50 years ago today (November 23, 1963), a cultural phenomenon debuted. While Americans were grieving the loss of one of America’s most beloved Presidents, our neighbors across The Pond in Britain were seeing for the first time, what would become one of the greatest science fiction television series of all-time: Doctor Who.
Doctor Who debuted with the first episode of An Unearthly Child and introduced us to The Doctor, a time traveler who wandered space and time in a beat-up old Blue English Police Box.
My initial experience with Doctor Who was in the mid/late 80s. I was introduced to Doctor Who by some high school friends. While I do not remember the first episode I saw, I do remember it was very early in Peter Davison’s first season as The Doctor. (Davison was the 5th actor to play lead in that role.) At that time in the St. Louis area, Doctor Who was broadcast on the local PBS station (KETC) late on Saturday nights. They were not 1st run episodes, but rather replays of episodes that were 1st run in Britain 2-3 years prior.
I remember several times hanging out with friends and watching that week’s episode. The thing that struck me the most about the series back then was the writing. The stories were very well written with good character development. Certainly, Doctor Who contained quite a bit of cheesy special effects, even in the mid 80s, but I didn’t find it distracting from the story.
Over the next 50 years, 11 different men would play the lead role in the series beginning with William Hartnell in 1963 to the current Doctor, Matt Smith. Each one brought something new and unique to role. Each one added something to The Doctor to make it his own.
I must confess, however, that I have not seen every Doctor Who episode that exists. I’ve seen many of them, and I’ve seen at least one episode with each actor to play The Doctor.
Because lists seem so prevalent in our culture, I thought it appropriate to give you my list of favorite Doctors.
#11 Colin Baker, Sixth Doctor, March 16, 1984 – December 6, 1986
The Sixth Doctor was brash and arrogant, loud and flamboyant, obnoxious and annoying. I really didn’t care much for this Doctor. That said, I went to a Doctor Who Convention in St. Louis my senior year of high school and I walked right past Colin Baker in the lobby of the hotel. I didn’t recognize him because he looked older (even though this was around 1 year after he left the show) and didn’t have the trademark frizzy hair.
#10 William Hartnell, First Doctor, November 23, 1963 – October 29, 1966
I know, I know, how can I put the original Doctor at #10? Well, the main reason is that I have only seen two or three episodes of his. This low rank has more to do with the limited exposure I had to him as opposed to the quality of work he did as the Doctor.
#9 Paul McGann, Eighth Doctor, May 27, 1996
Paul McGann played the Doctor in the one-time American released movie Doctor Who in May of 1996. While the movie was designed to hopefully springboard a re-launch of Doctor Who, that never materialized. Much like Hartnell’s First Doctor, McGann gets a low ranking due in part to a small body of work.
#8 Patrick Troughton, Second Doctor, October 29, 1966 – June 21, 1969
Much like Hartnell’s First Doctor, I haven’t seen too many of Troughton’s episodes. What I have seen, I have enjoyed, but it’s hard to rank him higher without much firsthand experience. On a side note, part of the reason many of Hartnell’s and Troughton’s episodes are not around is that they were destroyed by the BBC at some point (either by fire or when “cleaning things up” in the 70s).
#7 Sylvester McCoy, Seventh Doctor, September 7, 1987 – December 6, 1989
Now it starts to get really hard to rank them because I’ve seen most, if not all of the episodes of the remaining Doctors, and I’ve liked them all. McCoy’s Doctor has a Scottish twinge to his accent (my guess because McCoy is Scottish). He was no-nonsense, straight forward, and very likeable. His episodes came as a welcome relief after the Colin Baker era.
#6 Matt Smith, Eleventh Doctor, January 1, 2010 – Present
Bow ties are cool. Fezzes are cool. Ooooo… fish fingers and custard. I could go on and on. Matt Smith’s Doctor is wacky, zany, and sometimes makes you wonder if he’s really all there upstairs. Then a switch will flip and he’ll get all serious or you’ll see just how much he cares for people, especially his travelling companions.
#5 Jon Pertwee, Third Doctor, January 3, 1970 – June 8, 1974
Pertwee’s Doctor was a bit of James Bond, a bit of Q, and a bit of dashing leading man all rolled into one. What I most enjoyed about Pertwee’s Doctor was the fact that almost all of his episodes were set on Earth (since the Time Lords had exiled him to Earth for breaking some time travel rules). I also enjoyed the great companions who accompanied Pertwee during this era: Liz Shaw, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jo Grant, and Sara Jane Smith. Pertwee also brought the famous Doctor Who phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”.
#4 Christopher Eccleston, Ninth Doctor, March 26, 2005 – June 18, 2005
Christopher Eccleston was fantastic. He was the first doctor of the modern era when show return from its 15 year hiatus. Eccleston was direct, confident, and a little brash. Yet he was also fun. He brought a strong confidence to the character. Rarely did you see an indecisive or overly pensive Doctor. I liked that. I wish he lasted more than one season.
#3 Peter Davison, Fifth Doctor, March 21, 1981 – March 16, 1984
Davison was my first Doctor. He was timid and at times meek. Yet there was a strong sense of character through his quiet demeanor and personality. Not only were the stories good during his era, but so was the strong relationship between the Doctor and his companions. It was especially moving to see how the Doctor handled adversity when the unthinkable happened: one of his companions died.
#2 David Tennant, Tenth Doctor, June 18, 2005 – January 1, 2010
In retrospect, it is surprising that David Tennant is this high on my list. I was a big fan of his predecessor Christopher Eccleston. I was very mad when he left and was replaced by Tennant. Yet, over the three seasons where Tennant portrayed the Doctor, I grew to like him more and more. He is cheeky and babbles a lot. On the flip side, he is very edgy and does a number of things that have dire consequences. Tennant’s Doctor, more so than any of the other modern era one, wrestles with the “sins” of his earlier life. There are many elusions to the Time War between the Time Lords (i.e. the Doctor’s race) and the Daleks (i.e. his mortal enemy), and the terrible things that he did during that war; specifically that the Doctor was responsible for destroying all of the Time Lords and all of the Daleks in order to save the universe. Tennant’s Doctor is very complex and has many facets to his character. That’s why I like him so much.
#1 Tom Baker, Fourth Doctor, June 8, 1974 – March 21, 1981
How could it NOT be Tom Baker at #1? Tom Baker is the quintessential Doctor. He portrayed the Doctor longer than any actor. He is responsible for the trademark elongated, multi-colored, stripped scarf. He also gave us one of the best companions a Time Lord could ever have, his own robotic dog, K-9. Tom Baker’s Doctor was tall and aloof. He was confident, yet often times pretended to be a buffoon. He regularly seemed lost and like he didn’t have a clue, yet in reality he was in control of situations all along. He had a long string of companions who are known as classics Doctor Who lore: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan, Leela, Romana, K-9, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan Jovanka. He also was pitted against three of the most popular Doctor Who villains of all-time: the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master.
So, there you have it. Who is your favorite Doctor and why? Or when did you first get introduced to Doctor Who? Leave me a comment. I’d like to hear your story.