It has been brought to my attention recently that people exist who are not fans of Doctor Who. These people can sometimes become confused about the mechanics of the show and why anyone would watch it. Recently, I have been asked how I can claim that Doctor Who is a good show when it can’t even keep a lead actor. The argument is that if they leave it must be because the show wasn’t that good. So here is my response to that argument:
I’m going to start with a bit of background, who came up with the idea to have the Doctor be a regenerative character? The original incarnation of the Doctor was played by William Hartnell. When the show began in 1963 Hartnell was 55 years old. By 1966 Hartnell’s health had begun to fail and he became increasingly difficult to work with. The original plan was to replace him in a switcheroo situation where all the sudden the Doctor was played by a new actor after a brief period of on screen invisibility. This got vetoed by upper management which led to Producer John Wiles leaving the show entirely. (Am I getting this from Wikipedia, yes but they sourced it so it’s fine). Between seasons 3 and 4 of the it was decided that Hartnell would leave the role. A Script Editor named Gerry Davis came up with the idea of having the Doctor do a renewal of sorts so that whenever they needed to recast the role they could. They could go younger or older and it opened up the options for the showrunner. So long story short, they needed the doctor to be a slightly less crotchety old guy and so regenerations were born.
On any other show, the loss of the lead character would be the end of the show. If it was the actors fault for quitting right at the height of hype for the show the fan backlash would be ridiculous. Their next project and probably the one after and after would fail miserably. No one demonizes the Doctor for leaving because it doesn’t ruin everything. So the open door to run is available from both sides, but why would an actor take it?
I don’t know a lot about the old series, but I can tell you about the new. Christopher Eccelston who brilliantly portrays the 9th Doctor, left the show after only one season. It was widely reported that he did not get along with showrunner Russel T Davies and that this was the catalyst of his short run on the show, but in interviews he almost always cited not wanting to be typecast. The show is a phenomenon. Millions of people watch it and the fandom is both rapidly and rabidly expanding. So the risk of typecast is very real. Especially in TV it is hard for an actor to recreate massive success (Think the majority of the cast of Friends or Scrubs or __________). This character allows for massive success that is tempered by the fact that it doesn’t have to last for 7 – 9 years and therefore leaves the door open to other projects.
From what I can tell, to be the Doctor would be exhausting. The fan attention would never stop. The cast is expected to attend Con’s, do press, make the actual show, do constant intervies, and in the middle of all that not be able to walk down the street because they are so recognizable. That may be fun for awhile but it probably wouldn’t be fun forever.
So what keeps the viewer engaged through all this? The show was well written. The show is built on the idea that the characters are fluid and can come and go from the story without affecting the overall production of the show. This puts every character on the chopping block every week. This ups the stakes. All the sudden the character I love may be gone and replaced by a new face and personality, that I will refuse to love for at least 4 episodes. But then I will fall in love all over again, because while each of the iterations of the Doctor are unique and different, I have yet to find one I don’t love more than the last.
A similar theory applies to the Doctor’s companions. They largely come from earth and do have family that love and miss them. Sometimes for reasons beyond their control (Rose, Donna, Amy) and sometimes by choice (Martha) they leave the Doctor. They are (usually) deposited back with their families to live out the rest of their days but the loss is still one that is tangible and tear inducing. The Doctor is left to start over, to make a new friend, to fall in love again, but just to have it end again.
So to sum up, this allows for all of the feels but then to still continue on.