Versions of this article have appeared elsewhere in the past; with the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who and new material being released, I figured it was time to revisit it.
SPOILERS from 1963 all the way through 2021. Not a lot of them, but some.
There are few things more polarizing in fandom than the regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Since the concept was first invented in 1966 to cover the not-entirely-voluntary departure of William Hartnell1, audiences have immediately divided each time it happens between those who accept and sometimes even prefer the new version of the character, and those who can’t stand them.
This is perfectly natural, really, but what’s been fascinating to me, as a long-time fan, is watching the reasons people come up with for disliking the new Doctors. For example, when Peter Capaldi was new, the most common complaint boiled down to the fact that he was a grumpy, insulting asshole.
Problem is…so were all the others. All of them.
The Doctor doesn’t really cope well with not getting their way. When thwarted, the Doctor will consistently become loud, insulting, and bullying (which I deal with separately below). Even the Fifth Doctor, often seen as the “nicest”, was not above being a sore loser in this regard. The Thirteenth Doctor, while noted for her positive outlook most of the time, was not immune to this, either, although she’s more likely to become taciturn and demanding than shouty.
It became a catchphrase in the Eleven era, “Rule no. 1: The Doctor lies.” But Eleven was not the first Doctor to be untruthful; they all are. They lie to manipulate people. They lie to gain access to places they shouldn’t—before psychic paper, this was even more common, but really, psychic paper is just a prop for lying! They do it because they don’t think people can handle the truth. The Doctor lies so routinely that long-term viewers are forced to treat them as an unreliable narrator. Nothing the Doctor says can ever really be trusted.
This has gotten toned down in the 2005-2021 series, but the Doctor is a notorious thief. Interesting and/or useful objects just find their way into their pockets. They’re rarely very valuable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor has a very loose idea of other people’s property.
Then, of course, there’s the one really big theft, without which there would be no series: the TARDIS itself. That’s a capital crime on Gallifrey, by the way, but they keep getting off on technicalities like saving the galaxy.
The Doctor hates bullies, but is always convinced they are the smartest person in the room, and practically wallows in the role of bully when that’s what it takes to get their way. This is particularly evident when the Doctor is a more physically imposing incarnation (Tom Baker, being both very tall and very loud, comes to mind; but also Capaldi and his Attack Eyebrows, and the Fugitive Doctor, whom we saw very little of but has the makings of a Grade A Bully), but it’s never absent. They bully their friends, they bully strangers, they bully their enemies, and almost nobody ever seriously stands up to him.4
The Doctor is often quite kind to young adults (although, in the first version of the 1963 pilot, he even attacked his granddaughter as “stupid”). With full adults, however, including adult companions, especially men, they can be vicious. They never do get their first adult male companion’s name right (Ian Chesterton5) and after a while you’re quite certain that it has nothing to do with the forgetfulness of an old man. They’re happy to mortally insult one of their best friends—the Brigadier—when they think they’re about to leave him behind forever. Then, of course, there’s both Mickey (“The Idiot”) and Danny (“P.E.”).
Long story short, if you don’t have their respect at any given particular moment, they are quite happy to cut you to pieces and not care if they’re actually wrong about you. Except once. Lytton. The Sixth Doctor was actually on-screen-sorry about misjudging Lytton.
Condescension and sexism
While they’re less likely to be outright vicious to the women they encounter, they are quite likely to condescend to them, treating even grown women like children or, one one egregious case, treating a trained journalist like the tea lady (Sarah Jane Smith, on first meeting). There are exceptions to this — Zoë, Liz Shaw, and Nyssa, he sees as almost intellectual equals and almost always treats them as such — but generally speaking, until very recently, they were not exactly an enlightened ally of feminism.
Then, there’s their more general condescension toward what the Ninth Doctor liked to call, “Stupid Apes” and the Twelfth likes to call, “Pudding Heads”. Often, when the people around them do something they don’t like (which admittedly often is a mistake), they reverts to ad hominem insults. Most common targets for this behavior are their own companions, and anyone associated with the military.
This comes up more in the New Series than the Old, but River Song’s not wrong when she says that the Doctor hates to see their companions age, and therefore generally doesn’t. Once they leaves someone, they treat them as gone forever from their life and make no significant effort at keeping contact. This includes their own granddaughter, despite a somewhat iconic scene in which he promises to do so.6 He often hates to say goodbye to them, but once they’re gone, they’re gone.
They also seek out younger people to be their companions in the first place. Many of their companions have been in their late teens and early twenties and a couple have bordered on child endangerment. Only a handful have been more mature adults.
Accessory to Murder
This has gotten highlighted a number of times in the New Series, although the Classic Series generally just accepted it: the Doctor rarely kills with their own hands (in fact, I can only immediately remember
two three instances7), but he’s pretty good at convincing others to kill on his behalf, going all the way to their second serial, The Daleks. Entire revolutions have come down to the Doctor’s instigation, and while the on-screen casualties are not always numerous, the off-screen body count can be implied to be pretty high.
Genocide and accessory to Genocide
Let’s leave aside the hundreds of years during which the Doctor believed they’d successfully destroyed both Gallifrey and the Dalek Empire simultaneously. The Doctor was a genocide and an accessory to genocide long before that.
First, there’s every single other time they honestly believed they’d successfully destroyed the Daleks once and for all. There are several, going back to Evil of the Daleks (1967). Similarly, most of their encounters with the Cybermen make it seem like the group they’re dealing with are the last surviving Cybermen anywhere, and it usually seems like they’ve really finished them for good when it’s all over.
Then there’s the one they were actually convicted of: the destruction of the Vervoids. Now, there’s a lot of screwy things going on during the Trial of a Time Lord season, but the truth is, the Doctor did, in fact, engineer the destruction of an entire new race of sentient beings. Generally speaking, they are so focused on their role as protector of Terran humanity that they are quite willing to commit atrocities upon humanity’s enemies8.
The point I’m trying to make with this is: if you don’t like any particular Doctor, fine. Each one is an acquired taste. But don’t say it’s because, for example, they’re a grumpy manipulative bullying liar. Because they all were. Some were prettier to look at, came across as kinder or more charming or what-have-you. But they’re all the same person, and that person is, when you look at it closely, really kind-of terrible.
Except for the whole saving-the-world-all-the-time thing. I guess that’s pretty cool…
William Hartnell suffered from artierosclerosis, which began to affect his memory. He couldn’t remember his lines consistently, and that doesn’t really work when you’re taping as-live for 40 weeks a year and you’re the main character. ↩
This number includes the 14 numbered Doctors, the War Doctor, and the Fugitive Doctor. It does not yet include the 15th Doctor, and honestly, including the 14th is somewhat speculative, since at the time of this writing, we’ve only seen trailers of the specials featuring the Second Coming of David Tennant. ↩
Pronouns have become interesting where The Doctor is concerned. A genuine plural they/them is often appropriate when dealing with general characteristics, but, until recently so was a singular “he/him”. At this point, most of the time, I’m using singular they/them wherever I previously used “he/him”, unless the sentence is dealing with one specific incarnation. There may also just be some fall-throughs here—this article was originally written before Jodi Whittaker or the Fugitive Doctor appeared, so there’s probably some vestiges left, despite an editing pass. ↩
One reason I love Clara? She does stand up to him. Of course, then she turns around and is just as much of a bully to others, including the Doctor, but still… In the earliest days, Barbara stood up to him regularly; and all the companions we’ve seen since Clara have been better at calling the Doctor out on it. But sometimes the Doctor still says, “Shut up and do what I tell you.” ↩
Who, by the way, taught at Coal Hill School, the same school as Clara. In fact, the sign out front in “Day of the Doctor” suggests that Ian Chesterton is, in Clara’s day, the president of the board of governors. ↩
He does see her in The Five Doctors, but they’ve both been abducted to Gallifrey. Susan presumably is amongst those Clara claims in “Death in Heaven” are missing, presumed dead. Various spin-off media have suggested the Doctor did eventually keep his promise, but those are of course not canonical. ↩
Earthshock (1982), the Doctor kills the Cyberleader by clogging his breathing unit with gold flakes from Adric’s gold star for mathematical excellence, and then turning the Cyberleader’s gun against him—notable for being one of the few times the Doctor uses an overt weapon, as a weapon, for its intended purpose.
The Two Doctors (1985), the Doctor kills Shockeye of the Qualsing Grig with cyanide. Arguably self-defense rather than murder, but still remarkable as a rare instance of the Doctor killing up close and personal.
“Rose” (2005), he uses the anti-plastic on the Nestene Consciousness, although he came there hoping to talk them into leaving peacefully. At the time, the latter also seemed to be genocide, but we’ve seen Autons since, suggesting another splinter of the Nestene survived. ↩
There are notable exceptions: they almost always side with the Silurians, right up until the moment when they prove just as unreasonable as the humans, for example. They have a relationship of mutual respect with the Draconians—a race the New Series has not yet used and should—despite their ongoing territorial conflict with the Earth Empire. Oh, and they never really forgive Harriet Jones, Prime Minister, for destroying the Sycorax ship after they successfully bullied them into a peace agreement. ↩