‘Doctor Who’: Look Back at the Doctors’ First Episodes

Matt Smith in 'The Eleventh Hour' (Pic: BBC)

Matt Smith in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (Pic: BBC)

On Saturday, August 23, Doctor Who fans will get to experience a rare event: the first story of a new Doctor, as Peter Capaldi takes up the TARDIS keys following the regeneration from Matt Smith in last year’s Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor.”

As with so much in Doctor Who, there’s no real set formula for how a lead actor’s opening story will go. Sometimes the new man’s first episode will be the first episode of a season; on other occasions, the regeneration has taken place partway through. Some post-regeneration stories make a big deal out of the fact that the character has changed face; in others, it’s barely remarked upon. And in one notable case, the new Doctor simply appeared onscreen without any hint that a regeneration had taken place; while the time after that, we had to wait until the episode had nearly finished to see him in action.

As we prepare to welcome the Twelfth Doctor into our lives for the first (proper) time, here’s a run down of how the previous eleven fared in their debut stories.

First Doctor: “An Unearthly Child,” 1963
The very first episode of Doctor Who remains a startlingly unique piece of television, quite unlike anything that had gone before—and arguably since. Perhaps the most striking thing about it, when viewed all these years later, is how William Hartnell‘s Doctor is the closest thing the episode has to an antagonist. He’s an unpleasant, vituperative old man, distrustful of Ian and Barbara to the extent that he kidnaps them rather than risk them giving away his and Susan’s secrets. Of course, his heroic nature would gradually come out over the course of his early stories, but when first introduced the emphasis is very much on showing us how strange and alien he is.
Watch “An Unearthly Child” on Hulu.

William Hartnell in 'An Unearthly Child' (Pic: BBC)

William Hartnell in ‘An Unearthly Child’ (Pic: BBC)

Second Doctor: “The Power of the Daleks,” 1966
Unfortunately, the great Patrick Troughton‘s first episode is one of many from his era that were wiped from the BBC archives and have yet to be recovered, so there is not a single complete surviving episode of it. Nevertheless, it does at least exist in the form of audio recordings and “telesnaps,” so it’s possible to experience the story in this way. Perhaps mindful of the fact that the very idea of a regenerated (or, as this story has it, “renewed”) Doctor would be a strange and unsettling one for viewers, the producers elected to give Troughton a Dalek story, so there’s at least some degree of familiarity. Troughton’s performance as the new Doctor was criticized by many in the press at the time as “clownish” in comparison to his predecessor, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear just how well he hits the ground running for what would become a definitive take on the character.

Third Doctor: “Spearhead From Space,” 1970
Doctor Who was brought firmly into the color television era for Jon Pertwee‘s debut, which opens with the Doctor already having regenerated (as a result of the events at the end of “The War Games” the year before. If viewers felt a little short-changed by not actually getting to see the Doctor change face, however, this was surely short-lived as they experienced a genuine classic of its era: a bold, fast-paced adventure that sets out 1970s Doctor Who as a brand new proposition, quite different from the previous seven years. The show arguably wouldn’t see as dramatic a change in style between Doctors until “Rose,” thirty-five years later.
Watch “Spearhead From Space” on Hulu.

Fourth Doctor: “Robot,” 1974
Given how firmly the Fourth Doctor would pass into legend, it’s perhaps surprising that his first story, “Robot,” is such a by-the-numbers affair. Yet where it stands out is in being possibly the first post-regeneration story to really spend its duration going into the weirdness of the transformation, surrounding the Doctor with more familiar characters than ever before who each have to react to this sudden change—and at the center of it all, Tom Baker, unleashing his trademark brand of madcap whimsy right from the outset.
Watch “Robot” on Hulu.

Fifth Doctor: “Castrovalva,” 1982
With the difficult task of establishing a new Doctor after the most successful incarnation so far, Peter Davison‘s opening story opts to emphasize the traumatic nature of regeneration; in-story, this is perhaps as a consequence of the most violent “death” the Doctor had yet suffered. As such, the first half of this serial is largely concerned with the Doctor’s recuperation, and how his companions attempt to cope in the TARDIS without him.
Watch “Castrovalva” on Hulu.

Peter Davison in 'Castrovalva' (Pic: BBC)

Peter Davison in ‘Castrovalva’ (Pic: BBC)

Sixth Doctor: “The Twin Dilemma,” 1984
Perhaps one of the most controversial Doctor Who stories of all, “The Twin Dilemma” was deliberately designed to make viewers dislike the new Doctor, Colin Baker, showing him as abrasive and even borderline violent compared to the gentle, likable Fifth Doctor. The intent was to gradually soften him over the course of his first full season, but in this opening story it was an alarming shock for viewers who were accustomed to the Doctor being pleasant and heroic.
Watch “The Twin Dilemma” on Hulu

Seventh Doctor: “Time and the Rani,” 1987
For the first time since 1970, there was no direct actor-to-actor regeneration, as the nature of Baker’s departure meant the actor refused to return to film one. Sylvester McCoy therefore donned a blond wig as the episode opened with his regeneration already in full effect, which seemed an appropriate beginning to this somewhat bizarre story. There was less emphasis than in the last few stories on how the new incarnation compared to his predecessor, although this might be because the script was written before it was known who the actor would be. As such, it’s difficult to really get a handle on the Seventh Doctor until his subsequent stories start to kick in.
Watch “Time and the Rani” on Hulu.

Eighth Doctor: “Doctor Who: The Movie,” 1996
Perhaps surprisingly, McCoy was invited to return for the opening ten minutes of the U.S.-produced TV Movie pilot, before a CGI-effects-laden regeneration into Paul McGann. The circumstances of the story mean that the Eighth Doctor spends a good portion of it suffering from amnesia, and so the audience get to rediscover who the character is along with him. Despite this, McGann enjoys possibly the most seamless transition into the role since Tom Baker before—he may only have been the Doctor for less than two hours, but he undeniably was the Doctor.

Ninth Doctor: “Rose,” 2005
There’s no regeneration for Christopher Eccleston: he arrives in “Rose” as a fully-formed Ninth Doctor, as the New Who era begins by introducing this strange, alien character to us through the eyes of Rose rather than relying on the familiarity of previous incarnations. The obvious comparison therefore is with “An Unearthly Child,” but despite his initially bristling nature, there’s a clear warmth and depth to Eccleston’s take, and the famous “world turning” speech serves as a fabulous introduction to everything that lies beneath the surface of the Doctor.
Watch “Rose” on Hulu.

Tenth Doctor: “The Christmas Invasion,” 2005
It was a bold move by showrunner Russell T. Davies to keep the new Doctor David Tennant asleep in bed for almost three-quarters of the 2005 Christmas Special, but it paid off in spades, as it meant that when he did finally wake up, anticipation levels were at a fever pitch. At the close of what is generally a thrilling, fast-paced alien invasion adventure, we once again see a new version of the Doctor wondering exactly “what kind of a man” he is compared to his predecessors, with the implication that it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun finding out.
Watch “The Christmas Invasion” on Hulu.

David Tennant in 'The Christmas Invasion' (Pic: BBC)

David Tennant in ‘The Christmas Invasion’ (Pic: BBC)

Eleventh Doctor: “The Eleventh Hour,” 2010
Serving as the introduction not just to a new Doctor, but to a new production team, “The Eleventh Hour” sets out the stall for the Matt Smith era with its greater emphasis on a “fairy tale” nature, and taking the unusual step of having the new Doctor meet his companion as a child before encountering her as an adult. The beloved “fish fingers and custard” scene is a rare chance for the show to stop and really spend some time exploring the nature of a new incarnation before getting into the nuts and bolts of the story itself, and it pays off, as despite the difficult task of replacing Tennant, Smith is very firmly the audience’s Doctor by the time the episode ends.
Watch “The Eleventh Hour” on Hulu.

Which is your favorite debut episode?

See more:
Brit Binge: The Many Moods of the Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’
The Complete Guide to Streaming ‘Doctor Who’ in the U.S.
‘Doctor Who’ Personality Quiz: Which Doctor Are You?