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Doctor Who: All 13 Doctors Ranked Worst to Best

There have been many actors who have donned the moniker of “The Doctor”. How do these time traveling thespians compare?

Image Courtesy of the BBC

After 60 years, BBC’s Doctor Who has regaled and delighted audiences with small-screen sci-fi adventures layered in British wit.

Obviously, in 60 years the show’s lineup has seen more than a few changes. The face-shifting alien at the forefront of the show has allowed a near-infinite shelf-life for the series. However, some Doctors are better than others.

How do the thirteen incarnations of The Doctor rank?

The Doctor, a face-changing alien from the planet Gallifrey has been played by many many actors giving extremely different performances. Over nearly 60 years, a handful of overarching character traits have been established to define The Doctor. Compassion, mercy, pacifism, empathy, and curiosity are the key personality traits of a good Doctor. So, which Doctors hold up these ideals best?

13. William Hartnell- 1st Doctor (1963-1966)

The First Doctor Staring Into the Camera
The First Doctor Staring Into the Camera
Image Courtesy of the BBC

While it may seem quite sacrilegious to place the man who started the whole dang show at the bottom of the list, in reality, that is exactly why he is here. Bill’s time in the role of The Doctor was fraught with growing pains and a lack of a clear direction. Because the show was still figuring itself out, The Doctor lacked many of his most iconic traits. In their place is a man very heavily influenced by the culture of the mid-20th century, which included some pretty blatant racism and sexism. The show itself has even explored this when David Bradley took Hartnell’s place as the 1st Doctor in 2018s “Twice Upon a Time”.

12. Colin Baker – 6th Doctor (1984-1986)

Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor
Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Few doctors can claim to have nearly killed the show. Colin Baker takes that crown handily. Doctor Who struggled to fill the hole left by the unrelated Tom Baker, whose exit from the show in 1981 subsequently ended the show’s original golden era. The rest of the 80s would see the show slide in quality and reception until its cancellation at the end of the decade.

Colin Baker’s depiction of the character was just a little too left-field for most people to swallow. He was rude, careless, and apathetic. Qualities that do not belong in a Doctor. Interestingly, this pattern of trying to turn the doctor into a bad boy cool guy would be repeated again to similarly tragic results.

Like most of the Doctors from the 80s, they would see retribution in the form of expanded media like books and audio stories. But as for their time on the show itself, Colin’s is one of the hardest to sit through. This is also reflected in his short stint. Lasting only 2 years before he was forced to quit the show. Giving him the third shortest run as the titular timelord.

11. Jon Pertwee- 3rd Doctor (1970-1974)

The 3rd Doctor Wearing His Iconic Cape and Suit
The 3rd Doctor Wearing His Iconic Cape and Suit
Image Courtesy of the BBC

This one hurts. Jon Pertwee was not offensively bad like the previous two, but in retrospect, his incarnation of the doctor has not aged well in the slightest. Cuts to Doctor Who’s budget required them to limit the scope of the show. Marooned on Earth for the foreseeable future, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor paired up with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), fighting threats on Earth. This era of the show saw the introduction of later iconic villains like the Zygons and the Autons.

However, the Achilles heel of this era of the show is its refocus on action. the BBC tried to reinvent the doctor as an action hero. Which went about as well as you would expect a British theater nerd in his fifties doing 70s television action choreography to go. It didn’t work… at all. Even in a show with as much suspension of disbelief as Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee karate chopping aliens is too much.

This is a stacked list and unfortunately, Jon pulled the short straw.

10. Paul McGann- 8th Doctor (1996)

8th Doctor Sitting on the Tardis Console
8th Doctor Sitting on the Tardis Console
Image Courtesy of the BBC and Universal

Poor Paul McGann. The Hornblower star really did get the short end of the stick here. 1996 was midway through what fans refer to as the “Wilderness years” between the show’s cancellation in 1989 and the revival in 2005. Outside of some audio dramas, a few comics, and some books the Doctor Who property was collecting dust in the BBC’s collection. Some American executives thought it great to bring the series back with some red, white, and blue flair. The resultant 1996-made-for-tv movie was built to be a pilot for an entire revival series based in the States. Suffice to say, it didn’t work.

Paul McGann’s portrayal of the character is not awful, but simply not creative either. Paul’s characterization was the best hits of Troughton, Tom, and Davison. He was hitting all the right notes but it felt more like a facsimile than an actual performance. Whether that be asking people if they want a Jelly Baby or woefully misunderstanding modern fashion. It always felt like an actor filling out a checklist rather than a transformative performance. Audio dramas have supposedly done a far greater service of creating a real character out of the 8th Doctor than this movie ever did. Nevertheless, his time on screen is easily skippable.

9. Peter Capaldi- 12th Doctor (2014-2018)

12th Doctor Promotional Image
12th Doctor Promotional Image
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Peter deserved better!

Capaldi fell victim to a pattern that follows many of the performers on this list. A terrific performer let down by terrible writing and or directing. Under different management, I have no doubt the 12th Doctor could have been something special.

Then showrunner, Steven Moffat, made the worst decision he could have made. He molded the 12th Doctor after Colin Baker’s 6th. This decision blew Capaldi’s entire first season. This sudden shift to a sassy, backtalking, crude, and demanding Doctor felt especially jarring after 3 very kind, empathetic, and outgoing Doctors.

Capaldi’s three seasons can often feel like three different characters as he and Moffat tried to find the right balance. Season 8 didn’t work at all, so for 9 they added a bit more Troughton, made him a social bimbo, and upped the quirky meter from a 3 to a 7. It still didn’t work because the characterization didn’t fit.

Finally, season 10 gave us easily the best version of Capaldi’s Doctor. In an almost Grinch-like manner, the 12th Doctor’s heart grew three sizes between seasons. The Doctor we met in season 10 had empathy, finally! An integral piece to any incarnation of The Doctor. Without it, they simply don’t work. He was relatable and somewhat charismatic, plus he still had that diva quality to him. Season twelve made Capalid’s Doctor, dare I say, watchable. He could still be rude at times, but never without reason.

8. Jodie Whittaker- 13th Doctor (2019-2022)

13th Doctor and Her Tardis
13th Doctor and Her Tardis
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Poor poor Jodie! Another case of a great actor wasted by less-than-stellar writing/directing. Contrary to what the chronically online might say, Jodie’s run is not without highlights or unsalvagable. In reality, her run is merely a bit mediocre. She had some great stories, “Demons of the Punjab”, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”, “Rosa”, and “It takes you away” are all excellent. However, most episodes ranked fairly in the middle regarding the writing, and the dialogue saw a swift downturn in quality.

Doctor Who has always been a verbose series, having some of the best speeches out there. Even under Moffat, The Doctor could turn a sonnet that would leave you in pieces. Stuff like “The End of Time” speech, The Doctor’s stand in “The Pandorica Opens” or the 12th Doctor’s plea in “The Zygon Inversion” all come to mind. Not to mention hearing the doctor unironically call her friends fam like a mid-2010s Instagram influencer was a bit off-putting.

Could definitely be better, but certainly not the worst.

7. Sylvester McCoy- 7th Doctor (1987-1989)

The 7th Doctor Amongst Daleks
The 7th Doctor Amongst Daleks
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Oh, Sly… The man who was almost the last Doctor. Similar to Capaldi, McCoy’s characterization of everyone’s favorite timelord was inconsistent. In many ways, Sly was trying to call upon Patrick Troughton. His childlike demeanor and way of dressing being a facade for a darker personality underneath. His run began very rocky, it didn’t help that the BBC was slashing the budget left and right. Poor writing, questionable acting, and even sketchier directing plagued the 7th Doctor’s run. However, in a miracle, his last season turned out something fairly decent if not great. The writers had worked out a wonderful dynamic with Ace and created a harder edge for Sly to hide beneath his goofy exterior. It’s a shame then that Peter Cregeen canceled Doctor Who in a vain effort to clean up the BBC’s image.

6. Peter Davison- 5th Doctor (1981-1984)

The 5th Doctor Stares into the Camera
The 5th Doctor Stares into the Camera
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Sweet Peter! Davison was easily the most consistently quality Doctor of the 80s. Peter demanded the screen with a youthful exuberance then foreign to the role. Even Baker was already in his 40s when he donned the scarf, Davison wasn’t even 30!

Peter brought an almost child-like innocence and sense of compassion to the role that made him very endearing. Strong yet vulnerable, Peter was probably the most relatable of the classic doctors. But don’t mistake his compassion for weakness. He was more than willing to make scraps out of cybermen when necessary.

The writing may not have always been the strongest, and his companions were very hit-and-miss. But the weak link during his run was never him. Peter Davison’s run as The Doctor is a true classic.

5. Matt Smith- 11th Doctor (2010-2013)

11th Doctor Played by Matt Smith
11th Doctor Played by Matt Smith
Image Courtesy of the BBC

Geronimo! Matt Smith demanded the screen in this role. Stealing the record for youngest Doctor from Davison. Matt had a magnetic presence to him, a flailing energy that seemed to build momentum the more you watched. Matt is one of few doctors who survived less than stellar writing. In many instances, he was holding the show up on his own shoulders. The young actor brought a remarkable amount of wisdom and maturity to the role for someone his age. Watching him gaff around with youthful fervor one moment and stare down an enemy with tenured contempt the next is addictive.

Even as the show’s objective quality worsened during his run, Matt Smith kept eyes on screens. His energy was just that powerful. Smith was also the face of the franchise as it went global. The internet had matured into a powerful communication and advertising tool and Matt got to be the face of Doctor Who as it stormed overseas.

4. Patrick Troughton- 2nd Doctor (1966-1969)

2nd Doctor Reading a Book
2nd Doctor Reading a Book
Image Courtesy of the BBC

While Hartnell may have the title of the first Doctor, many of The Doctor’s greatest attributes and character details actually originate from Troughton. The actor played The Doctor as a two-faced manipulator for peace. On the surface, he is a clumsy buffoon hardly capable of anything. But beneath the surface, he is always playing chess while everyone else plays checkers. The intelligence, the charisma, the comedy, the compassion. All of these characteristics truly began with Patrick. Every subsequent Doctor owes some debt to Troughton as he set the standard for what The Doctor should be; sonic screwdriver included.

It’s a darn shame that much of Patrick’s run has ironically been lost to time. The BBC’s poor archiving practices of the time means that many episodes of the 2nd Doctor’s run are considered lost media. Much of his run only exists because of amateur archivists and TV historians. This was an issue that afflicted all doctors until the advent of home video technology in the early 80s. But it affected the 2nd Doctor’s run in particular

3. Tom Baker

4th Doctor and Daleks
4th Doctor and Daleks
Image Courtesy of the BBC

No relation to Colin!

There is a reason Tom was the face of the franchise for so long. Tom took what Patrick had built years prior and embued a sense of familial charm and gentry. Tom oozed a comforting fatherly vibe that just felt right. Caring, compassionate, empathetic, gentle, righteous, quizzical, and witty. Troughton may have set the standards but Baker codified them and then some. For years the combination of Brown Fedora and yellow striped scarf was inseparable from Doctor Who. It would take 25 years for someone to dethrone him on the popularity charts.

Tom was the Doctor for seven years! The longest of any Doctor by a considerable margin. He became nearly inseparable from the show. When he left in 1981 the show spiraled into cancelation less than a decade later. To this day some people still want that Jelly Baby.

2. Christopher Eccleston- 9th Doctor (2005)

9th Doctor Promotional Image
9th Doctor Promotional Image
Graphic Courtesy of the BBC

Chris was fantastic! The 28 Days Later star managed the impossible. He turned The Doctor into a grumpy rude curmudgeon but kept him likable. Colin and Capaldi were Doctors rude without a purpose. Colin’s first-ever scene was him physically assaulting his companion, Peri. Capaldi was instantly dismissive of Clara’s genuine fear and concern. There is no given reason for this drastic change in personality outside of regeneration. The genius of Russel T Davies was giving The Doctor a real chip on his shoulder and context to his darker actions and attitude. Eccleston could be rude, sarcastic, and dismissive, but the character’s empathy and selflessness was retained. The 9th Doctor was never rude or mean without reason. A battle and war-torn Doctor filled with regrets and rage. He was very much a wandering soul trying to find himself again.

Eccleston had a way of grabbing you and never letting go. A deeply emotional portrayal backed by an extremely talented performer. He could be screaming tears of joy like at the end of “The Doctor Dances” or screaming in defeat and frustration like the end of “Parting of the Ways”. Eccleston’s darker actions always felt internally justified even if objectively they weren’t. It always worked because at the end of the day, The Doctor we know he should be is there, hiding under the pain and the scars. Eccleston’s performance portrayed a Doctor who knows who he should be but struggles to live up to. To rise up as under the weight of the Time War.

Despite only a single season under his belt, Eccleston managed to redefine The Doctor for the 21st century and in the process gave one of the best performances of The Doctor ever put to screen.

1. David Tennant- 10th Doctor (2006-2009)

10th Doctor Promo Photo
10th Doctor Promo Photo
Image Courtesy of the BBC

The man who dethroned Tom Baker. David Tennant’s run on Doctor Who is more than iconic. A powerful actor backed by excellent writing and supported by excellent companions. The 10th Doctor is easily the most human of all The Doctors. A sensitive, impulsive, and passionate Doctor capable of great feats of love and anger. Tennant gave an insurmountable performance as an oft-goofy Doctor, hiding a deep seething pain and burden under the surface. Episodes like “School Reunion” and “Family of Blood” allowed the Doctor to lift the mask and reveal his true nature. An immortal cursed to watch those around him die, utterly alone and forced to watch as the universe makes the same mistakes again and again.

David’s jaunt swashbuckling attitude was exciting, and his kind and open-hearted nature was inviting. Tennant’s portrayal of the character embodied all of the best bits of his previous incarnations. Patrick and Sly’s devious goofy nature, Davison’s gentle attitude and youthful exuberance, Tom’s cold determination and control, and Chris’s rage, albeit tempered. But David never lets it feel like a checklist. His portrayal took these characteristics and built something new and unique on top of them. There is a reason he has become the new standard for the long-running series.

So impressive was David’s run that when he quit the show in late 2009, the BBC briefly considered canceling the show out of fear of another Tom Baker scenario. Unsure if he could ever be replaced sufficiently. David’s performance in the Doctor Who universe is not over yet. He has been brought back time and time again. comics, audio dramas, video games, and anniversary specials. And now, after nearly 15 years, he has returned to the show once more as the 14th Doctor. The king is back, long live the king!

For more Doctor Who talk, check out this article here

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Hey! My name is Ryan, and I am a student senior at the University of Missouri St. Louis. I'm a communication major with a specialization in public relations. Writing is a pastime I picked up over the pandemic and felt journalism might be an interesting career path to check out. I am a nerd with a love of video games and sci-fi. I am also a slight anglophile with a solid toe in the U.K scene at most times. My favorite TV show is Psych and my favorite video game series is The Legend of Zelda.

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