A new era is approaching in Doctor Who, one that happens every few years as both the character and the show as a whole is shaken up, rejuvenated, and re-explored. Peter Capaldi’s inaugural episode as the (technically) 12th Doctor is fast approaching in what looks to be a pretty epic introduction to this new, older, and darker Doctor. As a tribute, we will look at some of the previous Doctors’ first moments – that crucial first episode that ultimately defines what it is to be the Doctor under a new regeneration. Here are the first episodes of some of the finest Doctors ever to grace the show.
6. Spearhead From Space – Jon Pertwee (1970)
This is not only Jon Pertwee’s first episode as the third Doctor, but it was the first episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast in color. As a result, these two new elements drastically changed the tone and style of the show. Pertwee’s Doctor has a dangerous edge – he is one of the few Doctors who will resort to violence in self-defense, being well versed in Venusian Judo – and even more dangerous charm. There is something of James Bond to this Doctor, a man who enjoys danger, drives a sports car, and even occasionally discretely admits to a level of sexual attraction (a true rarity in the history of this show). They will describe him as a dandy. In this episode – the first to feature the Autons – the Doctor avoids detection by taking a shower as conspicuously as possible, and then steals his outfit from the clothing in the locker room. He then proceeds to look dashing as he stealthily and casually sneaks away from his pursuers.
5. Robot – Tom Baker (1974)
In Tom Baker’s first episode – in which the Time Lord matches wits against a rampaging and eventually gigantic robot – the fourth, most popular, and longest running Doctor is already a truly distinctive and endearing character. His big toothed grin, childlike enthusiasm, and facetious non-sequiturs is a delightful contrast to the life threatening danger he faces throughout the series. His chemistry with co-stars Elizabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, and Nicholas Courtney is infectious and fun. The triumphant joy in which he returns from conquering the robot, riding tall atop his open top car, says it all. This Doctor is going to have a ball saving the universe.
4. Castrovalva – Peter Davison (1982)
At the time Davison took over as Doctor number five, not only was he the youngest actor ever to take over the role but he was following one of the best loved and most iconic Doctors of all time. A knotty scarf to unravel indeed. So it only makes sense that one of the first things Davison did as the Doctor was to dismantle the pieces of wardrobe that belonged to Tom Baker, including unraveling the beloved scarf. What emerged was a young English gentlemen in cricketers uniform – brave, attractive, sporting, good natured, and gentle. He is perhaps the most British among the various Doctors, enjoying a good cricket game or garden party and displaying an affinity for tea and trains. He seems unassuming enough, but when it comes down to facing danger, he’s more courageous and sacrificing than anyone he’s ever been.
3. Doctor Who: The Movie – Paul McGann (1996)
While the introductory material could have been better, this attempt to revive the show in a new Americanized style brought us one of the most endearing and (technically) both the longest and the shortest running Doctor. McGann’s Eighth Doctor dresses as an Edwardian gentleman and displays a sense of romanticism to match. He is handsome, gentle, and has an unfortunate tendency for losing his memory. In the movie he battles Eric Roberts’ campy Master with humor and flair, gets wrapped up in the ecstasy of recovering his memory and kisses his companion (probably an effect of the Americanization), and struggles with an unfortunate and unnecessary wig. The movie is terrible and fun, and obviously didn’t lead to the show’s revival. That was almost the end of McGann’s Eighth Doctor. However, while he only had one more screen appearance in the short leading up to the 50th Anniversary Episode, McGann and his Doctor have appeared in numerous novels and audio dramas, making him the longest running Doctor. You can also thank Steven Moffat for making all those Eighth Doctor adventures official Doctor Who canon by having McGann list all his regeneration’s companions from both audio and the novels.
2. Rose – Christopher Eccleston (2005)
This is probably one of the most important first impressions ever. It was a big deal that Russell T. Davies was attempting to revive this much loved and long neglected show. Doctor Who had been off the air since 1989 – except for the TV Movie – and there was a lot on the line to prove. A lot rests on choosing the right actor to play the Doctor at the best of times, and Christopher Eccleston was some pretty inspired casting (as was Billie Piper, but that’s a different story). In this first episode he appears from out of nowhere just before danger descends, taking the girl’s hand, and telling her to run. From there on out, it’s just one exciting adventure after another. Eccleston is perfectly mysterious, cheeky, dark and brooding, yet capable of great joy and wonder. Just when he seems jaded or cynical, he’ll turn around and surprise you.
1. The Christmas Invasion – David Tennant (2006)
This was the casting decision to end all casting decisions. When David Tennant was cast as the beloved Tenth Doctor he was a relative unknown. He was successful and well respected, but certainly not a name and not the superstar he is now. His Doctor seemed like the Doctor to end all Doctors – so much so that when he eventually left the show the BBC contemplated ending the show with him. As much as I loved Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant’s ardent and geeky love for the show shone through his performance and filled the audience with some of that transcendent joy. His performance owes a lot to the Doctors of his childhood – Peter Davison (now also his father-in-law) and Tom Baker – but that youthful, springy, flirtatious, curious, cheeky, silliness is all him. At the same time he could turn on a heel and make us feel the ancient wrath of the oncoming storm or tear up with the depth of his pain and the tiredness of his years. And even though he spent most of The Christmas Invasion sleeping, when he finally awoke he had it all. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I felt heartbroken – almost bereft – the day the Tenth Doctor died. And then I died inside all over again when he left us the second time with a flippant reprisal of his final words.