Maybe it happened much earlier, and I am just not that well-read. Probably there are ancient precursors we could cite. But at least in my own experience, Doctor Who birthed the reboot. One actor’s health or ratings decline, another fears typecasting, another contentiously disputes contracts – then ‘poof!’ A regeneration and a reboot. And since the Master’s unlimited regenerations are now canon, Peter Capaldi will not be the last doctor. “As long as there’s money still on the table, there’ll be regenerations when’ere they’re able.”
The very essence of the series is the reboot and, while this model might culminate in it ‘ain’t your slightly older brother’s Spider-Man’, as Gerry Canavan quipped last year in The Los Angeles Review of Books, it is an extraordinarily enticing conceit. Fans frequently debate their favourite Doctor, usually more often than arguing the merits of producers, writers or script editors. (Like most North Americans, my first Doctor was Tom Baker and my first script editor was Douglas Adams; that goofy smile and those goofy lines have made my first love last. When I read of the recent deaths of Elisabeth Sladen and Mary Tamm, I cried like a baby.) And common wisdom has it that each regeneration means perpetual change – not just a quirky coat, a stick of celery [End Page 251] or a fez, but new behaviours, new characteristics, new personality and hence new consequences.
Yet like the faulty chameleon circuit on the TARDIS, the Doctor is potentially anything but actually the same damn thing over and over – however much the face or voice may change he remains a white upper-middle-class British man (or played as such) who is an anti-authoritarian liberal, impulsively adventurous, morally imperious and, despite all the proscriptions against meddling with The Web of Time, an inveterate meddler changing history every single episode. He is always a bourgeois egalitarian aristocrat – a Lord and distinctly not a plebe. Even when he is from ‘the north’.
Surely there are essays that should be written about the companions or the monsters (indeed, Graham Sleight just published a book called The Doctor’s Monsters (2012)), but companions and monsters also revolve around the Doctor’s dialectic of permanence and change, a spectacular admixture that has made him, as Peter Wright maintains, ‘the most prominent character in British sf’ (71). The character exceeds all instantiations.
However, that character is much wider and more diverse than the television audience knows, or generally cares. In addition to the 13 BBC television Doctors, there are actually many more. Wikipedia has a list of actors who have played the Doctor, which to me looks comprehensive, and provides 45 names, plus seven body-doubles for television. When I saw it, I was especially amused by ‘Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death’, a 1999 television spoof for the Comic Relief charity, where in 23 minutes the doctor was played by Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and finally, Joanna Lumley. There is also a series of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, well known in the UK and generally unknown in much of North America; under licence of BBC Worldwide, they have been making Doctor Who dramas since 1999; right now, three to six new CDs appear each month. There are currently 260 or so such programmes, averaging perhaps 80–90 minutes each, and another 70 or 80 spin-offs, such as the Gallifrey series, staring the former companions Romana and Leela. Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann all reprise their television roles, often with old companions, though many new companions are also introduced. (The licence prohibits Big Finish to use or refer to Eccleston, Tennant, Smith or Capaldi – both to ensure there are no conflicts with the television screenings and because BBC publishes its own line of books, audiobooks and audio dramas.) Curiously, two weeks before BBC television’s 50th anniversary broadcast they posted to the web a short video called ‘The Night of the Doctor’. In it, we see the McGann’s Doctor regenerate into the unnumbered War Doctor (John Hurt). What...