we see some genuine affection as he tries to soften the blow.
Doctor Who – Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. – “Oh, don’t apologise. I expected it.”
Peter Cushing’s human scientist is betrayed to the Daleks by Brockley (a young Philip Madoc). Instead of being angry at this deeply untrustworthy man for delivering him into the claws of his deadliest (and only) enemy, Doctor Who is cheerily sanguine about the whole thing to Brockley while meaningfully putting on his gloves and glaring at the Daleks.
The Second Doctor – The Web Of Fear – “Now you’ve gone and ruined everything!”
Maybe it’s the silver hair that does it, but compared to the incarnations on either side of him the Second Doctor gets away with a ruthless, manipulative streak and a haughty sense of superiority. Seven is too broody, too melancholy, too obscure-Presbyterian-sect to be anything other than a sad clown, whereas Two absolutely hides his darkness behind a ramshackle demeanour and quotable speeches about fighting monsters in a polyhedron universe.
Here, having secretly plotted to destroy the Great Intelligence, he vents his frustration at his plan going awry because his friends have rescued him and temporarily driven the entity away. A short-term victory only, it’s interesting that here we have the first meeting of the Doctor with Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, ending with the Doctor trying to trick him in order to murder an alien intelligence. Cut to:
The Third Doctor – Doctor Who And The Silurians – “Hello, are you a Silurian?”
Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is more famous for being a forthright man of action, generally yelling ‘HAAAII’ and getting involved in chase sequences that are somehow still happening. This scene, in his second story, is a great counterpoint.
Upon establishing that Dr Quinn (Fulton Mackay) is dead and, knowing that it was probably this creature that killed him, the Doctor recovers from his shock and is simply kind. Then, in an equally telling moment, grows desperate when the Silurian is scared away by someone else arriving, shouting that the humans will destroy them.
The Fourth Doctor – The Well-Mannered War – “Goodbye universe, I’ll be back again one day!”
In the novelisation, originally published as part of Virgin Book’s Missing Adventures range, this story ends on a sombre note which ties in with the Fourth Doctor’s unexpected change in mood between Season 17 and 18. In the Big Finish adaptation by Jacqueline Rayner, the tone of this scene is different. Tom Baker performs it as a victory, a note of delight creeping into his voice when escaping an elaborate trap (by heading into a completely different sort of danger).
In his recent Scratchman novel, Baker confirms that he regards the Fourth Doctor’s character as essentially static, so perhaps that informs his acting here. It brings to mind an alternate Season 18, one where the end of Logopolis is very different in its melancholy.
The Fifth Doctor – Black Orchid – “Oh, well bowled.”
If you’ve ever wondered what Doctor Who would look like if they just landed somewhere and had a nice time without much in the way of jeopardy, watch Black Orchid Part One (NB. At this point you may as well watch Black Orchid Part Two).
Here, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, the Fifth Doctor plays cricket incredibly well.
That’s it. That’s the clip.
He’s just trying to unwind.
The Sixth Doctor – The Trial Of A Time Lord – “There’s a mystery here.”
In this scene you get a microcosm of the Doctor across all their incarnations: it’s not that he doesn’t care about Peri here, it’s that he’s fundamentally incapable of really understanding how she’s feeling, tries anyway, but then his natural curiosity is a bigger motivating factor in his behaviour. His enthusiasm for the unknown is electrifying, his annoyance at being dragged back childish.
Worth noting also that Colin Baker absolutely nails this scene, there are elements of all the other Doctors in his performance here.
The Seventh Doctor – Remembrance Of The Daleks – “And didn’t we have trouble with the prototype?”
This scene is notable for a few reasons. The secrecy, the quiet aside, confiding in his friend … it’s the Seventh Doctor entering his prime brooding phase as we realise that this scheme he’s got going is, in fact, severely epic. While the show was yet to enter the Series Finale register of drama, here the production is really going for it which lends it a sense of scale. This is a significant change from what’s gone before.
The McCoy era is a useful testing ground for a lot of the ideas present in the post-2005 show, and while Russell T. Davies may well have had them anyway it’s interesting to note the variations on the themes. For those of you who prefer their Doctors on the less mythic side, this scene is where that version of the character really kicks into gear. While the ideas here were explored in books rather than telly, the idea of the Doctor as a legend rather than just some traveller persisted until the 2018 series.
The Eighth Doctor – The TV Movie – “Who. Am. I?”
You are just a teensy bit melodramatic, sir.
The War Doctor – The Name Of The Doctor – “What I did I did without choice in the name of peace and sanity.”
Besides being a great cliffhanger, this carries on a grand tradition of Doctor Who which is to introduce new and huge ideas that bludgeon the shape of the series into something else. Here we not only have a new, previously unheard-of incarnation (one who can represent the Wilderness Years off air yet also all the came before) but also the idea that ‘The Doctor’ is an ideal rather than the individual.
Sure, once the dust has settled this doesn’t quite align with the rest of Doctor Who but no attempt to rationalise Doctor Who is going to be 100% successful, and this is precisely what headcanons and fan fictions are there for.
The Ninth Doctor – The Trip Of A Lifetime – “Do you wanna come with me?”
There are only three TV series separating the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth, but such a contrast. The first appearance, as this was for Nine, is where gut reactions shape how we feel about a new Doctor for quite some time afterwards. What this advert does is confidently challenge preconceptions about ‘Doctor-ish’ character traits and appearance, in that we aren’t confronted with eccentricities and a costume, but a bloke with some clothes. This was a huge change, and one that the show hasn’t made stick in every respect, but a lot of what this ad projects still shapes the character to this day.
The Tenth Doctor – Love & Monsters – “Don’t ever mistake that for nice.”
An intrinsic part of the Tenth Doctor’s characterisation is that he’s an incredibly attractive but equally damaging person, and showrunner Russell T. Davies obviously knows this, hence there being numerous clips available to illustrate the point (The Christmas Invasion, Tooth And Claw, Rise Of The Cybermen, Doomsday …).
Here, Elton Pope has sought the Doctor for most of his life, after seeing him the night his mum died. Now he’s seemingly lost everything, and when the TARDIS lands he’s confronted with this hero: a messy, capricious and destructive force.
The Eleventh Doctor – The Pandorica Opens – “I. Am. Talking!”
Davies’ successor, Steven Moffat, has been described as putting the Doctor on a pedestal and supplying him with hero moments that jarred with the character’s anti-hero and non-mythic wanderer traits.
Here’s both an example and an inversion of that concept, Matt Smith’s Doctor gives off massive rock-star vibes while simultaneously answering the Eighth Doctor’s question from earlier. Murray Gold’s score is celebratory as the Doctor, with just his voice, challenges the combined space fleets of some of the universe’s most feared races (and some obscure continuity references) to protect the Pandorica and send his opponents packing.
He is righteous, he is heroic and he is wrong. In every important respect.
The Twelfth Doctor – Heaven Sent – “I’m nothing without an audience.”
In what is clearly the best scene of the episode, the Doctor breaks some windows and walls.
A problem with writing Doctor Who is that the Doctor is supposed to be an incredibly clever alien who has lived for centuries, but most people writing Doctor Who are merely intelligent middle-aged men who are tired and have multiple deadlines. Steven Moffat is certainly some of those things, and his writing is ostentatiously clever.
When it has enough verve – and the acting and production soar alongside – we get scenes like this, which are doing so much yet remain coherent and entertaining. So much information is conveyed here. We have a rapid explanation of the Doctor’s plan of escape with at least two major character beats and a fourth-wall break that could power a dissertation, and at least two of these are massive retcons.
He has nerve, does Steven Moffat.
The Thirteenth Doctor – The Tsuranga Conundrum – “I love it. Conceptually and actually.”
There’s a lot of peril going on but the Doctor can’t help but geek out over something that’s caught her eye. Sure, it doesn’t feel especially helpful but she just can’t help herself. Also, it turns out to be useful for the plot later on.
While name-dropping and rapid-fire enthusiasm are regular features of Thirteen, it’s this bout of uncynical geeking out that’s felt most intrinsically Doctor-ish for me, and I sincerely hope Jodie Whittaker gets more moments like this in Series 12.
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