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Who's Best

Simon Crust tries to answer that impossible question - which actor was the greatest Doctor Who?

by Simon Crust Nov 23, 2013 at 8:31 AM


  • Movies Article

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    Who's Best
    On 23 November 1963 a TV phenomenon was born.
    Largely the brain child of the BBC’s then Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, the programme was defined as a (paraphrased) ‘children’s educational program, using time travel to explore scientific development as well as significant points in history – to appeal to children and adults alike’. This latter statement was identified due to its time slot (5.30pm Saturdays) between the afternoon sports schedule and early evening entertainment shows – i.e. to bridge the gap between adult and family viewing, with perhaps the most famous phrase “no bug eyed monsters” being highlighted as its core ideal. This was clearly thrown completely out of the window when the first producer Verity Lambert tasked Terry Nation to write the first ‘science’ story and he turned in the now infamous Daleks! Although well away from the programmes conceptual ideas their popularity guaranteed the show's future (there were, unbelievably only thirteen episodes originally planned!)
    There were, unbelievably only thirteen episodes originally planned...
    Planning a show from scratch was obviously a mammoth task, not least because nothing like this had ever been attempted, therefore the choice of leading actors was paramount to its initial success. Using the above remit, it had to appeal to both kids and their parents. Their choice was inspired, as we shall see. However, that choice also had a bearing on the shows future, as when age, temperament and ill health forced the makers hand, something unprecedented occurred – rather than cancel the show, the bold decision was made to change the leading actor. This move, which must have seemed sheer lunacy at the time, has since become part of the shows history; what is the Doctor without his regeneration? This idea has meant that the show has been able to endure time (and space!) with different actors taking over the role, often leading to a new direction and new ideas; the show, in effect, re-invents itself.

    But it does beg the question: Who is the best Doctor? And, in an attempt at an answer, we first have to look through the various guises that have assumed the mantle, starting at the very first.

    The Grandfather

    The role of the very first Doctor was given to noted character actor William Hartnell. Already a seasoned performer of some serious note the part of the Doctor was a radical departure from the tough, criminal/army sergeant types that he had made his career out of. His casting had a dramatic effect on the show, he was a figure of authority, but with a twinkle in his eye and was seen as a breakthrough part that enabled the then fifty five year old actor to appeal to children. As written the Doctor was an uppity old man, somewhat absent minded, but with a keen intelligence; and, although his race was not yet identified, the somewhat enigmatic term of ‘wander in the fourth dimension’ was given to his otherworldly appearance. The original companions were a granddaughter and her two school teachers, thus the Doctor was also a father figure, a leader, but one with a mischievous glint. The show was hugely ambitious in its early years, with a strict moral code and a dedicated story balance between history and science, but always with the Doctor becoming embroiled in some plot or another.

    The father figure, authoritarian and mischievous character that Hartnell portrayed set the standard for all those that followed, it is after all only natural to look back to the beginning to gain insight. During later stories, with workloads and health becoming issues, Hartnell began to fluff the occasional line, but this was written into the character as another part of his charm; only behind the scenes things were slightly different – seen to be carrying the weight of the show on his shoulders, and with his professional attitude towards the craft, he often become very difficult to work with. As the stories evolved away from the original remit and an ever decreasing age of companion, Hartnell was beginning to look ‘old’ for the part. It is a testament to his dedication to the role that the series continues to this day and for many there will only be one Doctor, and he looks like William Hartnell.
    Sadly a large number of Troughton's episodes were wiped in the early seventies by the BBC in their short sighted reusing of video tapes!
    The Clown

    Given the hardest task of all was another noted actor Patrick Troughton, his job was that of taking over from one of the most beloved characters ever, that of the Doctor. Troughton was known for his serious roles, so he wanted his take on the Doctor to be very different to that of Hartnell’s approach; not so much authoritarian, more ‘space hobo’. His Doctor would be almost Chaplin-esque whilst still containing that air of mischievousness and, better yet, still with that commanding authority when necessary. Troughton’s era in the role saw the show evolve into something different to the original concept, the historical stories were all but abolished in favour of ‘space adventures and aliens’, even those set on Earth, and many have a huge fondness for his time in the TARDIS.

    Sadly a large number of his episodes were wiped in the early seventies by the BBC in their reusing of the tapes (incredibly short sighted as it now seems) but, as last month testifies, some still exist in a far-flung corner of the world! The addition of Frazer Hines as companion Jamie was an instant success and the pair of them saw out Troughton’s three years in the part with an effervescent and hugely rewarding chemistry that helped the show thrive. Troughton brought to the part energy, intelligence and wit; often thought of as the serious actor who played it as comedy, and whilst that is certainly true the work was always serious, and that is why, to some, there will always be only one Doctor, and he looks like Patrick Troughton.

    The Dandy

    With the precedence already set - that regeneration is part of the Doctor - the transition to the next actor was somewhat less of a risk, although it did come with its own issues. The addition of colour, the ever present threat of industrial action, a complete change of production staff/writers and the ever watchful eye of the BBC. The part went to the hugely popular comedian and vocal performer Jon Pertwee; and just like Troughton before him, he needed to set himself apart from his immediate predecessor. This was not so difficult, Pertwee was nearly half a foot taller, white haired and stood centre stage - bringing all that to the part. Still drawing on previous incarnations Pertwee was an authoritarian, but against the establishment, he was tender, decisive, very scientific, loved gadgets and was quite physical; the Doctor may abhor violence, but some Venusian Karate often works in a scrape!

    For budgetary reasons the mainstay of Pertwee’s era as the Doctor was based on Earth under the U.N.I.T. banner. There was a huge amount of camaraderie between all the cast and this enthusiasm and chemistry rubbed off on the show – even if it was ultimately too restrictive. It also gave rise to two of the most popular and endearing companions in Jo Grant and Sara Jane Smith; newcomers often quote Rose’s departure as heart-wrenching (from the new series) but it had already been done in 1973 with Jo. A quick wit, a sharp tongue, a tender side, physicality, intelligence and an ability to ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’, he was a comedy actor who played it serious; that is why, to many, there is only one Doctor, and he looks like Jon Pertwee.
    With his long scarf, floppy hat and jelly babies the Doctor had suddenly become the alien he always was.
    The Teeth and the Curls

    It’s now the mid-seventies, Dr Who had had its tenth anniversary a year before, and there was dynamic change happening, not only to the production team, which, pretty much to a man decided to leave for other projects, but also to the country as a whole. The series had always been up against it when it came to money, time, and the higher echelons of the BBC - who considered the long running show as a kind of Promethean torture. However, whilst the series would continue as a thorn in the BBC's side (much worse was to come) it was about to enter into its most successful period yet, both in terms of viewing figures and audience appreciation. These coincided with the lead change which, in turn, led to many considering the actor chosen as having a direct influence on the show – in fact it was now more a collaborative affair with the incoming producer, long term writers and a sincere wish to deliver the best show that money could make by delving deeper into gothic horror and delivering a far more adult show that children could still enjoy.

    For the first time a relatively unknown actor was chosen to spearhead this new direction. Famously working as a hod carrier at the time of his casting, Tom Baker was soon to become a house hold name. Instantly recognisable with his long scarf, floppy hat and jelly babies the Doctor had suddenly become alien – of course he always had been, but this was the first time that he appeared as such. Baker was exuberant, enigmatic and enthusiastic. His interpretation took much of what had gone before - the wicked sense of humour of Troughton, the scientific intelligence of Pertwee and the authoritative stamp of Hartnell and melded them into a being that was at once familiar and different. The stories were strong and Baker was a force to be reckoned with, and the Hinchcliffe years, as they would come to be termed, marked the highest point in the series’ history so far. Baker’s interpretation was loved, adored even, and he went on to play the role for seven years, the longest anyone ever has, surviving production team changes, censorship, BBC cuts, union disputes and American TV imports. That is why to many, there is only ever one Doctor, and he looks like Tom Baker.

    The Celery

    When it came to changing the Doctor’s face once again, the task of following what had become an extremely successful formula must have felt like the very first regeneration. The series had starred the same actor for nearly as long as half the shows’ entire run. The new producer, John Nathen Turner, wanted a fresh start, he wanted a younger audience and he made, what some (the majority even) consider to be the first of many ill-considered decisions when it came to the show. Going back to already establish actors, and wanting someone that was totally at odds with how Baker had interpreted the role, he chose a young (only 29 at the time), blonde and recognisable vet’s helper from an already well-established and loved show (All Creatures Great and Small). So it was that Peter Davison was thrust forward to be the new Doctor.

    Not only was he younger, but all his companions were to be too; the show’s look became one of garish colours and typically eighties 'flair' – gone were the dark gothic horror stories that had been so successful and in place was an almost light-hearted approach. In this regard Davison fitted the role to a tee; he was youthful, energetic and stern. However all those characteristics that made the Doctor, the Doctor, were no longer so visible – the commanding presence, the blustering fool, the scientific intelligence – all were replaced with a far quieter, restrained and, possibly, unsure of himself characterisation. Thankfully he also held a dark streak which previous Doctors had never really delved into. Controversial at the time, Davison’s Doctor was a calming presence, not so assured but charming, defiant, energetic and personable, and that it why, to some, there will only be one Doctor and he looks like Peter Davison.
    Thankfully Davison's Doctor also held a dark streak which previous incarnations had never really delved into.

    The Multi-Coloured


    We are now entering the most tumultuous time in the show’s long history - falling viewing figures along with low appreciation (actually it had actually risen quite significantly in Davison’s last year) meant that the BBC were looking very closely at the thorn in their side. A new face was needed, one to spearhead the new direction, to take on the BBC, lay waste to the Viewers Association and bring the show back in line with its classic status. The actor chosen was, again, relatively unknown (although he had already appeared in the series as a Chancery Guard) and, as the story goes, was a huge hit at one of JNT’s parties with his chicken impression; his name was Colin Baker (no relation to Tom).

    Davison’s characterisation did allow Colin quite a degree of latitude, gone was the calming presence to be replaced by something altogether more manic. Colin tried to draw on Tom’s alien attitude, but whereas the former had that voice to go with the mannerisms and presence, the latter had only bluff and pomposity. It is hugely unfortunate that Colin never really had the chance to take the Doctor in the direction that he had envisioned, something more akin to Tom’s but with the sensitivity of Davidson. Sadly circumstances were set against him – the show was actually cancelled during his reign. Citing violence as the cause, which was partially true perhaps, it was also widely known that the then Controller wanted to be rid of the show, so format alterations, shifting time slots, reduced budget and no support meant that it had little chance of survival and it is only the outcry from fans that saved the show from oblivion.

    So Colin was allowed one last (vastly reduced) season as the Doctor, but on the condition that it was his last, and the aptly titled Trial of a Timelord (since the show itself was indeed on trial) pulled together four stories as one overall arc. In it JNT made another, very, controversial decision, to replace the popular companion of Peri with one called Mel, played by a shrieking Bonnie Langford whose appearance hailed a new low for the show. But in his swan song we get to see a very brief taste of where the Doctor was heading; a real alien, strong, bold and unafraid of the right choice, despite consequences, quick witted and very unpredictable and that is why, to some, there will only be one Doctor and he looks like Colin Baker.
    McCoy brought back the mystery of the Doctor’s past, an intergalactic chess player who manipulates events and situations to suit a desired outcome.
    The Mysterious

    After Colin Baker’s dismissal (he never even came back for a regeneration scene) the show was at its lowest ebb. Viewing figures and appreciation were at all-time lows and the production team was once again in flux. JNT was still producing (sadly he was not allowed to leave, even though he had been trying for years, because the BBC clearly stated if he left, the show would not continue) but with the new face he also brought with him a new writing and script editing team. Going back to recognisable and known actors, the new Doctor was to be Sylvester McCoy, a Scottish comedian known for his unpredictable and wild stage shows (hammering a nail into his own head, for example) and it is precisely because of this persona that his first season is something of a misfire.

    With all new scripts being commissioned and an ‘unknown’ part for the Doctor the writers wrote for McCoy, i.e. comedic (much as they had done with Pertwee’s first story). And much as the production team had noted back then, the role demands a serious part, comedy has its place, within the character traits and situations, but the Doctor must be serious. Once this was realised and the next season began, we can clearly see where the Doctor’s persona was heading. It brought back the mystery of the Doctor’s past, an intergalactic chess player who manipulates events and situations to suit a desired outcome. He was dark, malevolent even, especially to his worst enemies (witness the destruction of the Cybermen and the Dalek home world). There was still that mischievous glint in his eye and at last, some ten years after Tom Baker had left, there was a credible Doctor again, someone to be loved and someone to be feared, an alien but a benevolent one when it counted. And that is why, to some, there will only be one Doctor, and he looks like Sylvester McCoy.

    The Unfortunate

    Sadly it was not to last; in what was a triumphant return to form for the production team and now with a clear direction for the character and series, the BBC had had enough and pulled the plug, this time forever. But what is forever to a Timelord? The series was kept alive in book form and the New Adventures of the Doctor and Ace were vast and adult. But what of the TV show where it all began? It took a regime change at the BBC and American finance to bring the Doctor back to where he belonged; Sylvester was even given a regeneration and he turned into another popular and established character actor, Paul McGann.

    Though largely hailed as a success at the time, the resulting TV movie was somewhat of a radical departure from what had gone before, it failed to get a new series started and looking at it now, it seems tired and out of date. But there was a bright light; McGann’s Doctor – he was instantly likeable, much like Tom Baker in his early roles. McGann took the character gave him energy, aloofness, intelligence and drive. It was only the hackneyed story that reigned him in and gave him questionable motivations to his companion at the time. But sadly that was all we were ever to see of the eighth Doctor.

    Or was it? Well, no, because the BBC in preparation for the 50th anniversary gave McGann a very brief time at the controls of the Tardis once more, which was at once awesome and tragic – awesome because it gave the character another crack of the whip (and a regeneration scene) but tragic because it shows just how incredible McGann could have been in the role. In those brief seven minutes he shows courage, determination, pathos and resignation; had the Doctor worn this face for a little longer we might have had the best yet. And this is why, to some, there is only one Doctor and he looks like Paul McGann.

    Eccleston's was a very different Doctor and with it all ties to the previous regenerations were gone.
    The Northern

    After the TV movie failed to ignite sufficient interest to continue with a new series, it took nearly ten years before the BBC had faith in a new production team to do the programme justice. With a new direction, flash new visuals, a shorter dedicated season, continuing story arcs, young dynamic talent and a whole new generation to play for, the Doctor needed a new face, someone with the acting ability to cross the gulf between the old and the new, appeal to both young and old alike. Much like Troughton and Davidson, who had a huge amount riding on them, so too did Christopher Eccleston.

    Already an established actor, Eccleston played very much to his strengths, i.e. tough and no nonsense, but with a sly nod to the past; his turn of phrase, his mannerisms all pointed towards an alien, but a being who had seen fire and was borne of war. His persona as the ‘last’ Timelord, sole survivor of the Time War, was shown as arrogance hiding a desperate mania and deep sadness. Often his interactions were unpredictable, he acted first the dealt with the consequences after. This was a very different Doctor and with it all ties to the previous regenerations were gone. New series new face, new persona, and that is why, to some, there is only one Doctor, and he looks like Christopher Eccleston.

    The Intergalactic Policeman

    Despite (at the time) claims to the contrary, Eccleston was only ever going to be the Doctor for one season; he was there for one purpose, to bring the series back with a bang – and he did that in spades. When he regenerated the now established formula of quick pace, dynamic music and action adventure required a face that could bring all the new elements together and run with them, and that face belonged to relative newcomer David Tennant. Tennant was exactly what the new series needed, a charismatic lead, young, energetic, able to blend in with the crowd, but willing and able to be the authoritarian.

    He brought with him a history of his past selves, but within the confines of the new series direction was able to break the mould and become the Doctor for the new series. Stories were getting better, (they even televised a New Adventure story), music became integrated better into the show, effects were broad, spectacular and realistic and the direction was found. Tennant stuck the balance between humanity and alien perfectly, companions came and went, the past and future collided and the universe itself was brought back from the brink – foes, both old and new, shook at the name - the Doctor was back. And it is for these and numerous other reasons that for many there is only one Doctor, and he looks like David Tennant.
    The Smith era stories would eventually get so convoluted that they disappeared up themselves...

    The Young


    When it came time for a change, such was the love for the character and its current persona, that Tennant was given four finales - special TV ‘mini-movies’ to round up his adventures and pass the baton to another production team and a new face. For years it had been touted that the Doctor needed to be ‘old’ again, his ‘youthful’ looks and persona had been around for over twenty five years, and this was the intent of the new production team, and it would have happened were it not for a new, young, fresh and enthusiastically energetic actor called Matt Smith - who simply became the Doctor from the very first moment he was on screen.

    He was an alien alien but thoroughly likeable in the part, manic in his energy, as if his intelligence was too much for his brain to contain; his words spill out of his mouth almost before they have even formed. Of course, old timers had seen it all before but such was his delivery that he inhabited the body of the Doctor and became the natural extension from Tennant; this was new and it worked! The Smith era stories would eventually get so convoluted that they disappeared up themselves, but the Doctor was always on top of things holding the bursting seams of the Universe in tow. And that is why, for many, there is only one Doctor, and he looks like Matt Smith.

    So, which one?


    The show is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary on 23 November 2013, although the show has only been on air for thirty five of those fifty years, but who’s quibbling. Quite simply it is the most successful and longest running science fiction TV serial ever. And as such many generations have grown up with the Doctor and his adventures; and as his face has changed over time, so too have the audience that appreciates it. My personal favourite Doctor is Tom Baker – I adore the man far more than his talent actually deserves, he was my Doctor, he took me on his adventures and together we shared the Universe and all its wonders and scares. Ask my son and he will give you exactly the same answer, only his Doctor is David Tennant.

    And that is the crux of the matter. It's why there's no question mark in the title – Who's Best. Your favourite Doctor is the one that took you by the hand, led you through your imagination and showed you things you could only dream of. But more than that, he's a genuine Timelord; for even now, after all these years he can manage to transport us to a time in our lives that was very special, when a man in a police box could enthral the world. And perhaps that is why, more than any other reason, that the programme has managed to endure far beyond its expected run, and why its future is ever brighter.

    And what of that future? We already know the face of the next Doctor, the very established and award-winning actor Peter Capaldi; and at long last a return to an older character. And, once that familiar sound of the Tardis ebbs into our room and the incredible ‘dum-be de-dum, dum-be de-dum,’ music begins again, his adventures will mean so very much to the next generation. And soon, to some, there will be only one Doctor, and he will look like Peter Capaldi.

    If you'd like to buy the Royal Mail's new Doctor Who stamps featured in this article, follow this link.

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