Back to the TARDIS

The BBC has resumed production on Doctor Who, the sci-fi cult favorite that ran for 26 seasons between 1963 and 1989. The new series is the brainchild of writer/producer Russell T. Davies, perhaps best known as the creator of the original British version of Queer as Folk, and stars Christopher Eccleston as the time-traveling enigma known only as “the Doctor.”

The ninth Doctor At first glance, the latest Doctor appears to be quite a departure from previous incarnations of the character. His hair is shorn to a scalp-hugging fuzz, and he is dressed simply in a dark V-neck shirt, dark pants (possibly jeans), Doc Martens type boots, and a beat-up-looking leather jacket. In short, the formerly eccentric Time Lord now looks more like any typical yobbo fresh from the local pub. Seeing stills from the production of Eccleston in character did not inspire confidence.

However, perhaps this is a knee-jerk reaction. Looking back, the eccentricities of the Doctor’s various wardrobes may have become exaggerated in my mind with the passing of time. The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, was a crotchety old man dressed in Edwardian attire. However, at the time his episodes were originally broadcast—the early 1960s—his clothing was only 50 years out of date; and at the time people in general dressed more formally than they do today. Thus, the effect of his costume was more subtle. The Doctor seemed to be trying to blend in to 20th century Earth society, but, being a time-traveling alien, didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. To the modern eye, the character looks rather more odd than was intended.

The second Doctor, performed by Patrick Troughton as a “cosmic hobo,” wore a thrift-store ensemble that was a bit ill-fitting, but by no means outlandish. Baggy checked trousers, a rumpled shirt, and a crooked bow tie were topped off with a dark oversized coat with deep pockets. Occasionally, he would wear a big fur coat over it all, like some leftover 1920s college student. Again, the effect was to suggest an alien who didn’t really care to do more than approximate the look of a 20th century Englishman, using whatever garments were lying around.

The character veered off in a new direction when the role was taken over by Jon Pertwee. Now marooned on 20th century Earth, the Doctor dressed in frilly shirts and velvet smoking jackets, often wearing a flamboyant cape as well. Though he certainly cuts a rather bizarre figure now, in the early 1970s, he was on the cutting edge of men’s fashions. The third Doctor was not the only TV character to dress in such a dandified manner, as evidenced by the insanely popular (though now almost entirely forgotten) Jason King, a swinging crimefighter played by Peter Wyngarde in two series (Department S and Jason King). This incarnation of the Doctor was made to seem even more eccentric by normally appearing alongside military men in uniform and conservatively-dressed scientists, diplomats, and businessmen. But his fashion sense was in every respect a modern one.

The most famous Doctor, brought to life by Tom Baker, started out with a very elaborate costume that the actor gradually stripped down to the bare minimum. Returning to the “vagabond” theme, the character now wore a billowy white shirt, an argyle vest, a short brown jacket, a heavy overcoat, his trademark 17-foot striped scarf, and baggy wool slacks, with a shabby flop hat atop his unruly curls. Within a few years, however, the overcoat and scarf were all that “dressed up” the Doctor’s button-down white shirt and gray trousers, as the actor sought to have the force of his personality outweigh the visual aspect of the role. When a new producer took over the show, Baker was made to again adopt more of a “costume,” in an attempt to make the character more “marketable.” After a year under the new regime, the actor left the show. While the multicolored scarf made the Doctor appear rather eccentric, take it away and there was little else to make him stand out in a crowd.

The fifth Doctor was, to a greater degree than any of his predecessors, locked into wearing the same outfit episode after episode. Continuing the producer’s quest for “marketability,” the latest Doctor, played by Peter Davison, wore traditional cricket attire under a Victorian-era frock coat. While such an outfit may look particularly strange to an American audience, largely unfamiliar with cricket culture, in England it was more the frock coat itself—and the stalk of celery pinned to the lapel—that denoted eccentricity. The fresh-faced and youthful Davison would not otherwise look out of place on a village green somewhere. The main effect of the outfit was carried by the fact that the Doctor wore his cricket-themed attire everywhere, from the towers of Castrovalva to the caves of Androzani. Thus, he was almost always dressed somewhat inappropriately to the context.

That idea was carried to the next level when Colin Baker became the sixth Doctor. Against the actor’s wishes, the producers dressed him in a truly bizarre, garish, and hideous outfit. Beyond the asymmetrical vest, yellow pants, and red spats was a patchwork frock coat of many colors. It was clear someone was trying rather too hard to make the Doctor “zany” and “frivolous,” perhaps in an attempt to undercut the actor’s imposing and somewhat belligerent manner. The experiment was a complete failure, and after two short seasons and one long hiatus, Baker was unceremoniously fired. However, he was the third Doctor in a row to wear a knee-length coat, apparently leaving the impression in many minds that this was an intrinsic character trait.

The seventh and final Doctor to appear during the series’ run marked a return to a more inconspicuous Doctor. As played by Sylvester McCoy, the Doctor seemed a bit professorial, and could be mistaken for an absent-minded university faculty member who had inadvertently chosen to wear his checkered pants, busily-patterned pullover, and paisley necktie all on the same day. He wore a short jacket and a straw hat, and to enhance the eccentricity factor, he always carried an umbrella with a large red question-mark handle. As with some of the early Doctors, his outfit was again composed of modern elements that didn’t quite manage to go together. At the conclusion of McCoy’s third season, the show was cancelled.

Other actors have also played the role of the Doctor, in spin-offs produced for the stage, television, and in feature films. Here a pattern emerges that shows what may be a common misconception as to what were the essential elements of the Doctor’s look. Veteran character actor Peter Cushing took on the role of the Doctor in two mid-sixties films made to cash in on the popularity of the villainous Daleks. Though he lived in modern-day London, Cushing’s Doctor was dressed as a very dapper Victorian gentleman, even sporting a well-trimmed mustache. A Victorian theme was also evident in the costume worn by Trevor Martin in a play staged during the 1974 Christmas season. A mishmash of the styles of the three Doctors then known, Martin looked more like a renegade from a Charles Dickens novel. In the 1996 TV movie shown on the Fox network, Paul McGann stepped into the role and, again, the Doctor appeared to be a Victorian gentleman, with long hair, a frock coat, and a shiny waistcoat. Rightly or wrongly, all these productions may have been inspired less by the actual Doctor Who series and more by the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine, which in fact features a Victorian gentleman traveling into the future aboard a device of his own invention. Clearly, it is not necessary for any new Doctor to adopt such an anachronistic wardrobe to remain true to the spirit of the original TV series.

Still, there was always something—some hook—that made the Doctor’s costume fun, distinctive, and appealing. The fact that he was almost always overdressed for intergalactic wandering gave him a certain visual charm, and distinguished Doctor Who from the typically utilitarian costumes featured on other science-fiction shows of the time. It is that element of charm that seems to be missing from the unremitting blackness of Eccleston’s slovenly take on the character. And for an iconic hero like the Doctor, his “costume” is an extremely important element that can either make him instantly memorable, or leave him to fade into the ever-growing crowd of dark-garbed sci-fi adventurers.

Next: A Brief History of Gallifrey


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