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Doctor Who: Remembering Doctors Past

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Michael Stroud

Doctor Who: Remembering Doctors Past

On 23 November 1963, a phenomenon quietly began. That was the day the BBC aired the first episode of Doctor Who. The initial broadcast began a few minutes late, as the network was also airing coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination the previous day, but the late start didn't affect the enormous fan base that Doctor Who immediately began to develop. Fifty years later, it's one of the most beloved shows of all time, having crossed the pond and become an American television staple as well. It's the longest running sci-fi show in television history, and it's responsible for countless memes, a heightened U.S. interest in the BBC, and the fact that people around the world still know what all-but-extinct British police boxes look like.

On Doctor Who, when the eponymous Doctor suffers a life-threatening injury, he "regenerates," taking on a new form –– and allowing for a change of actors without creating a new character. Many actors have played the Doctor over the past 50 years. The BBC recently announced that Peter Capaldi will take the reins from 11th Doctor, Matt Smith, this Christmas, becoming the 12th to regularly play this coveted role. A few of the actors who have played the Doctor have died in the years since their portrayals. On this anniversary of a giant of a show, we're remembering the Doctors who have died.

1. William Hartnell (1908 - 1975) was the first Doctor, originator of the role that would become legendary. Hartnell's Doctor was older than his modern counterparts, with a bit of "cranky old man" about him. In a long white wig and Edwardian dress, he set the tone for the Doctor as a misfit, standing out from the world around him by his dress and action. Hartnell introduced the world to the threat of Daleks and Cybermen, and he visited Earth in the past and future, as well as traveling to distant planets. Hartnell described the Doctor as "a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas." When his health began to fail after three years as the Doctor, he helped initiate the "regeneration" concept for the character. Hartnell strongly recommended Patrick Troughton as his replacement, saying there was "only one man in England" fit to take on the role. Producers agreed, and the Doctor regenerated.

2. Patrick Troughton (1920 - 1987) was as much a Doctor Who trailblazer as Hartnell –– he was the first to portray "the next Doctor," and he worked hard to find a portrayal that wasn't simple a redux of Hartnell's. He settled on a suggestion from the show's creator, Sydney Newman, to play the Doctor as a "cosmic hobo." Like Hartnell, Troughton remained in the role for three years, during which time he gained a reputation as a practical joker well-liked by his costars. He decided to leave because he didn't want to become too typecast as the Doctor –– and indeed, Troughton went on to play many other roles, including Father Brennan in The Omen. Doctor Who fans know that many of the show's early episodes have been lost or destroyed, and sadly, a number of Troughton's are among the lost.

3. Jon Pertwee (1919 - 1996) was the third Doctor, and when he asked his agent to lobby for the role after hearing Troughton was leaving, he learned that he was already on the producer's short list. Pertwee discovered his Doctor's unique style when he was told to "play Jon Pertwee" –– that is, give his portrayal of the Doctor his own characteristics. What emerged was a Doctor of action, much more eager to jump into the fray than his predecessors. The third Doctor became known as "the Dandy Doctor" for his penchant for ornate clothing –– velvets and silks, smoking jackets and cravats and an accessory that would also find a home around Doctor No. 11's neck: bow ties. Pertwee played the Doctor for five years and was the first Doctor filmed in color. When he decided to leave the show, citing the worry of typecasting and a desire to resume his stage career, Pertwee gave the reins to Tom Baker, the iconic fourth Doctor who is still living today.

Also of note is Peter Cushing (1913 - 1994). While he wasn't one of the Doctors from the TV show, he played the Doctor in the films Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks –– Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). Can we hope for another Doctor Who movie in this century? How about another 50 years of one of the greatest sci-fi stories of all time? Or even 12 more Doctors? We'll take any or all of the above.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.