12 Times Doctor Who has Reinvented Itself

Very soon, on October 7 2018, Doctor Who will make its way back to our TV screens for the 11th season of the modern TV series.  And when it does, it will in many ways be a whole new program, compared to what we saw last:  a new Doctor (with a new gender), new companions, new showrunner.  Probably a new version of the theme song and a new opening title sequence, a new TARDIS set and a new sonic screwdriver. And certainly a new story direction, with plot-lines like redeeming the Master or identifying the Hybrid a thing of the past.

Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker 1

But perhaps as much as any other show, Doctor Who has not only survived its periodic reinventions, but indeed thrived.  Over it’s 55 years of history, the show’s pattern of changing things up, especially its conceit of “regenerating” the lead character’s persona every few years, has kept it fresh and unpredictable.  But as mentioned above, the nature of the changes  often reach further than that, with the show altering almost everything about itself, except for its core concept:  a wandering time traveler with a mysterious past who gets involved in spite of himself (or herself) and fights the monsters that nobody else can.

The new season debuting later this year is potentially going to be one of the biggest adjustments the series has ever brought us…but how, when it’s all said and done, will it stand up against the biggest “regenerations”  that the series has experienced?  Let’s countdown some of the most significant examples of those moments and imagine…

Honorable Mentions

Before we get to the actual countdown, here are some stories that didn’t quite make the cut:

Doctor Who William Hartnell

The Time Meddler (1965) – Although the Doctor had previously swapped out Susan for Vicki as far as his fellow travelers were concerned, it was really with the departure of Ian and Barbara in The Chase that the show locked down the idea of the “companion” as part of the series’ format.  Prior to that, it was just Ian, Barbara, and Susan / Vicki.  Now, with the advent of space pilot Steven Taylor, it really could any suitable character traveling with the Doctor.  Indeed, it didn’t even have to be the same number or same type of people.  Suddenly, the possibilities of the show had opened up.  At the same time, The Time Meddler introduced, for the first time aside from Susan, another member of the Doctor’s people.  That also opened up a lot of possibilities for the show as it went on.

The War Machines (1966) – For the first time, the Doctor and his companions had an adventure that was fully set on modern earth.  I say “fully” because there had been An Unearthly Child which took place in a modern setting, albeit a farewell removed one, with only a few characters.  And naturally, the story moved quite quickly into more fantastic territory.  And Planet of the Giants took place completely on modern earth, but the characters were shrunk down to a tiny size at the time so it still felt like they were in an alien landscape.  But with The War Machines, the Doctor was fully running around contemporary London, going to factories and clubs and all sorts of what-not.  Even his new companions, Ben and Polly, were very much products of the time, more deliberately so than any of the modern companions prior to this.

The War Games (1969) – The end of the Second Doctor, the end of the 6th season, the end of the show in black & white.  But The War Games also started something new, in addition to all those endings, in that it introduced the Doctor’s origin, as well as his homeworld.  Prior to that, there were only oblique hints to the Doctor backstory; now we had (seemingly) the whole thing.  That they were able to do this without giving away all the details is a testament to the foresight of the writers, but still it marked a permanent change in the show.

The Three Doctors (1973) – For the first time, the Doctor meets the Doctor, and thus a million fantasy fan fictions are born.

Genesis of the Daleks (1975) – Introducing Davros, the Daleks history is expanded upon and rewritten in a way that still impacts their stories today.

The Deadly Assassin (1976) – Where The War Games introduced us to Time Lord society, The Deadly Assassin transformed it greatly, adding to it both a more modern satirical element, and then a lot of the actual mythology that still influences its portrayal into the modern era of the show.

The Christmas Invasion (2005) – The modern series proves it can move past its lead actor, as David Tennant takes over the reins of the show, a brings an energy that produces a show that while feeling still like the one we were already watching, also feels like something very new and fresh.

Smith and Jones (2006) – The previous year, we saw we could do without Christopher Eccleston.  Now we learn that we can do without Billie Piper, as the modern era’s original companion left the show.  At the time, this was a big deal.  Rose Tyler, love her or hate her, felt as integral to the story as the Doctor himself, and it was hard to imagine the Doctor traveling around with anyone else.  This story introduced Martha, and proved to us once again that the concept was strong to survive without any particular actor in it.

Day of the Doctor (2013) – After eight years of hearing about the Time War and the Doctor’s role in the destruction of Gallifrey, this 50th anniversary special changes history so that the Doctor only thinks he’s destroyed Gallifrey, and that in reality the world continues to exist in a hidden dimension somewhere.  Thus, it closed a major chapter of the series that had been in place the start of the revival, and pointed to a new direction in the future.

• The Pilot (2017) – The opening story of Doctor Who‘s most recent season established a surprising new status quo for the show.  The Doctor was now employed as a professor at a London university, with the TARDIS permanently parked in his office.  His attention was focused on looking after something…or someone…in a hidden vault, a job that his “companion” Nardole seemed to be tasked with keeping him accountable about.  A new primary companion was introduced (Bill) and the show had a new direction that lasted for the season.

Doctor Who Jon Pertwee

And now…the Countdown.

12. Terror of the Autons (1971)

It was a year after the debut of the third Doctor, and all the dramatic changes that brought about (which we’ll look at later on this list), but it’s with this story, at the start of the series’ 8th year, that this era of Doctor Who found its rhythm.  Gone was the harder science fiction drama of Season 7, replaced by a more action-based pulp adventure approach.  The Doctor was not just stuck on earth, but he had developed a local “family” of sorts, with the scope of his team at UNIT expanded and their roles deepened:  the Doctor’s relationship with the Brigadier warms up, Sgt. Benton is treated as a regular and not just as a guest, and Captain Yates becomes an integral part of the picture.  And of course, the scatter-brained but delightfully loyal Jo Grant enters the picture as the prime companion, replacing the intelligent but standoffish Liz Shaw.

But just as importantly, Terror of the Autons introduced the Master, the Doctor’s arch-enemy and opposite number renegade Time-Lord who reveled in power and chaos and destruction just as much as the Doctor stood as a force for good.  He (or she) is by far the single most significant character to be introduced to the franchise, probably after the Doctor himself.  He was the primary antagonist of every story in the 8th season, and continued to be a thorn in the side for nearly every incarnation of the Doctor since.

With Jo, the Master and the UNIT family, creative directors Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks nailed down all the essential elements of the show they’d continue to have great success with for the next four seasons.

11. The Twin Dilemma (1984)

One might think this entire list is going to be made up of first adventures of new Doctors.  And while many of the stories are exactly that, they didn’t all make the cut.  The Twin Dilemma does, however, in spite of the fact that aside from the lead actor, nothing else noticeably changes at all:  it’s the same companion, same producer, same script editor, same TARDIS set, same lack of a sonic screwdriver, same theme music and very nearly the same title sequence.

But we can’t ignore this story because of the dramatic shift in the Doctor’s personality that it presents.  The Doctor goes from the being the likeable and sympathetic version played by Peter Davison to the jarringly unpleasant Time Lord played by Colin Baker.  Apparently, the idea was to have the Doctor start out as off-putting but gradually be revealed as the kind-hearted figure that we knew and loved, but the plan never had a chance to fully develop and ultimately was a failure.  This story is regularly voted as the worst story in all of classic Doctor Who history, and in a way the 6th Doctor never completely recovered from it (at least, not until he became a staple of Big Finish’s audio line).

So The Twin Dilemma–a bold effort to reinvent the series, but sadly a failed one.

Doctor Who Peter Davison 1

10. Castrovalva (1982)

Whereas the efforts to change the show’s direction with The Twin Dilemma were mired by the story’s weaknesses, with Castovalva, it all worked fairly well.  Coming at the start of the show’s 19th season, the serial introduced the world to the Fifth Doctor in a story that took nearly the entire run-time to bring the character down from a post-regenerative crisis to the character we came to know.  And Peter Davison had his work cut out for him, having to come after the wildly successful Tom Baker.  But he pulled it off:  Davison managed to redefine the Doctor from Baker’s intense buffoonery to his own more quietly heroic style, and he took the viewer right along for the ride.  At the same time, the rest of the TARDIS crew settled down into a larger family than they’d been for many years, a new recurring Master was established (as played by Anthony Ainley) and the series in general found it’s footing for the 1980’s.

9. Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

Remembrance was the beginning of the 25th season of the show, and second for 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy.  It’s fair to say his first year wasn’t a great success–the stories seemed to highlight the gaudiest aspects of the 80’s and lacked compelling drama.  The  companion, Melanie Bush, was one of the more annoying the series had ever had, and the Doctor himself was more clownish than engaging.  With Remembrance, however, we had a real start to script editor Andrew Cartmel’s vision to turn the Doctor back into a figure of mystery, and a shade of darkness fell over the character’s manner that hadn’t been seen in a long time.  Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal became much stronger and suddenly the show felt like it had direction again. And new co-star Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, began to chart new territory for the series’ companions, with a backstory and personality nuance that was more developed than any who preceded her.

The whole effort wasn’t completely successful, however, largely thanks to the series’ limited annual episode count at the time and the fact that it only lasted for another two years before being “permanently” cancelled.  Because of this we never saw the full development of Cartmel’s vision, or it’s likely that this entry would be further along the countdown.  But the hints of greatness in this very deliberate repositioning of the series were definitely there.  Similar in some ways to Terror of the Autons, above, Remembrance of the Daleks was not the debut of a new Doctor, but it was the point where that era’s stories began to mature and more strongly resemble the best version of themselves.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi Guitar

8. Deep Breath (2014)

The first item on this list that comes from the revived series, Deep Breath was the first episode of the series to star the 12th Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi (even though it was the third episode that he appeared in).  Deep Breath is like some of the other stories mentioned above–the showrunner, the supporting cast, the overall creative team didn’t change, but the actor who played the Doctor did.  And Steven Moffat, the lead writer, took that opportunity to craft a new era for the show, quite different to what he’d done before, adjusting the show’s tone, key relationships and overall story direction.

The Doctor’s personality shifted from the 11th’s old-man-in-a-young-body lonely wanderer to the 12th’s insecure-about-himself angry crusader. His relationship with Clara shifted from being two young people on a quasi-romantic adventure to a fearful older man desperate for help in knowing that his life has meaning.  And into all of this, a new version of the Master was introduced (although we didn’t know it at the time), giving the Doctor’s adventures a new focus.

Overall, the impact of Deep Breath was a lot like what was intended with The Twin Dilemma many years earlier, but with a lot more success.

7. The Leisure Hive (1980)

This is the only example on this list in which the reinvention of the show happened purely because of the arrival of a new producer.  That man was John Nathan-Turner, who, along with incoming scriptwriter Christopher H. Bidmead, adjusted just about everything about the show, even though The Leisure Hive featured both the same Doctor (Tom Baker) and lead companion (Lalla Ward) as the season before.  For example, secondary companion K9 had a new voice (which was actually his original voice, John Leeson), the TARDIS had a new set, the opening titles were redone, the opening theme arrangement was a bigger departure than the series had ever had before, the incidental music was by a new composer and in a new style, the costumes were all redesigned, and the stories attempted to have a new, harder science fiction edge to them.  Never before or since has a producer so intentionally updated the show’s look and style as they took over the reins of the ongoing program.  And for better or worse, that style remained for an unprecedented 9 seasons, as Nathan-Turner helmed the show until its initial cancellation.

Doctor Who Tom Baker

6. Robot / The Ark in Space (1974-1975)

OK, this is two stories, obviously, or 8 weekly episodes (only the first aired in 1974), but the cumulative impact of them together is profound enough to earn a high spot on this list.  Robot was the debut story for Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, whose approach to the role as a maniacal wanderer was strong and memorable, and very different than the paternalistic scientific action hero Jon Pertwee.  However, the nature of the story didn’t give Baker’s a chance to be much of a wanderer, as it set him on earth in same sort of UNIT-focused adventure that Pertwee often had.  This is no surprise, given that the story was produced by Pertwee’s outgoing creative team of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks.

In the follow-up story, The Ark in Space, new showrunners Philip Hinchcliffe (producer) and Robert Holmes (script editor) began to give the series the vibe they’d be known for. The stories became more overtly dark and horrific and the Doctor began to distance himself from the “UNIT family” that had been a mainstay of the series for the last era. The new direction was a needed change for the series, and much better suited Tom Baker’s take on the Doctor.

5. Doctor Who (1996)

Doctor Who had been off the air for six and a half years when the TV movie featuring Paul McGann was produced, so reinvention was really a necessity.  Producer Philip Segal and writer Matthew Jacobs took the opportunity to do that in spades.  Right up front, one of the most obvious adjustments it the redesign of the TARDIS set, which in the latter years of the original program had grown increasingly spartan in its design.  The TV movie’s TARDIS was extensively decorated with period furniture, candles and a console area that heavily anticipates the sorts of design choices made in the modern series.

But more than that, the Doctor Who TV movie was designed as the pilot episode of an American-produced series (that never came about), and there are plenty of aspects of the show that reflect a different approach.  The American setting, the longer story length, the bigger budget special effects and time spent on action sequences (like a motorcycle chase)…all of these things made the show feel more like a typical American action drama than Doctor Who normally did.  More jarringly to fans of the day, the Doctor shares a couple of kisses with the episode’s female lead–demonstrating  romantic side to his personality that had never been seen before.  And in the midst of the story, it is learned that the Doctor is actually half-human–a revelation that was clearly intended to set up a new ongoing arc in the series that never developed (and has been completely dropped since).

Really, the TV movie is one of the biggest reinventions that the franchise has ever had, and it would be a lot higher on this list if it had only lasted longer than one television story.  Really, considering how extensive the redesign was, it’s pretty impressive that the creative team went to the effort of keeping the show consistent with its previous continuity.

Doctor Who Paul McGann.jpg

4. The Power of the Daleks (1966)

On the surface, The Power of the Daleks didn’t really change all that much.  The show had the same producer and the same companions, and the Doctor fought a familiar enemy (the Daleks).  They didn’t even change the TARDIS set-up, the title theme, or the opening credits!  All that changed was the Doctor himself.  Today, this is par for the course, and never happens without big narrative shifts, real-world media events and explosions.  But back then, the whole idea was completely mind-blowing and unprecedented.  This was before the internet and organized fandom as well (Star Trek, for example, had just debuted in America), so most people in the audience would have had no idea what was coming or why.  All they saw was that the main character of their TV show had fallen down, the TARDIS did some stuff, and when he got up again he was a different actor.  And not just a different actor in a Richard Hurndall or David Bradley type of way, but a completely different actor with a completely different look and a purposely, jarringly different personality.  This story had to prove that the series could go forward like this, with this new take on the title character, making this a huge instance of series reinvention, right there are the beginning.

3. The Eleventh Hour (2010)

One of the biggest examples of overall reinvention that the show has ever had came quite recently, with 2010’s The Eleventh Hour, which was the debut episode for the show’s 5th season.  This was the first episode of the modern show which wasn’t created under the creative authority of Russell T. Davies.  Davies had gone out of his way to wrap up his story-lines in his previous year or so of episodes, with all of his characters being given a good send off.  So when Steven Moffat came on board, he had a fresh slate to work with.

And work with it he did, with a brand new Doctor (Matt Smith), a brand new companion (Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond), a new recurring cast (chiefly Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams), a new TARDIS set, a new sonic screwdriver, a new title sequence, a new opening theme arrangement, a new logo for the title, and a new recurring mystery to solve (universe cracking, pandorica opening, silence falling).  It’s one of the few times in the franchise history in which basically none of the elements from the previous year were retained, aside from the show’s general premise, such as the presence of someone called the Doctor and the TARDIS.  Actually, this has so far only happened three times in the history of the television series (although it’s about to happen again), and those three times make up the top three entries on this list.

Doctor Who Matt Smith 2

2. Spearhead from Space (1970)

Spearhead from Space wasn’t, technically, produced by a new producer.  Incoming showrunner Barry Letts wouldn’t be credited until the following story, but the show was so different from the previous story that it might well have been.  The brand new Doctor hadn’t debuted at the end of the previous story, but at the start of this one–basically falling unconscious out of the TARDIS.  Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor was accompanied by a new assistant (Caroline John’s Liz Shaw), a new supporting cast (mainly Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier) and whole new status quo for the show.  The Doctor was no longer a wanderer in space and time, but now an earth-bound scientist who worked with the military to stop alien invasions and mad scientists.

More than that, the whole show was suddenly being produced in color for the first time, and the number of episodes being produced each year dropped significantly.  Overall, it was very clearly a new era for the show, and the first reinvention that the series had had which effected every aspect of the show’s production.

1. Rose (2005)

Without a doubt, the biggest and most far-reaching revamping that the Doctor Who franchise ever experienced was with Rose, the debut of a new Doctor, a new companion, a new TARDIS interior, a new title sequence, a new logo, a new variant of the theme song, a new season, a new format, a new filming style…a whole new show.  It had been nearly nine years since “canonical” Doctor Who had been on television, and over fifteen years since it was part of a regularly produced program.  But after the ultimate failure of the 1996 TV movie, producer and writer Russell T. Davies was able to get the series revived again, this time as not a one-off movie but a full season of stories.  Though it shows some similarities to the previous effort, it had clearly learned from its mistakes.  A new Doctor is introduced as an immediately compelling and commanding figure, and not as victim or confused interloper within the plot.  The plot itself is fast-paced and gripping (albeit a bit thin) and Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler makes for an appealing viewpoint character to build the episode around.

Obviously, Rose and the following episodes were all far more successful than the 1996 TV Movie, with the series continuing on strong (in spite of some ups and downs) ever since.  The show that we have today, well over a decade later, is still influenced by the groundwork laid in Rose, and there’s no reason to think that this will change with the debut of Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor Who when it debuts very soon.

Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston.png

One final comment…if this wasn’t just a list of times when Doctor Who reinvented itself for television, there’d be a lot more major contenders.  Peter Cushing starred in two Doctor Who theatrical movies back in the 1960’s that were very different from the TV show, even though they were based on actual television stories.  Richard E. Grant and Rowan Atkinson both starred as the Doctor in various productions that were produced in the “wilderness  years” after the original show was cancelled, that were quite different than the actual series.  And one of the biggest reinventions of all came in 1991 when Virgin Books began their “New Adventures” series of novels, in which the 7th Doctor became the deliberately manipulative and often cold-hearted time traveler, and Ace became a foul-mouthed overly violent Dalek killer.  All of that sprang out of ideas that were hinted at on TV, but taken to such an extreme that it certainly qualifies for this list.

Currently, we’re looking forward to what is likely to be one of the biggest examples of this sort of re-invention, which will make it’s way onto our TV (and computer) screens in just a few days.  I’m a bit nervous about it, but that’s okay.  It’s this sort of willingness to go into new territory that’s kept this show on the air for the better part of 55 years, so it’s good that that we’ve got this to look forward to, rather than a desperate scrambling to retain the status quo.

Looking forward to October 7!

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