When you start a conversation with somebody new about Doctor Who, there are two questions that will always come first. The first one is “Do you like Doctor Who?” If the given answer is negative, then of course you go away and talk to somebody else. But if they answer yes, then the next question can only be: “Who’s your Doctor?”
As a fan of the show, “favorite Doctor” is the most personal opinion you can have. For many, it’s a gut feeling, rooted in simple nostalgia for the first incarnation they encountered—often when watching as children. Others arrive at a careful decision after weighing up all the contenders’ merits. For others still, the very question itself is heresy: aren’t they all playing the same character, in the end? Should they even be set against one-another in this way?
Whatever your own opinion, setting them against one-another is exactly what we’ve decided to do—after all, what better time to consider which actor (not to mention combination of writers and producers) has had the most lasting effect on the character than in this year and month, when the last fifty years’ worth of Doctor Who stories are weighing heavily on our minds? So we put the question to our superfan jury —and they responded with vigorous championing of their particular heroes.
We’re not doing a top ten this time around, as with only eleven candidates it would feel a little unfair to whomever is left out (and even when listing all eleven, it would seem like a backhanded compliment to discuss the bottom-ranked ones). What we will say is that in allowing our jury to nominate a top five, every Doctor got his due—nobody was without a nomination somewhere. One person was even so bold as to name the upcoming Peter Capaldi in their top five! In the end, though, there could only be one winner – but is it the one you were expecting…?
In nearly 40 years since he left the role, it’s fair to say there hasn’t been a Doctor as dashing and stylish as Jon Pertwee. The beginning of the era of color episodes heralded a change in both the Doctor’s circumstances – as he was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords—and in the style of storytelling. Heavily influenced by popular spy fiction of the 1960s, the Third Doctor – despite Pertwee being older than his predecessor – was an all-action hero, frequently dispatching enemies with his Venusian Aikido, driving around a succession of brash and exciting vehicles, and of course rocking that spectacular cape. For perhaps the first time, here was a Doctor who viewers young and old would want to be, rather than simply travel with. With buckets of charm and a confidence that bordered on arrogance, this incarnation always seemed to be in control of any situation in which he found himself – and he was also the first about whom viewers speculated over a romantic relationship with a companion, due to the natural chemistry that Pertwee shared with Katy Manning (Jo Grant).
“I love that he’s basically James Bond and Q at the same time,” says Kyle Anderson of Nerdist.com. “I love the whole set-up of the UNIT years and Pertwee’s suave nature and style really make him stand out, as does his sort of contempt for anyone who stands in the way of what’s right. ”
Scott MacDonald of EuroCultAV.com adds: “Pertwee’s wit, charm, and charisma combined with the excellent stories and writing of his era made him an easy favorite.” Meanwhile, Laura Palmer simply says, “If I had to face death, I’d prefer to have the Third Doctor by my side!”
In many ways, Patrick Troughton had a harder job than any incoming Doctor that followed him. Everybody else only had to live up to the man before them—Troughton had to convince viewers that the very concept of regeneration could even work. Make no mistake: had he failed, the show would likely as not have failed to even make it past the end of the 1960s. Troughton laid the foundations for the idea that you could play the Doctor as an outwardly different personality while remaining clearly the same man underneath—on the surface, he played the clown, and treated his companions with a warm and protective charm, while underneath he carried the mystery, knowledge and scheming nature of his predecessor. Every actor that followed has drawn upon a different combination of their predecessors—but every one of them has a small part of the Second in them somewhere.
Michael Stailey of DVD Verdict says, “Patrick’s performance is the foundation upon which David Tennant and Matt Smith built their brilliant contributions to the series. Though Tom Baker will forever remain my first Doctor, I tip my hat to Patrick for being far ahead of his time.”
Meanwhile, our own Fraser McAlpine describes the Second Doctor as “an incorrigible baggage, a maddening whimsical clown, but also terrifically smart and able to outwit his foes while larking about.”
“So much of Troughton’s performance is visual,” explains Greg Bakun. “Listening to audios of missing stories, it is easy to take all of the words at face value. As we have seen in getting stories back like The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Enemy of the World or The Web of Fear, it is what he actually visually does in those scenes that are most interesting.”
The odds were stacked firmly against Matt Smith, really. He was taking over from easily the most popular Doctor in nearly thirty years, he was the youngest actor yet to take on the role, he even had a slightly boring-looking name that didn’t seem like it would look good in the opening titles. Steven Moffat had taken a far heavier gamble on his first choice of Doctor than Russell T Davies had in choosing Christopher Eccleston five years or so previously—and not everybody was convinced it would pay off.
It probably took approximately a minute or so of “The Eleventh Hour” for all of those doubts to dissipate. It wasn’t just that Smith was a very good actor—he is—it was more that he seemed instantly to embody the indefinable essence of “Doctorishness” in almost uncanny fashion. It was like he’d been grown in a vat, with the DNA of each of his ten predecessors thrown into the mix (but, let’s face it, a little more Troughton than anyone else). Most crucially, given the worries over his age, with his distinctive body language he has fantastically conveyed the idea of being an impossibly ancient soul in the body of a young man.
Steven Schapansky of podcast Radio Free Skaro calls the vote “an eleven-way tie for first”, but admits that Smith “captures both the timelessness of the character and the naive innocence that compels him to continue traveling the universe.” Shelley Duncan, meanwhile, is more assured in her choice: “Smith manages to incorporate something from each preceding Doctor into his own and then make it completely original. When he says something a previous Doctor has said, I can almost hear that Doctor saying it. He’s a perfect balance of child-like wonder and terrifying rage. ”
Thayer Juergens of WhatCulture.com adds: “I think he’s an absolutely brilliant actor. He’s silly and clumsy while thinking he’s sexy and cool. His Doctor brought in the fairy tale aspect of the show and the earnestness and sincerity I think is fundamental to the Doctor. He’s also just fun. Eleven is the one I’d want to pick me up in the TARDIS.”
And here is that “most popular Doctor in nearly thirty years”. David Tennant was in the unusual position of being announced as playing the Doctor while his predecessor Christopher Eccleston had only been seen in three episodes, thanks to news of the Ninth Doctor’s decision to leave after just one season being leaked early. He slotted so seamlessly into the role, however, that it seemed like the idea of casting a well-known actor as a safe pair of “launch” hands, before handing over to a younger man who could take the role and make it his own, had been Russell Davies’ plan all along.
A huge fan of the show himself, Tennant threw himself into playing the Doctor with gusto. He was allowed to be a cheerier soul than the Ninth Doctor had been, but still retained a steely darkness underneath the surface. His relationship with companion Rose blossomed into something that it would be too simplistic to simply call “romantic,” but which was certainly deeper than was usually seen in the show. Here was a Doctor, however, who it could never be doubted was the out-and-out, trustworthy and charismatic hero of the story. His tenure coincided with an absolute explosion in popularity for the series, and made the announcement of his eventual departure arguably the most newsworthy moment the show had ever experienced.
Laura Byrne Cristiano of Hypable.com says, “David Tennant’s Doctor could equally play empathy, anger, and comedy. He had a really good balance of those emotions coupled with an exuberance of a geeky, 16-year-old boy. He was probably one of the Doctors that felt the most human, which made you as the viewer relate to him more. He wore his heart on his sleeve more than any other Doctor.”
“He embodied the anger from the Ninth Doctor while bringing in his own character,” says Jessica Naki of ScienceFiction.com. “David Tennant’s passion and his humor and his entire embodiment of The Doctor made you love him. The stories written for him were stories that sold me on his character. He was the person who you wanted to run away and have adventures with.”
Melita Washington of WhatCulture.com agrees: “The depth of emotion that he portrays in his Doctor makes you wish that a mad man with a box would come and whisk you away. He had so much charisma, but underneath was the weight of being the last of his race. Tennant conveys that and brings so much more to the canvas.”
“From joy to anger to sadness, Tennant will always make me feel every emotion; a true sign of a master actor,” says David Brennan. And Nicole McLernon simply concludes: “When he left, I sobbed.”
If you ask the average person on the street in Britain what Doctor Who looks like, then chances are, the first thing they’ll mention is a long scarf. Even in the U.S., where the show has only really taken on wider popularity in recent years, the closest the Doctor has come to full cultural osmosis is in his appearances in The Simpsons – where he sported the curly hair, toothy visage and, yes, multi-colored scarf of Tom Baker‘s incarnation.
Despite the efforts the the three men before him had put into the role, it was Baker who would come to define it like no other. He embodied elements of all of them—the intelligence of Hartnell, the clownishness of Troughton and even the action stripes of Pertwee—but what he brought to the table, arguably truly completing the character for the first time, was his unique sense of freewheeling lunacy. You could simply never tell what this Doctor would do next, or what was going on behind those mad eyes. More than any other, he gave the sense of not having a clue what was going on, while ultimately remaining completely in control of the situation.
It was during Baker’s tenure that the show reached heights of popularity that even now, it has never quite retained. In the late 1970s, it was at an unassailable peak of quality and critical acclaim, with script editor Robert Holmes overseeing stories that were dazzling in their inventiveness and frequently with a dark, almost horror-orientated—yet also frequently blackly comic—tone to them. But at the center of it all was the Fourth Doctor. Doctor Who could run for another 50 years, and it’s unlikely that this incarnation will ever be supplanted as the most popular and enduring.
“He embodies everything Doctor Who is,” says Dan Williams of PopCulturePreview.com. “Tom Baker was iconic in appearance and his sometimes moody attitude is always fun. He had a childlike sense of wonder that was never repeated until Matt Smith took the role.”
“Nobody has the sheer unpredictable, manic and otherworldly presence of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor,” agrees Christopher Bahn of The A.V. Club. “To me, he’ll always be the quintessential Time Lord.” Christian Cawley of Kasterborous.com, meanwhile, remembers childhood viewings: “His face stared at me every Saturday tea time, he made me laugh, he made me cry when he regenerated and he was fortunate enough to have been a part of the show during a creative high.”
Paul Murphy of BBC Three Counties Radio describes The Fourth Doctor as “A moral compass, a sartorial role model, an imparter of terror in the most magnificent way”, while Paddy O’Meara of WhatCulture.com says that “there is a certain magical quality about Tom Baker, particularly to a child!” And Paul Semel labels him “Sherlock Holmes from space”, while to former Doctor Who Appreciation Society co-ordinator Tony Jordan he was “Simply the best. A quite wonderful, eccentric, other world portrayal.”
“He was the Doctor for seven seasons. That doesn’t happen accidentally,” concludes Erika Ensign. “There’s a reason he’s synonymous with Doctor Who for so many people. He’s simply fantastic.”
Best of ‘Doctor Who’ 50th Anniversary Poll: 10 Favorite Companions
Best of ‘Doctor Who’ 50th Anniversary Poll: 10 Greatest Stories
Best of ‘Doctor Who’ 50th Anniversary Poll: 11 Greatest Monsters & Villains