Performative Seriality and the Regenerations of Doctor Who

Curator's Note

Iconic televisual franchises require the careful management of fandom in the age of social media. The delicacy of this enterprise is particularly acute when a long-running program is faced with the necessity of recasting a principal character. Contending with online petitions, viral campaigning, and the potential for negative casting blowback, the actor cast in this replacement role must contend with the dense prehistory of the franchise: its seriality, multiple authors, and intimidating collective intelligence of an always-already mobilized fan base.

Doctor Who ingeniously addressed this dilemma in 1966 through the plot device of regeneration: a mortally wounded William Hartnell instantaneously reincarnates as Patrick Troughton. Thereafter (and especially since the series reboot in 2005), each actor hired to make a creative contribution to the Doctor Who franchise faced a number of practical questions: What aspect of the Doctor’s multifaceted personality to emphasize? Whose hallowed creative precedence to emulate or modulate? How to make performance choices that encapsulate an ever-evolving, fifty-year old character? When does a newly-minted Time Lord establish his performative differences from his predecessors, and when do these differences stretch the limits of fan tolerance? What encoded gestures might be included to signal one’s deference to fans’ communal knowledge, which always exceeds that of the individual performer?

The 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (2013), concludes reflexively with Matt Smith stepping quite literally into the ranks of the actors who have preceded him. Given his imminent departure from the show, the gesture is both self-eulogy and immortalization. Moments before this, however, Whovians are also treated to a metaleptic gesture, in which Smith acknowledges his kinship to Doctors past via a playful interchange with Tom Baker (one of the most beloved embodiments of the character). These Doctors offer a panoply of referential gestures: Smith’s acknowledging wink at “the old favourites”; the bashful chuckle on “perhaps I was you, of course”; Baker’s congratulatory handshake and Smith’s wiseguy acceptance; the whimsical finger bite; the revival of Who’s nose; and the final headcocked grin at the camera. Thus, the actors play out the means by which Doctor Who both addresses and profits from the fundamental dilemmas of performative seriality: actors’ creative revisions to venerable televisual characters via the instantiation of their distinctive corporealities.


Love your post as well as the show. I have just recently started watching the entire series from the very first episode (thank you to Netflix!), and what comes to mind is a comparison between the seriality of the Doctor versus the seriality of the companions. The companions seem much less constrained since they are not different embodiments of the same person, and yet there are commonalities such as the need for curiosity. I wonder at these actors' cross-influences and will need to watch for the growth and change that occur across companions as well as each of the Doctors. No matter the differences, just don't blink.

Thanks for the comment, Mark. The companions have always been a simple yet deft structural device: they function primarily as audience analogues. We explore and experience new worlds for the first time just as they do. Moreover, they also serve as a helpful anchor to help weather the transition from one Doctor to the next (typically, an old companion will meet a newly regenerated Doctor). They also serve as fodder for fan comparisons, and useful catalysts for characterization (each Doctor gets the companion that he needs). Thus, like any good supporting player, they are privileged vehicles for our comprehension and appreciation for a work's broader thematic concerns. Here's to all who've gone before, and are still to come. May they all aspire to Catherine Tate's remarkable work on the show!

Aaron - I really like this post and some of the questions it raises. To me, it really seems The Doctor provides the actor with the opportunity to play an iconic role - similar to what occurs to the stage actor who portrays Hamlet. I'm not as familiar with the show (haven't really watched since Baker was the Doctor) but I wonder if this interpretive framework is in any way opposed to the show's cult or 'low' cultural status. Either way, I think that your ideas present us with a great way to move forward with the topic, especially regarding frameworks and texts which lend themselves to analysis.

Thanks for the astute comment, Colin. A simple reply would be to say, "No opposition here!" Especially given the show's venerable and long-lived run, as well as its more recent pop cultural elevation (the show is both a commercial and critical hit in North America as well as the UK). Moreover, it's readily becoming apparent how conducive deep characterization is to the construction of "quality TV" - and since returning to broadcast Doctor Who has become an ideal vehicle for the exploration of character complexity. The appreciation for and fun with this aspect of a recurring role is readily and transparently visible in the clip chosen, as these two actors clown around lovingly in an extended tribute to the role that has made both of their careers.

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