The Twelve Doctors

One of my New Year’s resolutions, which will no doubt go as well as all my past resolutions, is to stop ranking things. It’s pointless and is designed to lead to nothing but arguments — sometimes just with yourself, but even someone who disagrees with only one placement now has something to debate with you to no one’s benefit. It’s a dumb thing to do.

The original version of this post was exactly that dumb thing: a ranking of all the Doctors Who, from my least favorite to my most favorite. As I suspected, it took me mere weeks to start second-guessing the rankings and changing my mind. After shuffling the upper-middle range several times, I realized I was mad to think I could let it stand, even as a record of my mindset on New Year’s Eve 2017.

So I’ve revised it, preserving the substance of the commentary but not burdening it to express an order of preference. As before, this list includes only Doctors who have appeared on television in more than one episode, meaning the Eighth Doctor squeaks in on the slightest of technicalities and the War Doctor gets to sit out this whole discussion, which is how I’m sure he would have preferred it. Peter Cushing doesn’t count either. As for the Valeyard: give me a break.

First Doctor (Hartnell)
With all respect due the man who initiated the role, I’ve never been a fan of his Doctor. Part of it is my own limitation as a viewer: many of the 60s episodes are tough going for me. The stories I’ve heard about the actor’s personality are unpleasant, but the real problem for me is onscreen: I just can’t connect to his performance or lose myself in it, particularly with the frequent line fluffs. His Doctor’s persona strikes me as unpleasant and irascible, and somehow when he’s cheerful it verges on creepy. I realize my aversion to him may entirely discredit me among a large contingent of classic Who fans, but hey: at least now we have something to argue about.

Second Doctor (Troughton)
I’ve idly thought that in the vanishingly unlikely event that I, an American with absolutely no television acting or production experience, were ever called upon to play or to conceive of how to play the Doctor, I’d opt for something vaguely Troughtonesque. My Doctor would initially strike others as unassuming and unimportant, often being mistaken for “the help,” and use that impression to drop suggestions into the conversation that sound humble but turn out to be a brilliant solution to the problem or a sneaky way of getting what I wanted. In real life my personality is a lot closer to the bombastic, quick-to-anger Sixth Doctor’s, but that’s why they call it acting. I don’t know how Troughtonesque my idea of “Troughtonesque” actually is, since Troughton is the Doctor whose stories I’ve seen the smallest percentage of, owing of course to the missing-episode fiasco. I’ve enjoyed him in all the stories I’ve seen and heard, but I haven’t developed a solid enough sense of him to count him as a favorite the way so many diehard 60s fans do.

Third Doctor (Pertwee)
It’s no secret that the 70s were my favorite era of Doctor Who, and the Third Doctor commanded half of that decade with frilly shirts and velvet jackets and fast cars. His Doctor was always in charge, so that the few occasions where he wasn’t — e.g. being ordered to march in a circle by a giant psychic spider, or being held in a cell by a fascist parallel-universe UNIT — really felt scary. All the aspects of his incarnation that felt a little too macho — the Venusian aikido, the car fetish, his sometimes peremptory manner with Jo Grant — were offset by his dandyish style and inarguable sense of right and wrong. The Third Doctor might be one of the least “fun” versions of himself, and missing many of the qualities I enjoy most about other versions of the character, but his tenure as the Doctor was nevertheless a magical time, and one I’m unable to separate him from.

Fourth Doctor (T. Baker)
My very first exposure to Doctor Who was the Pinnacle edition of the novelisation of “The Android Invasion,” so while I don’t actually remember what the first story I saw on television was, technically the Fourth Doctor was still my first Doctor, and therefore “my Doctor.” Though part of me is still slightly scandalized by his obvious nonchalance in “Robot,” the immediate sense that he couldn’t be more eager to zip off in the TARDIS and ditch the UNIT family one grows so fond of while watching the Pertwee years in order, mostly I recognize that rebellious restlessness and wanderlust as the quality I like best in Doctor Who. The show changes texture, attitude, and situation almost overnight, but continues the unbroken streak of quality begun in 1970 and finishes out the decade much sillier but, in its own way, just as strong. Baker’s performance, give or take a few obvious self-indulgent goofs, was a huge part of that. Even if I’m reluctant to rank the other Doctors, I’m confident that the Fourth will likely always be my uncontroversial but inevitable favorite.

Fifth Doctor (Davison)
The Fifth Doctor’s episodes were being shown on public TV when I was exactly the right age to be enthralled by them, which is why I adore his first season (with the sole exception of “Time-Flight”) and probably why three of his stories (“Kinda,” “Snakedance,” and “Enlightenment”) are in my book among the very best the show has ever had to offer. This along with his friendly, open persona has led me to feel warmly toward the Fifth Doctor for a long time, and it’s only recently that this feeling has started to fade a bit. These days I’m more likely to notice how much of a scold he sometimes seems, or to feel irritated by his narratively interesting but frustratingly ineffective “vulnerable” Doctor’s failings. Compounding the problem is that Peter Davison seems a little more reserved and guarded at conventions compared to his two successors. Perhaps this is because when he lets down his guard he tends to put his foot in his mouth a bit about subjects like female Doctors, making himself sound more old-fashioned than he actually is. Still, it’s hard to imagine any of the other Doctors allowing a wise woman to order them to “be silent, idiot!” with anything like his grace and humility. That counts for a lot.

Sixth Doctor (C. Baker)
The Sixth Doctor is a bit of an underdog, and I want to take a moment to root for him. He’s loud, extroverted, brash, ridiculous, erudite, energetic, and — when the moment calls for it — (perhaps a little too) ready for violence. Although he had to carry the show through some extremely poor creative decisions, his era’s stories were among the most interesting and unusual bummers we’ve ever seen. From the hand-crushing scene in “Attack of the Cybermen” to a whole season with the Doctor on trial — well, you didn’t have to like these stories (and honestly, I generally don’t), but they took plenty of risks and are largely unforgettable. Colin Baker is absolutely excellent on audio and has only improved his Doctor’s reputation on Big Finish, and comes across as an eminently pleasant and broad-minded fellow both online and in person. It’s not his fault he was saddled with two poorly-conceived companions, one of whom his Doctor tried to strangle in an even more poorly-conceived post-regenerative mania and who endured what looked for all the world like an emotionally abusive relationship with him for most of the following season. If we consider the Sixth Doctor separately from his often unpleasant context, we’re dealing with one of the most dynamic — and underrated — personas the show has ever manifested. And frankly, I kind of like the coat.

Seventh Doctor (McCoy)
I have never in my life seen anyone so thoroughly command and enchant a room full of Doctor Who nerds like Sylvester McCoy. The man is entertaining and charming beyond belief. For a man who’s acted with so many legends of stage and screen, he’s perfectly humble. He’s a natural fit for the role of the Doctor, and has only grown on me over the years, and seems likely to continue to do so as I revisit his stories. One reason I remain ambivalent about the Seventh Doctor is that I found his onscreen persona (and indeed the one that continued in the New Adventures books) was never quite as perfect as his offscreen persona seems to me now. He started out as a goofball, and that almost worked, but then they decided to add in that undercurrent of mystery and secret power which struck me at the time as a little tough to swallow. It was the same transition they put Batman through in the comics, taking him from 60s camp icon to 80s haunted shadow, but on the Doctor in general and this Doctor in particular it just felt desperate and unlikely. Somewhere in the middle is the Doctor this Doctor should have been, but what we got was still pretty great.

Eighth Doctor (McGann)
There’s not a lot of McGann to go on. I have only recently made my peace with the TV Movie he starred in back in 1996, which was what probably prejudiced me so strongly against revivals of the show that it took me three seasons to warm to the RTD version. And beyond that, there’s only the wonderful “Night of the Doctor” minisode and a run of Big Finish. I don’t think he’s the best Doctor for audio: his deadpan delivery is pleasant but not necessarily evocative (it’s fun to hear him sub in on “Shada” but it’s clearly written for a different Doctor). But he’s as archetypal a Doctor as we’ve ever had, fitting the role perfectly in a movie that didn’t deserve him, and I like him a lot.

Ninth Doctor (Eccleston)
If I’d never seen Doctor Who before, or at least hadn’t bonded with the show so thoroughly as a kid, I probably would have been enchanted by Eccleston’s portrayal. As it is, I can usually put that part of my brain to sleep and enjoy his episodes just fine. But back when I first saw him in the role I was appalled. He embodied everything I feared about a revival of the show: that the essence of it would be lost in an attempt to make it cooler. After a parade of eccentric, big-haired misfits in flamboyant dress (and, to be fair, one blond cricketer), we suddenly had a regular fella who wouldn’t look out of place anywhere short of a formal event. Short hair, basic jumper, leather jacket, no-nonsense manner: he could have been playing the Doctor’s butcher younger brother, maybe, but I couldn’t quite buy him as the man himself. Since then, of course, the new show has given me plenty of reasons to trust its choices, and while I think all the subsequent Doctors have been back on brand, I see the merit in the choices made for the Ninth Doctor’s persona and can accept them as a necessary step. This hasn’t helped me feel comfortable with what I’ve gleaned from Eccleston’s quick exit from and comments about the show, both of which added to my impression, right or wrong, that he was slightly embarrassed about the role and held it at arm’s length. So I don’t dislike his Doctor, the way I dislike Hartnell’s: I just hold him at arm’s length.

Tenth Doctor (Tennant)
When David Tennant popped out of the TARDIS in “The Christmas Invasion,” talking fast, charm turned way up past the point of good taste, sword-fighting the alien villain, and then eventually ruining a woman’s career with barely a second thought, I definitely did not like him one bit. This was a time when I still didn’t trust this new show (see Eccleston, above) and even as late as “Army of Ghosts” I was still making up my mind about the Tenth Doctor. But when I finally opened my heart to the new show, it was during Tennant’s run, specifically the mostly-terrific (with several massive exceptions) series 3, featuring the sorely underrated Martha, that spectacular Master reveal, and the best new series story to date (“Human Nature / The Family of Blood”). The faults I still find frustrating about the Tenth Doctor are also his most understandable: can I blame him for falling in love with Rose, or for becoming too eager to change tragic history, or for resisting regeneration with all his might on two separate occasions? No one writes good people making unattractive choices like RTD, and if “I don’t want to go” seems undignified next to “I will always remember when the Doctor was me,” maybe it’s also a lot more honest. And it’s hard not to love a Doctor who gives his name, rank, and intention as “The Doctor, Doctor, fun.”

Eleventh Doctor (Smith)
I was a confirmed fan of Matt Smith’s Doctor from the first five minutes of “The Eleventh Hour.” So many other actors have played the Doctor effectively, but almost none of them have made the role so thoroughly their own. Even when appearing in a mediocre story — and Smith was saddled with way more of those than he deserved — the Eleventh Doctor was never less than fascinating in almost every scene. It helped that physically Smith was so perfectly suited to portray a batty old man in a young body, could turn on a dime between the two apparent ages, but what it really comes down to is that he’s a brilliant, endlessly inventive actor. At least I assume he is: I haven’t been able to bring myself to see anything else he’s appeared in since, perhaps fearing some spell will be broken. His Doctor’s joy at the universe seems likely to be the default setting for the Thirteenth Doctor as well, if the end of “Twice Upon a Time” is any indication, and that’s exactly as it should be.

Twelfth Doctor (Capaldi)
It’s been lovely knowing that an actor as talented, thoughtful, and warm-hearted as Peter Capaldi was at the TARDIS controls. There’s a lot I found appealing about his era; the stories seemed richer and more interesting, the show got visually darker and often emotionally darker as well, even the costumes took a stylish turn. I didn’t even mind his initial “bad with humans” persona…up to a point. It’s true that you can only go so far with this before it turns from endearingly crusty to outright cruel, and that’s not a great look for the Doctor. As much as I love the classic series — and Capaldi’s subtle but spot-on Tom Bakerisms — I realized you can’t go home again, and I’m more excited to see the optimistic, cheerful Doctors than the older, wearier ones. Plus I never, ever need to see the Doctor play guitar on top of a tank again. Ever.