My Top 10 Doctors (from Doctor Who)

I had so much fun counting down my Top 10 Twilight Zone episodes a month ago that I decided to make this a monthly feature!

In anticipation of the new season of Doctor Who starting in a few weeks (Sept. 19), I’m going to do a Top 10 list of the incarnations of the character. I’ve been a fan of the show since the 80s when my father introduced it to me on PBS. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of episodes: whatever they showed back then and everything from the new series thanks to Comcast OnDemand and BBC America. Someday, I hope to catch up on Netflix or something since there are a lot of early episodes I haven’t seen. Along with my reasons, I’ll mention my favorite episode for each incarnation. And remember, these are my opinions, so feel free to disagree! (Images are from the Wikipedia entries for each Doctor)

Before I start the Top 10, there are three incarnations I will not be ranking. Allow me to explain why.

First Doctor (William Hartnell)  I simply haven’t seen anything with him. His episodes weren’t shown on PBS when I was growing up, and I haven’t binge-watched Netflix yet. The character of the First Doctor appeared in the 20th Anniversary Special The Five Doctors, but he was played by a different actor since Hartnell had passed away by then. I can’t rank what I’ve never seen.

Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) – Though I saw the mid-90s FOX TV movie (which had some script issues), and I thought McGann’s portrayal of the character was wonderful, it’s really all I have to go by. I also saw the short 50th Anniversary teaser The Night of the Doctor where he was similarly fantastic, but I haven’t listened to the audio stories, where apparently he’s also tremendous. Not enough of a sample size.

The “War” Doctor (John Hurt) – In the 50th Anniversary The Day of the Doctor story, we’re introduced to an incarnation of the doctor between his 8th and 9th selves. I was thrilled to see an actor of Hurt’s caliber as The Doctor, and he certainly delivered, but again, I don’t feel comfortable ranking based on one special-guest-star episode.

 

SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 

#10 – Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)

Pertwee portrayed the Doctor more as an action hero, almost in the vein of the Diana Rigg-Patrick MacNee show The Avengers (not the Marvel superheroes). I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it didn’t work for me. I like the Doctor outwitting adversaries with his mind, not with his fists. Also, the third Doctor spent most of his first seasons exiled on Earth, and even though there were plenty of alien attacks (all in England…hmmm), it lacked the other-worldliness I love about the show. Though he went off-world in later episodes, it just wasn’t the same, especially after seeing a lot of episodes from Four and Five before Three’s.

Favorite story: Inferno – Gotta love parallel universes, particularly one with the Brigadier’s evil eyepatch-wearing doppleganger “The Brigade Leader”!

 

#9 – Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)

Though McCoy and the producers took the character to interesting places in the end of his tenure, it was a challenge to warm-up to Seven after the first season where he was portrayed far too clownish and goofy. Granted, the BBC almost canceled the show before McCoy started playing the part, and almost again while he was playing the part, and then finally did before his more intriguing, manipulating character arc could play out, but it’s hard to get past some of the bad first few stories. However, McCoy and Sophie Aldred as Ace developed perhaps the best Doctor-companion relationship of the classic series. They were a team similar to how New-Who operates.

Favorite story: Remembrance of the Daleks – Ace beating up Daleks with a supercharged baseball bat. What’s not to love about that?

 

#8 – Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)

It was a new show when Eccleston took over the TARDIS. He’s the first New-Who doctor and deserves a lot of credit for that, but maybe because of my affection for the original series, it took some time before he grew on me. And then he was gone, having lasted only one season of thirteen episodes. Clad in a leather jacket, he was the edgiest of the Doctors, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Also, there were the first hints of romance between a Doctor and companion—in this case Billie Piper’s Rose—and again, that was just different. I loved the survivor’s guilt he felt for being the last Time Lord in the universe after the Time War, especially how it played out in my…

Favorite story: Dalek – The last Time Lord facing off against the (supposed) last Dalek was gripping.

 

#7 – Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)

The show wasn’t seeing the ratings it used to, and Colin Baker is often seen as the fall guy. I blame the producers and writers for how they introduced Six. With the exception of the First-to-Second regeneration, all new doctors started their time at the start of a new season. This was not the case for Colin Baker. His first story was the last one broadcast in season 21, after the hugely popular, highly acclaimed final episode of his predecessor (somewhere later down the list). Baker plays the part completely arrogant, erratic, and even violent when he strangles his companion Peri. That may have been over the top and alienated the fans. Personally, I love the intensity he brought to the role. He’s a drastically different Doctor, almost an anti-hero, and I liked it. Too bad the stories he appeared in were badly written with a little too much violence. And though I love his costume, many others do not.

Favorite story: Vengeance on Varos – A dystopian society where people watch TV and vote for people’s fate, scarily predicting reality TV and where I hope it’s not headed. The Doctor rightfully intervenes and tells everyone off in the process.

 

#6 – Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)

I only have a limited (though awesome) sample size or he could conceivably be higher. Often referred to as the “Cosmic Hobo,” Troughton really balanced eccentric behavior with vast knowledge of the universe. I first saw him in The Five Doctors and the later Sixth-Doctor story The Two Doctors, and though both were weak stories, he supplied energy whenever he was on screen. He had one of the longest-running companions of the old series in Scottish Highlander Jamie, and there was somewhat of a dysfunctional bromance going on there. There’s a beautiful low-key scene in my favorite episode of his (that I’ve seen) when he speaks so comfortingly and kindly to new companion Victoria, who had lost her father to the Daleks in the episode before. Contrast that with the way he gets out of the scrapes in the episode, and you see a fully-developed portrayal of the character. I’ve seen enough of him to know I like him, now I need to see more of him to like him even more.

Favorite story: Tomb of the Cybermen – Yes, it moves slowly compared to today’s series, but the image of the Cybermen emerging from their tomb is iconic.

 

#5 – Tenth Doctor (David Tennant)

I expect some backlash for ranking Ten so low on the list. I won’t deny that he did a wonderful job, and I partially credit his performance with what brought the show such a large U.S. and worldwide following. I started watching the original show on PBS when I was in middle school, and I never felt I could announce that among my friends and classmates; it wasn’t cool. Now, it is cool. I have plenty of students and friends who openly love the show, and I think it’s because Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor was so accessible. He’s cool, he’s attractive, and he’s cheeky. Some of the stories of his era are unbelievably fantastic, particularly The Girl in the Fireplace, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Gridlock, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, Midnight (scariest episode ever), and The Waters of Mars. He had romantic entanglements with Rose, then there was Martha’s unrequited love for him, and the romance in the series was a little off-putting. His platonic relationship with Donna was wonderful fresh air, and she became a perfect foil for him. But what drops him down my list is the Messiah Complex he got later in his run, including his “I don’t want to go” last line. Blah.

Favorite story: Family of Blood/Human Nature – Is he a human teacher who dreams of space travel, or a Time Lord hidden as a human to escape death? Which will he choose in the end? A brilliant script with wonderful themes of identity and great performances all around.

 

#4 – Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi)

Maybe he gets a boost on this list because he’s the one I’m currently craving new episodes for, but I’ve got to give Capaldi and the producers credit for taking the character into new territory for New-Who. It really isn’t new territory when you consider the curmudgeon-like qualities of some of the Classic-Who Doctors. Capaldi has been a fan of the show forever, and I can’t doubt this is a dream come true for him, and it’s a real treat watching his performance as an homage to the actors who came before him. He’s a mixture of many of them, and that makes him one of the most Doctor-like Doctors on the list. I like that he’s aloof with humans and doesn’t fully understand them. I like that there’s no romance whatsoever between him and Clara and that their relationship—and Jenna Coleman’s performance—has evolved and strengthened. And you gotta love the “attack eyebrows.” I can’t wait to see where Capaldi takes the Doctor next.

Favorite story (so far): Flatline – Truly creepy (and brilliantly rendered) two-dimensional enemies while the Doctor is trapped inside a mini-TARDIS, and Clara learns what it’s like to make the tough decisions.

 

#3 – Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)

The Doctor with the 17-foot long scarf—perhaps to match his longest tenure in the role. He was the one I first saw when my father introduced me to the show, and it’s no denying his image in the role is iconic. Some of the show’s best ratings occurred while he was the Doctor, and some of the stories then were great riffs on classic horror stories. Some of them—The Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Robots of Death—all hold up as gripping stories today. And they all have that “Blank of Blank” title. He also had, in my opinion, some of the best companions of all time: feisty Sarah Jane Smith, savage and scantily clad Leela, haughty Time Lady Romana I, and bubbly regenerated Romana II. Tween me loved the Key to Time season more than anything else—just the idea of six connected stories centered on a universal quest was something I had never seen before. Adult me sees that the later parts of that season (Power of Kroll) are kinda hokey, but the Douglas Adams written The Pirate Planet remains a favorite, along with his later City of Death. He was aloof and out-of-step (so you knew he was an alien), but always one step ahead of the bad guys. And he always offered up some Jelly Babies.

Favorite story: The Ark in Space – Years before the movie Alien, Doctor Who did it. A space station keeps the human race in suspended animation, but alien insects use some of the bodies as hosts. The first episode features only the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry in the stark white seemingly empty station, and it’s claustrophobic and atmospheric and was unlike the previous Earth-bound seasons of the Third Doctor’s reign. And despite the use of then-new bubble wrap looking funny today, it’s a tight and scary episode.

 

#2 – Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)

I really didn’t know what to expect from this gangly young person when he took over from Tennant, but in the first few minutes of The Eleventh Hour when he and a young Amelia Pond bond over fish fingers and custard, it was clear he was going to be somewhat irreverent. Thirty minutes later, he stands up to the invading Atraxi (with a nice visual tribute to his prior incarnations) by simply telling them to run, and it was clear he had the force and gravitas of the Doctor. Whether being goofy doing mundane tasks in episodes like The Lodger and The Power of Three, or kicking ass and taking names later in A Good Man Goes to War, or being all flirty/embarrassed with River Song, or delivering a powerful but sad speech to a Sun-God-thing in The Rings of Ahkaten (not a stellar episode but one of his strongest moments), or fighting an internal battle with new Cyber-tech trying to take over his mind in Nightmare in Silver, he was always outstanding. And he showed us that, yes indeed, bow ties are cool.

Favorite story: The Doctor’s Wife – Writer Neil Gaiman knocked this concept out of the park, out of the universe, and into a bubble one. Who knew that after all these years that what Who­­-fans wanted more than anything else was a personification of the TARDIS? The performance by Suranne Jones as Idris/Sexy is a tour-de-force, and her chemistry with Smith is palpable. And I never imagined the word hello would make me bawl my eyes out.

 

And finally, MY FAVORITE DOCTOR…

#1 – FIFTH DOCTOR (Peter Davison)

I know I’m in the minority here, but Davison was simply awesome as the Doctor. He had the unenviable position of succeeding super-popular Tom Baker, so his portrayal is naturally very different. He’s a much more human and compassionate Doctor. More of a thinker, and seemingly less willing to interfere, but ready to display contempt when required. The naysayers will say that made him more passive and thus weaker. They may also say that the TARDIS became too crowded during his run as he usually had two—and sometimes three—companions. And they will mock the stalk of celery on his lapel. I say BIG DEAL and just watch some of the fantastic episodes of his tenure: Castrovalva, Kinda, Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, Enlightenment. Davison is always 100% invested in the role and the story. I was a few years older when PBS started showing his episodes, and maybe I was starting to look for characters who were more layered, even flawed. Davison’s Doctor didn’t always have the answers, and sometimes he found himself in over his head and couldn’t solve the problem (like in the ending of Earthshock). That was appealing, and you can see through the progression of his stories how that failure affected him. That wasn’t how Tom Baker, as fantastic as he was, played it; his episodes were mostly consistent in terms of his character. All the Doctors after him played the part with complexities, especially in the new series, and Davison deserves lots of credit for being the first to do so. And pulling it off as the youngest actor in the role (until Matt Smith).

Favorite story: The Caves of Androzani – Davison’s final story, and he went out with a bang! Often considered the best Doctor Who story of all-time, it deserves the praise. A tightly layered script about drug smuggling and economic espionage with a tribute to The Phantom of the Opera. Strong performances of strong characters with strong motivations. All the Doctor wants is not to interfere while he finds the antidote for a poison slowly killing him and companion Peri, and he refuses to let her die. Their presence starts events in motion—events that can’t stop—and the episode three cliffhanger with the Doctor about to crash-land a shuttle pod is unbelievably tense.

 

Agree? Disagree? Want to comment? Go ahead, and be sure to tune in for new episodes! I can’t wait.

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