The Doctors -- Rated!

UPDATED 1.4.23

The last time I wrote a piece ranking my favorite Doctors and my reasons behind the choices, I had only the Original Series to choose from! That’s how much time has passed, and how much has changed. A re-evaluation is very much in order, and in 2019 there’s so much more to take into account. One now has a whole pantheon of new Doctors to choose from — and then there’s Big Finish. Among their many accomplishments, Big Finish has gone a long way towards redeeming both Colin Baker and Paul McGann. When Steven Moffat finally connected Big Finish to the original series, the American pilot and the new series during the 50th anniversary programming, the whole canonical Doctor Who Universe opened up like a gigantic clamshell. It was easier to have one favorite Doctor when there were fewer of them to consider, and less evidence to support each!

For many years, Tom Baker was my Number One, no contest; but some time later I “discovered” Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor almost by accident. The last two series of the original show never aired on broadcast TV where I lived; those stories only came to me years after the fact through VHS. As revealed during those two series, McCoy’s wonderfully anarchic and mysterious interpretation came to me like a shock of fresh Spring air — and Tom Baker was edged very slightly to the side.

This is where I learned the basic law behind everyone’s choice of favorites: Your Favorite Doctor will always be either the one who brought you to the series in the first place. . . or the one who bought you back to it after a long hiatus.

That said, I’m similar to a lot of other folk in that I’ve arrived at a place where I like  and appreciate almost all of the Doctors, and actively dislike only one. It seems unfair to make a numeric list and stack them up against one another, especially as there are now several of them that I like exactly as much as I like some of the others. But numeric lists are the conventional way to do this sort of thing, and grouping performances in tiers seems a wishy-washy way to get around the convention. With the understanding that the positions within the list are malleable, and subject to change (sometimes depending on which Doctor’s adventures I happen to be watching at the time!), here is where I’ve arrived at this moment of my personal timeline. In order, “favorite” to “least so,” they are: 

1) Tom Baker. It’s just a fact that we would not be talking about the show today without Tom. This one man was the instrument of the show's greatest triumph: and although the role has cost him dearly, it is doubtful that Baker would ever have found any other role that gave him so much. His Doctor is a permanent part of my psyche: one of the great fictional heroes of any time period, any medium. Now that he’s playing the part again for Big Finish, we have fresh examples to point to of his deep gravitas, which (even more than his sense of humor) is what binds the role to him. His authority in the part is definitive, and seems effortless — without knocking David Tennant, just look at how much harder Tennant has to work in order to grasp that authority. Baker’s very brief appearance in the 50th anniversary special is the spike that drives home that particular episode. . . and his complete ownership of the character.

2) Sylvester McCoy. At the start he was anything but subtle; yet subtlety becomes a large part of what makes his Doctor great. Although McCoy brings a wonderful natural sense of humor and the techniques of a trained Clown to the role, the Doctor brought something to him as well. The 7th Doctor uses misdirection more than any other. Like other incarnations he is smarter than he wants you to know; but he is more devious than any other incarnation, and more secretive. Curious and compassionate, yes. But there’s something else going on here: he's angry, and at at all the right things. You'd be mad not to admire him. You'd be foolish to underestimate him. Although his first series was borderline disastrous at times, the alchemy that happens when an actor is right for a part finally took hold. He's all the previous Doctors combined: and more than the sum of the parts. And he's utterly disarming.

3) Matt Smith. I cannot separate the performance of Matt Smith from the writing of Steven Moffat: the two together form the basis of a renaissance for the show that rivals Tom Baker’s three-series-partnership with producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. It was Smith and Moffat who brought me back to the show after another very long absence; they arrived at a point of crisis in my own life and were instrumental in renewing my faith in all those things I thought that I had lost. Smith’s freshness and dash and rapid-fire delivery are the perfect vehicle for Moffat’s words; more than that, Smith accomplishes something that no other actor in the role has managed nearly so well: capturing the youth in the Old Man and the Old Man in the youth. Though human, he is alien; though alien, he is human: not since David Bowie have contradictions blended so satisfactorily; and guided by Moffat, he took the show to places it has never been before, places it has been begging to go to since that day in 1962 when a pair of teachers stepped into a blue box and got a lot more than they bargained on.

4) Peter Capaldi. It is saying something for both men that only Peter Capaldi could have followed Matt Smith and held his own in the part. Capaldi’s is the most moral Doctor since Pertwee; and like Matt Smith before him, he embraces the kind of contradictions that make the character. After a rough first series, he comes roaring back in series nine with a sense of youthful vigor that belies his age, and a sense of outraged justice that has no tolerance for fools. Though he glories in life (never more so than when entering stage right with a blazing electric guitar) and draws on the youth of his companion, this Doctor is ANGRY: and that anger is justified. Where Smith was a bit of an absent-minded professor, Capaldi, once he gets up to speed, is Merlin unleashed: part wizard, part knight, all Doctor.

5) William Hartnell. The original model, the definite article, you might say. We love his crustiness and his compassion: and his physical frailty is a great asset to the writers on about ten different levels. An old man who got mad as hell at the system and said “Blast them all. I have had enough. I am out of here.” The most spirited Doctor ever — and many of his stories (particularly those of Verity Lambert's tenure) hold up quite well.

6) Patrick Troughton. Troughton latched onto The Doctor’s anarchic side and infused it with charm and a sort of childlike delight in discovery. It's hard sometimes to separate the actor from the era: but in Pat Troughton we have a fine actor and a brilliant portrayal (certainly the most influential characterization of the Doctor!) lumbered with some of the worst scripts ever to grace the show's history. The exceptions to that — “Tomb of the Cybermen” and “The Mind Robber” — show us what might have been.

7) Paul McGann. An under-rated actor who turned in a fine performance in an otherwise deeply flawed movie, McGann’s Doctor has been allowed to coalesce into a substantive branch of Who History thanks first to Big Finish, and second to Stephen Moffat, who didn’t just connect the dots between the two series, but finally allowed McGann’s Doctor to regenerate. Sometimes how we die defines how we lived, and it was the death of McGann’s Doctor that finally joined the two acts of the show’s long history. McGann’s dashing and decisive Doctor progressed from Victorian charm to New Wave severity, finally linking Hartnell to Eccleston and beyond. His Doctor is now absolutely pivotal to the history of the show… who could have imagined this when the American film premiered?

8) Colin Baker. It wasn't his fault: In the Big Finish audio series and in selected episodes of his era, Baker has proven that he can play the Doctor when he is given the Doctor to play. But by making a deliberate decision to make the Doctor unlikeable, John Nathan-Turner effectively undermined the entire show — and Baker took the blame. But Baker’s very accomplished audio appearances with Big Finish have had the effect of forcing all of Who fandom to reevaluate not just his characterization, but also his tenure on the original show: the best example of this is the series-long Trial of a Time Lord story arc. Widely dismissed for years after it aired, it now stands as one of the high water marks of the Nathan-Turner years, even factoring in the weak Vervoid chapters and the conflict between script editor and producer that resulted in a compromised resolution.

9) Peter Davison. His lower position on my list at this time should not be misinterpreted as a sign of disapproval: Likable, deep, charming and dramatic, Peter Davison simply had too many seasons of Tom Baker working against him. I could not enjoy his tenure on the show at first -- but now I'm looking at it with new eyes, and I see much to appreciate. If only he could have changed clothes once in a while! His is the most “actorly” Doctor since Patrick Troughton’s — in the sense of a characterization that is carefully thought out and arrived at through Conscious Work on the actor’s part. He’s also the first actor to play the Doctor who grew up watching the Doctor’s adventures, and so there is a self-conscious referential aspect to his performance. This is not a bad thing. Much like Colin Baker after him, he was sometimes lumbered with bad scripts — not to mention the egregious presence of Adric throughout his first season. 

10) Christopher Eccleston would almost certainly hold a higher place on the list had he stayed with the part even one series longer. He was exactly what the show needed to re-launch, sounding all the right notes in his performance and bringing with him a genuine freshness and vitality. But he simply didn’t stay long enough for us to really become attached to his influence. 

11) David Tennant. Again, he was exactly what the snow needed at exactly the right time. If Tennant doesn’t completely measure up to Smith / Moffat in my heart, it’s only because he didn’t get enough of Moffat’s scripts to work with, and indeed beyond the Moffat-scripted episodes, the writing took a long slow downturn during his tenure. It’s hard to decide whether the low point of the new series is Tennant vs. The Devil or Tennant vs. a completely silly and idiotic incarnation of The Master. Like his now-father-in-law Peter Davison before him, Tennant gives us a conscientious and earnest characterization that is oftentimes better than the material he is working with. There’s nothing anarchic about his Doctor (which may be what I’m missing from him), but by following Chris Eccleston with authority and making the part his own, he proved to a new generation of fans that Change could be Good.

12)  Jon Pertwee. I hate to take anything away from his undeniable charm, or from his importance to the development of the Doctor’s character; but in a large measure as a consequence of the series revival his Doctor is the one to have dropped farthest down my list. He now resides at my lowest spot of any Doctor from the original series. Time has not been kind to his know-it-all, “I’ll Take Charge Here” persona, to his Venusian karate chops, or to his mainstreaming: far from representing an anarchical, anti-authority figure, his close association with UNIT renders him a full-fledged member of the Establishment. Pertwee’s ease and presence smoothes over a lot, and when the scripts are good his is still one of the most watchable eras of the original series. But those scripts were uneven at best, and with tedious stories like “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” dragging down entire seasons, Pertwee’s era can today be a bit of a tough slog for those who have gotten used to the breezy efficiency of modern Who.

13) John Hurt. When Christopher Eccleston deigned not to return for the 50th Anniversary Special, necessity forced Steven Moffat to re-imagine the terms in which the show could be celebrated and unified: this kind of invention can make or break a show, and fortunately for us Moffat’s gambit worked gloriously well: not least due to the Hurt’s casting in the pivotal, canon-bending role of Doctor 8.5. Again, gravitas and authority were the two main qualifications, along with the ability to play a deep sense of world-weariness, guilt and regret. No one could have been a finer choice for all of this than Hurt. He occupies only a tiny part of Doctor Who’s long history, but it says something for his portrayal that he was so readily embraced, and that this difficult plot gambit on Moffat’s part came off so well.  

14) Peter Cushing. I include him here out of a sense of completeness, since Cushing can hardly be said to have played the Doctor at all. Despite their production values and the novelty of colour, the two Dalek films he appeared in cannot be considered. There’s a little too much of the kindly Professor-man in his portrayal, and none of the dark mystery that William Hartnell was bringing to the role. Cushing plays it as written. It’s one of his least memorable screen characterizations.

And lastly:

15) Jodie Whittaker. I was willing to cut her some slack, and not force her to pay for the mistakes of the showrunner she worked with. That's changed. In the entry just above you'll note that I included Peter Cushing out of a sense of completeness only. That he didn't technically play the Doctor at all. 

Whittaker is Worse. The less said, the better. Let us hope that Russell Davies may fix the thing well enough so that we can say of her, "At least she didn't kill the show,"

-- Thorn.

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