[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
I mentioned in passing in my review of The Eleventh Hour that there seems to be definite downward trend in the ages of the actors playing the title role in Doctor Who, with the new incumbent Matt Smith illustrating the trend particularly well. I said that I’d not done the analysis, but the idea tickled me, so here it is.
First, the raw data: the eleven doctors to date with their birth dates, debut dates in the role, and age at that time:
- Actor Birth date Debut date Age
- William Hartnell 8 January 1908 23 November 1963 55
- Patrick Troughton 25 March 1920 29 October 1966 46
- Jon Pertwee 7 July 1919 3 January 1970 50
- Tom Baker 20 January 1934 8 June 1974 40
- Peter Davison 13 April 1951 21 March 1981 29
- Colin Baker 8 June 1943 16 March 1984 40
- Sylvester McCoy 20 August 1943 7 September 1987 44
- Paul McGann 14 November 1959 27 May 1996 36
- Chris Eccleston 16 February 1964 26 March 2005 41
- David Tennant 18 April 1971 18 June 2005 34
- Matt Smith 28 October 1982 1 January 2010 27
(Sorry about the formatting — I can’t find a way to get WordPress to display a table.)
Then I plotted those debut ages against Doctor Number and fitted a linear regression line:
You see the equation up there — the age of each new Doctor on his debut is approximated as 51.53 years minus 1.89 times the Doctor Number. The banner finding is that each new Doctor is, on average 1.89 years younger than his predecessor was.
On one level I was surprised by how shallow that gradient is; then I realised that across the sequence of ten Doctors to that succeeded William Hartnell, the best-fit gradient of -1.89 means that the age has fallen by 18.9 years, which is fairly hefty — but not so hefty as I’d imagined.
Probably my perception was skewed by the first three Doctors all seeming so old, and the last two seeming so young — and indeed the first three were indeed the oldest, though nowhere near as old as I’d thought, or as you would guess watching them now. And the two most recent Doctors are indeed the youngest and third youngest. But in the middle part of the sequence (Doctors 4-9) there is no real pattern, and indeed the overall trend is upwards.
But some of those ages take a bit of believing. Check out this montage (in chronological order from top to bottom, and from left to right within each line):
Can Patrick Troughton (#2, with the recorder on the top line) really have been only two years older than Sylvester McCoy (#7 with the hat in the middle row)? And could William Hartnell (#1 to top left) possibly be only fourteen years older than Christopher Eccleston (bottom left)? Well, that’s what it says in Wikipedia, so I guess it must be true.
What does it all mean?
Maybe the trend in actual ages of the actors is less interesting than the much stronger trend in their apparent ages. Early in the run of Doctor Who, the actors portrayed the character at the upper end of the ranges that worked for them — William Hartnell played him as a man in his seventies and Patrick Troughton as a man in his sixties. (I am talking about human years, of course: Time Lord years are seven times as long, just like the opposite of dogs, or something.) By contrast, the last three Doctors, and especially the last two, have emphasised their youthfulness. Here I am getting into deeper waters than I can comfortably navigate, but it’s tempting to think that this reflects a more general change in society — that there was a certain amount of reverence for age and experience in the early 1960s, but that youth is idolised now.
Speaking as one who is older than seven of the eleven Doctor were on their debuts (and closing in fast on Sylvester McCoy), I find this disheartening.
That there is still a role for older actors in Doctor Who was rather brilliantly demonstrated by Derek Jacobi, in his compelling role as the amnesiac Master in Utopia; but the weight and substance of his portrayal left me hungry for more, and the series has steadfastly refused to oblige me. Doesn’t the idea of, say, Ian McKellan as the Doctor, do something for you?
I’d like to see it, anyway.
(Completely irrelevant side-observation to finish: it’s a real shame that they used John Simm, aka. Sam Tyler from the original UK Life on Mars, as the Master in Series 3, because that presumably bars him from ever being the Doctor, and he’d have been great.)