One of TV history’s longest-running shows, “Doctor Who,” is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and Whovians have plenty to be excited about! Three anniversary specials are set to premiere on Disney Plus on Nov. 25, Dec. 2, and Dec. 9. The specials will not only reunite some of our favorite “Doctor Who” actors, but also introduce big names to the series, like Harry Potter veteran Miriam Margolyes and the villainous Neil Patrick Harris. The Fifteenth Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, is set to make his debut in Season 14 on Dec. 25. In honor of two upcoming iterations of The Doctor, let’s look at the time-traveling alien’s long life and the many actors that have taken on the role.
Author’s Note: As with any dedicated fandom, there are some very strong opinions on the best and worst Doctors, and there’s no way to do this without ruffling some feathers. As a millennial fan of the NuWho era that started when I was 12, I’m sure to make some purists mad. There’s no way to rank the actors fairly, so this list is entirely subjective, not to be taken seriously and for no good reason at all. Allons-y!
13. Colin Baker (1984 to 1986)
The only Doctor who’s actually disliked by the fandom is Colin Baker, although that’s not entirely his fault. During his era, when BBC was in talks about canceling the show, they gave him a clown suit, and it was scripted in his very first episode that he should choke his companion. He was supposed to have a character arc that took him from an arrogant, overbearing cutthroat to a kind friend, but never came to fruition in his three seasons. His performance was theatrical and over-the-top, which many interpreted as arrogant and unlikeable. He didn’t let it dampen his enthusiasm for the franchise, coming back to perform The Sixth Doctor in audio dramas of the expanded universe, which received much better criticism than his time on screen.
12. Peter Davison (1982 to 1984)
Although Peter Davison was put in a tough spot as the follow-up act to Tom Baker, his youthful, very human-feeling performance seemed a little flat and forgettable in comparison. As the franchise’s poshest Doctor, his cricket suit and received pronunciation line delivery made him less relatable to the majority of working-class Brits who have spent the last several hundred years tearing down the aristocracy stone by stone.
In all fairness to him, he was faced with the challenge of differentiating his version of the Doctor, but many read his more subtle and sensitive performance as wishy-washiness. He was still likable in the role, but his charisma was squandered in an era of the show that suffered from both inconsistent and repetitive storylines. While his biggest crime is mediocrity, it’s hard to rank him highly on a list of fantastic actors who have taken on the lead.
11. Jodie Whittaker (2018 to 2022)
It feels bad to rank the first female Doctor so low on the list, but her era just wasn’t very strong. Like many other fans, I feel that the revolutionary moment of the first female Doctor was somewhat wasted on several seasons, with questionable writing and storytelling decisions and a lead that lacked gravitas. Unfortunately, Jodie Whittaker didn’t really do it for me, feeling more like the manic pixie dream girl next door or your friend’s eccentric mum than a millennia-old alien. She came at the role with all the infectious enthusiasm she had, however, forming strong bonds with her diverse crew of TARDIS companions and leaning heavily into lighthearted, playful comedy. While she had fun with the role and was entertaining to watch, her less pronounced character arc made her time as The Doctor feels more one-dimensional than others.
10. Sylvester McCoy (1987 to 1989)
Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was not as universally loved as other leads, marking a time of significant change and experimentation in the series. He leaned into the comedic aspects of the Doctor's personality, going whole ham with quirkiness and eccentricity. However, his elaborate scheming to manipulate events to achieve his goals made him an enigmatic and morally ambiguous Doctor whom not everyone connected with. His version of the character was dark and mysterious with complex character development, becoming more serious and introspective as time went on. He received mixed reviews during his time on the show, with some fans feeling that The Doctor had become too unpredictable.
9. Paul McGann (1996)
While poor Paul McGann’s TV movie’s attempt to revive the series was a total flop, you can’t fault his interpretation of the character. Given a full season of screentime, we may have seen his romantic and compassionate version of the doctor fleshed out into a true leading man, but he sadly didn’t get the opportunity with the ropey script. His version of The Doctor was a lover, not a fighter, more openly expressive and affectionate than his predecessors. Clad in a Victorian frock coat and cravat, his timeless style reflected a classy performance. His Eighth Doctor got some retrospective development in “Doctor Who” audio dramas, often battling with complex moral questions. He made a single on-screen return in the special mini-episode “Night of the Doctor,” part of the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2013, which was well-received by the fandom.
8. William Hartnell (1963 to 1966)
William Hartnell’s First Doctor is at something of a disadvantage in this list, not having the work of all that came before him to build upon. His performance feels a little underdeveloped in comparison to actors who had decades of canon contributing to their version of the character. However, he should be given his due for establishing the initial characteristics and personality traits of The Doctor, pioneering the role for every actor to come. Initially presented as a mysterious and enigmatic figure, the slow reveal of his multifaceted personality and personal history is a great way to draw us into the series.
Cantankerous, gruff, authoritative, and distinguished, he was paternalistic and sometimes irritable towards his companions. Through his relationship with his granddaughter and others, he gave us a character arc letting his walls down to reveal his protective and caring nature. His portrayal remains well-loved and iconic for being the first, and his legacy continues to influence every incarnation of the character.
7. Jon Pertwee (1970 to 1974)
Building on the back of Patrick Troughton’s iconic performance, Jon Pertwee struck an excellent balance between wit and gravitas, adding a dapper sense of style and sophistication to The Doctor. The sonic screwdriver went from a rarely used gadget to a central part of the character, a fitting tool for the most action-oriented Doctor. Dubbed by Reddit as “The Doctor who’s most likely to kick someone in the face,” his diplomacy, scientific passion, and penchant for social justice kept him a relevant hero in changing times. His endearing mentor relationship with his companion, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), and great camaraderie and banter with his friends in UNIT served to develop his character over the course of his run. While not often chosen as a top-tier Doctor, he nevertheless gave a solid performance that was influential on the style and action aspects of later performances.
6. Patrick Troughton (1966 to 1969)
After The First Doctor, it was unclear whether audiences would accept a new actor in the leading role, despite the concept of regeneration being built into the story. However, where William Hartnell was a cranky grandpa, Patrick Troughton was a goofy uncle, in many ways creating the well-rounded character we know today. His performance as “the cosmic hobo” was pure eccentricity, with some critics even accusing it of being clunky or childish. However, he occasionally reveals a cunning and mischievous streak in The Doctor, demonstrating emotional range and chemistry with his companions that undercuts the goofiness. His era gave birth to some core episodes of the show’s mythology and his performance inspired the comedic elements of almost every subsequent iteration.
5. Peter Capaldi (2014 to 2017)
Although I don’t count Peter Capaldi among my personal Top 3, I can easily see why many fans name him their favorite Doctor. His dark humor and sardonic grumpiness appeal to Whovians who prefer a more mature version of the show, harkening back to the earliest versions of the character. His initial distance and coldness leave space for an emotionally vulnerable character arc. Although lacking the whimsy of David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctors, he’s still unhinged in his own way, showing little regard for risk or danger and following his own, sometimes bizarre, reasoning.
It can be argued that Capaldi was the most complex Doctor of the reboot, highlighting the character’s alien otherness and emotional struggles. His desperate need for connection, as shown through his never-ending string of companions, is peeled back slowly over the course of his time on the show. He retains a hopeful core despite carrying the weight of thousands of years, impressing upon the audience the character’s unique and lonely position in the universe.
4. Christopher Eccleston (2005)
As the first Doctor of the NuWho era, Christopher Eccleston’s one season on the show had an outsized influence on its direction. His darker, gritter take on the battle-scarred character created a good differentiation between the campy classic series and the more serious reboot. Although he left the show under something of a black cloud after disagreements with showrunners, Eccleston laid “fantastic” groundwork for the character to be further fleshed out over the following years. He had excellent chemistry and a beautiful redemptive relationship with his co-star, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), and his single season was tightly scripted to feel like an intentionally short chapter rather than a pivot decision. Although I would’ve liked to see his version of The Doctor with more screen time, I can appreciate his tidy, significant contribution to the modern show I love.
3. Matt Smith (2010 to 2013)
Another surefire Top 3 Doctor is Matt Smith, who deeply manifested the character of The Doctor during his three years on the show. Self-reflective, harboring deep pain after the Time War that destroyed his home planet Gallifrey, and yet bursting with a more earnest youth and playfulness than almost any that came before him, Smith was a refreshing take on the character. His quirky comedy was central to his portrayal, shocking us when he turned menacing, and hitting emotional soft spots with his sensitivity. He was perhaps the casting fans were most pleasantly surprised by, with many pre-judging him on his youth, but being won over by his other-worldly charm and emotional range. His time on the show suffered slightly from longer, more convoluted plotlines than previous seasons, but no one can fault his commitment to the role.
2. Tom Baker (1974 to 1981)
For older fans who grew up with the classic era of “Doctor Who,” there’s no other Doctor above Tom Baker. His carefree take on the time traveler was full of wonder and mystery, donning fantastically overlong scarves that would have been the envy of anyone in the ‘70s. Baker added a sense of alienness that was deceptively comical but could turn dark when the script required. Whether bashing heads, bravely facing off against a Dalek’s plunger, or offering jelly babies, the intense-eyed actor fleshed out the character over his record seven seasons in the role. As one of the show’s most beloved Doctors, Baker has returned to the show for several special reappearances since his tenure. His commanding presence breathed new life into a character that had been in decline in the years preceding him. He remains a list topper for many fans, and without his influence, later iterations of The Doctor could never have been as brilliant.
1. David Tennant (2005 to 2010)
Like many fans who grew up with the rebooted NuWho series that started in 2005, David Tennant will forever be my Doctor. The Scottish stage veteran brought the perfect balance of stylish charisma, wacky energy, vengeful anger, and pained solemnity to the role. His four-year run on the show benefited from strong direction and screenwriting from showrunner Russel T. Davies and writer Steven Moffat. Tennant took the darker groundwork laid by the first Doctor of the rebooted series, Christopher Eccleston, and reincorporated the character’s iconic offbeat humor and lovable geekiness, heavily contributing to the revived show’s development. He portrayed heartfelt relationships with his female co-stars and remains a strong fan favorite, so much so that BBC is bringing him back to capitalize on his popularity. Tennant will reprise the role in the upcoming anniversary specials, reuniting with comedy genius companion Donna Temple-Noble (Catherine Tate).