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TV & Radio

How BBC viewers wished to turn back time on Doctor Who

For a string of actors over the past four decades, being reincarnated as the new Doctor Who has proved to be a precarious moment, with public opinion over their portrayal of the Time Lord almost certain to be divided. Find the right balance and adoration awaits – but play the Doctor wrong and obscurity or ridicule beckons.

Now, fans of the show can discover what the viewing public of the 1960s and 70s really thought about each new Doctor, with the opening of an archive which chronicles public reaction to the different actors.

The papers, which span more than 40 years and are published online for the first time today, reveal the difficulties of bedding in each new Doctor. Over the years, the 11 actors playing the part have been lampooned as a "pantomime character" a "loony" and a "half-witted clown".

Doctor Who is an extraterrestrial human-shaped being who is able to regenerate into a different body when mortally wounded, ill or getting old – a handy descriptive tool which has allowed the show's writers to explain the lead character's regularly changing appearance.

The first time the Doctor changed his shape was in 1966, when William Hartnell passed the baton to Patrick Troughton, who went on to play the lead role for three years. Some viewers were quite sceptical of the new Doctor, who was younger and had a piratical edge compared to Hartnell's amiable and older alternative.

"Once a brilliant but eccentric scientist, he now comes over as a half-witted clown," said one viewer of Troughton's new role. Another told the BBC's Audience Research Department: "I'm not sure that I really like his portrayal – I feel the part is exaggerated – whimsical even – I keep expecting him to take a great watch out of his pocket and mutter about being late like Alice's White Rabbit."

Troughton's successor Jon Pertwee had a similarly difficult time convincing fans and bosses. A research report commissioned by the BBC to gauge public opinion to the new Doctor declared: "Reaction to this first episode of the new Doctor Who series can hardly be described as enthusiastic."

Fans were equally unenthusiastic about Tom Baker, who went on to become one of the Doctor's most popular incarnations during the seven years he played the role.

"General opinion was that the new Doctor Who is a loony – he is an eccentric always, but the way it was presented made him stupid," said one viewer.

By 1984, when Colin Baker appeared as the Tardis's occupant, viewers had started to criticise more than just the lead role. "The whole concept is now outdated and overworked," moaned one person. "The stories have become predictable and lack excitement. I'm afraid [the programme] has lost its appeal."

But leap forward by a quarter of a century and Doctor Who is once again one of the BBC's most popular and successful shows. The latest Doctor, Matt Smith, unveiled to the public earlier this month, drew more than 8 million viewers for his debut outing and was largely well received by the critics. Only later will we find out what the public really thinks, although as a Time Lord, he probably already knows.

Viewers' verdicts on the Time Lord

Colin Baker "He is too stern and doesn't have enough humour"

Tom Baker "The new Doctor Who is a loony – he is an eccentric always, but the way it was presented made him stupid"

Bonnie Langford "56 per cent of respondents who answered a questionnaire on the Paradise Towers story wished she had been eaten"

Patrick Troughton "Once a brilliant but eccentric scientist, he now comes over as a half-witted clown"

Jon Pertwee "Reaction to this first episode of the new series can hardly be described as enthusiastic"