Doctor Who: the Doctor in disguise

Feature Alex Westthorp 4 Feb 2014 - 07:00

From washer women to harlequins via milkmen, Alex looks back over the Doctor's penchant for disguise over the decades...

So, we've finally had our first glimpse of Peter Capaldi in his new Doctor Who costume. My personal opinion for the record: It's functional yet stylish and could be the basis of something more elaborate over time. Importantly though, it is a bold statement of  exactly who this new Doctor is. Identity is important to the Doctor, whether developing his own or assuming that of another to defeat his opponents in his continuing quest to bring his own brand of humanity to the universe.

With that in mind, let's revisit our favourite Time Lord's ability to disguise himself in order to outwit his opponents. I should state at the outset this isn't a definitive list of every disguise the character has worn. Every Doctor has their own sense of style manifest in an eccentric choice of clothes whilst an inherent sense of justice and fair play informs each incarnation. However, if the occasion demanded it, The Doctor would indulge his ability as a master of disguise and don a change of clothes or more recently use psychic paper to convince others of his identity. On other occasions the Doctor would be the subject of impersonation.

William Hartnell's Doctor was always keen to pit his wits against his adversaries, famously disguising himself in the shell of a Dalek in The Space Museum (albeit in jest), echoing the actions of Ian Chesterton in the Daleks' debut story. In The Reign of Terror he adopts the flamboyant costume of the Regional Officer of the Provinces in an attempt to secure the release of his imprisoned companions. The Romans sees the Doctor assume the identity of a murderd lyre player, Maximus Pettulian, unaware he is part a plot to murder Emperor Nero. Although he would often take full advantage of doppelgangers, the Doctor doesn't attempt to impersonate the first look-alike he encounters: The Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve. The plot revolves around the confusion of his companion Steven, who has become separated from the Doctor and his belief that the Doctor is in disguise.

Patrick Troughton took disguise to a new level, later speaking of how the part "indulged his passion for dressing-up and clowning". He adopted a series of pseudonyms and disguises in The Highlanders. Troughton pretends to be a German Doctor called Von Wer (a literal translation of Who). At one point he  dresses as a washer woman (perhaps in tribute to Mr Toad from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows?) In the subsequent story The Underwater Menace he becomes a gypsy minstrel in dark glasses. Troughton is particularly convincing as  his doppelganger the Mexican-sounding global dictator Salamander in (the recently recovered) The Enemy of the World. It has often been suggested Troughton donned his Bud Flanagan-style heavy winter coat purely because of its resemblance to his nemesis the Yeti, in the hope he could perhaps blend in with the hairy robots.

Jon Pertwee's Doctor, newly based on Earth and suddenly blessed by a second heart, had to convince an incredulous Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of his true identity. As UNIT's satorially eccentric Scientific Adviser, this new Doctor certainly cuts a dash and uses a new moniker, Doctor John Smith, a name he thinks is perfect for undercover work when in truth such a name would probably arouse suspicion if speaking to a policeman (!). The disguises in this era are often in response to the equally adept king of dressing-up, The Master. The Curse of Peladon sees the Doctor mistaken for an Earth delegate and Jo pretends to be Princess Josephine of TARDIS in an effort to persuade King Peladon she is of royal blood. They make their departure just as the real delegate from Earth arrives.

In Carnival of Monsters, the Doctor and Jo try to pass themselves off as fellow passengers to the crew of a ship seemingly travelling in the Indian Ocean in 1926. However, due to the nature of the story they must perform this act several times and not always successfully. The pinnacle of Pertwee's impersonations is undoubtedly in The Green Death which features the Doctor undercover as the aged "Jones The Milk" and in drag as a cleaning lady. Both parts allow Pertwee to indulge his comedic voices. The Time Warrior sees the Doctor restate his name as "Doctor John Smith", which to some extent initiates his first meeting with his "namesake - Lavinia Smith" (Sarah Jane Smith giving as good as she gets from the off!) The Doctor dons armour and embodies Linx's robot knight hoping to sabotage the Sontaran's plans. Later he and Sarah disguise themselves as monks and Pertwee uses his "postman" voice (from his former BBC radio comedy  Waterlogged Spa and later more widely known as the voice of Worzel Gummidge) to confuse some guards.

Tom Baker's Doctor often used disguises, especially in the early part of his tenure. Terror of the Zygons sees him adapt his costume to include a tam o' shanter and tartan scarf possibly to blend into the Highland setting. He donned the frame and bandages of a robot Mummy in Pyramids Of Mars; attempted to confuse an automaton version of Sarah Jane in The Android Invasion after they were duplicated by the Kraals. Baker became a  rather wily chauffeur in The Seeds of Doom in a blue coat and peaked cap. In Masque of Mandragora Baker disguises himself as a member of the brotherhood of Demnos and turns up to a masqued ball wearing a large lion's head. The Face of Evil just happens to be modelled on the Doctor, thus we have his marvellous first encounter with Leela, where she describes the Doctor as "the evil one" The Doctor's response that she should try a jelly baby, ellicits the enjoyable line from Leela: "It's true then, they say the evil one eats babies..." Baker's only appearance sans scarf was a rare correct-for-the-period ensemble with a nod to Sherlock Holmes, in Victoriana heavy The Talons of Weng Chiang. Arguably, this is one of his most precise costumes if he truly wants to remain incognito.

The Key To Time season, all about the quest for a powerful key disguised as six different artefacts, scattered throughout the universe, brings the concept of indentity and disguise centre stage. The opening story, The Ribos Operation, finds a disguised Doctor wearing armour and a "Ned Kelly" style helmet. The doppelganger theme is given a retread in this era,  in The Androids of Tara it's Romana who resembles Princess Strella. The Armageddon Factor sees Princess Astra herself a disguised segment of the Key To Time, eventually become the inspiration for Romana's regeneration at the start of the subsequent story, Destiny of the Daleks. The Leisure Hive sees the Doctor swap his new burgundy ensemble for the outfit of the generator guards complete with a mask, which the Doctor later throws at the generator to destroy it. This scene is a notorious outake featuring some particularly ripe language from Tom Baker. In Meglos, the eponymous shapeshifter adopts the Doctor's features albeit becoming a rather green and spiky version of the Time Lord. 

Peter Davison's Doctor, having been the subject of a convenient mistaken identity allowing him to indulge his passion for cricket, is then accused of murder in Black Orchid. Although technically a dressing-up moment rather than a disguise (malevolent or otherwise) the fifth Doctor's most memorable change of clothes is his Harlequin costume, which he wore to attend the Cranleigh fancy dress Ball. Like Tom Baker before him, Davison's features are adopted by his nemesis, in this case Omega in Arc of Infinity. The same story famously features Colin Baker as Gallifreyan guard Maxil, who admittedly with hindsight is possessed of an uncanny resemblance to the sixth Doctor. In Mawdryn Undead, the eponymous Mawdryn convinces Tegan and Nyssa he is a regenerated version of the Doctor, wearing Tom Baker's burgundy coat to add to the illusion.

In Colin Baker's era proper, the Doctor doesn't disguise himself that much preferring his own slightly arrogant and very bold personality to shine through (or not!) Mark of the Rani sees him swap his "coat of many (clashing) colours" for a brown miner's tunic to try and hoodwink The Rani (herself, yet another master of disguise). In The Two Doctors, Patrick Troughton, revisiting the series, showed Baker how it's done with his hilarious scene with John Stratton's wonderfully monikered character Shockeye O' The Quawncing Grig. It must be stated, however, this is the second Doctor literally becoming 50% Androgum rather than any major disguise. The Sixth Doctor adopts surgeon's scrubs in Mindwarp in an attempt to wrong-foot his old enemy Sil and his dying superior Kiv.

Sylvester McCoy's era features a running theme (dare I say story arc?) in which the Doctor becomes "far more than just another Time Lord" Is he really Merlin as suggested in Battlefield? Even Ace's habit of calling him "Professor" seemed to undermine our perceptions of his true identity. McCoy didn't use disguise  as much as one might expect, his only major change of clothes (aside from his darker jacket for season twenty-six) being to establish his own costume in Time and the Rani. In fact the only notable costumed disguise in this era is the Rani's attempt to destabilize the newly-regenerated Doctor, by impersonating his companion Mel in, arguably, the most terrifyingly cringeworthy scene broadcast under the Doctor Who banner. The seventh Doctor seemed to prefer mind games to dressing up to defeat his opponents.

Paul McGann's Doctor (on television at least) only needs to convince Grace Holloway he is the same man with two hearts she pronounced dead the day before.

So to the modern era and the re-launched BBC Wales series saw Christopher Eccleston's Doctor establish a brilliant "get out of jail free card" namely, the psychic paper. This could mentally convince the viewer, the Doctor was indeed whomever he felt they believed he was. The psychic paper was first used to great effect in The End of the World, allowing both the Doctor and Rose Tyler (his plus one) to attend a far future galactic shindig in honour of the end of the world (shades of Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?) In The Unquiet Dead, the first excursion into history of the new series, the ninth Doctor attempts to hijack a ride with Charles Dickens simply by stating he is a "fan" of the great writer, much to Dickens' confusion. Unware of the word fanatic, Dickens assumes the Doctor is a navvie who thinks of himself as a fan that blows cool air...

David Tennant's Doctor created, arguably, the most elaborate of disguises in the entire series, in his transformation into Human alter-ego, school teacher John Smith in Human Nature/The Famly of Blood. With a nod to the creators of Doctor Who, he states that his parents names were Sydney (Newman) and Verity (Lambert). Of course, he'd already pretended to be a teacher in School Reunion with Rose posing as a dinner lady. Just prior to that in Tooth and Claw the Doctor and Rose encounter Queen Victoria near Balmoral and the Doctor adopts his erstwhile Scottish companion's name becoming Doctor James McCrimmon. In Smith and Jones he admits himself as a patient to student Doctor Martha Jones' hospital, once again using the alias John Smith. Very fond of the psychic paper, the Tenth Doctor took full advantage of the priviledged access it gave him, notably in Partners in Crime and in The Unicorn and the Wasp where he introduces himself to Agatha Christie as being a Scotland Yard detective and describes Donna Noble as the "plucky young woman who assists me".

The psychic paper seems to have been largely abandoned by Matt Smith's Doctor, only appearing in The Eleventh Hour and Night Terrors. Curse of the Black Spot has the Doctor and Amy disguised as Pirates, well, Amy more so. The Doppelganger theme is pressed into service once more in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, this time it seems to be more about confusing the viewer following the season's story arc than any malevolent force. Matt Smith's Doctor's enthusiasm for "cool" headgear has seen him getting into many a scrape, often with his hat being shot fom his head, though rarely is the change of hat accompanied by a change of costume, despite the obvious opportunity in A Town Called Mercy. The 2012 Christmas episode, The Snowmen sees Matt Smith swap his short tweed jacket for a Victorian-style ensemble, many items become part of his new costume but (thankfully) he discards the crooked top hat!. It could be argued this is the nearest the Eleventh Doctor gets to a full blown disguise, given he uses it as part of his undercover work to track down Clara.

Once again we find ourselves at the birth of a new Doctor full of promise and potential. I think Peter Capaldi needs to resurrect the traditions of disguise, not least because it allows the actor to really exploit their acting range. As fans of the Tennant era will know, Capaldi's already proved he looks good in a toga but that's another story...

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Just finished watching The Enemy of the World. It was enjoyable as a whole, but the best part by far was watching Troughton strut his stuff as Salamander and the Doctor-as-Salamander. I always thought disguises and the Doctor are a natural combination.

Very interesting article, thanks!

Great article, although I would point out that Matt Smith does once again use the psychic paper in A Christmas Carol when he tries to convince the young Kazran Sardick that he's "universally recognised as a responsible, mature adult."

It hadn't occurred to me that Smith's run was psychic-lite, but now that I think about it...
Having said that, I remember it getting used a number of times in the Vampires of Venice (Rory as Amy's eunuch, and "now I see what got my steward so excited"), plus there's the soldiers on Demon's Run training themselves to resist it, implying that even if it wasn't on screen much it was still meant to be there in the background the whole time.

As a saving on props and a way of keeping the story moving I think the psychic paper has been a tremendous addition to the Doctor's arsenal. It'd be nice to see a bit of dialogue somewhere along the line explaining how the Ninth Doctor came by it.

It's been a good while since I've seen it so I'm going from memory, there's a scene in Battlefield where the 7th Doctor is supposedly flashing his UNIT credentials, but it looks very much like he is using psychic paper in all but name.

And I think that's the only instance we actually get to see the paper failing; "Finally, a lie too big".

If it's the scene I'm thinking of then I think they're his old UNIT passes from his time as the 3rd Doctor. Ace has to pretend to be Liz Shaw. :)

I never realised that the psychic paper was a Nu Who thing - it seems such a simple concept that I assumed it was carried over from the classic series. Every day's a school day.

Let's not forget Matt's wonderful disguise as Sherlock Holmes.

It's also used in Vampires of Venice.

An important correction. The Doctor started using the name 'John Smith' from his very first appearance as the 3rd doctor (Spearhead from Space), not just, as you've written, in Carnival of Monsters.

It's a great bit of humour and a neat way of introducing the often impatient and short-tempered 3rd doc. He gets halfway through saying 'I'm the Doc...' in the previous doc's flamboyant style, and just gets a look on his face that screams 'I can't be bothered dealing with this crap', before changing it to 'Doctor....John Smith', saving himself the bother of having to put up with people getting confused by the (lack of) name.

He continues to use the name John Smith in all of the 3rd doctor's serials - though after Spearhead from Space only characters who aren't familiar with him call him that in return (usually the numerous government bureaucrats that populate many of the 3rd doctor's serials). The Brigadier, Benson, Liz Shaw, Yates and Jo all call him the Doctor (though given that only the Brigadier and Benson had met him prior to his using the pseudonym John Smith, it's fair to guess that the others are calling him 'Doctor' as shorthand, or out of politeness).

Sorry to take issue with you but the article does state the John Smith moniker is used in Spearhead from Space.

Yes you are correct, as I said the list isn't definitive but the "Finally, a lie too big" line does ring a bell, I think it was conscious effort on Steven Moffat's part to reduce the number of uses of the psychic paper, especially given Tennant's fondness for it. A shame in some respects because as Inkwash points out it is a tremendous addition to the Doctor's arsenal, nearly on a par with the sonic screwdriver. Maybe Capaldi will use it more? I certainly hope he uses the sonic screwdriver less, as it has become such an lazy plot device, one of the reasons JN-T gave for its destruction in The Visitation, though Eric Saward later said he thought the Doctor had several. Thanks for your input guys! .

Fair enough, as you say this isn't a definitive list and employ the phrase "largely abandoned" rather than "completely abandoned" to described the use (or lack of) psychic paper in the Smith era. Certainly Matt Smith used the paper a lot less than David Tennant...

Glad you liked the article. Even when only episode 3 existed, Enemy of the World was one of my favourite Troughton stories. I think it's a terrific showcase of Troughton's sheer ability and appetite as an actor. Amazed when it was recovered and to get most of The Web of Fear too was just the best 50th birthday present a long-standing Who fan could expect to receive. I've watched the show since The Time Warrior in 1973, a great story to begin with in hindsight, as I mentioned in the article, it's full of great disguise moments and I was immediately taken with Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane. I'm already convinced by Peter Capaldi, just a shame we have to wait so long to really see him in action. I think Doctor Who has a very secure future.

Let's not forget that the name John Smith was first used as an alias for the Doctor by Jamie in "The Wheel in Space"

I love the psychic paper too, and I definitely agree that it should be used more by Capaldi's Doctor. It could actually work better if he actually looks like an authority figure as he tends to have appear on the paper (which, I have to admit, Capaldi would probably be better at than Smith).

While I also agree that the sonic screwdriver has become rather over-used, I have to say did appreciate it as an analogy of the Doctor himself in 'Day of the Doctor' (which in itself also foreshadowed the inclusion of all Doctors, come to think of it!). Maybe with the reluctance to remove it completely, the Series 8 writers have its software being damaged so that it only works occasionally (to wean viewers off it).

William Shakespeare see's it as blank. In the episode 'The Shakespeare Code'.

That was really good. Perhaps subconsciously echoing Tom's nod to Sherlock Holmes in Talons as mentioned in the article.

Great article. I think it is a little surprising McCoy didn't overdo the dressing up. Given his track record on Vision On, Tiswas, Eureka, Jigsaw etc - he was always wearing different costumes. The brilliantly atmospheric Curse of Fenric is for my money the best McCoy tale. I may be wrong, but I think he uses his old UNIT pass again to gain the confidence of Doctor Judson not sure...

A fun scene, although he didn't fool The Great Intelligence for a minute, then again had he done so, The Great Inteligence wouldn't look so great or erm... intelligent!

Just checked on Youtube. the Doctor and Ace manage to convince some soldiers to let them pass just by sounding like they are in authority. When they barge into Dr Judson's study, despite the protests of his nurse, the Doctor wins Judson over with a discussion of the prisoner's dilemma, a logic problem. He then signs papers from the war office with both hands and presents them to a confused guard, stating they are "here on a special mission on behalf of the war office", amusingly, McCoy nearly fluffs his line as he delivers it stumbling on the word "war"..

Good point. Can't believe I didn't remember that.

Just found the relevant part on Youtube and you are indeed correct. I think what must have mangled it in my memory is the line from The Doctor when he tells Ace to "think like a physicist".

The first disguise the 3rd Doctor used in Spearhead of Space was surely the cape and hat he pinched off the specialist.

I'm currently watching The Web of Fear, and it seems promising. Amazing that you've been following Doctor Who for so long. Me, I always heard it was addictive, but I never got around to watching it. Until about six months ago, that is. Now I suddenly find I've seen 220 episodes. Good thing I always stayed away from drugs ...

Elisabeth Sladen is great, and a fine development from earlier female companions, who seemed mostly to be there to be rescued.

Capaldi is a wild choice for the Doctor, with his ability to look savagaly murderous. I'm keenly looking forward to seeing his first full episode.

Thanks again for the article, and I hope you'll write more about the dear Doctor.

Good to hear you've liked what you've seen so far. It is quite addictive! Not unlike Capaldi, when you've been watching it since you were 4 years old, it is in your DNA! If you liked the article I have written others on this site, just follow my name. Good to hear from someone who appreciates all the research and effort that goes into all the articles on Den of Geek. Thank you for your comments.

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