Doctor Who: Who’s the Best Who?

A Whovian's guide to Gallifrey

(Photo: DoctorWhoTV)

For years Doctor Who fans have squabbled about who is the best incarnation of their favorite Gallifreyan. Publicly, Whovians would have you believe that “they’re all the same person,” and ask, “How can judge them separately?”

Well, we all do it. We all have our preferences. Some Doctors are better than others, it’s just a simple fact. Of course, we won’t all agree (that would be weird) and that’s fine—that’s fandom!

Anyway, enjoy our new adventure—The Rankings of the Doctor…

Richard E Grant

If you’ve not seen the animated Doctor Who story, The Scream of the Shalka, don’t worry, you’re not missing much. But this is all we had in 2003. The Withnail & I actor was cast as what was then known as the Ninth Doctor, alongside Derek Jacobi as The Master (a part he would later to go on and play in the television series in 2007).

Famously, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies criticised REG’s performance, saying he phoned it in for the money. And, he’s not wrong.

But almost as soon as this appeared, it was announced that Doctor Who would be back on our television screens, putting an end to both the proposed animated series and Richard E Grant’s second tenure as the Time Lord.

Richard Hurndall

Ironically, during the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, this guy said he was  the “original.” Sadly not. Mr. Hurndall was playing the First Doctor who, of course, was originally played by William Hartnell.

Whostorians will be quick to point out that in an episode titled The Death of Doctor Who (a pretty controversial title right there), a “robot” version of the character was also played by Edmund Warwick (who also stood in for Hartnell in The Dalek Invasion of Earth).

Whilst not an accurate depiction of the actor, Mr. Hurndall’s is certainly a fun portrayal. For a much more engaging First Doctor copy, check out David Bradley (Argus Filch in the Harry Potter series) in Mark Gatiss’ sublime drama, An Adventure in Space and Time.

Rowan Atkinson

“What? Mr Bean as The Doctor? I don’t remember that!” some of you might be saying. But back in 1999, a young writer by the name of Steven Moffat (who you might be aware of) wrote a comedy sketch for the UK charity telethon Comic Relief called The Curse of Fatal Death featuring a host of Doctors, Daleks and the Master (played by Jonathan Pryce).

Mr. Atkinson actually puts in a decent shift here and is a joy to watch. But, in typical Doctor Who style, he’s not around for long and amusingly regenerates into Richard E Grant (who would receive a second chance at the role—see above), Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, whilst finally settling on Joanna Lumley (star of classic UK show The New Avengers).

Sylvester McCoy

Ok, some proper, canonical Time Lords now. Mr. McCoy played the Seventh Doctor from 1987 until the show came to its first end in 1989, and returned for the TV movie starring Paul McGann in 1996. His first season in charge of the TARDIS is a mishmash of poor performances and ill-formed production values—but with some neat ideas in there (Paradise Towers, for example, is a take on J.G. Ballard’s High Rise).

However, Sylv, as he’s affectionately known, came into his own when partnered with sidekick Ace. His following two seasons are much more highly-regarded and include the genuine classic Remembrance of the Daleks. Best performance, though, must be his final outing in the aforementioned TV movie; much more subdued and believable.

Colin Baker

The Sixth Doctor probably got the rawest of all deals for the Doctor from the BBC. His first season saw a return to Saturday nights on BBC One on the UK, after three seasons of mid-week broadcasts, but also saw the episode length double. Sadly, the quality of the stories was not up to scratch. Colin’s very first, The Twin Dilemma, is often cited as the very worst Doctor Who has to offer. Given that he strangled his lovely companion Peri, it wasn’t the most audacious of debuts, and the public never really warmed to his more brutish and arrogant portrayal—though it was probably his sartorial choice that audiences were most offended by.

John Hurt

The Alien actor made a surprising appearance at the denouement of the 2013 Season 7 finale, The Name of the Doctor, as a completely new, and previously unknown, regeneration of the Time Lord.

Later dubbed “The War Doctor“ in the 50th anniversary The Day Of The Doctor, Mr. Hurt’s incarnation would actually have been the Ninth Doctor. Yup, fans got confused/cross too. His somewhat derisive treatment of his successors Ten and Eleven, played by David Tennant and Matt Smith respectively, was hilarious and earned Mr. Hurt’s Doctor the optional title of Captain Grumpy.

Peter Cushing

Completely unofficial and non-canonical, but we couldn’t resist, the Hammer Horror actor played an Earthling by the name of “Dr. Who” in two movies during the Sixties. Mr. Cushing’s Who built his own TARDIS and flew off to fight the Daleks in both adventures, based on two television serials.

Dr Who & the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD are both glorious technicolour wonders to take in (on blu ray, preferably), and the Star Wars actor’s jaunty and whimsical take on the Time Lord matched the garishness and vivacity of the visuals.

Patrick Troughton

Troughton had the tough task of becoming the first ‘new’ Doctor and also the first one where fans got to say the guy before was better. His impish ways were in stark contrast to his more severe predecessor but audiences grew to love the man with The Beatles haircut and questionable recorder skills.

Sadly, due to the BBC’s trashing policy in the Sixties and Seventies (before the advent of home video), most of his episodes are missing, presumed flying around in the time vortex somewhere.

Jon Pertwee

The Seventies not only brought full color into Doctor Who, but it also brought in a no-nonsense action hero in the form of Jon Pertwee (best known previously for his many comedic roles). Like another icon of the day, James Bond, the Third Doctor had a penchant for gadgets and cars. And, like 007, the alien time-traveler was accompanied by beautiful and fun companions such as Jo Grant (played by the effervescent Katy Manning) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen).

Much of Mr. Pertwee’s era saw him stranded on Earth (“punishment” by the Time Lords for his interfering) fighting almost every week with another Gallifreyan renegade, The Master (a charming, Moriarty-esque villain).

Paul McGann

With only an hour or so of actual Doctor Who screen-time to his name, Paul McGann was an instant hit in the 1996 TV movie, a co-production between the BBC and FOX (FOXA) (and filmed in Canada). Though not a massive ratings hit in the US, it was up against David and Darlene’s wedding on ABC’s Roseanne, Mr. McGann’s premiere performed better in the UK – but his fate was already sealed, there was to be no series.

The Eighth Doctor would live on in books, comics and audio throughout the Nineties and beyond, creating a massive fan base for the regeneration. Thankfully, Steven Moffat gave us another glorious few minutes with McGann in the outstanding 50th Anniversary mini-episode, The Night of the Doctor.

Matt Smith

From his very opening moments in 2010’s The Eleventh Hour, few other actors connected with the part so instantly, and so successfully—the ‘fish fingers and custard’ scene is one of his defining moments and endeared him to a world bereft after losing the Tenth Doctor in a matter of minutes.

Given the furore that surrounded his casting in 2009—Who “fans” were uncontrollably upset that such a young actor was appointed (he was twenty-six years old at the time)—his speedy acceptance the following year is all the more impressive.

Matt also made bow ties and fezes cool.

Peter Capaldi

Speaking of impressive, the Twelfth Doctor’s shock introduction in the 50th Anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, surprised fans the world over with Mr. Capaldi’s menacingly magnificent eyebrows.

After an unfocused debut run in 2014 (or, rather, too focused on the new regeneration being a tad unlikeable), last year’s Season 9 featured Capaldi in formidable form. In particular, the “Sit down and talk” anti-war speech from The Zygon Inversion saw Peter utterly define his performance with one of the most affecting and absorbing portrayals of the Doctor ever.

Best of all, however, was the work of art that was Heaven Sent—an episode featuring the Doctor all by himself (mostly)—Doctor Who outshining everything else around it.

William Hartnell

The First Doctor, or simply “The Doctor” as he was then known (and sometimes even “Doctor Who”), was as enigmatic as he was cantankerous. You never knew if he was going to welcome you into the TARDIS or whack you over the head with a rock.

Though remembered for being tad forgetful with lines, Mr. Hartnell played the comedy and drama perfectly in a time when the show was finding its feet. The actor’s Santa-esque grandfather is still an absolute joy to watch some 50 years on as he goes from time to time and space to space with his lapel-grabbing, “Hmmm?” exclamations and slightly uppity demeanour.

Tom Baker

“There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes!” beamed the Fourth Doctor in his very first story. A perfect manifesto for this regeneration.

For many, the definite article. Tom played the Doctor for the longest consecutive period on television and has the most screen time (by some margin). Mr. Baker brought Doctor Who to new heights of popularity with his immensely long scarf, crazy-assed smile, bonkers hair and love for jelly babies.

The Fourth Doctor’s earlier years in charge of the TARDIS were undoubtedly his best, bringing gothic horror and science-fiction to the small screen every week.

Christopher Eccleston

If we may quote the man himself, the Ninth Doctor was fantastic.

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, Eccleston was seen by old-skool fans as an odd choice—he was known for gritty dramatic roles—and his costume was most unexpected—instead of smoking of eccentric Victorian suit, the Ninth Doctor was stripped down to leather jacket. No hat, no umbrella and no scarf. This was most definitely not the Time Lord of old.

Regardless, fans are always wrong and audiences adored Chris and his Northern take on the Gallifreyan; Doctor Who was a hit once more. But just as soon as we came to love Mr. Eccleston, he was gone—the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

Peter Davison

Already well-known for playing Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small (currently under consideration for a remake by HBO), the pleasant-faced Mr. Davison had the gargantuan task of following the most popular Doctor ever, the aforementioned Tom Baker and what a job he did!

The Fifth Doctor was galvanised by the more optimistic and affable regeneration and his bulging TARDIS team (consisting of three companions!). This freshness was also reflected in the stories which proved popular with audiences and displayed a more sensitive and courageous side to the Time Lord. No more so than his breathtaking finale, The Caves of Androzani, a story which is often regarded as the “best” ever in fan polls.

David Tennant

When the Tenth Doctor lamented, “I don’t want to go,” in his 2010 finale The End of Time, we knew exactly how he felt; we didn’t want him to go either.

Like Tom Baker before him, Mr. Tennant took Doctor Who to new levels of popularity—as former companion Louise Jameson (Leela) said in the Doctor Who documentary, Who’s Changing – An Adventure in Time With Fans, the Scottish actor was single-handedly responsible for making being a geek sexy.

It was his relationship with companions that really won audiences over. The Tenth Doctor and Rose are one of TV’s greatest couples though, for many, Mr. Tennant’s sparky chemistry with companion Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate (The Office), was even better.

With too many highlights to list here, Mr. Tennant’s tenure as Ten wins on every front—from production to writing to guest cast—but it’s the man himself who created millions of new fans for Doctor Who and made just as many love it more than they ever did.

Doctor Who: Who’s the Best Who?