Doctor Who has become a worldwide phenomenon as well as the BBC’s flagship television series. For those who don’t know, the show — a sci-fi and fantasy staple in the United Kingdom since 1963 — concerns the exploits of an alien being called the Doctor, who travels through time and space in something called the TARDIS, a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside. (TARDIS stands for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space.”)
In more than 50 years of picaresque adventuring, the Doctor and his traveling companions have encountered a range of strange creatures, including a variety of domestic and extraterrestrial cats.
Just as the Doctor visits different historical periods, various planets, and planes of existence, he has also run afoul of a wide variety of felines. These include giant cats and newborn kittens, cheetah people and cat nurses. Normal cats and alien cats can pop up anywhere and anytime. There have been many versions of the Doctor; he possesses the biological ability to regenerate under certain circumstances rather than dying. (This also makes it easy to explain when a new actor takes over the role.) One version of the Doctor always wore a cat brooch on his lapel, while another became a cat. The show is like catnip to me, and I’m thrilled to offer you a tour through the cats of Doctor Who, including:
Way back in 1964, William Hartnell’s 1st Doctor landed on contemporary Earth in the three-part serial “Planet of Giants,” only to find that he and his traveling companions had been miniaturized in the process. The classic series of Doctor Who kept viewers coming back week after week with cliffhangers at the end of each episode. There has never been one more charming than the Doctor and his friends being cornered by a titanic tortoiseshell cat.
Flashing forward to the 7th Doctor story “Survival” (1989), there’s a way in which cats bookend Doctor Who‘s original 26-year run on the BBC. Returning with his companion Ace to her hometown of Perivale, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is up to his eyeballs in alien cat mischief. His ancient enemy, the Master, has allied with a species known as the Cheetah People.
Their emissary is a Kitling, which looks like a normal black cat. The Doctor reveals that this being is actually more like a “feline vulture. It’s got the power of teleportation. It can jump from world to world hunting for carrion.” The animatronic cat alien might be somewhat less than convincingly realized, but tight budgets meant that special effects were rarely a strength of classic Who.
Doctor Who was cancelled after “Survival,” and after an abortive attempt to relaunch the show during the mid-1990s in the U.S., its most recent run of global success began in 2005. Unsurprisingly, cats have been along for the ride since Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor visited World War II London in “The Empty Child” (2005). After his companion, Rose, wanders off, the Doctor picks up a cat in an alley and asks it why his friends never follow instructions.
David Tennant’s 10th Doctor might have had the cutest and most bizarre encounters with cats. In “Gridlock” (2007), the Doctor and his companion Martha visit the future city of New New York. It is a doomed megalopolis, where the residents are forced to live in their airborne cars, moving slowly for years through a subterranean motorway.
Hopping from car to car, the Doctor meets Brannigan, a member of the humanoid Catkind, his human wife Valerie, and their newborn children … a litter of kittens. It’s best not to think too deeply about how alien genetics work at this point. Instead, enjoy this behind-the-scenes clip of Tennant acting with his kitten co-stars.
There are three major species of anthropomorphic cat aliens in televised Doctor Who: the Cheetah People, Catkind, and the Leonians. “Survival,” mentioned above, featured the predatory Cheetah People. Natural hunters, like their big-cat namesakes, the Cheetah People were not evil as such, but manipulated by the Master for his own nefarious purposes.
Catkind, a species of humanoid felines from the planet New Savannah, featured prominently in two 10th Doctor stories. In “New Earth” (2006), the Doctor and Rose visit the year 5 billion, where an order of Catkind nuns called the Sisters of Plenitude operate a hospital. These cat nurses are up to no good. They can cure any disease, but only because they’ve created a vast farm of cloned human bodies for medical research.
The next season, Novice Hame, the cat nurse seen here, returns in “Gridlock” (2007). As penance for the ghastly misdeeds of her order in “New Earth,” she tends to the needs of the Face of Boe, a gigantic alien head and longtime friend of the Doctor in a vat of swirling gas. Thanks to Hame’s care, the Face of Boe liberates everyone stuck on the motorway beneath New New York and imparts arcane knowledge to the Doctor.
Finally, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor encounters Leandro, a humanoid lion, in “The Woman Who Lived” (2015). He conspires with Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones to acquire a powerful gem. With it, his species, the Leonians, hope to conquer the Earth in the year 1651. It all sounds so insane, doesn’t it? I love it.
Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor is a personal favorite of mine. Because he has appeared on screen only twice, in 1996’s Fox television movie and 2013’s “Night of the Doctor,” it has been in other formats — books, Big Finish audio dramas, and comics — where special effects budgets are less of a factor, that his regeneration has really shone. In the Doctor Who Magazine comic story The Glorious Dead (2000), the Doctor wanders through different planes of existence, one of which finds him turned into a pudgy cat named TARDIS Tails.
No survey of Doctor Who and cats could be complete without a tip of the hat to Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor. Known for his colorful costume, which Baker himself has referred to as “an explosion in a rainbow factory,” the 6th Doctor never left the TARDIS without a cat brooch affixed to his lapel.
During his run, Colin Baker’s Doctor wore seven different cat pins. During the Trial of a Time Lord season (1986), he wore two that were specially designed and based on his own pet cats. We have neither the space nor time to discuss all of Baker’s feline lapel bling here. Luckily, Doctor Who fan and cat brooch completist Steve Ricks has chronicled each of them with the kind of obsessive detail you expect from hardcore fans.
Of course, there are other intersections in the television series. Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor finds a cat in “Resurrection of the Daleks” (1984), and Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor very nearly eats a cat in “The Two Doctors” (1985). An alien entity called the Isolus kidnaps an orange housecat in the 10th Doctor story “Fear Her” (2006), and we find that Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor can understand cat language in “The Lodger” (2010).
In Paul Cornell’s novel, Human Nature (1995), the 7th Doctor had a pet cat named Wolsey. While this story was adapted for television as “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” (2007), unfortunately, the cat didn’t make the jump.
That’s it for our survey of cats in Doctor Who. Do you watch the show? Do your cats perk up their ears at the sound of the famous theme tune? Let us know in the comments.