All men may be created equal, but all Doctors are not. Like discussing politics and religion at the dinner table, it's best to avoid debate among Whovians. With 26 seasons, 826 episodes and 13 major interpretations of the eponymous role, Doctor Who is a mainstay of the entertainment world. Despite its ups and downs over the years, the BBC's prize winner continues to attract record audiences and expand its international appeal beyond the shores of Great Britain.
Peter Capaldi is the current commander of the TARDIS, and he leads a long-line of beloved actors who have played The Doctor since 1963. From William Hartnell to Matt Smith, and Tom Baker to David Tennant, there is a wide array of actors who have inhabited the shoes of the rebellious Time Lord. As with all things, however, some Doctors are better than others.
Here is Every Doctor From Doctor Who, Ranked From Worst To Best:
Before delving into the controversial work of selecting the best doctors, we thought it appropriate to begin with the least appropriate of them all: Mr. Bean himself. Indeed, Rowan Atkinson had the honor of portraying the doctor in Comic Relief: Doctor Who – The Curse of Fatal Death. Replete with the flowing locks of Paul McGann and the quips of Jon Pertwee, Atkinson aped the doctor’s most famous traits to perfection.
Though it was a TV short with a run-time hardly over twenty minutes, Steven Moffat penned the script and surrounded Atkinson with top talent. Jonathan Pryce played The Master while Joanna Lumley, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant all took turns playing the famed Time Lord. It was an absurdist affair, but a necessary entry in the Doctor Who canon. How appropriate for it to arrive in 1999, on the eve of the grand reboot that would return the series back to the public consciousness.
He made his mark in the galaxy far, far away, he played the detective of 221B Baker Street and he took on the role of the Doctor. In the 1965 TV movie, Dr. Who and the Daleks, Peter Cushing played the title role and became the temporary heir to William Hartnell. While he never received a series of his own, Cushing earned a second go at the Gallifreyan in Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
While it is unlikely Cushing will be remembered for his work as The Doctor (Grand Moff Tarkin is undoubtedly his stronger claim to fame), he clearly gravitated towards the professorial qualities of the character. With the series still very much in its infancy, Cushing was stuck with unfortunate lines like, “I’m Dr. Who,” and derivative mad scientist behavior that now seems particularly dated. This was an early doctor, to be sure, but he demands our tip of the cap all the same.
Entering the series just a few years before its cancellation, Colin Baker walked into a minefield. The show had lost its verve, and though he delivered a commendable performance, Baker was essentially a Doctor prancing aboard the Titanic. While his first season went off fairly well, the BBC banished Doctor Who into a nearly two year long black hole before betting it all on the 14-part The Trial of a Time Lord.
Baker's performance was markedly different than his predecessors and more in line with the brusque nature of William Hartnell. Fresh on the heels of a considerably tamer and more approachable Peter Davison, Baker brought a roughness to the role from the outset. Despite his Willy Wonka-like sartorial style, Colin Baker’s Doctor was borderline sociopathic. While we can blame his lack of emotional control on a faulty regeneration, we can’t forgive his strangling of Peri. The Doctor may occasionally be unstable, but he should never resemble the maniacs in A Clockwork Orange.
In 1996, Paul McGann bridged the gaps between doctors with the standalone TV movie, Doctor Who. By all accounts, the film was unremarkable, even if the lead doctor’s performance was worth a second look. Fortunately, Steven Moffat knew what to do with Paul McGann. In the 2013 mini-episode, The Night of the Doctor, Moffat reenlisted McGann’s Doctor and threw him in the middle of the Time War. The actual episode was barely over six minutes in length, but it succeeded in reminding audiences that McGann wasn’t responsible for the lackluster TV movie.
Though he runs into a load of trouble in The Night of the Doctor, McGann still clings to his signature sense of humor. Fans were so enthused by McGann’s fleeting reprisal that they clamored for a spinoff series of his own. As with Timothy Dalton’s short stay as James Bond, audiences were left imagining what could have been if the BBC gave McGann more significant opportunities.
Sylvester McCoy ranks among the most bombastic of all the Doctors. His affected speech, trilled R’s and undying pomposity made him a bird of a different color. Indeed, after the bizarre events of the Colin Baker years, the BBC pushed McCoy in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, the network left their lead man out to dry in a first season of ridiculous scenarios matched only by McCoy’s goofy performance. His maiden voyage proved so catastrophic that viewership essentially fell of a cliff and left the BBC less enthused with the Doctor Who property than ever before.
While the subsequent two seasons allowed McCoy to develop a more robust character (literally wearing a dark coat to symbolize his moral descent), Doctor Who had lost all hope and quickly cascaded into cancellation. However enjoyable some of McCoy’s moments may have been, they were ultimately overshadowed by the property’s temporary but devastating demise.
As The Fifth Doctor in the series, Peter Davison’s most heroic act was simply accepting the part. Fresh on the heels of Tom Baker’s beloved performance, Davison took on the role with the show at fever pitch. Fortunately, the quality of the stories matched audience expectations, and the Doctor Who of the 1980s performed quite well.
Whether it was a surge in British national confidence, or the desire to simply test new sides of the Gallifreyan’s personality, Davison helped create one of the most valiant Doctors on record. These were rich and exciting episodes aided by the actor’s realistic and endearing portrayal. If his Doctor was a bit more one-dimensional than his predecessors, and perhaps less brooding and spontaneous, that’s more of a commentary on the direction of the series than Davison’s acting chops. Peter Davison may not be the best remembered Time Lord, but his episodes rank among the best Doctor Who stories ever told.
The War Doctor may have received precious little screen time, but he didn’t need long to make a lasting impression. A pantheon of Doctors have graced the BBC screen, but John Hurt bridged the gap between all of them. He is the oldest Doctor on record, but he brought an energy and vitality to the role that somehow made David Tennant and Matt Smith look slightly outclassed. John Hurt affirmed his acting prowess and solidified his legend by stealing scene after scene from his younger counterparts.
In The Day of the Doctor, Hurt’s eponymous hero redeems his past indiscretions with an epic finale that saves Gallifrey from certain doom. It is a triumphant conclusion for the War Doctor, and the perfect segue into George Mann’s must-read novel, Engines of War. In this BBC-approved book, the War Doctor takes center stage and continues the legacy of John Hurt’s performance.
The king of the 1970s, Jon Pertwee ushered in the era of full blown color for Doctor Who. As with Dorothy entering Oz, the switch from The Second Doctor to the Third was symbolized by the vibrant colors Pertwee brought to the screen. Dressed to the nines, not afraid to fight, and often well lubricated, Pertwee’s Doctor was as dynamic as they come. Though he began with a rather cold temperament, Pertwee evolved into the most empathetic of the BBC's Time Lords.
As The Third Doctor, Pertwee’s softer side helped round out the show’s appeal and establish the tone that David Tennant and Matt Smith would continue. To be sure, Pertwee was an action hero, perhaps the most daring of the early Doctors. Having lost access to his TARDIS and banished to earth, he didn't have much of a choice but to be brave. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor deservedly earned his reputation as the designated defender of our planet.
The Ninth Doctor didn’t last that long, but what an impression he made. Some found Christopher Eccleston a bit too serious for the role, but others recognized his natural charisma and immediate chemistry with Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Indeed, Eccleston’s Doctor moved a mile a minute starting with his onscreen introduction. Saving Rose from devilish plastic mannequins, The Ninth Doctor was dashing in a new kind of way.
Armed with gadgets galore and a quickly crafted plan of action, this Doctor doesn’t forget pleasantries, asking Rose for her name before yelling, “Now run for your life!” While it’s true that Eccleston may not have adapted to the expected brand of humor in Doctor Who, he added a breath of fresh air that the show sorely needed. In retrospect, it seems Eccleston himself felt disjointed in the role, leading to his early exit from the series. Still, Eccleston crafted a memorable season, even if it only lasted for one year.
More of a teacher than an adventurer, William Hartnell’s Doctor was the one that started it at all. Though he may not be our top pick, Hartnell laid the foundation for future Doctor Who greatness. There’s a reason David Bradley (the man who brought Game of Thrones' Walder Frey to life) was recently cast to portray Hartnell: the original doctor was officious, stern, and often humorless.
While the BBC was establishing the series, and the character arc of the Time Lord was being revealed, Hartnell excelled in depicting a man of utter mystery. When the serial debuted in 1963, little was known of the Doctor, and Hartnell kept the show grounded in a gruff reality. While Hartnell’s Doctor dabbled in science fiction, he primarily functioned as a television tutor for British children. The generation he taught have since grown up to become the most loyal Whovians of all, making Hartnell the true founding father of the series.
While he was too goofy for some, Matt Smith was the fan favorite for many. Tasked with the unenviable duty of following the brilliant David Tennant, The Eleventh Doctor succeeded in widening the Doctor Who audience for a new generation. He was the witty, quipping screwball of the lot; zanier than his predecessors, yet perhaps the perfect casting for the millennial generation. After all, Smith's Doctor seemed to value his bowties more than his sonic screwdriver.
It has been an astonishing seven years since Matt Smith took on the role, yet not quite long enough to forget the audience outcry at his initial casting. It didn’t take long for Smith to silence his critics, however, playing the Doctor with gravitas rarely found in veteran performers, let alone twenty-something journeymen actors. He may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but Matt Smith rejuvenated the series and put a truly unique spin on the alien Gallifreyan.
He didn’t originate the role, but he might as well have. As The Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton reimagined the central character in ways that would influence each of his descendants. More importantly, he survived the BBC's experiment of the regeneration timeline, proving Doctor Who can never die. At once quirky and comedic, irascible and even scary, Troughton brought an entire encyclopedia of emotional range to the role.
For every moment of stiffness and sternness that William Hartnell displayed, Troughton veered in a diametrically opposite direction with his bizarre, impulsive and thrilling behavior. Through the entire episodic catalog of Troughton's tenure, there is seldom a boring moment to be found. Steven Moffat himself admitted, “Patrick lays down the central rules for the character (and) Doctor Who doesn't change much afterwards. You don't tamper with perfection." Indeed, all of the qualities we have come to love in subsequent doctors are simply imitations of the granddaddy Gallifreyan himself, Mr. Patrick Troughton.
The transition from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi was powerfully portrayed, yet indescribably jarring. In addition to the drastic jump in age range, the seismic shift in Doctorly demeanor sent audiences reeling. Matt Smith regenerated so gracefully that when Capaldi popped on screen with a patina of sweat and eyes bulging out of their sockets, it was clear a new era of the doctor had begun. As the reigning doctor of 2016, Capaldi's performance continues to remain steadfast under immense scrutiny.
Without question, he is a world away from The Eleventh Doctor, hearkening back to the earlier qualities of William Hartnell with his grizzled and almost sinister personality. Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t bad by any means, but he seems far less trustworthy and amiable than his predecessors. To his credit, however, Capaldi has cornered the Time Lord marketplace in a highly original way. Playing a several-thousand year old alien, Capaldi is perhaps the only actor to capture the true antiquity of the character. You can see it in his eyes. He’s no youngster in real life, but Capaldi lets us peak behind the doctor’s visage and into his storied past.
Though it is difficult to avoid hyperbole when speaking of Doctor Who, certain statements are unavoidable: Tom Baker was born to be the Doctor. He didn’t merely play the role, he embodied it in every major sense. While Matt Smith amped up the character's neuroses, and Jon Pertwee added some daring, Tom Baker seemed to simply enjoy his time in the TARDIS more than anyone else.
His mellifluous voice relished every word, and his electric eyes darted about the room with a truly wondrous quality. Indeed, Baker reminded audiences that the Doctor is an alien above all, and though he resembles us mortal earthlings, his brain behaves in an extraordinarily unique way. Unwieldy and unpredictable, Tom Baker took advantage of some of the show’s best writing and mined his character’s madcap potential. With 172 episodes to his name, Tom Baker earned his almost Biblical, seven-year tenure and solidified his place in the Doctor Who hall of fame.
We all have our favorites, but there’s no denying David Tennant as the face of the rebooted Doctor Who. Largely considered the most popular Doctor of all time, Tennant's Tenth Doctor is the people’s choice by a wide margin, and for good reason. By bringing the doctor back down to Earth, Tennant infused the character with human elements previously unseen in the role.
Some fans balked at the idea that the Doctor was more human than humanoid, but Tennant stuck to his guns and delivered a leading man with a full personality and a long list of romantic interests. He had lovers because he was likable, sympathetic and real – qualities that can’t be said about many other doctors. He was a force of nature who seldom leaned too heavily into one aspect of his character, bringing the whole of his being to the role and winning the hearts of his audience in the process.
How do you rank the Doctors? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments!