And now, for no particular reason other than that I can, here’s a list of my favorite Doctors.
The Doctor can be many things: lonely god, cosmic clown, self-righteous defender of the defenseless. What he should probably never be, however, is an asshole. Colin Baker’s a very good actor, and it seems like in the efforts to distance his portrayal of the Doctor from the previous versions, all the likable bits of the character were jettisoned in favor of making the Doctor a rude, off-putting bully. Not necessarily all the blame for this can be laid at Baker’s feet, though. His Doctor was saddled with a particularly dreadful run of self-important stories that seem dead-set on taking the character and his world “seriously.” It’s the “dark and grim means mature and adult” sensibility run rampant. It was Doctor Who trying to be grown-up and it just fell flat.
# 9–Patrick Troughton
The second Doctor gets somewhat short shrift in this ranking, through no fault of his own. One of the significant problems with the early years of the show is that, more often than not, the stories just ran on for too damn long. A significant number of the adventures of the first three Doctors could be vastly improved if they were shortened by an episode or two. And this is were Troughton’s Doctor gets unfairly penalized: there’s nothing actually wrong with his scamp-ish portrayal, but the only episodes I’ve ever seen where he features in the lead are interminably dreadful. I probably would like him, if I could stand to sit through The War Games or The Mind Robber again.
# 8–Paul McGann
McGann’s Doctor suffers from a similar problem to Troughton’s. He’s actually really very, very good as the Doctor. He’s mercurial and there’s more than a suggestion that his seeming frivolity is a mask for deeper pain and responsibilities. He’s also got a rakish charm that few other actors in the role ever really come close to matching. Unluckily, the FOX tv movie version of Doctor Who is easily the very worst episode of the show ever made. From the “half-human” nonsense (because Americans, apparently, can’t relate to a non-human sci-fi hero) to the shape-shifting snake version of the Master to, well, just the plain and simple fact that the episode is just badly written, McGann really had no chance.
(Yes, I’m well aware that McGann went on to do well-regarded work as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio dramas. But that’s C-Canon, and we’re focused strictly on G-Canon here.)
# 7–Tom Baker
Yes, blasphemy, I know, not to rank arguably the most iconic Doctor higher. And that’s the thing: Baker’s Doctor is iconic. For many years, decades even, his was the face that the general public associated with the idea of “Doctor Who.” Many people quite probably never even guessed that any other actors ever even played the role. And his Doctor is appealing. He brought a youthfulness and comic touch to the role that helped the concept of the show and the character grow past the elderly gentlemanliness of the previous actors. But the unpleasant truth is: familiarity breeds contempt and Baker was probably in the role longer than he should have been. Character traits that were charming early in his run were infuriating by the end.
# 6–William Hartnell
Though Hartnell’s years as the Doctor suffer from that same “stories go on too long” problem that Troughton’s and to a lesser degree Pertwee’s and Tom Baker’s do, his tenure also serves as the template for all the later portrayals. Something from Hartnell’s portrayal seems to creep into later portrayals: his irascibility, his frustration with humans, his fondness for humans, his mysterious back-story, the hints at something deeper behind his eyes, his atrocious fashion sense. It’s continually interesting to me that these touches of Hartnell still appear, when so many of that later Doctors seem to be actively trying to push against the Ur-Doctor.
# 5–Peter Davison
In recent years it’s become slightly popular to describe Davison’s Doctor as the “big brother” version of the character. It’s not an entirely inaccurate description: he’s younger and friendlier than the previous versions, but he also possesses a particularly adolescent indecision and hesitancy, bordering on the angst-filled. It’s curious, then, that the kinder, gentler Doctor is the one whose tenure is marked by such atrociously high body-counts in his stories. As the Doctor becomes more human and relatable, his adventures become darker, reflecting again that adolescence creeping in. The shows audience is now firmly out of childhood, for good or ill, and both the stories and the Doctor reflect that.
# 4–David Tennant
There’s a lot of good to be said about Tennant’s portrayal. He brings charm and charisma, and a certain undeniable sex appeal, to the role, without turning the role into something clownish or too overtly audience-pandering. Tennant is particularly good at playing the mix of deep pain and mystery and distinctly alien nature to the Doctor with the Doctor’s capacity for joy and exuberance. He captures well the mix of an old man in a young man’s body who is still deeply childish in many ways. If anything is at fault with Tennant’s portrayal is his tendency to go a little too dark, a little too hardened by misfortune. His can be a particularly cruel Doctor.
# 3–Christopher Eccleston
And now, after all that complaining I’ve done about dark and broody Doctors, I go and place what is possibly the darkest Doctor this highly. Well, that’s easy enough to see: Eccleston is really a fantastic actor, and sells the role more than any other actor doing the job has (save, possibly, Hartnell). What’s particularly good about Eccleston’s portrayal is that he develops it over the course of the series. It starts with a deeply emotionally wounded Doctor and develops over the course of the next thirteen stories into the Doctor we’ve come to know from before, a warmer Doctor who is able to enjoy life and the universe again after the Time War. It’s the Time Lord’s recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder all over the series. It’s a remarkably subtle effect, but it makes the storyline running through his singular season all the better for it.
# 2–John Pertwee
Your first Doctor tends to become your favorite, and that plays a part in my fondness for Pertwee’s Doctor. He’s the action-hero Doctor. He’s the Doctor as big crazy high-science and James Bond adventure. He’s the Doctor who pulls off a velvet coat and frilly shirt and makes the look work because Pertwee plays him as the most self-assured and undoubtedly intelligent man in the room. He plays the Doctor as a suave and sophisticated man of the world who can kick your ass and build a nuclear bomb out of household supplies. Pertwee does a lot of good, subtle bits with the role as well. It’s impossible to watch The Green Death and not read the Doctor’s mood at Jo’s departure as “jilted ex”, bringing a barely perceptible sexual subtext to the role that wouldn’t reoccur for another five regenerations.
# 1–Sylvester McCoy
It’s hard to like McCoy’s Doctor the best sometimes. His run doesn’t start out well. Time and the Rani is, to be generous, dire, and there are moments in Paradise Towers and Dragonfire in particular where the high camp threatens to overwhelm the good bits of the show. But those next two seasons? McCoy takes a pratfalling clown of an initial presentation, and over the course of three seasons we start to see a Doctor to whom mystery has returned. For the first time in years we’re not sure of who, exactly, the Doctor is anymore. We see the Doctor as perhaps more than a Time Lord, and the seeds being planted for the “lonely god” characterization of Nine and Ten here, as well as the master manipulator role that is hinted at from time to time coming to the fore. But we also see the Doctor at one of his most caring incarnations here. A significant amount of his manipulations we eventually learn were simply to help Ace deal with her past trauma and her anger at her mother and the world, a paternalistic take on the character that harkens back to Susan in some respects. You can even see a hint of the future shape of the show, besides the through-lines throughout the season, in the return in emphasis to adventures on a more-or-less contemporary Earth and a strong dose of “domestic” themes.