Doctor Who in the 80s

By Mark Nobes

To sum up Doctor Who in one sentence, the Doctor is a time lord alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in the TARDIS.

The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions in Space) has been disguised as a Police Box since the very first serial in 1963, An Unearthly Child.

Four actors played the role during the eighties and these were; 

  • Tom Baker (1974 to 1981): The fourth Doctor is often regarded as one of the finest, alongside David Tennant from the modern era. His character was warm and often playful, but he was also a deep thinker.
  • Peter Davison (1982-1984): He was the Fifth Doctor and brought a more vulnerable and youthful energy to the role.
  • Colin Baker (1984-1986): The Sixth Doctor had a more brash and colourful personalit, which matched his outfit.
  • Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989): The Seventh Doctor had a darker and more mysterious demeanor, and is hugely underrated.

The 1980s featured many iconic monsters and villains, including the Cybermen, Daleks, the Master, and the Sontarans. The only disappointment is that the Sea Devils (who appeared in 1972) never re-emerged.

The iconic theme music received several updates and variations during the 1980s, adapting to the changing tone of the show.

Tom Baker was definitely my personal favourite, although the storylines could be a little too dark and gothic at times. I also really liked the dandy Jon Pertwee from the 70s, and William Hartnell as the first Doctor.

Peter Davison playing cricket in front of the TARDIS, Doctor Who Weekly (Aug 1981) front cover

Peter Davison playing cricket in front of the TARDIS, on the front cover of Doctor Who Weekly magazine, August 1981.

Viewing Figures

The viewing figures for Doctor Who on BBC1 during the 1980s, were generally lower than in the 1960s and 70s, but often higher than the modern revival series. Season 17 (1 Sept 1979 to 12th Jan 1980) received the highest number of viewers ever seen for any series of Doctor Who. A record 16.1 million viewers tuned in to see the final part of City Of Death on 20th October 1979, which starred Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion Romana.

Most Viewed Episode Ever

A record 16.1 million viewers tuned in to see the final part of the series City Of Death on 20th October 1979, which starred Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion Romana.

Season 18 saw a slump in viewing numbers, with an average of just 5.82 million viewers, which jumped back to 9.24 million for season 19 and remained around 7 million until season 23. 

Least Viewed Episode Ever

In season 26, which was the final season of the classic Doctor Who era, an average of 4.14 million viewers tuned in to see Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor, which is the lowest figure for any season in both the classic and modern revival series.

Season 26 aired between 6th Sept 1989 and 6th Dec 1989. However, this figure is only slightly less than season 13 of the modern revival series with Jodie Whittaker, which had an average of just 4.95 million viewers between Oct and Dec 2021.

The first episode of Battlefield (Part One), which aired on 6th Sept 1989, received only 3.1 million viewers, which is the lowest figure for any episode of Doctor Who. However, Legend of the Sea Devils which aired on 17th April 2022, was watched by just 3.47 million viewers, making it the second least viewed episode ever.

Doctor Who TARDIS Teapot

Cancellation and Hiatus

Doctor Who" faced declining viewership and budgetary constraints during the 1980s. In 1985, the show was briefly placed on hiatus, and only one season aired in 1986. It returned in 1987 for the Sylvester McCoy era.

The original Doctor Who era concluded in 1989 with Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. It wasn't until 2005 that "Doctor Who" returned to television with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, marking the beginning of the modern revival.

The very last episode (in the series Survival) was transmitted on 6 December 1989, ending a 26 year run, which started in 1963.

The Ark In Space VHS cassette (BBC, 1989) featuringTom Baker

The Ark in Space VHS cassette (1989). The story first aired in 1975.

Tom Baker - The Fourth Doctor

One of the most popular Doctors, Tom Baker, was the fourth incarnation of the timelord and played the part between 1974 and 1981. For many Dr Who fans, Tom Baker is THE Doctor. And judging by a poll we once conducted on Facebook, the vast majority of people agree that he was the best Doctor from the original classic series. 

Thanks to Baker's popularity, by 1979, viewing figures were averaging between 9 and 11 million. Audiences of 14.5 million tuned in for the four part Destiny of the Daleks story, and this was the first time that we got to see Lalla Ward play his companion Romana. 

From Baker's iconic hat and scarf outfit to those manic eyes, this was a very charismatic Doctor who added drama to even the worst storylines, as well as a touch of humour by offering his enemies a jelly baby. Baker appeared in 172 episodes (42 stories). He was replaced by Peter Davison.

Baker is, of course, also well-known for his voice over role in the hit BBC comedy series Little Britain.

Tom Baker had eight companions during his time as the Doctor, with K-9 making the most appearances - in seasons 15-18 he appeared 20 times. 

In The Invisible Enemy TV serial which was shown in 1977, the Doctor acquired K-9 the robot dog.

Tom Baker had eight companions during his time as the Doctor, with K-9 making the most appearances - in seasons 15-18 he appeared 20 times.

Other companions were Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan, Leela, Romana, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan Jovanka. Romana was first played by Mary Tamm, and in her second incarnation was played by Lalla Ward.

Lalla Ward as Romana

Doctor Who Paperback Books by Target

You may remember the range of paperback books that were published by Target back in the 70s and 80s. A good many of them were written by Terrance Dicks. Dicks is now 82 years old and enjoying his retirement. His last novel was Revenge of the Judoon featuring the tenth Doctor (David Tennant) with Martha Jones, which was published on Feb 28th 2008.
Front cover of the paperback Doctor Who And The Androids Of Tara by Terrance Dicks, Target (1980)

Doctor Who And The Androids Of Tara by Terrance Dicks (1980)

Doctor Who and the Daleks carded Yo-Yo (1975) Marx Toys
An original Doctor Who and the Daleks carded Yo-Yo from 1975 by Marx Toys


Peter Davison signed-up to replace Tom Baker in 1981, and played the role for just three years (he was scared of being typecast) between 21st March 1981 and 16th March 1984. At the age of 29, he was the youngest Doctor so far, and he remained the youngest until Matt Smith took on the role in 2009.
Despite his boyish looks, Davison was a pretty safe bet for the BBC. He was already well-known to the British public after appearing as Tristan in the hit BBC series All Creatures Great and Small.
His Edwardian cricketer costume was a decent choice and was in-line with the eccentricity of the character. The fifth Doctor's companions included Adric, Nyssa and Tegan.
Referring to the Jodie Whittaker's role as the first female Doctor, Davison controversially stated in July 2017 that while she is a "terrific actress", this is also "a loss of a role model for boys".
I have to admit that I never really warmed to Davison's fifth Doctor, and his youthful appearance and the sluggish stories didn't help matters. He is my least favourite of the classic Doctors. Nonetheless, I would still chose him over the irritating 13th Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.
Doctor Who Castrovalva paperback by Christopher H Bidmead - Target


Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor Who



Colin Baker was the sixth incarnation of the Doctor and played the role between 1984 and 1986. I really liked his portrayal of the Doctor, but he was let down by weak scripts and that ghastly outfit which looked like it had been borrowed from one of Billy Smart's circus clowns. 

Most disappointing for me was the serial Revelation of the Daleks, and I found the DJ played by Alexei Sayle incredibly irritating and ridiculous. I'm all for a little humour, but this was a step too far for me!

Baker appeared on ITV1's reality TV show I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here during November 2012.

The lame new version of the theme music helped to put the final nail in the coffin for Colin Baker's much criticised role as the timelord. This was the 13th theme tune overall.

Colin Baker as the multi-coloured Sixth Doctor during the eighties



The seventh incarnation of the Doctor (in 1987) was Sylvester McCoy and he made his first appearance in the serial Time and the Rani in series 24. Interestingly, no BBC TV annuals were published during his time as the Doctor.

The seventh Doctor with Ace
McCoy with Sophie Aldred (Ace) during filming of one of my favourite episodes Remembrance of the Daleks in 1988. This was a fast-paced serial from the 25th series and featured a good deal of Dalek action. Although a little wobbly, the daleks looked pretty impressive, and McCoy's Doctor had become a lot darker compared to his debut in the 24th series. The story featured an unusual mix of 1960s visuals and 80s background music and computer effects. Ace walking into a 60s cafe carrying a ghettoblaster, while rock and roll music played on the jukebox was certainly interesting.
McCoy certainly became my second favourite of the classic Doctors, with only Tom Baker bettering him. It's a shame the series was cancelled for 16 years, just as he was getting into his stride.
The seventh Doctor's outfit was certainly an improvement of the sixth Doctor's putrid multi-coloured jacket, although I don't like the plaid trousers, which, I guess, matched his Scottish accent.