Season eight of Doctor Who has arrived on Lightbox today, with Peter Capaldi making his debut as The Doctor. José Barbosa power ranks the Doctors as they have regenerated through the ages.
There was a time the way the BBC felt about Doctor Who was analogous to how most people feel about flatulence in enclosed spaces: unwanted and deeply embarrassing.
The man who ran BBC One during the mid-eighties later described the show as “rubbish” and “pathetic.” In 1989 he eventually threw open a window and cancelled the show. Yet still it survives and whole DVD featurettes have been created examining exactly what contributes to the show’s longevity.
A huge part of it must be that natural biological process baked into the DNA of the show: regeneration. When the Doctor gets too banged up, he grows a new body and personality. If your ratings are flagging or everyone’s tired of the current actor, flick the switch and get a new one. The resulting publicity and attention tends to help spur the show through the first season of the newcomer.
There’s been a platoon of male white actors who have been handed the keys of the TARDIS and they’ve been very different chaps. As is required under the TV Review Website Act of 1976, here are all the Doctors ranked from worst to best. Rassilon keep and preserve us.
Although agile and able to karate chop his way through stuntmen wearing wetsuits painted to look like monsters, the Third Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee never really endeared himself to my heart. He was a take charge kind of rooster rather than the cheeky observer of the second incarnation and he seemed to spend all his time being annoyed at how utterly balls humans were.
He may have been extremely disadvantaged by BBC budget cuts which the Doctor Who writers met by exiling the Third Doctor to earth and making him drive himself to adventures. Honestly, that is some weak carry on, BBC.
The “War” Doctor was essentially cooked up as a character for the 50th anniversary episode The Day Of the Doctor. Played by John Hurt, this Doctor was a stand in for the “classic” series Doctors who, if they were to share the screen with the modern Doctors, who mostly comment on how youthful they are and their penchant for pashing.
Mostly ranked here because someone thought it was a good idea to give John Hurt a faux-hawk.
The Eighth Doctor is the one who really got a raw deal. He appeared in one rubbish TV movie opposite a villain played by Eric Roberts and that was pretty much it. At least everyone else has a season or two of on set stories to dish out at conventions, poor Paul McGann just has a handful of anecdotes about hitting the NOS while Roberts took pot shots at police helicopters from the trailer window with a kalashnikov.
It feels a little churlish to have the OG William Hartnell so early in the list, but the very early Doctor Who is almost completely unrecognisable. For example: the Doctor is literally a cantankerous old man that mostly wants to teach you about whatever time period they visit, nearly everyone flubs their lines because they couldn’t afford enough film to shoot scenes twice, monsters are usually just people wearing black leggings inside painted cardboard boxes (primitive even for Doctor Who) and it’s all shot on blurry old black and white film. The end result is something so bizarre and unsettling it might as well have been made in the Hellraiser dimension.
Peter Davidson’s tenure is generally well remembered, but mainly because he was the first youngish Doctor. This Doctor was like your uncle who lived in Auckland and who worked at a Mercedes dealership on the shore that required him to wear white fedoras to work so their clientele would feel at ease.
He was the doctor who cared the most about humans, but maybe in the way you or I might care about ducklings until they get inside and shit all over the lounge.
A lot of people consider Tom Baker to be the quintessential Doctor. Baker was just flat out crazy and had a smile like a piano keyboard. He played the Doctor for eight years and in all that time he only made one acting decision: play every emotion like it’s about to shoot out your eye sockets and propel your eyeballs into the face of the person opposite.
His Doctor was, perhaps, the most fun. He also had a robot dog, which, at the time, I thought was the coolest thing ever until Andrew Shusterman at school vomited through his nose.
Just about the only thing I can remember about Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is that he played the spoons. Sonny Spoon also featured musical spoons, but I don’t know if Mario Van Peebles actually played them. It seems like he should have, thematically.
McCoy’s seasons were the last of the classic Who programme. They’re notable because his plucky companion Ace was a prototype Rose and McCoy started to introduce a dark, manipulative side to his character.
Again it feels a little mean to have this Doctor so early in the list, particularly as Christopher Eccleston helped usher in this second coming of the Doctor in 2005. Alas, his Doctor never quite clicked for me. Maybe it was how he looked more like the owner operator of a car wash in Sheffield than a time lord?
He did the tragic stuff well. His Doctor was basically suffering PTSD after the mysterious Time War. In that context the humor seemed forced, a continually fraying blanket over sharp and dangerous rocks. He was helped enormously by Billie Piper who played one of the great companions.
Everyone loves Tennant, don’t they? What’s not to like, though? Boyish good looks, a portrayal straight from the Electro Shock Treatment school of acting and witty as a wit shop on Witter Street.
Apart from Paul McGann (whose hair and heavy eyelids probably have their own Tinder profiles), Tennant was the first really sexy Doctor and he made it possible for Doctor Who purists to even countenance the idea that the Doctor could have a relationship with one of his companions.
Just like everyone dug Tennant, absolutely no one liked Colin Baker. However he’s one of my favourites and mainly because of the audacity of what they were trying to do with him.
The sixth Doctor is a total wank, he’s convinced of his own brilliance and importance in a very Cumberbatch-Sherlock kind of way. He’s also a complete coward, often leaving companions in his dust retracting from danger. It’s so unlike the usual Doctor template that it instantly grabs you.
The plan was to have the Doctor slowly find humility and humanity and learn to be brave. Unfortunately the writing is awful and audiences didn’t want a Doctor who was a bastard. Baker’s seasons are perhaps most fondly remembered for an episode where he finally fixes the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit and it turns into a number of different disguises, including an ornate cupboard and a organ. Seriously, those are the high points.
Doctor Who as we know it really begins with Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor. Steven Moffat, the current showrunner, describes the Second Doctor as “being odd, without inviting you to think he’s odd.”
The purely historical and educational nature of the show was completely dropped during Troughton’s tenure. It’s only goal was to frighten the hell out of the nation’s children. It pretty much succeeded in The Tomb Of The Cybermen, the antagonists of which look like recovering burn victims.
I really love Matt Smith’s portrayal of a one thousand year old time traveller with a young bloke’s body. He believably jumps from both end of the spectrum, at one moment irrepressibly young, at the next brooding and grumpy.
Alas it’s during Smith’s run that new Who gets the incomprehensible. Terry Pratchett reckoned the show breaks “most of the laws of narrative.” I still don’t know what happened during “The Name Of The Doctor” and the Eleventh Doctor is the one who spends the most amount of time talking about how amazing he is when he should be showing us.
Having said that, the show is all about having a good old romp. You can’t really stay annoyed at a show and a lead actor that’s having a whale of a time.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
The newest Doctor as embodied by Peter Capaldi is still too new to accurately power rank. However, we have at least one season to mull over and mull we do! In video format even! Send your optics here!
This content, like everything we do at The Spinoff, is brought you thanks to the excellent folk people at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.