Doctor Who is among the longest-running shows in television history, not to mention one of the most iconic British TV series of all time. Since 1963, viewers have been dazzled by the classic science fiction series, becoming a cult phenomenon in the process. Each week, millions of viewers tuned in to see the adventures of that famous time-traveling alien, the Doctor, played by several actors over the show’s many, many seasons.
Given Doctor Who‘s lengthy tenure, the show’s creators had to think of a way to keep the format and tone of the series fresh from season to season. Their ingenious solution was to have each Doctor on the show “regenerate” and take on a new physical appearance and personality, allowing different actors to step into the title role.
From the most recent portrayals of the character to some of the Doctor's earliest incarnation, here is are some of the greatest Doctors we've seen on Doctor Who so far, ranked from best to worst.
1. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker, 1974-1981)
The most influential Doctor of them all, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor almost always rounds out any publications’ list for the best Doctors on Doctor Who.
Nowadays, Baker remains synonymous with the role, his influence and popularity on the series equivalent to that of David Tennant’s on the revived series. Compared to the earlier incarnations of the Doctor, the Fourth Doctor was a youthful, energetic, easily-entertained figure who looked and acted like an alien tourist—interested in every facet of human affairs, and delighting in something as mundane as jelly babies.
Known for his flashier dress style — wide-brimmed hat, huge frock coat, and his now iconic multi-patterned scarf — the Fourth Doctor took the lovable oddball version of the Doctor pioneered by the Second Doctor’s Patrick Troughton and ran with it, giving an intense, crazy-eyed version of the Doctor who fans adored seeing.
Like almost every iteration of the character, the Fourth Doctor could be quick to anger and was capable of delivering some emotional outbursts at times, but more often than not, always appeared as a fun-loving, warm-hearted Doctor who displayed a general affinity for life and all its infinite wonders.
2. The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant, 2005-2010)
Far and away the most beloved Doctor of the modern era, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor achieved the same level of the popularity Tom Baker commanded as the Fourth Doctor in the 1970s.
In terms of personality, the Tenth Doctor resembles Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Both are boisterous, energetic, manic characters who love and care for every single being they meet. Unlike Smith, however, Tennant’s Doctor appears, acts, and seems far more youthful than his successor, blending the Fourth Doctor’s eccentricity, kindness, and longing to help people with the Ninth Doctor’s inner conflict for his role in the Time War.
Perhaps the most “human” of the modern Doctors, Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was characterized by his more personal relationships with his companions (his romantic relationship with Rose, in particular), yet was just “alien” enough to avoid the same pitfalls as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, who fans considered a little too human.
Sporting a long trench coat, four-buttoned suit, and Converse All-Stars, Tennant’s performance as the Tenth Doctor secured a new legion of fans, earning the show critical acclaim, and helping establish the revived series as being just as good, if not better, than the original Doctor Who series.
3. The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith, 2010-2013)
Matt Smith taking over the role of the Doctor from David Tennant was akin to Peter Davison following Tom Baker’s gargantuan footsteps in the earlier seasons of Doctor Who. As it happened, Smith was more than able to succeed Tennant's place as the character, creating a Doctor that was his own yet also retained many of the most famous quirks fans had loved seeing in previous Doctors.
The youngest Doctor to date (Smith was 26 when he was cast in the series), Smith’s Doctor looked and acted young and jovial— possessing the energy and playfulness of a precocious 11-year-old — but behind his youthful appearance hid a deep sense of weariness and wisdom beyond his years.
An old man trapped in a young man’s body, the Eleventh Doctor was the epitome of an old soul, reflected by his retro professorial outfits. Like David Tennant, the Eleventh Doctor was compassionate and caring towards everyone he met, always willing to put himself in harms’ way to save others. He could be prone to the occasional angry outburst, revealing the more jaded, conflicted side of his character, but more than often not appeared sincere and caring, treating his companions (Amy Pond and Rory Williams) like his own siblings.
If there were any naysayers who doubted Doctor Who could continue after David Tennant left, Matt Smith’s charismatic Doctor proved them all wrong, helping the show carry on into the new decade.
4. The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton, 1966-1969)
William Hartnell may have been the first Doctor, but it was Patrick Troughton that perfected the role, creating the set standard for every Doctor Who actor that followed. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Hobo” due to his scruffy appearance and ‘60s-era Beatles bowl cut, Troughton introduced a great deal of oddness to the role — far more so than the more dialed-back, reserved Hartnell.
Playing the Doctor as a more lighthearted, comedic character, Troughton’s Doctor was affable and well-meaning most of the time, but could also be more calculating and methodical when he needed to be, hiding a brilliant tactical mind beneath his oafish appearance and mannerisms.
Despite these momentary glimpses of ruthlessness, the Second Doctor was always ready to go out of his way to help everyone he encountered. Compared to Hartnell — who chose to help only when the situation called for it — Troughton was always ready to step in and do his part. His influence and likable performance as the Second Doctor can be seen in every subsequent Doctor, all of whom tried to strike Troughton's balance between comedy, intelligence, and pragmatic efficiency.
5. The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, 2005)
The original Doctor Who came to a close in the late ‘80s. In 2005, the show was revived by a new team of producers, with actor Christopher Eccleston stepping into the role of the first Doctor of the 21st century.
There was no doubt a lot of pressure on Eccleston, but he more than managed to deliver, presenting a Doctor that retained many qualities of the original Doctors, along with some modern characteristics (fast-talking, high-energy, and high-enthusiasm) that every later incarnation adopted in the years ahead.
Compared to earlier iterations of the Doctor, the Ninth Doctor is toned back and minimalist in wardrobe (a black leather jacket and dark clothing). If clothing is any indication of his personality, the Ninth Doctor also harbors a darker side to his personality. Believing himself to be the person responsible for destroying Gallifrey and ending the Time War, he is shown to suffer from PTSD and severe guilt for his actions.
While viewers sometimes see this more emotional side to the Ninth Doctor’s character, Eccleston hides it well behind a huge grin and eccentric manner. His time on the show may have been brief, but he set a high bar for every Doctor that followed.
6. The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee, 1970-1974)
There are a few key reasons why the Third Doctor should’ve been the series’ worst. Plagued by various production issues (budgetary constraints), Jon Pertwee’s version of the character was robbed of his signature TARDIS and prevented him from traveling through time and space, stuck on Earth for the first few seasons of Pertwee’s tenure.
Despite this huge setback, Pertwee’s Third Doctor is anything but subpar. Exiled to Earth, he occupied his time working with the United Nations’ military organization, U.N.I.T., a group tasked with investigating and preventing extraterrestrial threats to humankind. A definite man of action, Pertwee became famous for his athleticism and fighting abilities, having been trained in Venusian martial arts and skilled in every style of combat.
Whereas earlier and later versions of the Doctor might flee at even the slightest hint of danger, Pertwee’s Third Doctor ran right into the thick of it, always choosing to fight his enemies head-on. Known for his famous velvet smoking jacket and crimson-lined black cape, the Third Doctor may have been theatrical in both his physical actions and appearance, but was every bit the caring, kind-hearted alien fans regarded the Doctor as being.
7. The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi, 2014-2017)
The initial few seasons of the revived Doctor Who series were marked by younger Doctors defined by their kind, outgoing nature and attitudes. Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor, on the other hand, harkened back to the earliest versions of the character, bringing out the more short-tempered and abrasive side of the Doctor than had been seen in several decade.
Characterized by his minimalist wardrobe (dark clothing and a velvet jacket), Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor feels like a cross between the First and the Third Doctor. He can be grumpy and has little patience when dealing with others, and yet he is a man who will do whatever it takes to save as many people as possible (even if he doesn’t care whether he offends them while doing so).
Capaldi’s Doctor was someone guarded about his thoughts, but also possessed interests and even a fashion sense that aligned to a younger person’s, like rocking Ray-Ban sunglasses or playing the electric guitar. Capaldi’s more complex, standoffish Doctor earned him significant acclaim among fans, helping set him apart from the boyish charm of David Tennant and Matt Smith.
8. The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison, 1982-1984)
Without comparing him to the previous Doctor that came before him, Peter Davison had a strong outing as the Fifth Doctor. It’s only when you begin to hold his performance up to Tom Baker’s stint as the Fourth Doctor do the weaknesses in his role become apparent.
Comparisons between the Fourth and Fifth Doctors aside, Davison did very well under the circumstances of having to follow in Baker’s footsteps. The Fifth Doctor brought out the Doctor’s naivety and lack of experience when it came to handling new situations or exploring new planets — though he also displayed open, child-like enthusiasm for both.
At times a tad on the indecisive side, Davison's Doctor was the most open of the early Doctors, addressing his weaknesses and fears with his companions, who he treated more like friends than subordinates. Known for his trademark cream-colored Edwardian cricket clothing and the celery stalk he kept in his lapel at all times, the Fifth Doctor was a breath of fresh air in the Doctor Who continuity, a far cry from the older versions of the character who always wore his rather large two hearts on his sleeve at all times.
9. The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, 2017-Present)
The first woman to perform in the series' title, breaking down the gender barrier of Doctor Who wasn't going to be easy. As it turned out, though, Whittaker’s done a phenomenal job ushering in a new era for Doctor Who fans everywhere.
In terms of personality, Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor resembles the more recent iterations of the character played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. She’s a lovable, warm, outgoing person who always strives for the most peaceful resolution to any conflict. She’s also known for her lightning-quick speech patterns, reflecting the high-energy-style performances of Tennant and Smith.
Despite the mild-mannered relationships she has with her companions, the Thirteenth Doctor also hides a deep sense of loneliness and isolation, sometimes causing her to feel out of place in the universe. Rather than looking at her personality or some of her most notable actions in recent episodes, Whittaker’s casting itself is the main thing most fans discuss when talking about her character — something we hopes changes in the coming decades.
10. The First Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)
The very first Doctor of Doctor Who, a lot can be said about William Hartnell’s performance as the First Doctor.
Known for his Victorian-style clothing and often cantankerous personality, the First Doctor’s view of the universe couldn’t be any more different than his later incarnations. Rather than inserting himself into every life-or-death situation as each succeeding Doctor was wont to do, the First Doctor believed it was his duty to protect human life only when it was necessary.
It’s for this reason that might account for his relative lack of popularity among more modern mainstream audiences, who tend to view Hartnell’s Doctor as cold and callous compared to the more warmhearted versions of the character that followed. As it is, the First Doctor’s hardened exterior softened over time, redefining him as an almost grandfatherly-type figure capable of dispensing great wisdom and insight to his companions.
11. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, 1987-1989)
As the final Doctor of the original series, Sylvester McCoy’s run as the character was cut short by the show’s cancellation in 1989. After the frosty reception Colin Baker faced years prior, McCoy’s Seventh Doctor returned the hero to his roots, channeling the same energy and eccentricity demonstrated by the Fourth Doctor a decade before.
Though hampered by some questionable writing, McCoy did an amicable job as the Seventh Doctor, wielding his signature umbrella and sporting his trademark Panama hat with gusto and ease. Known for making absent-minded mistakes early in his appearances, the Seventh Doctor soon morphed into the same disarming genius pioneered by Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor.
Elements of his personality were unique to McCoy’s run as the character – including his staunch pacifism, for example – but Doctor Who’s premature end halted the possibility of exploring the Seventh Doctor to his fullest. With another few seasons, he might’ve ranked up there with the best of them.
12. The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker, 1984-1986)
It seems like a stretch to attribute Doctor Who’s waning success in the mid 1980s to Colin Baker, but it’s impossible to ignore the adverse effect the Sixth Doctor had on the show. A far cry from the humanistic Fourth or Fifth Doctor, Baker’s Sixth Doctor reverted back to William Hartnell’s cold and calculated version of the Doctor decades prior.
While his colorful fashion sense might disarm most viewers at first glance, the Sixth Doctor had anything but a silly personality. Noted for his egotism and antagonistic attitude, he made a habit of slapping down his companions, often talking down to them while glorying in his own superior intellect and mental proficiency.
A glorified narcissist who lacked any semblance of warmth to his character, Baker has the distinction of being the worst and most unlikable version of the Doctor in the classic Who years. While you can’t blame Baker himself for the character’s faults, you still have to wonder why the showrunners opted to create such a callous Doctor in the first place.
13. The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann, 1996)
Like the 1996 Doctor Who film that he appears in, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor can be seen as being the Doctor in name alone. A radical departure from any previous version of the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor can be regarded as a stereotypical action hero, a handsome man of action who prefers to coast on his charm than on his adept intelligence.
Far from being a horrendous Doctor, there are certain redeeming qualities surrounding McGann’s iteration of the Doctor. A more romanticized figure closer in personality and appearance to Mr. Darcy than to the Fourth Doctor, he views the universe through rose-tinted glasses, relying on the same enthusiasm and love-of-life as many of his contemporaries.
Relegated to an hour-and-a-half-long TV movie, it’s an interesting scenario to ponder the fate of Doctor Who if McGann had returned in a larger capacity. Regardless, his limited screen time only adds a deeper allure to his character, outfitting him with an aura of mystery few other Doctors possess.