Third American Doctor: James Garner

1970-1974. Honorable mention: Hal Holbrook

Supporting Cast
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw: Susan Sullivan
Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart: J. D. Cannon
The Master: Ricardo Montalbán

James Garner was an established star before Doctor Who. Garner infused the charcater with an a cynical, yet easy-going charm. His Doctor was a man of action, technology and paternal compassion. With a keen eye on his fan’s expections, Garner passed on Nichols (which flopped with Jon Pertwee as the lead) to star on Doctor Who.

Susan Sullivan started her acting career playing opposite Dustin Hoffman in the Broadway play Jimmy Shine (where she beat out British ingénu Caroline John). She landed a contract with Universal Studios in 1969, guest-starring on several shows, which ultimately led to her work on Doctor Who. Susan looked up actual scientific terminology to prepare for her role, discovering that all the terms from the writers were made up.

J. D. Cannon is known for his role as a prisoner in the film Cool Hand Luke, and for his part as the witness who cleared Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Unlike his famous character, Cannon did not enjoy his 18 months of military life. He added understated warmth beneath the Brigadier’s rough exterior.

Ricardo Montalbán was an in-demand Mexican actor. In addition to working in state, radio and television, he also co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee with actors Carmen Zapata, Henry Darrow and Roger Delgado. As an in-joke in the 1971 Doctor Who serial “Colony in Space”, the Brigadier saud the suspected sighting of the Master “was only the Mexican Ambassador”. Montalbán brought 30 years of versatility and range to the role. His performance is gleefully sadistic, brilliant, suave and dashing–in an evil way.


Garner’s suave portrayal of the Doctor is stark contrast to his predecessors. For production reasons (added expense from being produced in color), the Doctor is stranded on Earth and working for UNIT. These adventures are often classified as the spy-fi genre.

The Doctor’s most memorable foes debuted in this era: Autons, Omega, Sontarans, Silurians, and Sea Devils. His most formitable enemy was the Master, a fellow Gallifreyan out to destroy Earth. Even with the universe on the line, they treated their conflict as a friendly rivalry…a battle of wits among equals. Since they were once friends, the Doctor was determined to rehabilitate him.

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2 thoughts on “Third American Doctor: James Garner

  1. Throwing out names and actors and concepts just because they look, or are an American equivalent of the type of actors who inhabited the roles in real life. What’s the point? There’s an abundance of possibilities of real British actors who almost were on the real show. The difference in the UK vs US culture, production and broadcasting models.

    Let’s take the basis of this particular what if concept for a minute.

    National Educational Television (NET) didn’t have any budget for drama programing and was a bare bones operation. The bulk of their programming was talking-head and classroom shows purchased from British and Canada.

    Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS were formed to fund scattered NET stations and Eastern Educational Television shows (now known as American Public Television.) An Amerian Doctor Who (with known “A” level talent, none the less) could not exist. Heck, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was locally produced in Pittsburgh, and other children’s shows were imported from Canada. When creating a “what if” world, working from a realistic base is important. A syndicated television series, maybe—the growth of UHF stations needed material. (But then, the BBC couldn’t get a foothold in the U.S. due to the series being in B&W and the quality of the telerecordings.)

    Now there’s been a couple other of these “what if” American Doctor Who in an alternate reality. One suggesting a what if Rod Serling has created Doctor Who, rather than Twilight Zone in 1958 for CBS. Ironic since his teleplay The Time Element (written for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse) and his early drafts of Planet of The Apes were time-travel stories.

    American television radically changed in the 1970s; decades-lasting shows The Jackie Gleason Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and Gunsmoke were gone by 1975. In addition, Rod Serling was a much better than anyone who wrote for Doctor Who. Terry Nation was a hack comedy writer who took a stab at sci-fi that wouldn’t be good enough to change the ribbon in Serling’s typewriter!

    The culture of American television would not support any television show lasting as long as “Doctor Who” in the real world. (Gunsmoke is an exception.)

    I’m all for alternate history and what ifs (try keeping track of the DC Universe!), but I am against the fan-wankery type stuff of “If Doctor Who was an American Show”. I don’t see any really deep thought into these. Really, Leslie Nielsen as the 2nd Doctor, 15 years before he made the turn to more comedic roles? He was still a strong dramatic actor, both theatrically and in guest spots.

    I will be the first one to praise a well written, original type of fan “what if” and theories when it come to Doctor Who, (or sci-fi, comics, etc.) but for the most part, I don’t see these serving any purpose.

    1. Thanks for chiming in. I’m extremely flattered you find the American Doctor series less implausible than the actual Doctor Who, ’cause it means I did a pretty good job dressing up this elaborate fan fiction as an essay. In addition to the Smug Mode photos, this project is inspired by the fictional biographies of the Watchmen graphic novel. I thought world-building an alternative universe where NET/PBS produced Doctor Who would be easy.

      Reality has a funny way of proving me wrong.

      Selecting actors of the right age, style and availabiity, while using the actual Doctor Who production history as a timeline guide, turned into an American recreation of An Adventure In Space And Time. Every actor choice and back story came from this process. This mission would be silly as an actual essay, mostly for the reasons you clearly identfied. Retired football player Art Donovan loved dispelling NFL fan-wankery. He often answered questions like “Could the 1971 Baltimore Colts beat the 2015 New England Patriots?” was “Without a time machine, we’ll never know!”

      So thanks for keeping us on our toes! Hope you’ll stick around and find something you like.

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