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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Static Thoughts - Doctor Who Ranking

Edited by Robert Beach 

It’s Doctor Who time again with the show returning for its 9th season under the new series banner.  This will be the second outing for 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi and the final season for companion Jenna Coleman. At the time of writing, I haven’t watched the premiere, but all noises are pretty good, so I guess we’ll see.

Last season was intermittently decent, so I’m moderately hopeful about this latest season of England’s longest running show. So to mark the occasion, I came up with my list of the best Doctors, because this is the Internet and list making is what we do.  Here we go, every actor to have played the Doctor ranked from top to bottom. 

14. Peter Davison
To be clear, none of these actors were legitimately bad in the role. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a bad actor in the role of the Doctor, but this is still a best of list and someone was always going to have to take the bottom spot. Peter Davison ends up in that spot because to me he embodies the least interesting aspects of the Doctor. His version of the character was grounded, earnest, and thoroughly human, which isn’t really what I watch Doctor Who for. 

I do enjoy how heartfelt he was in the part, but at the end of the day, his upper-class sensibilities and overt normality just don’t gel with the version of the character I like. It’s ironic because strictly on paper Davison is the closest the Doctor ever got to his Victorian adventurer roots, but there’s no denying the character had moved on from that point. It also doesn’t help that Davison was settled with following up on Tom Baker’s legacy in the part. 

13. Peter Cushing
This choice probably comes as a shock both to non-fans and hardcore Whovians alike. Peter Cushing might best be described as the forgotten Doctor, having played the part in a pair of Doctor Who feature films that were released in the mid-60s to cash in on Dalek-mania. His version, a contemporary human inventor named Doctor Who, is a seriously bizarre take on the character but one I still rather enjoy. 

Unlike William Hartnell, who was still the only Doctor the world had ever known at the time of the films, Peter Cushing’s take on the character was thoroughly soft spoken and grandfatherly. I like this version more than Davison because even though both men emphasized the character’s innate humanity Cushing’s version still felt like a man of action with no small amount of personal agency. Additionally the blockbuster scale of Cushing’s adventures helped him have a more raucous and adventurous tenure despite its unfortunate brevity.  Fans of Matt Smith might do well to track his films down because he really does come off as an older version of that character. 

12. William Hartnell
First things first, Hartnell’s tenure as the first Doctor is a big part of the show’s early success lasting as long as it did and the fact he stayed in the role for as long as he did is incredibly admirable. By all accounts, the man loved the part and gave it his all despite his advanced age and declining health, and I have no doubt that without his passion for the work the show probably wouldn’t exist today. 

All that said his iteration of the Doctor is an acquired taste. He plays the role as a very salty codger with a sort of perpetual disapproval despite being kind of incompetent in his own right. The fact his portrayal of the character works at all is mainly owed to Hartnell’s own passion and love of the part shining through. I don’t necessarily blame him for his time in the show as the series was still finding its feet, but it does leave his character more than a little wanting far too often. 

11. Matt Smith
Well, this probably won’t win me any fans. I’m aware that Matt Smith is a very popular modern Doctor, so I’ll try not to step on any toes here, but I’ve never really warmed to his portrayal as much as everyone else. When he’s on, he’s really on, and it’s clear Smith has a lot of acting talent; it’s just that the show had no idea how to utilize that talent. Basically, my complaint is that 90% of the time Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor was essentially just a male manic pixie dream girl. 

He’s quirky and awkward, but self conscious enough of this to point out his own weirdness while still being conventionally attractive and his wonderment at the beauty of every single moment is the answer to living a more fulfilling life. It’s just a very untrue and manipulative iteration of the Doctor. Predicated on framing him as the answer to all of the audience’s problems. It’s about tricking us into liking him rather than just letting us like him.  

10. Colin Baker
Colin Baker was probably the most unfortunate actor to play the Doctor as he came into the role right when the head of the BBC was trying to kill the show…and was sleeping with Colin’s ex-wife. Despite that I think what he did in the role was pretty cool, and when his interpretation of the character gets the chance to shine through, we get a glimpse of something really cool. His Doctor was moderately darker sure, though what I liked most about him was that he was a more inhuman Doctor than most of the others. 

Baker brought a larger-than-life vibe to his performance that let him just dominate any given room; he played the Doctor less like a TV character than a theater performance. That’s a very risky manner of acting and could’ve easily backfired. James Franco tended to act the same way, and it rarely works for him. However, Baker nailed it and ends up lending his performance a great sense of theatricality and energy that gives him the unique aura of an alien playing at being human. 

9. Christopher Eccleston
Eccleston is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like more than I do. He’s a talented performer who’s got a gritty edge to his performance that, when it’s allowed to come through, combines with his unique accent to create a really evocative and memorable turn. As the Doctor he was a…serviceable way to revive the series. At the time, he was actually a major break from tradition, a lower-class Doctor with a Northern accent and contemporary garb. 

Like a lot of the actors in the upper levels of this list his big problem was being misused by the production more than his performance because when the show just allowed him to perform instead of holding tightly to the reigns of his image he completely devoured the part. The best example of this is probably ‘Dalek’ where he got to really indulge his inner madmen and brought legitimate emotion and depth to the role. The modern era of Doctor Who has a bad habit of just having the Doctor smile and quip, but when they give him the chance to flex his range, it’s always really rewarding. 

8. David Tennant
I feel like there’s a tendency now to right-off just how good David Tennant was in the part of the Doctor. In recent years, there’s been a lot of angry reappraisal of the Davies years; some of it deserved and some of it not, but regardless of what you think of the show running Tennant is amazing in the lead role. It’s also an undeniable fact that his range and talent is why the new series has become as successful as it is now. I like Tennant because he tended to have the same energy of Hartnell and no small amount of Colin Baker’s theatricality. 

His actions are usually larger than life, but unlike Baker, he imbues his every activity with so much raw energy and emotion. David Tennant’s Doctor regrounds the character in the same humanity Davison aspired to only without the soft quietness of that performance.  It’s also clear that Tennant is one of the only actors who could’ve pulled this off as he’s able to take seriously cheesy moments like a cry of emotional anguish and just sell them completely.  You never once doubt his credibility no matter how emotional he is.  

7. John Hurt
Of all the names on this list, John Hurt has had the shortest tenure as the Doctor, appearing in only during the 50th Anniversary Special. Despite that, I absolutely love Hurt’s tired and world-weary iteration of the character as the War Doctor. What I most loved about Hurt’s War Doctor was that he basically said everything I had been thinking about the show for a couple years at that point. 

He seems to have been specifically conceived as a walking critique of the show’s obsession with youthful Doctors, overreliance on the sonic screwdriver, and growing emphasis on exuberant doofiness over story and ideas. Doctor Who was never the most adult show, but I was finding myself more and more alienated it was so gratifying to finally have a voice on the show to echo my own complaints. The War Doctor is just an interesting character, a version of the Doctor who really was a warrior rather than just the occasional mass murderer of the original show or the angsty pacifist of the new show. 

6. Patrick Troughton
I’ll probably take some flack for this decision from older Doctor Who fans but whatever; it’s my list.  Patrick Troughton was a superb Doctor who proved how much comedic fun could be had with the show while also indulging in all the over the top Sci-Fi weirdness the creators had to offer. He was a master improviser and had amazing chemistry with everyone else on set.  

I especially like the way he chose to re-interpret William Hartnell’s perturbed sense of superiority.  Rather than looking down his nose at other character Troughton always came off more pleasantly bemused by his companions ignorance, as if they were his pets more than anything else.  That’s a really bleak outlook I admit but it’s also one I really like as, if it hasn’t been made clear, I prefer the Doctor when he’s more inhuman.  It’s a real shame we don’t have more of Troughton's stories today but the few he left behind are a real treasure and his impact on the role can be felt even now. 

5. Tom Baker
Bet you thought he’d be higher on the list.  To be clear I very much like Tom Baker’s Doctor.  He’s manic and crazy, often bouncing between smugly superior word play and exuberantly outright lunacy, he really nails that fun sense of inhumanity I was talking about.  The man was a legend in the part and is still the actor to play the Doctor for the longest.  

That having been said, such a long tenure isn’t without its flubs and Baker is one of the few actors for whom greater command of the script was more of a problem than a benefit.  Where folks like Eccleston or Colin Baker might’ve benefitted from greater freedom in the role Tom Baker’s base instincts weren’t anywhere near as good, especially in the later years where his ego started hovering over the entire proceedings.  Still, that leaves us with a still sizable body of work from him that’s absolutely excellent and that I can recommend unreservedly. 

4. Sylvester McCoy
Sylvester McCoy was the last actor to play the Doctor before the original series’ hiatus but that in no diminished his skill or enthusiasm for the role.  His Doctor was scheming and Machiavellian, going so far as to regard his companion Ace as simply a pawn to be played in his game of combating cosmic forces.  It’s a very dark take on the character but one I thoroughly enjoyed.  I like the idea of the Doctor as someone who is legitimately apart from humanity and McCoy is probably the best iteration of that. 

He was also the first version of the Doctor to start hinting at the character having greater powers, with him being able to stand up to alien Gods and existential beings as an equal rather than scurrying beneath them.  This was the Doctor at his most mysterious and dangerous, a lovable goof for some moments but willing to turn on you with viscous abandon in a heartbeat.  Of all the Doctors on this list McCoy’s Doctor feels the most dangerous.  

3. Peter Capaldi
This is probably a surprising choice given Capaldi’s newness in the role, but I really liked what I saw of him in season 8. Season 8 had a lot of problems and bad episodes, yet Capaldi is just masterful in the role, especially when the show was writing for his Doctor instead of just Matt Smith leftovers. Capaldi’s Doctor is an interesting twist on expectations, emphasizing a kind of blunt honesty that hadn’t been on the show since the Tom Baker years. This was basically a deliberate shift in tone from Matt Smith, whose tenure had emphasized the Doctor’s various secrets as a major plot component. 

I love Capaldi’s inescapable honesty in the role of the Doctor and his willingness to accept and state that he’s not going to save everyone. What’s more, I like how much his time in the Doctor played up the idea that the Doctor doesn’t use weapons, he uses people. It’s a much more self aware, open, and critical depiction of the character that I thoroughly enjoy.  Any series that goes on long enough inevitably enters the realm of self-criticism and Capaldi’s version of the Doctor is one of the best examples of that. 

2. Paul McGann
Another shockingly high ranking for an actor who spent so little onscreen time in the role but in that brief time Paul McGann completely made the role of the Doctor his own. He’s only appeared twice on screen as the Doctor once in the Doctor Who TV Movie in the ‘90s and in the pre-50th anniversary special ‘Night of the Doctor.’ Despite that brevity, he’s absolutely amazing as the Doctor, capturing a unique blend of aspects that no one else has ever really recreated. 

He’s got the same youthful exuberance that marked so much of Matt Smith’s tenure but an innate authority and dramatic gravitas that’s more reminiscent of Colin Baker balances it. He still maintained that alien inhumanity I like, but it comes off as a love for everything we find mundane that he interprets as truly novel and foreign. What’s more, he showed real growth and change to his character with his performance in ‘Night of the Doctor.’ What I really like about him though is the heroism and strength of the character. Not only is this a Doctor who wants to save everyone he can, he’s a Doctor that accepts that isn’t always possible and is willing to move on, even in the face of his own death or romantic rejection he holds himself together. I really admire that kind of personal strength. 

1. Jon Pertwee
Jon Pertwee is probably the Doctor I’m most like in real life, which is why I love him as much as I do. At the time, he was a major change up for…pretty much everything on the show. Despite being an older actor than Troughton, Pertwee's Doctor was much more of a dynamic and active swashbuckler. Additionally, his love of gadgets gave us the sonic screwdriver.  What’s more, the entire show shifted around Pertwee, keeping the Doctor stranded on Earth for nearly 2 seasons, introducing a large supporting cast of UNIT personnel, and bringing in the Master as a series villain.  

However, what I really love about Pertwee is his complete embodiment of the idea of the Doctor as someone who fools himself into thinking he’s part of humanity. This is the Doctor who wants to be a hero, who desperately wants to save everyone. More than that, this is the Doctor who wants to believe that maybe if he tries just hard enough and saves just enough people, he’ll actually be able to be part of our world. And for a time he does manage that, for a brief precious few moments he’s part of the Earth before the realization of his alienness comes crashing back down on him. And in the face of that realization he does the only thing he can do; he moves on. That’s what I love about Pertwee; he’s the Doctor who makes me want to be a stronger person. 

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