”You know I’ll change, if change is what you require. Your every wish, your every dream, hope, desire…”
— The Human League, Mirror Man (1982)
So, after umpteen ch-ch-ch-changes, The Doctor turns 60. Whether you’re counting human years or Time Lord, there is no doubt that Guinness World Records lists the BBC’s Doctor Who as the longest-running science fiction television show in the world and as the “most successful” sci-fi series of all time.
A blue box travels in time and space. It’s bigger on the inside and piloted by an enigmatic alien shapeshifter, who often takes ordinary Earthlings along for the adventure — after which, it turns out there’s no such thing as an “ordinary Earthling”. That’s the show. That’s always been the show. Still, from show-runner to show-runner, from Doctor to Doctor, the tone and feel have evolved and refreshed, and its vast history has seen it deliver some of the most innovative storylines, ensuring that the show remains original and relevant.
It’s this limitless approach to storytelling has secured its consistent survival, keeping audiences invested through its imaginative idiosyncratic screenplays. As it prepares to usher in a brand new Disneyfied era with Doc 15, Ncuti Gatwa, this Christmas, when it comes to the individual actors who’ve inhabited the role, there will always be heated debates about which has been the best to ever do it. With each version of the Doctor, a new iteration has entered the vast Whoniverse to bring something different to the role. And while many portrayals have been highly regarded, there are the odd ones scattered around the galaxy who met with distinctly lukewarm reactions.
So with our further ado, we three queens — Callum Pearce (first Doctor, Sylvester McCoy), Mark Gibson (first Doctor, Jon Pertwee) and Steve Pafford (also Pertwee) — have chewed the slurry of Slitheen fat and have attempted, with apologies to Warmongers, Fugitives, and stand-ins, to compile a list of the Perfect 10 of Doctors who fronted a season, in some semblance of order of greatness. Prepare yourself for a shock…
How do you replace the monolithic monster that was Tom Baker? Well, with the suspiciously white bread starched collars of the young Peter Davison. Famous first as Tristan Farnon shoving his hand up anima anus in All Creatures Great And Small, and then orbiting to Uranus as Dr no. 5, his casting aged 29 was a surprise to many, not least of which is he was technically our first ever mixed race Time Lord, with his father being born in what was then British Guiana.
It was the ’80s, and everything felt new, brasher with lots more companions, one of whom, air hostess Tegan was even (gasp) Australian. They even killed another off — the geek-effete Adric in Earthshock, which was almost a first for the series, at least as far as surviving episodes go (Monsieur Alan Riley points out that two companions, however brief, were snuffed out in the monochrome ’60s, though their episodes were unceremoniously wiped by the BBC) . Many of us kids bought into it after seven years of TB finally getting a new broom. Viewed now, there’s a preponderance for cheap synth music and endless running about long corridors, but in the undergrowth there were a clutch of clever stories, but also a kind of tired feel to them.
Tellingly, PD — who plays the Doc like a sort of fey Sergeant Major in a hurry — seems to going through the motions most of the time. Yet The Caves Of Androzani was a brilliant way to bow out, and the 1984 4-parter regularly features in polls of the top ten DW serials, despite David Bowie’s rejection of the villainous Sharaz Jek role. Birthed by the penship of probably the most accomplished writers of classic Who, Robert Holmes and Terrence Dicks, it hits home how given the right scripts and decent production Peter Davison could have been so much better. MG
From PC to PD, or Peter 1 to Peter 2.
Doctor Who likes to cover all the demographics and tick as many boxes as it can, and following the youngest ever Doc in Matt Smith was the oldest actor to be cast in the role, a Whovian-turned-Time Lord that gave David Tennant a run for his fan funds, fellow Scot Peter Capaldi. I’m still praying for a fishwife from Torquay, but one can dream, right Syb?
Armed with rock guitar chords but thankfully no Thick Of It-style potty mouth expletives, Bowie fan Peter went for half Hartnell and half Troughton, but never quite managed to find the magic combination of story, companions and direction until the brilliantly constructed season 10 with Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts and Matt Lucas as Nardole.
But, alas, it was too late, and Capaldi was badly let down by show runner Steven Moffat, who wanted to get too deep, and confuse with brilliantly complicated esoteric plots that were far too clever-clever for Gen Z viewers. PC fronted something like 35 stories but many just left people scratching heads while surfing social media with the other hand. Still, as the years have worn on I feel BBC iPlayer’s newly uploaded Whoniverse is the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate Capaldi’s tenure with a little more vigour. MG
Well known in the 1940s as a character actor par excellence (check out the gangster noir of Brighton Rock, a Graham Greene film adaptation the Pet Shop Boys wanted to turn into a stage musical), by 1963 the foreboding fella from Isleworth’s star had faded a little. Enter Sydney Newman, already enjoying a huge hit with The Avengers (the TV show, not the ubiquitous Marvel movies), who with Verity Lambert, dreamed up the idea of a “frail old man lost in space and time” travelling around the galaxies in a blue police box, loosely based on HG Wells’ Time Machine.
So when the BBC beamed in on that fateful day 23 November 1963, it was the broadcast of a rather small-fry historical time traveller not intended to go more than a single season called Dr Who. We were treated to episode one, An Unearthly Child, starring Bill in all his bewigged brusqueness as a cross between the Wizard Of Oz and Father Christmas. In it we see a treasure trove from Lime Grove: wobbly sets, papier-mâché rocks, primitive green screen, intense over-acting, endless corridors and a quagmire of quarries that would go on in some shape or form for the next 60 years. Long after the tellybox’s very own Davros, Michael Grade, had long since hung the idea of cosmic obliteration. Dr Who refuses to die.
More austere than Margaret Thatcher in monochrome, Hartnell played the Doc with an authoritative, testy gravitas but occasionally with cheekiness and wit too, fitting for a man who’d appeared in Carry On Sergeant, but apart from the odd romp like The Gunslingers viewers didn’t see much of that side. By the end of his tenure in 1966, he was battling neurological ill health and in the early stages of dementia, so as he became forgetful and the stories were largely carried by his ever resilient youthful companions, one of which was Steven Taylor, played by Peter Purvis of Blue Peter fame.
Story-wise, The Dalek Invasion Of Earth is a great serial, as is The Time Meddler, but to modern millennials they do drag a bit. Alas, whatever the retcons of the future, Hartnell will always be the original OG — a position he rejoiced and rejected in equal measure. Happily, Bill made a reappearance in the tasty triumvirate that was 1973’s The Three Doctors, with laconic lines like “Oh, So you’re my replacements? A dandy and a clown!” Talking of which… MG
Before he got pitchforked by a church steeple in The Omen, priestly Pat was the sophomore Doctor and first in the series of regeneration games that continues to this day. Recorder at the ready, the versatile Patrick Troughton played Doctor Two instinctively as a Chaplinesque cosmic hobo — a slightly gormless giddy aunt as a contrast to the more sombre version of his predecessor.
Early on, Troughton was much more outré, but as time passed the scripts suggested a more serious tone and some of his playfulness was lost. Troughton’s quick-witted comedic touches endeared him to many viewers, and in retrospect he really was the one to save Doctor Who as well as pointing the way of the programme’s reinvention when it made its big comeback in 2005. If he had failed, the brand would have been sunk for good.
Notable story mentions go to the terrifying Tomb Of The Cybermen, and 1969’s marathon ten-episode The War Games, which saw him pass the sonic screwdriver to the even more jugular, smoking jacket whimsy of Jon Pertwee. Ah, but who was it that the great Kate Bush considered for the role of Wilhelm Reich in the Cloudbusting video (later filled by Canadian actor Donald Sutherland), it wasn’t the JP but the PT. MG
Geronimo, it’s our family doctor! I’ve plumped for the youngest ever Doc to head the Whoniverse, particularly as he wowed me when my expectations after the heady hyperbole of Tenant’s tenure was modest at best. I even groaned during the regen from Ten to Eleven, taking to Facebook to bemoan they’ve cast the Elephant Man as Doctor Who. How wrong I was. Matt Smith had such big shoes to fill after DT vacated the position, and yet Doc 11’s first episode introduces plot threads (the cracks, the silence) that aren’t fully resolved until his very last episode as the Doctor. That’s impressive as hell.
But also, I can’t beat around the bush, but Smudger is our Doctor in that homegrown Home Counties stylee, hailing from Billing in Northamptonshire. It’s known for its Aquadrome and caravan park where we would enjoy numerous short holidays in the 1970s and early ’80s, chiefly because it’s only half an hour from the house my parents still live in.
Square-jawed and clad in tweed, the Eleventh Doctor was an infinitely curious iteration of the Time Lord: unpredictable, child-like and often ruthless. His young/old rendering didn’t ooze charisma out of every orifice like Tennant, but the chemistry with the voluptuous River Song and that Chinatown-inspired mother/sister/daughter ambiguity was progressed in suitable breezy fashion after her introduction in the DT era.
And though not the most popular of companions, the Song actually does have a fascinating story arc and if you watch the episodes in order of her timeline it’s really quite absorbing to see it from another perspective. The married couple, Amy and Rory, too, added a sense of grounding in a way that almost all subsequent companions have sorely lacked. SP
After a second Baker to over-egg the pudding, many felt the show was lumbering into a ’80s vortex, its ratings were poor, and the critics as harsh as the aimless over-lit production that plagued much of the decade’s production. Enter diminutive Ken Campbell protégé and international stuffer of ferrets down trousers, Sylvester McCoy. Colourful in every sense, Doc no. 7 was ably assisted by the lispy lesbian Ace, though being the Thatcherite eighties and shunted to a weekday teatime slot that screamed budget Grange Hill in space, her sexuality was implied rather outwardly declared. A new script editor in the shape of Andrew Cartmel also took the reins, which was fitting in that a Canuck (Sydney Newman) oversaw the programme’s inception, and in 1989 another one looked like overseeing its end.
Sylvester and Ace had a kind of Avengers on acid feel to them. Teething trouble at first, a bit of push back, from the press, and Points Of View, Barry Took’s viewer’s reply show where your Ms Parsons from Tunbridge Wells could write in and complain about how silly the new Dr had got. Even though she’d probably never watched it and the most fun she’d ever had was a lightly buttered scone and a copy of Country Life as she plonked herself on the chaise lounge in front of Antiques Roadshow. As Mrs T said herself, poppycock.
Because with his puckish, playful attitude Sylv was most definitely the real McCoy, and despite the bland productions and shoestring budgets, in the three seasons he was in raised Doctor Who to an almost towering supremacy not seen since the feted Hinchcliffe era of Tom Baker. You may find it hard to believe but SM’s last season is pure gold. I always shed a tear at the end of Survival. It’s a classic, but the ratings were king, and when the Doc was pitted against that other British institution Coronation Street it failed to make the Grade and was indeed cancelled. Or as we’d now say, paused. Because, following a brief feature length edition in the ’90s, a fierce Salfordian in a leather jacket was waiting in the wings. MG
A Northern doc and about time too! Christopher Eccleston as Doc 9 is surprisingly playful, intense, funny, quick witted, surly and sombre sometimes all at once. As the Time Lord tasked with bringing the show back for the 21st Century, the moody Manc laid down the root and the rhythm of new Who, and who knew that new Who would eclipse old Who? Who indeed. Woo Hoo. Right that’s enough of that silliness.
Eccleston was tearing up the small screen as Number 9 just as Daniel Craig was confirmed as the new rebooted 007. Whereas the Doc of old was essentially two hearts and no dick, with new Who we saw a fully rounded, emotionally vulnerable Time Lord just like that other English stiff upper lipped icon James Bond. It was less monster of the week and more man wellbeing.
Whotards complained of the soapy nature, but it had to reflect the times we now live in. Dr Who was an alien who became more human the older and wiser he got. 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, but with CE you got the feeling his brooding intensity would only survive for one series and it did, with the actor leaving under something of a cloud.
Backstage rumours, and fall outs, Russell T Davies had revived a show that was dead in the water into a superb modern fairy tale. He architected that Dr Who would turn into a cultural phenomenon yet again. A glorious second act. And that was all down to the casting of that fella from Salford, and Billie Piper as the divine Rose. MG
In 1970, the Tardis key was passed on to the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, just when it had become next to useless. Being exiled to Earth by the Time Lords gave Pertwee the perfect opportunity to bring his love of interesting vehicles and gadgets into the show. This dapper, dandy Doctor was more likely to give you a Venusian karate chop and then flip you on your back rather than offer a quick rendition of three blind mice on his recorder. But only in self-defence of course.
The Earth exile gave us a chance to get to know the UNIT team better as The Doctor worked as their science advisor. Whilst we had more action and crazy vehicles, we also had a Doctor that was believably intelligent, thoughtful and with a strict moral code missing from previous iterations. With his trademark hatred of tyranny, he was never better than when coming up against an enemy of near equal intelligence such as the renegade Gallifreyan The Master.
A skilled linguist and diplomat, this Doctor would be allowed brief trips off earth usually on a mission for the Time Lords until they finally returned the Tardis dematerialisation circuit after the events of The Three Doctors. Any episode with him up against Roger Delgado’s Master is well worth a watch. The Three Doctors is a bit silly but it’s lots of fun to see the way Troughton and Pertwee’s Doctors rub each other up the wrong way. This rivalry was famously carried on playfully whenever the two met at conventions. But then, on the planet of the spiders, a radiation blast would see the end of old fancy pants and Before we could shout “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” the Tardis key would be passed along to our next Doctor. CP
Arguably the most popular Time Lord since Tom Baker, the Tenth Doctor spent the biggest part of his first story, The Christmas Invasion, asleep or generally out of it. This left everyone watching — including Rose Tyler herself — in a state of befuddlement, wondering if this was really going to be The Doctor. By the end of that 2005 seasonal special, the universe had been reassured. New teeth and still not ginger, this was most definitely our Doctor.
I’m not a fan of the Doc getting embroiled in love stories but the Rose relationship was handled well enough that I acquiesced. The subsequent Martha season just annoyed me, though. Not because of the actress, Freema Agyeman, or the stories but just because the pining, unrequited love stuff was dull, mundane and took the edge off what could have been a promising character.
Admittedly, they redeemed her slightly by turning Martha into a kamikaze UNIT operative by the end of the fantastic fourth season of new Who. Talking of which, when Catherine Tate came along as Donna Noble properly after a brief stint in The Runaway Bride a couple of years earlier, the Doctor/companion vibe was at its best. Initially unimpressed by a lot of the space boy showing off, her character and their relationship developed beautifully with not even a whiff of soppy romance for those two, and the show was all the better for it.
There are so many episodes in this era worth a revisit but usually, the two or three-parters are great, when they get a chance to build the story a bit longer. Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Utopia/Sound Of Drums, Human Nature/Family of Blood. Blink, Midnight, Turn Left and The Girl In The Fireplace are superlative single episodes too. School Reunion is a nostalgic fun romp with Anthony “Buffy” Head chewing up the scenery and the return of the peerless and much missed Sarah Jane Smith and trusty robot dog K9. Played by the recently passed Bernard Cribbins, Wilfred Mott was also a solid pseudo companion. I’m still waiting for some writer to acknowledge that his name is an anagram of Time Lord WTF, but people seem to gloss over that. He was the perfect character for this Doctor to sacrifice himself for because who wouldn’t?
“I don’t want to go,” Doc 10 said before regenerating into Matt Smith. Well, don’t worry David, you’ll probably be back before long. More than once. CP
You were expecting someone else?
The fourth Doctor was probably the most recognisable Doctor around the world before the show’s reimagining. This is partly because of Tom Baker’s record-breaking length of time in the role (1974 – 1981) but also because his tenure was aired constantly in America whilst Italian TV only broadcast his stories and ignored the work of earlier incarnations.
Then, there was the iconic look — generally based around hat, cloak and ridiculously over-long stripy scarf, or variations thereof — and the fact that this loveable old eccentric fitted the role so perfectly that some assumed he was just playing himself. The scarf was made by the fabulously named Begonia Pope, who, when the BBC sent her a massive bag of wool so that she could make something colourful and interesting, assumed she was supposed to use up all of the wool. Luckily TB is gregarious enough he can take the most absurd and ridiculous things and make them seem quite normal. Indeed, just ten minutes of watching this brilliantly strange Scouser leave you questioning your own version of reality but far preferring his anyway.
Doc 4 could be angry, indignant and sometimes quite scary. But he always reverted back to a wide-eyed, playful character who seemed genuinely intrigued, excited or amused by most things. Tom has only lost the “Best Doctor” category in DWM (Doctor Who Magazine) polls on three occasions in 45 years — once to Sylvester McCoy and twice to David Tennant. Not one for devaluing his “brand” in endless multi-doctor stories, asked to pass judgment on the other incarnations, his stock response, with comedic if justifiable pomposity is usually, “There are other Doctors?”
It was clear that Baker had a lot of fun being The Doctor for young audiences and, possessed of one of the most recognisable voices in Britain, has recently delighted fans by recording audio dramas for Big Finish, a second string that was prompted by a question posed by our very own resident Whovian Steve Pafford, when he interviewed the great man in 2008.
Me? I’m looking forward to Tom’s 90th birthday in January and would happily watch every episode of his on repeat. Genesis Of The Daleks is a scary monster must-watch, though. The Deadly Assassin and The Ark In Space are great too and sets you up for the more horror-themed episodes that come along in his early years, such as the brilliant if politically incorrect The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and the sparse but genuinely eerie The Horror Of Fang Rock. Really, just watch them all and go along for an immensely captivating ride.
As always though, the end had to come for this Doctor too in the 1981 season-ender, Logopolis, But don’t cry, have a Jelly Baby, because the moment had been prepared for. CP
I’m so sorry, but as there are currently only three fully fledged incarnations left, a little timey-wimey excursion bubbling under…
Scotland 3, Liverpool 2.
Another fine Liverpudlian like Tom, sadly Paul McGann didn’t get to front a series but he did have a testing-the-waters feature length special to himself in 1996. A backdoor pilot attempting to revive the series and sell to a larger international audience, Doctor Who: The Movie was something of a bombastic curate’s egg, but he was sterling stuff as the Eighth Doctor, despite the Beethoven wig and overly Americanised co-production.
He had the first Dr kiss, though the romance subplot didn’t land well with aficionados and changes to canon just irritated. It can all get a bit Fawlty Towers chatting about this in a room full of Doctor Who fans. Don’t mention ze “Half-human on my mother’s side,” line.
Fans new and old have been calling out for a spin-off Eighth Doctor series, and it was something of a missed opportunity PM wasn’t called on for the 50th anniversary Day Of The Doctor spesh (he was “rewarded” with a cursory Night Of The Doctor minisode instead), where Smith met up with his predecessors Tennant, and not the stubborn Eccleston but the newly created War Doctor (John Hurt) to save Gallifrey from destruction during the Time War, and a resolution that changed the lore of the show.
Aside from numerous non-canonical adventures in Big Finish Audio dramas, McGann did return for a cameo in Jodie Whittaker’s swan song The Power Of The Doctor, in such he was seen given an elixir that triggered his regeneration into Hurt‘s one-off creation. Oh, talking of Jodie… CP SP
Despite much column inches and gnashing of tawdry teeth, the much trumpeted The Doctor Is Finally A Woman! headline is never really explored and effectively reduced to a small box on page 23. There’s the odd mention, like in Bowie and Bond titular pastiches The Woman Who Fell To Earth and Spyfall, but overall the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender is never really brought up in any significant capacity. So much wasted potential, and dare I say casting a woman would have made much more sense directly after, say, David Tennant or Matt Smith.
Jodie Whittaker is a very good actress yet her tenure always seemed hampered by the usual culprits in the Chibnall era, two essentials of literally any character in a filmed medium: Storytelling and Characterisation. Frequently, she seemed to feel the sub-par scripts and tedious companions indicated she had to play Doc 13 as some wide-eyed girl from Leeds, Uranus. And talking of bottom of the pile…. SP
Sixth Doc Colin Baker — hammier than a pig farm and just as lardy — had all but killed off the show, with his over egged performance. Again, dedicated followers of Doctor Who will say it was the scripts and production that were at fault. Indeed, Mark and Callum both rate 1986’s “Star Trek on a Poundland budget serial”, The Trial Of A Time Lord, a 14-part season (Baker’s dozen plus one, ho ho) featuring the great Michael Jayston as The Valeyard, but…
I’m sorry, I gave the CB the benefit of the doubt and watched his first few stories after he took over the reins from Peter Davison, but I rapidly developed an intense dislike for his amateur dramatics stage version of the character and didn’t tune in again until the McGann movie. And Bonnie bleedin’ Langford was hardly going to make me change my mind.
I was clearly on to something, as he was soon given the heave-ho, and not a moment too soon. That‘s the very definition of change, my dear! SP
Written and compiled by Mark Gibson, Callum Pearce, Steve Pafford