Before we get into the complexities of the Second Doctor as a character, let’s pause a moment to consider the dilemma on the hands of Doctor Who‘s producers in 1966, when it became clear that William Hartnell, the lead actor in their incredibly successful TV show, was simply too frail to continue in the role.
What could they do? They could try and find someone who could pretend to be William Hartnell, to act as if nothing had happened and just keep the stream of Daleks and Zarbi and ray-guns and whatnot coming towards the TARDIS, or they could seize the opportunity to try and weave this change into the narrative of the show. Either way, they had to trust that most of the audience wouldn’t wander off after the first episode.
Their solution was not only ingenious, it ensured the longevity of the show, and created one of its most enduring myths: the regeneration of the Doctor. Not only that, but by the end of the Second Doctor’s reign, another firm plank of the Doctor’s personal mythology — that he is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, who stole a TARDIS and went off exploring, and should be reprimanded for meddling in the affairs of other planets — had been introduced. He was the first to use a sonic screwdriver too. The Second Doctor’s three-year stint was, therefore, an exercise in consolidation, taking the elements fans loved most about the show and putting them on firm foundations to protect this reality (that we now call the Whoniverse) from future traumas.
That’s the background stuff, but the reason it worked is entirely to do with Patrick Troughton‘s reading of the character. While the First Doctor bought himself thinking time using his sharp tongue and patrician demeanor, the Second Doctor hums and haws, and blusters and giggles. The Second Doctor affects an air of befuddlement, like Winnie The Pooh, constantly talking airily, never appearing to really know what he’s on about, and then, just at the right moment, the steel trap of his mind slams shut, and he comes up with the ingenious solution to whatever the problem of the day may be, and ties everything together with string. A touch of slapstick here and there, a worried wring of the hands while he considers the ramifications of what’s gone on, and he’s off again, back into lovely cuddly philosophical Pooh mode.
And if that sounds like a familiar spin on our favorite Time Lord, it’s because it’s a similar approach to that taken by Matt Smith, a huge Troughton fan, as the Eleventh Doctor. Lull your enemies into a believing you’re a buffoon, never be afraid of becoming a laughing stock, and then suddenly become astonishingly serious, save the day, shout at the baddies, and then pirouette on the balls of your feet in triumph.
Oh, and always, always let your companions know how much you care about them, that’s very Eleven too:
And even after the Time Lords had caught up with the Second Doctor and forced him to change his appearance once more (a bit of a wet paint moment that, the idea that they would force a regeneration just to avoid social awkwardness for the Doctor), Patrick Troughton remained a friend of the show. His Doctor came back three times, for The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors, and always with that mischievous grin and that enormous personal warmth, even while under fire.
And that’s really what the Second Doctor is all about. He can reassure the people around him that everything is going to be OK, even while he is transparently flustered and can’t seem to think straight. He’s the eccentric uncle you wish you spent more time with, the one that sometimes runs a Punch and Judy show and always has sweets. And sometimes he plays the recorder, just so that everyone in the room knows his thought process is more important than anyone else’s. He’s infuriating, a clown, but a charismatic sweetheart too. It’s a lesson repeated by the Fourth and Seventh Doctors, and one the Eleventh appears to have taken as a personal blueprint.
Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited special airs on BBC AMERICA Sunday, February 24 at 8/7c, followed by a special airing of The Tomb of the Cybermen.