'Three series and out' was the pact agreed between Jodie Whittaker and Doctor Who’s outgoing showrunner Chris Chibnall when they teamed up in 2017, having decided that, as they’d joined the show together, they’d leave at the same time too.
“We knew that we wanted to ride this wave side by side, and pass on the baton together,” said Whittaker when she announced her departure in July 2021, “I will carry the Doctor and the lessons I’ve learnt forever.”
Three series has become, over the past 59 years, the average time of a Doctor’s tenure. After Peter Davison was announced as the Fifth Doctor in 1981, he bumped into Second Doctor Patrick Troughton in a BBC car park. “Congratulations,” Troughton told the 29-year-old newbie, adding: “Don’t stay longer than three years, though.”
Of course, some Doctors have stayed for longer, and some for less.
The reasons, however, for the departures of the various actors who have played the part have varied greatly over the years…
William Hartnell (1963-1966)
With William Hartnell’s deteriorating health affecting his ability to learn his lines, new producer Innes Lloyd, along with the BBC’s Head of Serials, Shaun Sutton, made the difficult decision to replace their lead actor.
Though unhappy at being given the push, it was actually Hartnell who suggested his replacement. "There's only one man in England who can take over,” he said at the time, “and that's Patrick Troughton."
Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)
Doctor Who’s Second Doctor described his time on the show as like being in weekly rep, claiming to have loved the part, but not the workload.
Troughton would end up staying on the show for three years, the same amount of time as his predecessor, only this time, the actor left on his own terms.
Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
1973 was a year of change in Doctor Who, both on and off-screen. In June, actor Roger Delgado, who played the Master during Jon Pertwee’s reign, was killed in a car crash. That same month, Katy Manning made her last appearance as companion Jo Grant, while, a few months later, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks announced they were moving on.
Pertwee, feeling like his Doctor Who family was breaking up, decided it was time to hand over the TARDIS keys, bowing out in 1974’s Planet Of The Spiders.
Tom Baker (1974-1981)
The programme’s longest serving Doctor finally bid adieu in 1981 after seven seasons. “Maybe I’d stayed too long,” Baker admitted later. “I don’t know, I’d certainly become more proprietorial about Doctor Who.”
By his own admission, he’d become a bit of a handful by his final season, not helped by the breakdown of his marriage to co-star Lalla Ward. When he announced his intention to move on, the reaction from those above, Baker recalled, was one of relief. “No one said, ‘Tom, are you sure?’ I think they were glad to see the back of me, and quite right too.”
Peter Davison (1981-1984)
“Don’t stay longer than three years,” Patrick Troughton famously advised the new Doctor Who in 1981, and that’s exactly what Peter Davison did. His disappointment with the quality of scripts in his second season made his decision much easier, but despite being happier in his final series, Davison admitted it was still the right thing to quit.
“It was a weird feeling knowing I’d never do Doctor Who again,” he said later. “But I never really regretted leaving. I was just glad that the third season was much better than the second!”
Colin Baker (1984-1986)
Colin Baker began his tenure by telling everyone who cared to listen how much he wanted to out-do Tom Baker’s seven years in the role. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
After his second season, BBC One Controller Michael Grade ordered Who producer John Nathan-Turner to sack his leading man. Baker would later recall being phoned up by Nathan-Turner who told the actor he had “good news and bad news”, informing him the good news was that Doctor Who was coming back, with the bad news being that it wasn’t with him. Ouch.
Sylvester McCoy (1987-1996)
Like Hartnell, Troughton and Davison before him, Sylvester McCoy lasted just three years, but it was the BBC finally canning the show in ‘89 that put the kibosh on his time as the Doctor.
The actor did return for the American-made Doctor Who TV movie in 1996, if only for a cameo in order to pass the baton to Doctor #8, Paul McGann.
Paul McGann (1996)
Who knows how long Paul McGann might have stayed had an American network picked up Doctor Who for a full series. Though this BBC/Universal co-produced episode was trailed as a TV movie, it was, in essence, a back-door pilot, and unfortunately one that didn’t go to series.
So it was that Paul McGann became the George Lazenby of Doctor Who, a one-shot Doctor who managed just one hour and four minutes of screen time. He has since reprised the roles a number of times including 2013's mini-episode The Night of the Doctor, and in over 70 audio dramas.
Christopher Eccleston (2005)
Christopher Eccleston’s departure from Doctor Who is second only to Colin Baker’s in how ugly it got. The tabloids were first to report how unhappy the actor was on the revived series, but when the BBC announced he was leaving they invented a quote from Eccleston suggesting he had left the show because of the ‘gruelling’ schedule (the corporation later apologised to the actor.) Years later, Eccleston admitted that he’d walked because of a clash with writer Russell T Davies and producers Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner.
“[I left because of] the politics of the show,” he said at the New York Comic Con in 2019. “I left only because of those three individuals and the way they were running the show. I loved playing the character, and I loved the world … I felt, ‘I’m gonna play the Doctor my way and I’m not gonna get involved in these politics,’ and that wasn’t workable, so off I went… and became the invisible man.”
David Tennant (2005-2010)
David Tennant announced he was quitting Doctor Who on 29 October, 2008, during an acceptance speech via a live feed at the National Television Awards. Incoming Who boss Steven Moffat had tried to convince Tennant to stay on, and apparently the actor ummed and ahhed until finally deciding to bow out with departing showrunner Russell T Davies.
Matt Smith (2010-2013)
Another three-season Doctor, Matt Smith’s exit was announced in June 2013, with the actor saying in a statement: “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”
He later admitted to The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s a very intense process to play the Doctor. The line-learning is really hard, and you have to live away from home for nine or 10 months a year.”
Peter Capaldi (2013-2017)
As plenty of his predecessors in the role had admitted, it was the Doctor Who’s fierce working schedule that eventually prompted Peter Capaldi’s departure.
“It fills up your life,” he told the crowd at 2017’s New York Comic Con. “You don’t have a second where it’s not about Doctor Who … I really never wanted to get to a place where I knew how to do this because that’s not what being creative is. The actual amount of time we were spending on the show, I realised I was getting the hang of it.
"And that made me frightened.”
Doctor Who - The Power of the Doctor will air at 7:30pm on Sunday, 23 October on BBC One.