Doctor Who fans are getting ready to meet the latest incarnation of the ancient alien who travels through all of space and time in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside.
A clever plot device has helped keep the BBC series on the air for so many years. Whenever the Doctor dies, he regenerates into a new body and picks up life right where he left off—with some new personality quirks and different taste in clothing, but his core characteristics and memory remain more or less intact.
That’s certainly one way to keep things fresh.
Unlike James Bond, Doctor Who has a valid in-story reason for why 11 (and now 12) different actors have taken on the title role over the past 50 years.
Peter Capaldi will star in his first full episode Aug. 23, and Whovians will get to meet the Doctor all over again. A season premiere is that much more exciting when it basically doubles as a series premiere of sorts, too.
So, let’s take a quick look back in time at the introductions of the previous three “modern” Doctors (since the series returned to television in 2005).
9 – Christopher Eccleston took over the role in the 2005 pilot “Rose.” So yes, he didn’t just take over the role—he resurrected it for a whole new generation. If he had flopped, Entertainment Weekly would have had significantly fewer Doctor Who articles over the past several years.
Just a little bit of pressure then.
“Rose” had a lot to do, and thankfully, it didn’t try to do everything. No talk of far-flung concepts like Time Lords or regenerations (though Eccleston’s Doctor takes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glance in a mirror to check out what his face looks like these days). This is a straightforward adventure told from the point of view of a normal 19-year-old Earth girl, Rose (Billie Piper). Through her, we gradually learn about this strange man and become intrigued by him.
It’s not perfect. The episode is rather cheesy in places. (How does Rose not notice her boyfriend isn’t quite himself?) But it’s fun and establishes Eccleston’s Doctor as a man you’d want protecting the world.
10 – Fans had grown accustomed to traveling with Christopher Eccelston for one whole season…and then he became David Tennant.
Longtime Who fans were used to their hero regenerating ever since the original Doctor, William Hartnell, morphed into Patrick Troughton into the 1960s. But the newcomers still needed someone to convince them that the Doctor was worth following no matter who was playing the role.
Tennant’s first full episode was “The Christmas Invasion” at the end of 2005. This new Who universe was already established, as was his companion Rose and her supporting cast. It just had to establish Tennant’s Doctor.
So, naturally, he spends much of the episode in a regeneration-induced coma, not fully emerging until the grand finale.
And it’s brilliant. We watch Rose wrestle with the idea of her dear friend suddenly becoming a new person, mirroring the concerns some viewers may have had. We’re left in suspense as mankind struggles to deal with a visit from not-so-benevolent aliens while the Doctor sleeps. When he finally does make his big entrance, it’s well worth the wait, and we’re assured that, yes, this is the Doctor, even though it’s not exactly the same Doctor.
11 – Tennant wound up being such a beloved Doctor that whoever came next would need to prove himself very quickly. And Matt Smith does just that in “The Eleventh Hour” in 2011.
This episode is basically a re-pilot. Not only do we have a new Doctor, but we have a new companion (Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan), and a new showrunner (Steven Moffat, taking over for Russell T Davies).
A fast-paced adventure builds up to this moment, in which the new Doctor talks down an alien invader while figuring out his wardrobe.
His monologue and the flashing images show us that there’s continuity between what’s gone on before and where we’re going from here. We even get quick glimpses of the previous 10 Doctors in rapid succession, until Smith’s Doctor steps through, appearing in his soon-to-be-trademarked outfit for the first time, all while composer Murray Gold’s new “The Doctor is about to do something awesome” score plays.
And we’re sold. Matt Smith is the Doctor.
At least, he was until last Christmas.
Modern Who is three-for-three when it comes to successful introductions of new Doctors. Hopefully, Capaldi’s premiere will continue the trend.