‘Doctor Who’ stars past and present on the challenges of taking on a beloved role


Time! It has been 15 years, astonishingly, since Britain’s “Doctor Who,” the story of an alien Time Lord and his human traveling companions, returned to television after a hiatus of 16 years (not counting an American TV movie), following an initial run of 25 years.

Now all but the most recent season of the 21st-century series have landed on HBO Max, daring you to pull the trigger on yet another subscription service.

To mark this event, which is to say, to drum up some business, three of the actors who have played the Doctor in this century — David Tennant, Matt Smith and Jodie Whittaker — got on the internet for a 20-minute pandemic-era panel, available on YouTube and moderated by Terri Schwartz from the gaming and entertainment website IGN.


The three stars were appearing together “for the first time ever,” though Whittaker and Tennant were also transatlantic guests last week on “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” for an interview and to judge a comical “Doctor Who” cosplay contest.

Not to bury the lead, the most substantial news from the YouTube interview, posted Wednesday, is that there will be a Christmas special this year, and that it will air here on BBC America, as will future seasons of the show.

“I think I’m allowed to say what it’s called,” said Whittaker, the current Doctor, though she didn’t sound completely sure that she was. (It’s “Revolution of the Dalek” — I think I am right about that singular “Dalek” — the Daleks being the Doctor’s most notorious and annoying nemeses. But you probably knew that.)

“That might give a hint,” said Whittaker.

“I can’t believe you told everyone,” said Tennant.

Since the show premiered in 1963, 13 actors have officially played the Doctor, who periodically regenerates, handing off the part like a baton in a relay race. Unlike the Batman and Bond franchises — the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” appeared just a year before “Doctor Who” premiered — “Doctor Who” has never rebooted; it is a continuous chronological story, albeit one in which the character moves backward and forward in time. You will never hear Daniel Craig’s James Bond reminisce about battling Goldfinger, back when he had Sean Connery’s body. But that sort of thing is quite possible in the universe of “Doctor Who” and, indeed, happens.

That is not to say that the series doesn’t change. Every showrunner and star — there have been three head writers since Russell T Davies revived and refreshed the series in 2005, along with five additional Doctors — brings a special flavor.

Though all the actors have their points, some do stand out, from an inner spark or because they happened to get better scripts, or their conception of the character suited the times particularly well. (Episodes from the 20th-century iteration of the series stream on Britbox, and though they can seem a little goofy, they are the rock upon which this church is founded; and goofiness is essential to the series, even now.)


If I were to pick three Doctors to hang out with on my computer, these would be them.

Christopher Eccleston was the first 21st-century Doctor, but it was Tennant‘s dark, romantic, wisecracking swashbuckler who best expressed Davies’ sensibility and made the series an international hit.

In the Season 12 premiere of “Doctor Who,” “Spyfall,” star Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall pay homage to James Bond.

Jan. 1, 2020

Smith, who came in with new head writer Steven Moffat, played him like a kind of semi-posh, slightly eccentric university type — deep but ready to party. (Bertie Wooster crossed with Jeeves, perhaps.)

Whittaker, who took over from Peter Capaldi, who took over from Smith, arrived alongside third modern-era showrunner Chris Chibnall and would be significant merely — well, not merely — as the first woman in the role. But she is her own Doctor, bringing to the role a wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm and a familial warmth. (She travels with a trio of earthly companions.)

“The pressure of the history of the show is totally made up in your own head … in that actor inner monologue,” Whittaker said in the panel interview, “but once you’re in your own Doctor’s clothes and you’ve got your own friends in it, in a weird way all that pressure disappears because it’s yours to play with.”

Still, certain qualities recur, and every Doctor will be called upon to play some comedy, some melodrama, some real drama, and to run. (Running is important.) The Doctors are different, but identical.


With a great role comes great responsibility. It “feels very precious,” said Tennant, “because people love it so much.” Smith recalled that, “I once had someone shout when I was walking down the street and I hadn’t shot a single phrase, ‘Don’t break ‘Doctor Who!’” Whittaker told a story about meeting a teenage girl in a cafe after her casting was announced (“I was so excited. Here’s my demographic”) who told her, “I really wanted Ben Whishaw.”

We also learned that Tennant has a TARDIS — that’s the Doctor’s time-space machine — in his yard, which was built for his kids by their step-granddad, when they were briefly into the show “and then they moved on like the fickle heartbreakers that they are.” (Tennant’s TARDIS can be seen, evidently, in “Staged,” a lockdown-produced BBC comedy in which he and Michael Sheen play themselves.) Smith has some Cybermen memorabilia he was given as a parting gift. Whittaker has some Funko Pop figures. “I think I was supposed to sign them and hand them on, but I think they’re quite cute, so I kept them.”

Change is built into the bones of “Doctor Who,” but there is change and then there is change.

July 17, 2017

Whittaker, brown roots growing out, set herself against deep blue walls, and leaned in to the camera. Tennant, the world’s most angular man, sported floppy quarantine hair and was neatly pressed, every visible button was buttoned. Smith, whom some may only know as Prince Philip in “The Crown,” wore an Arcade Fire T-shirt, leaned back and had the worst video quality, with the upshot that he was never shown in close-up, which was a shame as there was a lot of stuff in his room I wanted a better look at.

The trio agreed it would be nicer to meet for a “high-five and a hug” (said Whittaker), than meeting over whatever digital platform they were on. But a fine sense of camaraderie and shared history came through. (They are part of an exclusive club, like having been a Beatle, one at a time.) All in all the time — time! so relative, so … timey-wimey — passed too quickly.