Over the last year of the series, there’s been a bit of a big deal made of a “First Question”, identified as simply, “Doctor Who?”
But actually, amongst devotees of the show, there’s another “first question” that we’ve been discussing for as long as I’ve been watching the series. It’s often the first things fans talk about when they first meet each other.
“Who is your favorite Doctor?
Which is funny to me since you don’t actually learn much from the answer. Maybe you get a general sense of when someone was first introduced to the show, or whether they are a long-term fan or only a follower of “Nu-Who”. Perhaps the more impassioned fans can learn if they can really relax with this new acquaintance, or whether they have to prepare to dig in their heels and defend their most cherished beliefs. Usually though, it’s nothing more than a safe gateway into more detailed discussion.
Back in the day, the go-to reponse for “favorite Doctor” was Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor. As demonstrated by his winning a recent fan poll for all-time favorite Doctor, his intense eyes, booming voice and trademark scarf left a lasting impression. For years after he left the show, he was still the Doctor who had most captured the public imagination.
That is, until the mid-late 2000’s, when David Tennant – the tenth Doctor – took on the part. It took 25 years (half of the show’s life!) but another actor finally took ownership of the role in the hearts of the greater public. These days, Tennant is the standard answer to the ubiquitous question, and proved this when he won a different fan poll for all-time favorite Doctor.
Of course, you do get other answers. Jon Pertwee, sometimes, or Peter Davison. There are a bunch of people for whom Christopher Eccleston is the best. And of course, Matt Smith, the current Doctor, will often get a mention, as testified to by yet another fan poll for all-time favorite Doctor.
Now here I am writing about this. Perhaps I should share who my favorite Doctor is? Would that benefit you in any way? Or perhaps I should count them down, from worst to best, 11th to 1st. Or maybe we should have our own poll.
In terms of evaluating the series, “Favorite Doctor” is not a great criteria. Or certainly not the only criteria.
Maybe instead we should be talking about favorite era. The actor playing the Doctor helps to shape the era, but so does the producer, the script writer, and more. If you doubt this, just consider how different Tom Baker’s early stories were, under producer Philip Hinchcliffe, compared to his later years, mostly produced by Graham Williams. The two men had radically different approaches – to oversimplify, one tended to bring out the horror, and the other the humor. Aside from both having Baker in them, their respective versions of the series were quite different.
In fact, these days, the greatest conflict amongst fans may be whether Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat is the better lead writer and executive producer. There are some people who feel really passionately about this, decrying every move Moffat has made and wondering if anyone can ever undo the damage. Of course, some of those same people didn’t really like the show before Davies got involved, so they may be missing some of the broader canvas that the show’s 50 year history affords.
Over those 50 years, the show has reinvented itself many times, and not just a new Doctor came on board. It’s gone through multiple, radical adjustments in its style and approach. It has tweaked, updated, and even contradicted its own internal mythology. And somehow, it’s survived. And often, to thrive. And I think most fans are happy about that.
This Christmas, it’s happening again. Matt Smith is bowing out, and Peter Capaldi is stepping in. Some of us are saying goodbye to our favorite Doctor.
That may be sad, but it’s also okay. Because even though many of us have a favorite Doctor, and may even think he is without doubt the best Doctor, I still have never met anyone who wishes he were the only Doctor. We recognize that the series’ capacity for reinvention has kept it going for through (most of) this half century. We know that in each era, although there have been poor episodes, there have also been great ones. So much of the fun of the show has been watching it move forward while still appreciating the past—seeing it not only change, but grow.
Bring on The Time of the Doctor!