Clyde: “Is there a limit? I mean, how many times can you change?”
The Doctor: “507.”
– The Sarah Jane Adventures, Death of the Doctor
With the Twelfth Doctor nearly upon us, and an unexpected new Doctor revealed between 8 and 9, a lot of fanboys are very concerned. After all, it says in The Deadly Assassin that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times. Which is reiterated in Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors. Ah, but The Five Doctors also had President Borusa offering the Master “a whole new cycle” of regenerations. But recently, Steven Moffat seems to have confirmed that 12 is still the limit. Or perhaps not. Rule number one – Moffat lies.
Still, a Facebook conversation with young Mr Noel Storey recently prompted me to try and recall all the actors who’ve played the Doctor over the years. And it was more than 13. I actually came up with 31, off the top of my head. And then I checked the internet – and found there were quite a few more. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s actually, ooh, just about 50 of them. How convenient! So, in chronological order, without further ado, here’s… (drum roll)… THE 50 DOCTORS!
1. William Hartnell
The original, you might say. Without him, we wouldn’t be talking about this, some 50 years later. Envisaged as an enigmatic, Gandalf-style figure to ‘main characters’ Ian, Barbara and Susan, he soon became the focus of the show as the supporting cast changed and he remained constant. Eventually, even he had to leave – but it was far from all over.
2. Clive Dunn
The comedy parodies started almost immediately. This 1963 sketch on Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World featured a young Clive Dunn wearing Hartnell’s actual costume – I bet he wasn’t pleased about that.
3. Edmund Warwick
Who, you may ask? Well, quite. Warwick was often called on to double for Hartnell when the star was on holiday or ill, usually shot with his face obscured to reveal that he didn’t look that much like the real McCoy. So to speak. But in fairly laughable 1965 story The Chase, Warwick played a Dalek-created robot ‘double’ of the Doctor. Somehow this fooled Barbara and Vicki, who perhaps needed their eyes tested.
4. Peter Cushing
Hammer Films’ mainstay took a break from staking vampires and stitching together monsters to play a movie version of the character, which actually was called ‘Dr Who’, in Milton Subotsky’s cinema adaptations of the first two Dalek stories. More cuddly than the often-irascible Hartnell, he was actually very good in the part. Cushing later said it was one of his favourite roles, more accessible to children than most of what he did.
5. Patrick Troughton
The first ‘replacement Doctor’ to be seen in the show proper, the impish Troughton was a massive change from the cantankerous, grandfatherly Hartnell. Bringing far more humour to the role, he seemed as much a friend to his companions as a surrogate parent. As the first ‘regeneration’ (not yet described as such), the very future of the show hinged on the viewers’ acceptance of him. Fortunately, the talented Troughton won them over in short order, and when the next regeneration came around, it was less of a shock to the fans (at least I assume so, I wasn’t born at that point).
6. Jon Pertwee
The first Doctor I ever saw, the first in colour, and the first to go around hitting so many of his enemies. Taking a cue from popular ITC shows, Pertwee’s dandy Doctor was a man of action as well as intelligence, with a fetish for all forms of motorised transport. He was also, often, insufferably arrogant and hidebound, hanging out in gentleman’s clubs with the likes of Lord ‘Tubby’ Rowlands, and quaffing the very finest of wines.
7. Terry Walsh
While a number of people doubled for Doctors 1 and 2 when they were on holiday and called on to appear unconscious with their faces obscured, Walsh became the go-to stuntman for both Jon Pertwee and, later, Tom Baker. His face is necessarily obscured most of the time, but you can just about make him out in sequences like the mind-fight in The Three Doctors and the mine fight in The Monster of Peladon. He also had any number of bit parts as other characters; here’s some from The Green Death, Robot, Genesis of the Daleks and The Sontaran Experiment.
8. Tom Baker
All teeth and curls. Those eyes. That scarf. For many people, Baker is still the definitive Doctor, his increasingly madcap tenure of seven years making him the longest serving incarnation onscreen. Much of this was not acting – that’s just what Tom is like. Except usually more drunk.
9. Trevor Martin
Running almost parallel to Tom’s first season, Martin played the Doctor in Terrance Dicks’ stage extravaganza Doctor Who and the Seven Keys to Doomsday. Which makes him a sort of alternate Fourth Doctor. He later reprised the role in a revival of the story by audio producers Big Finish.
10. Adrian Gibbs
Apparently he was the Doctor all the time. Being stuck somewhere between Baker and Davison, the Watcher probably doesn’t count as an actual incarnation. But still the Doctor!
11. Peter Davison
A more vulnerable Doctor to change from the increasingly omnipotent Tom Baker, Davison was among the first to suffer from new producer John Nathan-Turner’s desire to make the costumes like uniforms. Accordingly, while he served three increasingly confident years in the part, he never got to change his clothes. Neither did most of his large band of companions. That TARDIS must have smelled a bit. At least he got to refresh his decorative vegetable – he’s seen replacing the celery in Enlightenment.
12. Richard Hurndall
Another replacement for William Hartnell, Hurndall was brought in to portray the First Doctor for 20th anniversary shindig The Five Doctors. The resemblance was about as close as Edmund Warwick, but at least he didn’t have to appear in unused old footage like the unwilling Tom Baker.
13. Colin Baker
Possibly the most unfairly treated of all the Doctors. The second Baker in the part was cursed with the worst costume of all time, had the show taken off the air because of criticisms of violence, had Bonnie Langford join him in the TARDIS, and was eventually unceremoniously given the boot by BBC management. It’s fair to say things weren’t going well for the show at this point.
Which was a shame because, costume aside, Baker was rather good in the part (despite forming an unholy alliance with the purple prose ‘dialogue’ of Pip and Jane Baker). He still genuinely loves the show, which is pretty nice considering how he was treated. And he is so far the only Doctor to have shot his predecessor prior to getting the part.
14. Lenny Henry
It may have been just a comedy sketch, but Lenny’s version of the Doctor, on the 1986 series of The Lenny Henry Show, was actually pretty good: “run up and down lots of corridors!” The skit saw him confronted with the evil ‘Thatchos’ (a Cyberman with a Thatcher wig and handbag), who chillingly threatened, “you will be privatised!” And the actual show still hasn’t managed a non-white Doctor nearly three decades later.
15. Michael Jayston
Oh yes. Because the mysterious Valeyard, villain of 1986 ‘epic’ Trial of a Time Lord, was a dark, future version of the Doctor “somewhere between his 12th and final regeneration”. How does that work, then? We still don’t know.
16. Geoffrey Hughes
Yes, Dickensian weirdo Mr Popplewick was really just a disguise for the Valeyard. But that means he was still the Doctor.
17. Sylvester McCoy
Blessed with a less extreme costume than his predecessor, McCoy’s version of the Doctor was one of the more interesting; a cosmic manipulator, with plans within plans, who kept his own counsel until his companions started yelling at him. Also a dab hand with the spoons, gurning, and very rolled ‘r’s. The question mark pullover was a bit of an abomination, but he got to ditch that for his final appearance in the 1996 TV movie.
18. David Banks
Yes, the Cyberleader himself had a stab at the part, filling in for the ill Jon Pertwee in 1989 stage play Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure. Again written by Terrance Dicks, this particular theatrical extravaganza was also a musical. Given the nature of the songs, Banks may have preferred to appear in his more usual costume.
19. Paul McGann
For one night only… until now! Whatever you think of the 1996 TV Movie (and who doesn’t), McGann was a brilliant Eighth Doctor. While he only got about an hour of screen time there, his incarnation lived on, first in the BBC books and then in a long running range of audio dramas from Big Finish. Possibly the only ‘classic Doctor’ not to have aged too much to look more or less similar in 2013, he finally got the regeneration scene he’d always deserved in Steven Moffat’s 50th anniversary ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor. And he was still great.
With the show seemingly off the air for good, the 1999 Comic Relief endurathon featured one ‘final’ gasp for the show, courtesy of one Steven Moffat. The Curse of Fatal Death was an affectionate comic parody that managed to burn through a total of five new Doctors in twenty minutes. Almost like mini-auditions, all the actors showed how good they could have been – and the last one was a woman, of all things!
20. Rowan Atkinson
21. Richard E Grant
22. Jim Broadbent
23. Hugh Grant
24. Joanna Lumley
But The Curse of Fatal Death wasn’t the BBC’s last dalliance with comedy versions that might or might not have been canonical. Vic Reeves’ surreal comedy quiz show Shooting Stars saw a skit in which the gang played the band The (Doctor) Who. Naturally, they were done up as the first four doctors. ‘Talking bout my Regeneration?’
25. Vic Reeves
26. Bob Mortimer
27. Matt Lucas
28. Mark Lamarr
And 1999 saw BBC Two celebrating the show with Doctor Who Night, which among other comedy sketches featured the now familiar figure of Mark Gatiss in the role he seems to have always wanted to play but probably never will (except here):
29. Mark Gatiss
More stage shows followed, with some brave attempts to restage lost stories from the eras of both the First and Second Doctors. Interestingly, the director, one Nick Scovell, went with using an entirely new Doctor, rather than having an actor impersonate either Hartnell or Troughton. The name of that actor?…
30. Nick Scovell
A little later, the increasingly successful Big Finish audio dramas tried a bit of experimentation, casting ‘what-if?’ Doctors in their Doctor Who Unbound series. Again, all acquitted themselves well:
31. Geoffrey Bayldon
Best known as unkempt wizard Catweazle, Bayldon had actually been in the frame for the role of the Doctor before. And he has appeared in the show proper, alongside Tom Baker in 1979 masterpiece The Creature from the Pit.
32. David Warner
Genre superstar Warner got to play the Doctor twice for Big Finish, and in my view is ‘the best Doctor we never had’. Also cropped up in the actual show recently in a fun but rather inconsequential role as a New Romantic-obsessed Soviet scientist.
33. David Collings
Already a frequent guest actor on the show, Collings really made his mark as the impish Silver in Sapphire and Steel. So you might have expected his take on the Doctor to be similarly twinkly. But no – he was an utter bastard. Compared to him, the Valeyard was cuddly.
34. Derek Jacobi
35. Arabella Weir
A woman Doctor, you say? The horror! Well, get over it, sweetie, Lumley did it first, and both were pretty good. Weir later went on to appear on the actual show, in a spacesuit that made her bum look big.
Meanwhile, over on the radio, impressionist sketch show Dead Ringers was being written by longtime Who fan Nev Fountain, who found a kindred spirit in impressionist and fellow fan Jon Culshaw. This led to a long-running series of sketches in which Culshaw, in the guise of the Fourth Doctor, made amusing prank phone calls to such incongruous places as drycleaners and taxi firms. When the show transferred to the telly, Culshaw transferred with it – and this time he got to dress up too.
36. Jon Culshaw
Thankfully, before too much more of this madness could happen, we found out that the show was coming back. Properly, on the telly and everything. So would things get more straightforward as to who counts as an actual Doctor? Not a bit of it!
37. Christopher Eccleston
What with the show coming back big, showrunner Russell T Davies needed a big star name to launch it. I have to admit, dour, ultra-serious actor Eccleston was a bit of a surprise. But he was actually excellent, bringing his usual gravitas, leavened with a hitherto unexpected gift for humour: “Lots of planets have a North!” Visibly uncomfortable with the attention the part brought, he left after only one season, due to mysterious ‘creative differences’, which was a real shame. But not for the fangirls, because their dreams were about to come true…
In the mean time, those Dead Ringers wags were at it again, in a sketch broadcast shortly before Mr Tennant’s debut which detailed Christmas with the Doctors. Culshaw did his usual Tom Baker, supplemented with a Tennant impression somewhat unfairly dismissed by the surly Ninth Doctor as “Jarvis Cocker in space”. The other regulars took the parts of the Second and Seventh Doctors for a rather random gathering:
38. Mark Perry
39. Kevin Connelly
40. Phil Cornwell
41. David Tennant
The ‘emo Doctor’ as Tennant himself puts it. The ‘squee Doctor’ as fangirls across the planet put it. A lifelong fan himself, Tennant got a more traditionally Doctorish look, insisting on a very long coat. Initially lacking the gravitas of his predecessor, his first season found him frequently insufferably smug, egged on by Billie Piper as Rose. Thankfully once she’d got stuck in another dimension, he toned that down to become arguably the most popular of the Doctors since the show returned. Some people still seem to be moaning that Matt Smith is not as good/not as sexy/not as Doctorish. Which is of course nonsense on all counts. Wonderful chaps – all of them.
42. Thomas Brodie Sangster
Not a Doctor, you say? Well, what do you think young Tim Latimer absorbed out of that fob watch? Certainly it was enough ‘essence of Doctor’ for him to basically act like the Time Lord until he finally gave the watch back…
43. Matt Smith
Probably the quirkiest and most alien take on the character since the show returned, Matt Smith has played the part as a ‘young fogey’ with his tweed jacket, bow tie and enduring love of the fez. Like Tennant, he’s pretty easy on the eye, too. Has now been doing the show for four years, although Steven Moffat’s similarly quirky approach to scheduling means that it’s felt more like three in terms of episode count. And despite that first costume enduring for a while, has now had two different ones, though I suspect neither will be as well-remembered as the first.
44. Toby Jones
If you didn’t realise the snide, bitchy ‘Dream Lord’ in 2010’s Amy’s Choice was actually another manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side, you weren’t paying attention to what he was wearing.
With the 50th anniversary looming, Big Finish took the brave/foolhardy step of announcing that they would celebrate with a new story, Light at the End, featuring “all the classic Doctors” (not having the rights to use Eccleston, Tennant or Smith). Note, not “all the surviving classic Doctors”. Some clever jiggery-pokery was thus required to bring listeners the voices of the first three. And some very familiar faces were involved:
45. William Russell
Who better to recreate the First Doctor than the actor who spent so much time working with him? Not only does Russell pull off Hartnell’s mannerisms rather well, he’s now of an age to sound just as cantankerous.
46. Frazer Hines
And again, longstanding companion Frazer does a cracking impression of Troughton (which you will inevitably hear if you encounter him at a convention). As an added bonus, is quite happy to look the part too.
47. Tim Treloar
No, me neither. I didn’t realise it was even supposed to be Pertwee until somebody else pointed it out. No disrespect to Mr Treloar, who I’m sure is a fine actor in other things, but couldn’t they have asked Sean Pertwee?
48. John Hurt
The mysterious ‘War Doctor’, about whom the 50th anniversary story will doubtless reveal all. Or part. Well, a bit. Hopefully. He looks cool though, and Hurt is a legend.
49. David Bradley
What, another Hartnell replacement? Well, not quite. Technically, Bradley was playing William Hartnell playing the First Doctor, in Mark Gatiss’ moving drama about the show’s early days, An Adventure in Space and Time. As this involved recreating several memorable scenes (not least the tear-jerking farewell to Susan), he certainly qualifies as having ‘played’ the First Doctor. And like Hartnell, he probably found it a nice change from the bastards he usually plays, such as Argus Filch in Harry Potter, Walder Frey in Game of Thrones, and of course Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
50. Peter Capaldi
At last a mature Doctor! Since the show returned, I’d begun to wonder if the Doctor could ever again be played by an actor over 40. Given that he’s apparently now supposed to be some kind of pinup for teenage girls, I had rather doubted it. Thankfully Steven Moffat proved me wrong. While we haven’t seen Mr Capaldi’s Doctor yet, I’m sure we’re in safe hands. Not only is he another lifelong fan, this is the guy who played Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, Rory in The Crow Road and the Angel Islington in Neverwhere. Not to mention already appearing in the Whoniverse twice (if Torchwood properly counts).
So, by a peculiar (and altogether contrived by me) quirk of fate, the new Doctor, debuting in the 50th anniversary year, will (sort of) be Doctor number 50!
I’m sure many a fanboy can argue over this list – maybe the comedy sketches don’t count as ‘playing the Doctor’, or maybe there’s some I’ve missed. I couldn’t find pictures of Don Maclean or Rod Hull, and besides then Capaldi wouldn’t have been number 50 🙂
And if they don’t count, do the non-televised ones, like Cushing, Martin or the Big Finish lot? Well, there’s the joy of fandom – our delight in arguing over complex minutiae that baffles the not-we. Feel free to continue the debate; all I’ll say is, “wonderful chap. All of him.” Happy 50th, Doctor!