The greatest Doctor Who – ranked!

<span>Back in the Tardis! </span><span>Photograph: Guardian Design/BBC/Alamy/Mirrorpix/Rex Features/AP</span>
Back in the Tardis! Photograph: Guardian Design/BBC/Alamy/Mirrorpix/Rex Features/AP

It is too soon to place the Fifteenth Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, in the pantheon of actors to take on one of British TV’s most beloved characters, but to whet your appetite before his debut series lands on 11 May, here is a top 20 of actors to have owned the Tardis since William Hartnell first emerged from a police box in 1963 …

20. Richard Hurndall
First Doctor Mk III, 1983

Pressed into service to replicate the late Hartnell for the 20th-anniversary special, he bore a passing similarity to the first Doctor, but is mostly remembered by fans for the curious way he ate a pineapple.

19. Richard E Grant
The Shalka Doctor, 2003

Cast as “the ninth Doctor” for a BBC animated webcast Scream of the Shalka that was seen as potential continuation of the series at the time, he was perhaps more Holmes-ish than Doctor-ish, and quickly became a cul-de-sac curiosity when the show was announced to be finally returning to BBC One under Russell T Davies in 2005.

18. Peter Cushing
First Doctor Mk II, 1965-66

The two movies he appeared in made no bones in their promotional material that “Daleks – in colour!” were the main attraction. With the TV show years way from revealing the existence of the Time Lords, Cushing was an Edwardian human inventor of the Tardis, retreading the first two Hartnell Dalek stories but with a bigger budget, better pacing and appearances by Roy Castle and Bernard Cribbins.

17. The ‘Curse of Fatal Death’ Doctors

There was precious little Doctor Who on television in the 1990s. This Comic Relief special allowed Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley to stretch their wings as the Doctor in a glimpse of Whos that might have been. And, though it was played for laughs, it is worth noting that the writer – future showrunner Steven Moffat – employed lots of timey-wimey back and forth, and the Thirteenth Doctor did, of course, end up being a woman. Sound familiar?

16. David Bradley
First Doctor Mk IV, 2017

He deftly played Hartnell in the Mark Gatiss-penned drama about the origins of Doctor Who, then was drafted into the show itself. The voice, look and mannerisms were without question authentic, but he was hampered in Twice Upon a Time by a script that leaned more into jokes about 1960s attitudes to women than embodying the character.

15. Jo Martin
The Fugitive Doctor, 2020-22

Seemingly a humble tour guide named Ruth, Martin’s Fugitive Doctor was one of the most successful jaw-drop reveals of recent years when it suddenly became apparent she was playing a Doctor from somewhere in the past. Set against Jodie Whittaker, Martin was immediately more abrasive and sure of herself than the Thirteenth Doctor, showing an entirely different way for a woman to inhabit the role.

14. Colin Baker
Sixth Doctor, 1984-86

There is something to love in every Time Lord, but one of the main actors to regularly lead the show has to be ranked last, and Baker got a raw deal from the start. Joining when BBC executives had fallen out of love with Doctor Who and, saddled with a ludicrous costume not of his choosing, his time was bedevilled by format changes, a hiatus and a warring production office. His long-term plan for his performance to gradually mellow barely got past the bombastic stage.
Best story: Revelation of the Daleks. Iconic performance: Vengeance on Varos

13. Peter Davison
Fifth Doctor, 1981-84

Best known as All Creatures Great And Small’s Tristan Farnon when he was cast, Davison had Tom Baker’s huge shoes to fill as the first new Doctor for seven years. A boyish uncle figure, his Tardis was crowded with companions, none of whom seemed to be having a great time exploring time and space. You never fully felt Davison’s Doctor was in control of things, although his swansong adventure The Caves of Androzani is regarded as perhaps the greatest regeneration story of all.
Best story: Kinda. Iconic performance: The Caves of Androzani

12. John Hurt
The War Doctor, 2013

“What if there was a hidden incarnation of the Doctor, played by one of the greatest actors of his generation?” was the unlikely premise of the 50th-anniversary special, but Hurt was adorable in the role, with a weary gravitas that offset the childish enthusiasm of incumbent Matt Smith and returning David Tennant. “Am I having a midlife crisis?” he tells the younger actors off at one point. Only Hurt’s limited screentime stops him being placed higher.

11. Jodie Whittaker
Thirteenth Doctor, 2017-22

As the first female Doctor, Whittaker faced a huge amount of media interest, plus a predictable backlash from a vocal minority of fans. When her run was good (Eve of the Daleks, War of the Sontarans, The Haunting of Villa Diodati) it was very good, but too much was fair-to-middling. Her first season wore “no returning monsters” as a badge of honour, then the second was intricate lore examination. She threw herself into the role, though, and was even able to film an in-costume message of reassurance for children at the start of the Covid pandemic from a cupboard in her house (she always took her costume home).
Best story: Fugitive of the Judoon. Iconic performance: Village of the Angels

10. Jon Pertwee
Third Doctor, 1970-74

The further we get from Pertwee’s portrayal, the more it seems an outlier. His larger-than-life Edwardian James Bond-esque Doctor got into fist fights and wrestled, and jumped into any gizmo he could fly or drive, but original series producer Verity Lambert said she didn’t enjoy how the mostly Earthbound character had gone from Hartnell’s crotchety unpredictability via Patrick Troughton’s “cosmic hobo” to being “a bit too establishment”.
Best story: Inferno. Iconic performance: The Sea Devils

9. Peter Capaldi
Twelfth Doctor, 2013-17

Capaldi’s time in the Tardis gave us some great and creepy episodes (Listen, Knock Knock), the genuinely moving one-hander Heaven Sent, and his anti-war speech during a Zygon two-parter will go down as one of the great Doctor monologues of all time. There was sometimes a nagging doubt, though, that you were watching a wonderful actor having the absolute time of his life playing at being the Doctor, rather than watching the Doctor.
Best story: World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls. Iconic performance: Heaven Sent

8. William Hartnell
First Doctor, 1963-66

The original, you might say. Hartnell exudes a magnetic charm as the irritable old man annoyed that two human teachers have gatecrashed his space-time ship. While Ian (William Russell, who made a world record-breaking return to the role in 2022) and then Steven (a pre-Blue Peter Peter Purves) were on hand to do the action scenes, Hartnell soon became the central focus. His obsession that, for television work, he needed to do gestures up-close to his face led to a performance that was never short of delightful.
Best story: The War Machines. Iconic performance: An Unearthly Child

7. Paul McGann
Eighth Doctor, 1996

He may have been the rare bright spot in the mildly received 1996 TV movie, but during what fans call “the wilderness years” – after the show was axed and before Davies resurrected it – he owned the role, recording audio adventure after adventure. McGann was effectively the incumbent Doctor from 1996 until 2005, and almost certainly one of the most popular announcements the current producers Bad Wolf could make is that his Doctor would finally get his own TV spin-off.

6. Sylvester McCoy
Seventh Doctor, 1987-89

After an inauspicious start, McCoy’s Doctor went down a different path. Spoon-playing was out, and in came a manipulative Time Lord with his troubled teenage sidekick Ace (Sophie Aldred), who had a penchant for bashing Daleks with her baseball bat. The show was arguably in a better place than it had been for many years when the BBC pulled the plug on it in 1989. McCoy and Aldred walked off into the distance with “work to do” out there “where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep.”
Best story: Remembrance of the Daleks. Iconic performance: The Curse of Fenric

5. Christopher Eccleston
Ninth Doctor, 2005

Eccleston has been vocal about his mental health, anorexia and difficult personal circumstances while filming his one series as the Doctor, but his Time Lord was a revelation. Eschewing received pronunciation and stylised costumes, the Doctor came back in 2005 with “lots of planets have a North” to explain his accent and carried the bitterness of a man who had been at war. Eccleston was instrumental in making the show a 21st-century juggernaut. From his first word in the role – “Run” – to his last on screen – “Rose, before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I” – he was pitch perfect.
Best story: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. Iconic performance: Dalek

4. Patrick Troughton
Second Doctor, 1966-69

If Troughton hadn’t made a success of the role, this list would only have two names on it. His portrayal was the mercurial template for nearly all that followed. Specialising in “base under siege” stories where the Doctor and companions had to wriggle out of being blamed for chaos by exposing an alien menace, Troughton called on all his charm and impish mischief, but was never shy of the sterner warning that “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought.” It is a bitter shame that so many of his episodes remain missing from the BBC archive.
Best story: Fury from the Deep. Iconic performance: Enemy of the World

3. Matt Smith
Eleventh Doctor, 2010-13

The Eleventh Hour remains one of the best ways to introduce someone to Doctor Who, since we meet his Doctor through the eyes of a child, and at the heart of it is Smith’s immediately infectious performance. Fish fingers and custard indeed! The youngest actor to have been cast in the role at the time, he managed to convey “those sad old eyes” when needed, amid necessary flashes of anger when put into a trap. Whether you liked showrunner Steven Moffat’s series arc plots or not, Smith’s initial expanded companion ensemble was the best recurring group since the days of Unit.
Best story: Vincent and the Doctor. Iconic performance: The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

2. Tom Baker
Fourth Doctor, 1974-81

The Guv’nor. There is a reason the pop culture shorthand for Doctor Who is curls, teeth and that very, very long scarf. Baker simply was Doctor Who for seven years. The addition of robot dog K-9 got a whole new generation of 70s kids to tune in obsessively, too. Baker sailed through it all, eyes wide, turning his real-life eccentricity into a larger-than-life man you really could believe walked in eternity. His surprise cameo as the mysterious elder “curator” in the 50th-anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, did not leave a dry eye in the house.
Best story: The Robots of Death. Iconic performance: The Ark in Space

1. David Tennant
Tenth and Fourteenth Doctors, 2005-10, 2022-3

His second bite of the cherry just about elevates David Tennant above Tom Baker. Tennant agreed to step into the role after Eccleston’s abrupt departure, not knowing how successful the 2005 revival would be, then discovered he’d inherited a monster. His time in the role is littered with stories that put the character most through the emotional wringer (Midnight/Human Nature/The Waters of Mars) and some of the most comedy gif-able moments, which made him the perfect Doctor for the social media age. By 2009, Tennant’s Doctor Who was the BBC One Christmas ident and the show had ubiquitous cultural capital again.

Whether by accident or design, his brief return with Catherine Tate in 2023 delivered three enjoyable specials and worked as a convenient way to soft reboot the show for the Disney+ era. Over to you, Ncuti …
Best story: Blink. Iconic performance: Midnight

Doctor Who returns to BBC One on 11 May at 6.20pm.

60th anniversary specials

Special 1: The Star Beast
Special 2: Wild Blue Yonder
Special 3: The Giggle
Christmas special: The Church on Ruby Road

Flux / Series 13

Chapter one: The Halloween Apocalypse
Chapter two: War of the Sontarans
Chapter three: Once, Upon Time
Chapter four: Village of the Angels
Chapter five: Survivors of the Flux
Chapter six: The Vanquishers
New Year's Special: Eve of the Daleks
Spring special: Legend of the Sea Devils
BBC centenary special: The Power of the Doctor

Series 12

Episode 1: Spyfall part one
Episode 2: Spyfall part two
Episode 3: Orphan 55
Episode 4: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
Episode 5: Fugitive of the Judoon
Episode 6: Praxeus
Episode 7: Can You Hear Me?
Episode 8: The Haunting of Villa Diodati
Episode 9: Ascension of the Cybermen
Episode 10: The Timeless Children
New Year's special: Revolution of the Daleks

Series 11

Episode 1: The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Episode 2: The Ghost Monument
Episode 3: Rosa
Episode 4: Arachnids in the UK
Episode 5: The Tsuangra Condundrum
Episode 6: Demons of the Punjab
Episode 7: Kerblam!
Episode 8: The Witchfinders
Episode 9: It Takes You Away
Episode 10: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
New Year's special: Resolution

Series 10

Episode 1: The Pilot
Episode 2: Smile
Episode 3: Thin Ice
Episode 4: Knock Knock
Episode 5: Oxygen
Episode 6: Extremis
Episode 7: The Pyramid at the End of the World
Episode 8: The Lie of the Land
Episode 9: Empress of Mars
Episode 10: The Eaters of Light
Episode 11: World Enough and Time
Episode 12: The Doctor Falls
2017 Christmas special: Twice Upon A Time

Series 9

Episode 1: The Magician's Apprentice
Episode 2: The Witch's Familiar
Episode 3: Under The Lake
Episode 4: Before The Flood
Episode 5: The Girl Who Died
Episode 6: The Woman Who Lived
Episode 7: The Zygon Invasion
Episode 8: The Zygon Inversion
Episode 9: Sleep No More
Episode 10: Face The Raven
Episode 11: Heaven Sent
Episode 12: Hell Bent
2015 Christmas special: The Husbands of River Song
2016 Christmas special: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Series 8

Episode 1: Deep Breath
Episode 2: Into The Dalek
Episode 3: Robot of Sherwood
Episode 4: Listen
Episode 5: Time Heist
Episode 6: The Caretaker
Episode 7: Kill The Moon
Episode 8: Mummy on the Orient Express
Episode 9: Flatline
Episode 10: In the Forest of the Night
Episode 11: Dark Water
Episode 12: Death In Heaven
2014 Christmas special: Last Christmas

Series 7

Episode 1: Asylum of the Daleks
Episode 2: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
Episode 3: A Town Called Mercy
Episode 4: The Power of Three
Episode 5: The Angels Take Manhatten
2012 Christmas special: The Snowmen
Episode 6: The Bells of Saint John
Episode 7: The Rings of Akhaten
Episode 8: Cold War
Episode 9: Hide
Episode 10: Journey to the Centre of the Tardis
Episode 11: The Crimson Horror
Episode 12: Nightmare in Silver
Episode 13: The Name of the Doctor
50th Anniversary special: The Day of the Doctor
2013 Christmas special: The Time of the Doctor

Series 6

Episode 1: The Impossible Astronaut
Episode 2: Day of the Moon
Episode 3: The Curse of the Black Spot
Episode 4: The Doctor's Wife
Episode 5: The Rebel Flesh
Episode 6: The Almost People
Episode 7: A Good Man Goes To War
Episode 8: Let's Kill Hitler
Episode 9: Night Terrors
Episode 10: The Girl Who Waited
Episode 11: The God Complex
Episode 12: Closing Time
Episode 13: The Wedding of River Song
2011 Christmas special: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

Series 5

Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour
Episode 2: The Beast Below
Episode 3: Victory of the Daleks
Episode 4: The Time of Angels
Episode 5: Flesh and Stone
Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice
Episode 7: Amy's Choice
Episode 8: The Hungry Earth
Episode 9: Cold Blood
Episode 10: Vincent and the Doctor
Episode 11: The Lodger
Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens
Episode 13: The Big Bang
2010 Christmas special: A Christmas Carol