Is there a more beloved figure in British pop culture than that of the Doctor? Since 1963, the various incarnations have enthralled audiences, taking them on adventures across the universe, usually with a few companions by their side.
Now, with the 60th anniversary upon us and Ncuti Gatwa newly in possession of the Tardis keys, it's the perfect time to rank the Doctors. Who did it best, and who deserves to be sucked into the Time Vortex, never to be seen again? Let the discussions commence...
Let’s be honest: Baker’s take on the iconic role was bad. Stiff, unlikeable, arrogant – he only lasted two series, which also didn’t help – he has gone down in history as the angriest the Doctor has ever been, forever squabbling with his companion Peri and trying to assume the role of antihero, with varying degrees of success.
Doctor Who was suffering at that point. Many of the behind the scenes talent had quit or died, BBC executives were saying the show had become too violent (the sixth Doctor did attempt to strangle Peri in The Twin Dilemma) and the scripts varied wildly in quality. An era probably best forgotten.
Pity poor Paul McGann. His eighth Doctor only got a measly TV special before the show was ignominiously axed – and yet, there were flashes of brilliance there. His Doctor (functioning in a sort of Grey’s Anatomy version of America) was warm and funny, and also blessed with a rather dashing plum velvet coat. Fortunately, McGann has had the chance to right some past wrongs with appearances in a Doctor Who audio series, but the fact remains – he’s often overlooked, and (to be honest) the poor script did him dirty. A shame.
Is there anything more quintessentially English than a Doctor who plays cricket? Or so the thinking likely went when the time came to choose Peter Davison’s costume. Coming as he did after Tom Baker, it was always going to be difficult for Davison to make a splash – never mind that he was 29 when he got the job. To be honest, he doesn’t stand out much: his personality was never as big as the others’, the companions (Tegan, Adric, Nyssa) aren’t among Who’s best and the storylines were often rather poor. But at least we know he can bowl a mean bouncer.
If Batman’s Riddler and the Doctor got put in a blender, it would come up with something rather like Sylvester McCoy. The costume didn’t do him many favours – why the umbrella with the question mark handle, why? – but his Doctor retained a puckish, playful attitude that endeared him to audiences, despite his tendency to be highly manipulative (there’s that Riddler coming through).
Is the first always the best? In the case of William Hartnell, probably not. The show was still finding its feet under Hartnell’s tenure, though Hartnell’s Doctor set the standard that later models tried to copy. This Doctor was a mysterious figure: reserved, aloof and grumpy, but also playful and gentle, especially with his granddaughter Susan. Multifaceted and authoritative, he remained a bit of a puzzle during his tenure.
Patrick Troughton is probably one of the most underrated Doctors on this list – and the one who had one of the trickiest jobs: prove that the show could continue with a new lead after Hartnell’s departure. When Troughton debuted, audiences thought he was a clown – but he arguably set the tone for all the Doctors who follow. His take on the character is brimming with stories, switches from comedy to drama at the drop of a hat and is far more classically heroic than Hartnell. Even David Tennant said it: “if Patrick Troughton didn’t play the Doctor so comfortably and with such charm, and so brilliantly, I don’t think I’d be sitting here today.”
If eyebrows were a personality, then Capaldi’s Doctor would be top of the list. His magnificently-browed take on the character entered the ring after Matt Smith, but went down rather faster than a lead balloon. Where Smith was playful, Capaldi was serious; where Smith was angry, Capaldi was unforgiving. He clashed with companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), rarely cracked a smile and his late reinvention as a punk fond of playing the guitar came too late to redeem him.
As with Paul McGann, there was a lot of wasted potential there. Sadly, the odds were against Whittaker from the start – despite being a fantastic actor, she was also the first female Doctor, which generated a backlash among some sections of the fanbase. In addition, she was saddled with Chris Chibnall as showrunner – and under his tenure, the scriptwriting suffered.
Whittaker’s Doctor, almost maniacally quirky when we first met her, never quite got the opportunity to develop the gravitas that she deserved, despite Whittaker’s ability to generate endless warmth and enthusiasm (as well as the Doctor’s first queer romance with companion Yaz). Here’s hoping she’ll make a successful return at some point.
It’s no mean feat, bringing a show back from the dead – with that in mind, Christopher Eccleston did an excellent job. His Doctor was a new take on the character entirely: haunted, scarred from the brutal Time War that killed his whole race and willing to make the hard decisions. He only stayed for one season (and left slightly under a cloud), but Eccleston’s strong, moody debut helped lay the groundwork that Tennant then made his own.
Step forward Jon Pertwee, 1970s Who’s version of an action hero. This Doctor was not shy about throwing punches when the occasion demanded, and also had a flamboyant dress sense befitting a dandy rather than a deep-space adventurer (although in all fairness, he was exiled to Earth for much of his tenure). He also had a strict moral code – this was where the Doctor’s hatred of tyranny came in – but to be honest, his moralising does get tiring after a while.
Manic pixie dream boy Matt Smith took the reins after David Tennant and (for some) became their instant favourite. Square-jawed and clad in tweed, Smith was the start of the glossy Hollywood Who era, where companions were gorgeous (Karen Gillan), the writing slapdash but compelling and the budgets massive. And in all fairness, he was good in the role: like Tennant, his Doctor could be tortured and angry; mostly, he was childlike and quirky, prone to calling his companion semi-ironic nicknames. A Doctor for Gen Z.
What Matt Smith is to nu-Who fans, so Tom Baker is to original ones. Baker, tall of stature and long of scarf, came after the gently eccentric Jon Pertwee and dialled that eccentricity up to 11. As befitting the Seventies, when he came to the screen, this Doctor was a childlike free spirit that saw the universe as a place of wonder – but was also just likely to come out with a Chekhov quote as foil an alien invasion. The scriptwriters took this and ran with it, writing classics like The Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin and City of Death. Plus, anybody that goes around offering jelly babies is a win in our book.
And the winner is... David Tennant
Look, everybody has their own favourite Doctor, but Tennant has to be one of the most universally beloved. During his four-year run, Tennant helped make the show the global success it is today. His Doctor was by turns charismatic, angry, vulnerable, playful and vengeful, while his relationships with companions Rose (Billie Piper) and Donna (Catherine Tate) were a real highlight.
With strong scriptwriting from Russell T Davies (who was the showrunner), his tenure gave rise to classic episodes like Fear Her, Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace, while also taking time to explore his backstory and trauma. An all-time great.