There. That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints. And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond. (I sorted that one out a few months ago. It’s Sean Connery. See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)
The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who? Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.
It’s a tricky question. There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant). And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.
Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst. This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.
In descending order, we have:
To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined. He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own. When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor. And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days. Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith. I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high. Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor. However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful. He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien. Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.
The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee. Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure. His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero. He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape. He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars. And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.
To those allegations I can only reply, who cares? When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense. For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe. Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow! (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)
He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself. Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead. Like so:
Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976). In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me. Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.
Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges. His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost. Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who. Stupid sods.
Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi. At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role. His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012). Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker. However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent. It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors. And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.
Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role. But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77. In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about. Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly. He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out. As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous. In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.
The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963. Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season. That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.
Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like. Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
And now it’s time to take a deep breath. For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds. I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap. When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell. Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume. For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history. Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.
Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor. Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.
After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy. I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever. Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.
And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant! Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again). Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too. But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role. No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’. It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).
In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual. At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’. No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good. Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.
And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased. Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom.