Doctor Who is all the rage now, but there once was a time when it was the kind of thing they’d show on PBS on Sunday nights for only the nerdiest of children (hi). I would stay up late just to see what trouble the Doctor could get himself into this time. Little did I know the show had already been canceled years earlier, and I was heading toward a very abrupt and disappointing end.
He didn’t really die, though. The Doctor never really dies. Much as he resurrected from one life to the next, I would seek him out in novelizations and choose-your-own-adventure books. In a funny way, he was the perfect complement to taekwondo being such a large part of my life growing up – both stressed nonviolent resolution and the responsibility that came with power. Some kids had comic books. I had British television.
As a lifelong viewer of Who, however, I keep seeing all the actors ranked and…well, usually it goes pretty chronologically. The most recent is almost always the “Best Doctor Ever,” while whoever did it before him is “Second Best,” and so on and so on.
That’s a bit ridiculous. If I was going to do this, I wanted to consider what each Doctor really added to the character’s psyche. Any list that ranks his first actor (William Hartnell) low simply because he’s old and stodgy and doesn’t look good in YouTube clips needs to understand how Doctor Who used to be less of a cinematic adventure and more of an experimental stage play on TV. After all, television has changed a lot over 50 years. Not every Doctor can be judged on today’s standards.
And so, with the caveat that we’ve been pretty lucky so far – there’s never been a truly bad actor helming Doctor Who – this is how I’d rank the performers who have played the Doctor, worst to best.
11. Colin Baker
The Sixth Doctor
Baker is typically remembered as the only bad Doctor, but this is overstating it. He gave us a cynical, caustic Doctor, determined to do the right thing as always, but constantly bogged down by his own short nerve and fatalist outlook. Unlike other Doctors, he would sometimes choose violence over escape. He had a note of vengeance in him.
He also prided himself in believing he was the most intelligent regeneration yet, which alienated fans right off the bat. The writers supported this, but if his professorly predecessor (Peter Davison) spent all his time with his nose in a book in order to solve mysteries, fans hardly enjoyed this upstart pulling his solutions out of the thin air of his overheated intellect.
In truth, Colin Baker’s was a complex delivery revealed far too slowly (and flatly). He’d only become excited at his own accomplishments, dismissing those of others, while the Doctor’s famous empathy got few chances to shine before Colin was axed. Had he been given more time, perhaps his Doctor could have evolved into something more. As is, the Doctor’s narrative arc of loss and evolution into a darker character – key to the Fifth and Sixth iterations – later became core facets of David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s interpretations.
10. Paul McGann
The Eight Doctor
McGann hardly got much of a chance, only starring in a failed Fox TV reboot in 1996. When Doctor Who was successfully rebooted in 2005, it was actually an exceptionally kind nod to McGann to acknowledge his Doctor’s single TV appearance as part of the show’s canon. He’s the Doctor we never had much chance to see evolve. The weakness of his portrayal isn’t so much his as it is due to the changes Fox made to the character in an Americanized adaptation.
9. Christopher Eccleston
The Ninth Doctor
It’s popular to rank Eccleston very highly, but I have to admit to never synching up with this Doctor. It didn’t help that, as a fan of the original Doctor Who series, I disliked the direction of the 2005 reboot’s first season.
Eccleston was an inversion of the Doctor’s first actor (William Hartnell). Instead of being a warm man with a cold exterior, Eccleston’s Doctor had a childishly gleeful exterior that deflected attention from a cold hatred and general distaste.
Limiting himself to a single season (Eccleston has managed his own career on a deep-seated fear of being typecast) also stunted how extensively we could investigate that underlying pathos. Without a chance to really dive into it, fast stories seeking a second season renewal left us spending our time with the slick surfaces of Eccleston’s Doctor, and gave us very little exposure to what really made him tick.
8. Jon Pertwee
The Third Doctor
The most physical Doctor by far, Pertwee was an expert in Venusian Karate, and drove cars, planes, and boats as well as the iconic TARDIS. It helped that his home planet of Galifrey banished Pertwee to Earth (in reality, the show was short on funds for creating other planets).
He was the James Bond of Doctors, tall, lean, upright, decked out in ever-changing costumes including frilled shirts and velvet jackets and Inverness cloaks (the last of these being my personal fashion equivalent of having died and gone to Heaven). He was also the most chauvinistic, ironic for a man so regularly dressed in crushed velvet.
Pertwee’s ability to extend scenes on sheer charisma also covered over the writers’ inconsistencies in pacing their plots out well, but the Doctor’s dismissive attitude toward others could grow tiring quickly.
7. William Hartnell
The First Doctor
The stern Doctor. Hartnell could be a stick in the mud at times, too much of a strict grandfather, but it made the moments he truly became excited all the more special. He hid a youthful exuberance and playful wittiness behind the outer shell of a frail, old man. He was the most protective and distrusting Doctor by far, constantly drawing back his companions instead of encouraging them into the fray. Instead of putting faith in them, they had to earn it over a long period of time. He obeyed the rules of being a Time Lord more than any other Doctor.
This works brilliantly in how the Doctor’s evolved, however – the gradual cracking of Hartnell’s shell allowed us to witness how a truly ancient alien like the Doctor would have rediscovered his sense of adventure and faith in others, giving us progressively younger iterations who were quicker to trust and more willing to bend the rules.
6. Peter Davison
The Fifth Doctor
Davison was the book nerd Doctor, whose episodic climaxes would often culminate with him bent over a computer or waving around a page of research while others flew spaceships at each other firing lasers willy-nilly. He knew where the action was – in spreadsheets. Essentially, he was the Rupert Giles of Doctors.
If I had to rank quality of episodes, his would be higher. His seasons boasted a uniquely 80s quality of adventure science-fiction. That’s not a knock on Davison either – this is just a list filled with great performances. (In fact, more actors who have portrayed the Doctor have ranked Davison as their favorite than any other Who, so what do I know?)
He was the most pacifist Doctor, counting himself as part of a team – he had as many as four companions on certain adventures – and often putting them in charge so that he could focus entirely on solving the mysteries they encountered. He was the Doctor least concerned with winning, and most concerned with doing what’s right.
He was also the most openly vulnerable and emotionally communicative Doctor – unlike his predecessors, he truly considered himself an equal to the alien races he’d encounter. He’s the one who brought the boyish nervousness to Doctor Who.
David Tennant has said his Tenth Doctor is based the most on his favorite, Davison.
5. Matt Smith
The Eleventh Doctor
My favorite Doctor to see think something out, Smith is the most moral Doctor. Whereas his predecessor (Tennant) began to mistake winning for success and sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture, Smith constantly bent over backwards to constrain himself ethically and find compromise.
Where Tennant’s Doctor sought solace in his ego – where his response to loss was to transform it into a personal offense – Smith’s sought that solace in remorse. He took more responsibility for the sacrifices of his companions than any other Doctor, and it was refreshing to see a Doctor who took on such a heavy toll and handled it internally.
If anything, Smith doesn’t get enough credit for making his Doctor a direct reaction to Tennant’s. Where Eccleston’s and Tennant’s pain came from loneliness and survivor’s guilt, Smith’s came from a fear of overstepping his bounds. More than anything else, this Doctor was afraid of the ego Tennant gave him. He was keenly aware of himself as a powerful being, of the danger losing his perspective held to the worlds and peoples he encountered. For all his childishness, he acted like a cage for the Doctor’s shortcomings and fears.
He’d be ranked far lower if not for his final season, when his profound fear of himself came up against the unstoppable drive of his personal curiosity. It’s where Smith really came into his own in a way not hinted at before. He was always fun, but it’s that last season, opposite Jenna Coleman, where he finally transformed from a delightfully one-note comedian into a dramatic actor who could profoundly move you.
4. Sylvester McCoy
The Seventh Doctor
The “gypsy” Doctor – that McCoy accomplished as great a standing among Who fans as he did while funding and support for the show was being cut out from under him is a testament to his abilities. With shoddy writing and a complete lack of special effects, he sold entire worlds to viewers on a weekly basis on the effort of his acting alone.
Perhaps no Doctor had to try so hard as McCoy, who was uniquely responsible for keeping the show alive when it was in its death throes. He took the frumpy nonchalance of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, the hobo worldview of Patrick Troughton’s Second, and refined the rage of Colin Baker’s Sixth into a keen weapon.
He thrilled on making the Doctor a performer and over-actor, at one point even delaying enemies by putting on a magic show. He was accepting of others’ quirks and hammered home how the Doctor delighted in adventure for the sake of it. He’s the one who brought the sadness and loneliness of the character out, though, the one who made his joy all the more touching by posing it against his melancholy.
3. Patrick Troughton
The Second Doctor
The originator of the Doctor’s cosmic hobo factor, Troughton delighted in appearing completely innocuous, only to reveal his true capabilities once he’d fully devised a plan. He could follow his enemies an entire episode and be treated as an afterthought by appearing childish and bumbling, while he observed and took notes the whole way. Though much of his tenure has been lost (TV studios rarely kept tape of their broadcasts as reruns hadn’t been invented yet), what remains shows us the most patient and least self-possessed Doctor of them all.
Unlike other Doctors, he didn’t put the physical safety of his companions first. His primary concern was instead their emotional well-being, a facet later iterations became too egocentric to notice. By the same token, he expected a great deal from his companions, and would show no hesitation in judging one should they betray the group, as one does in briefly allying with the Daleks, who totally don’t still appear in my nightmares I don’t even know why you would bring that up.
Smith has said his own Doctor is based most on his favorite, Troughton.
2. David Tennant
The Tenth Doctor
The foxy Doctor, but really the survivor of the bunch. Tennant said his Doctor was very much based on Davison’s, and you can tell. All the Doctors are intellectuals, but some are intergalactic hobos about it and others are sporty and refined.
The strength of Tennant’s portrayal was in showing how an idealist, through the pain of loss and sacrifice, could become an egoist, breaking the rules he once upheld in order to do what he believes is right.
Tennant’s iteration constantly struggled with survivor’s guilt. He refused to personally accept or confront his melancholy. He progressively compensated for the anger at what he couldn’t control by filling the cracks in his personality with more and more ego. This meant that, near the end, he could sometimes mistake winning a conflict for doing the right thing.
Tennant played this all with beauty and grace, with an internal struggle, pathos, and complexity unrivaled by any of the Doctor’s other actors.
1. Tom Baker
The Fourth Doctor
Impertinent. Impatient. If you’ve never seen him, imagine some combination of Groucho Marx, Gene Wilder, and Ian McKellen, with the face of an extraordinarily expressive scarecrow. He delivered the Doctor’s most satirical lines as if reciting Shakespeare, in a deep voice that seemed to bellow as if you were watching him from the perfect seat at center stage.
He was the Doctor who could run circles around opponents while prioritizing a game of chess against his robot dog, who could threaten an entire room with a word while slouched unmoving and content in an armchair. Proud of his impishness, yet never satisfied with his achievements, what he really brought to the character was drive. The Doctor’s always been driven to save others, but Tom Baker’s was the first who was driven to constantly better himself.
Though his ego was immense, he was his own most critical judge. Likewise, he could cut a companion down without a word or make them think they’d accomplished miracles with a simple, “Well done.” He was also the first Doctor who truly seemed alien in his thinking. You could believe Tom Baker’s Doctor had whole worlds of information swirling around in his head, constantly vying for attention like impatient children tugging at his coattails.
Every other Doctor but Tennant and Tom Baker seems to fall into a very specific definition, but these two were the Doctors who gave the character so much more. Tom Baker was stern like Hartnell, could disarm you with the seeming ignorance of Troughton, and could turn an entire situation around with a well-placed word like Pertwee. He was the best of each of his predecessors, and more than any of them found true fascination and joy in the imperfections and flaws of others. He would adapt himself to his companions rather than demanding they adapted to him and, while he could shift who he was depending on what was needed, you never doubted who he was at his center.
The cleverness of Tom Baker’s comedy hides a much deeper, more complete dramatic performance. You could give this to Tennant and I wouldn’t argue, but Tom Baker did more with less, and is the most singular, impossible-to-imitate personality the Doctor ever had.