Doctor Who is one of the most popular, long-running TV shows in history, and is easily one of the most iconic British television series of all time.
Since 1963, viewers have been dazzled by the classic science fiction TV series that managed to introduce the genre into mainstream pop culture, 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 how long Doctor Who has been on TV, the show’s creators had to think of a way to keep the format and tone of the show fresh from season to season. Their ingenious and highly entertaining solution was to have each Doctor on the show “regenerate” and take on a new physical appearance and personality, allowing new actors to step into the role.
The most recent incarnation of the Doctor has been Jodie Whittaker, who has been starring in the title role on the beloved sci-fi series since 2017. A few months ago, however, an announcement came that, after 5 years, Whittaker would be stepping down from the role, allowing a new actor to play the Doctor in 2022.
With Internet speculation running rampant about who the next star of Doctor Who will be, we decided to look at some of the most famous incarnations of the character, ranking the 10 best Doctors we’ve seen on Doctor Who so far.
List Criteria: For this list, we looked exclusively at the main incarnations of the Doctor, rather than any regenerations outside of the traditional “13” Doctors fans have seen so far. That means that, as much as we loved seeing John Hurt’s battle-weary War Doctor or Jo Martin’s boisterous Fugitive Doctor, unfortunately, you won’t find them anywhere on this list.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)
The very first Doctor on 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, rude behavior, 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 every Doctor following him was wont to do, the First Duty believed it was his duty to protect human life only when it was absolutely 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 incredibly cold and callous compared to the following, more warmhearted versions of the character. Eventually, the First Doctor’s hardened exterior would gradually soften until he became an almost grandfatherly-type figure capable of dispensing great wisdom and insight to his companions.
The First Doctor may lack the popularity of virtually every Doctor that followed, but there’s no denying Hartnell set the precedence for every actor cast in the title role on the series. Without Hartnell, it’s almost certain the show would’ve been canceled before any other actor had the chance to take over the starring role from Hartnell in later seasons.
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 (especially budgetary constraints), Jon Pertwee’s version of the Doctor was robbed of his signature TARDIS and prevented him from traveling through time and space, essentially stuck on Earth for the first few seasons of Pertwee’s run as the Doctor.
Despite this huge setback, Pertwee’s iteration of the Doctor is anything but subpar. Exiled to Earth, he occupied his time working with the United Nations’ military organization, UNIT, a group tasked with investigating and preventing extraterrestrial threats to mankind. Introduced in the early 1970s’, the Third Doctor is known for introducing a more action-oriented version of the character.
A definite man of action, Pertwee became famous for his athleticism and fighting abilities, having been trained in Venusian martial arts and skilled in virtually every style of combat. However, the Third Doctor also retained the character’s signature intelligence, acting as a gifted scientist and researcher for UNIT throughout his four-year tenure on Doctor Who.
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 would come to regard the Doctor as being. His more action-oriented appearances would pave the way for virtually every Doctor that followed.
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 against Tom Baker’s lengthy tenure as the fan-favorite Fourth Doctor do the weaknesses in his role become apparent.
Following Tom Baker in the role of the Doctor must’ve been akin to the pressure, Matt Smith felt having to live up to the hype of following David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor.
Knowing that, Davison did exceptionally well under the pressure of having to follow in Baker’s footsteps. This new, exceptionally young 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, frankly and unapologetically addressing his weaknesses and fears with his companions, who he treated more like friends than subordinates.
Known by 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 (especially in the case of the First and Third Doctor) who always wore his rather large two hearts on his sleeve at all times.
The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, 2017-Present)
The most recent and current incarnation of the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker’s appearance in Doctor Who marked the first time a woman performed in the series’ title role.
Breaking down the door of that particular boys’ club wasn’t easy, especially given some fans’ toxic opposition to Whittaker being cast in a role that was traditionally reserved for men. So far, though, Whittaker’s done a phenomenal job tearing down gender boundaries, 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 as played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. She’s a lovable, warm, friendly, 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 similarly high-energy-style performances of Tennant and Smith.
Despite her friendly relationships with her companions and her constant desire to help others, the Thirteenth Doctor also hides a deep sense of loneliness and isolation, sometimes causing her to feel “out of place” in the universe. Unfortunately, Whittaker’s casting itself is the main thing most fans discuss when talking about her character, rather than looking at her personality or some of her most notable actions in recent episodes.
With time, it’s more than likely her reputation as a competent and entertaining Doctor will be more favorably looked upon by viewers, especially when the series casts additional female actors as the Doctor in the future.
The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi, 2014-2017)
The initial few seasons of the revived Doctor Who series were marked by younger Doctors who had some eccentric personalities, defined by their kind, outgoing nature, and friendly 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 a while.
Characterized by his fairly minimalist wardrobe (predominantly dark clothing and a velvet jacket), Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor feels like a cross between the First and the Third Doctor. He can be somewhat grumpy, rude, and has little patience when dealing with others. However, he is still undeniably a man who will do whatever it takes to save as many people as possible (even if he doesn’t much 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 more closely aligned to a younger person’s in spite of his advanced age—including 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, blending older character traits of the Doctor into the modern era.
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, 2005)
The original Doctor Who series came to a close in the late ‘80s, with a TV movie that received mostly mixed reviews coming out in 1996. In 2005, the show was revived by a new team of producers, with actor Christopher Eccleston stepping into the role of the famous Doctor.
There was no doubt a lot of pressure on Eccleston to live up to helm this new series, especially after the show’s long hiatus. However, Eccleston more than managed, delivering a Doctor that retained many qualities of the original Doctors, along with some modern characteristics (fast-talking, high-energy, and high-enthusiasm) that virtually every incarnation that followed would similarly attempt portraying.
Compared to earlier iterations of the Doctor, the Ninth Doctor is relatively toned back and minimalist in wardrobe (wearing only a black leather jacket and all dark clothing). If clothing is any indication of his personality, fittingly, 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 overly-talkative, eccentric manner. Eccleston’s time on the show may have been brief, but it set a high bar for every Doctor that followed.
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton, 1966-1969)
William Hartnell may have been the first Doctor, but it was Patrich Troughton that perfected the role, creating the set standard for every Doctor Who actor who 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 friendly and well-meaning most of the time, but could also be more calculating and methodical, hiding a brilliant, tactical mind behind 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 nearly everyone he encountered. Compared to Hartnell—who only reluctantly chose to help when the situation called for it—Troughton was always ready to step in and do his part.
Troughton’s influence and likable performance as the Second Doctor can be seen in nearly every subsequent Doctor, all of whom tried to strike the balance discovered by Troughton between comedy, intelligence, and pragmatic efficiency.
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. However, Smith’s Eleventh Doctor was more than able to adequately succeed Tennant in the role, creating a Doctor that was distinctly his own yet also retained many of the time-traveling alien’s famous quirks that fans had loved seeing in prior Doctors.
The youngest Doctor to date (Smith was only 26 when he was cast in the series), Smith’s Doctor looked and acted young and jovial—possessing the child-like energy and sense of playfulness you’d expect to find in a precocious 11-year-old—but behind his outwardly 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, scholarly outfits. (In his tweed jacket with elbow patches, bow ties, and suspenders, he more closely resembled a university professor.) Like David Tennant, the Eleventh Doctor was extremely compassionate and caring towards everyone he met and was almost always putting 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 incredibly friendly and caring, especially when it came to his companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.
If there were any naysayers about Doctor Who continuing after David Tennant left, Matt Smith’s charismatic Doctor proved them all wrong, helping the show carry on into the new decade.
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant, 2005-2010)
Easily the most beloved Doctor of the modern era, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor is comparable to the popularity Tom Baker commanded as the Fourth Doctor in the 1970s.
In terms of personality, Tennant’s Doctor greatly resembles Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Both are boisterous, energetic, manic characters who love and care for every single being they meet, with the Tenth Doctor always attempting to solve any conflict with a peaceful resolution.
Unlike Smith, however, Tennant’s Doctor appears, acts, and seems far more youthful than his successor, blending in elements of the Fourth Doctor’s eccentricity, kindness, and longing to help people and the Ninth Doctor’s inner sadness and turmoil 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 (namely his romantic relationship with Rose), 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.
Tennant’s performance in the show was so stellar, there was even talk about the producers ending the series after Tennant’s departure. His Doctor was loved and accepted among fans, it’s hard not to think of Tenth’s Doctor's final words before his regeneration (“I don’t want to go”) as basically reflecting how every fan felt knowing Tennant was leaving.
Like Tom Baker before him, he simply was the Doctor, through and through.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker, 1974-1981)
The most influential Doctor of them all, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor almost always rounds any publications’ list for the best Doctors on Doctor Who.
Nowadays, Baker remains virtually 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 prior to Baker’s casting, the Fourth Doctor was a youthful, energetic, easily-entertained figure who looked and acted like an alien tourist—endlessly interested in human affairs, and seemingly having a blast exploring every new setting on the show.
Known for his flashier dress style—wide-brimmed hat, huge frock coat, and his now iconic, bewilderingly long, multi-patterned scarf—the Fourth Doctor took the scruffy-looking, 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 whose performance likely remains the most energetic of the Doctors so far.
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 wonders (whether that meant jelly babies or unwinding with a yoyo).
Several Doctors have come close to rivaling the esteem of Baker’s Fourth Doctor, but so far, few have yet to match the popularity of Baker (although with how radically different each actors’ performance has been, it’s difficult to compare).
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Image Credit: BBC.