Monday, October 1, 2012

Ranking the Doctors, the right way

Update! This post is out of date! My revised and updated list is here  Read that one instead!

My friend Jen wrote a post over at her blog ranking the different incarnations of the Doctor.

Her list, from best to worst:

1. & 2. (tie)  Tom Baker (4th) and Patrick Troughton (2nd)
3.  Jon Pertwee (3rd)
4.  Peter Davison (5th)
5.  Matt Smith (11th)
6.  David Tennant (10th)
7.  Sylvester McCoy (7th)
8.  William Hartnell (1st)
9.  Paul McGann (8th)
10.  Christopher Eccleston (9th)
11.  Colin Baker (6th)

It's a copiously researched and brilliantly written piece, marred only by the fact that she's completely wrong about everything.

So, here's the list of the best versions of the Doctor in their proper order.

1.) Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor

Jen observes that most American fans of the original series grew up with Tom Baker as their Doctor. I know I did.  I'd watch it every Saturday night on NJN, with my bowl of Chex mix and my glass of lemonade. There's a t-shirt out there that says "You never forget your first Doctor". He was silly, charming, funny and very, very entertaining. He had two of the very best companions on the show, Sarah Jane and Romana II and had great chemistry with them both. He had the best companions and the best stories. I like him because he operated on a small scale as often as not, and while you can't have an episode where the Doctor fails to save the universe, you can certainly have one where he fails to save an individual from the monster of the week. I always found those episodes more engaging, because there was legitimate tension and the possibility of actual failure.

2.) Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor

I liked him because had this core of absolute ruthlessness beneath his veneer of whimsey. He starts out kind of silly, but gets darker and darker over the course of his tenure. He outmaneuvers his enemies at every turn, and not infrequently causes them to be the agents of their own demise. And while I usually don't like this kind of thing, I think an immortal, super intelligent time traveller is one of the few people for whom I'm willing to accept this level of Xanatos Gambit.

Because he was the Doctor when the series ended (though it's my understanding that the show was never officially canceled; they just stopped making or airing new episodes), there were a ton of books written about the Seventh Doctor and he gets his own side canon apart from the show.  They were leading up to revealing what his dark history includes and it's spelled out in the novel Lungbarrow. More on this a little later.

Also, I'm really getting into Iain M. Banks' Culture series and the novel the Also People, featuring the Seventh Doctor, has a thinly disguised version of the Culture in a very big part.

3.) Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor

You can't talk about the Ninth Doctor without talking about Rose. I didn't know what to think of this new TV show at first. I had been burned once before by the Paul McGann TV movie and I was afraid we'd get another stinker like that. However, I liked this new show. It was a nice mix of stuff from the old series (Autons for the win!) and an updating for the modern world. Davies was very good about taking the best bits from the old series and ignoring the rest of it. Not that he doesn't have his flaws (Ha ha, fat people are funny! and the deus ex machina of a cosmic reset button immediately spring to mind), but nor is he as terrible as his detractors claim. However, he also gave us Rose, and I can't forgive him for that.

 I liked Rose at first. She didn't twist her ankle while running down one of the interminable lengths of corridor from the original series. She had pluck, she had agency. But she never struck me as anything special. Tegan had pluck and agency too and the Doctor wasn't all falling in love with her. If she was special at all, it was because she hung out with the Doctor, not the other way around. I thought of her as the viewpoint character. She's there to do things that the audience would do if they were there and occasionally to prompt some exposition from the Doctor. But Russell Davies fell in love with her somewhere along the way and we just kept getting hammered over the head with how wonderful she was. I can't remember when I started actively disliking her, but I know that I really enjoyed this exchange from Bad Wolf, so it must have been by then:

The Anne Droid: So, Rose, what do you actually do?
Rose Tyler: I just travel about a bit. Bit of a tourist, I suppose.
The Anne Droid: Another way of saying unemployed?
Rose Tyler: No.
The Anne Droid: Have you got a job?
Rose Tyler: Well, not really, no.
The Anne Droid: Then you *are* unemployed. And yet you've still got enough money to buy peroxide.

Ha ha ha! Stupid Rose!

Anyways, I really enjoyed Jack Harkness, another companion introduced on Eccleston's run and one of the first male companions in ages. I liked Eccelston because he was angry and flawed and poisoned by his survivor's guilt, but still brave enough to sacrifice himself so that Rose (ROSE!!) could live.

4.) Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

A lot of the old Doctor Who episodes were in fact, kind of lousy. The effects were on par with what you'd find in a high school play and the writing wasn't good and there was not infrequently an appalling amount of filler. However, it had energy and it had charm and it threw out all these gonzo concepts without worrying about the ramifications. (I recall reading that Doctor Who never had a story bible, which is how it wound up with so many contradictory stories and three separate versions of the destruction of Atlantis, but my friend Eric suggested that this is actually a feature and not a bug and that all the time travel is overwriting previous stories.  I like that explanation. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.)

This is to some extent, a nostalgia score, because it's been a while since I've seen Pertwee and I'm not sure how the episodes would hold up. However, I do love the Master, Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes. I'm a sucker for an evil twin/dark counterpart story and Delgado and Pertwee were excellent together.

I'll get in to more detail on this on Matt Smith's entry, but something I really liked about the Master is that he's better than the Doctor in certain areas. He had a TARDIS that actually worked, for instance, but the thing that sticks with me is that the Master got better grades than the Doctor. That's my conception of the Doctor, a member of an advanced society, and a smart and talented guy, but not its most brilliant member. This is at odds with Stephen Moffat's interpretation of the Doctor. I can't track down the interview right now, but he said, shortly before he became the showrunner that he sees the Doctor as someone without peer.  But I think the Doctor is at his best when he has peers like Romana and the Master to play off of.

5.) Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor

I really got into Doctor Who when I lived in Florida with my mom when I was about 12. We had a used book store in the neighborhood and I picked up every Doctor Who book I could find. One of them was not a novel, but the Doctor Who Programme Guide. (I thought that it was pronounced "Program-ey" guide, being unfamiliar with the vagaries of British spelling at the time.) The book was an alphabetical list of the characters and in which stories they appeared. I read that book cover to cover and consulted it all the time, and as a result, I knew just about everything that happened in the series, up to the end of the Fourth Doctor's run.

And we got to his last episode, and then Peter Davison started his run and I had no idea what was going to happen next. It seemed like anything could happen, and that kind of potential was really exciting.  That's something I miss, living in the modern world. We're so connected now, and it's so easy to find out what has happened and what's going to happen on your favorite show. The mystery is gone. And yeah, as with Pertwee, a lot of this is nostalgia, but I loved it at the time.

As Jen points out, Davison had the hard act of following Tom Baker at the peak of Baker's popularity. But he had Nyssa, played by Sarah Sutton, another of the all time great companions. He was also saddled with Tegan, one of the worst, and apparently there's a band called Sarah and Tegan, which I was certain had to be some kind of Doctor Who reference, but it turned out that it was just a coincidence. The Master also shows up quite a bit during his run. His death and regeneration was really poignant too.

6.) Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor

I like him, though not as much as Jen does. But I don't think Patrick Troughton's wife liked him as much as Jen does. In the Three Doctors special, the First Doctor calls the Second and the Third "a dandy and a clown".  Jen calls him "endearing" and I think that's the best word for him. Also, I like that his companions are not in fact a succession of ingenues from modern London, but run the gamut from a Scottish Highlander to a 21st Century scientist. I like that his somewhat bumbling demeanor is in large part just an act and he's sandbagging this prodigious intellect.  And as long and as tedious as the War Games was, it does a great job of introducing the Time Lords and setting the stage for the Pertwee era.

Fun Second Doctor Josh fact: I had read that he carried a recorder around with him, but I had never heard of a musical instrument by that name, and having never seen any of the episodes at that point, I just assumed that they meant a TAPE recorder.

7.) David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor

The problems with Rose get more pronounced with Tennant, until they're at a point where Rose is talking about living in a house with a white picket fence with him. Blarg! He hit his stride once he replaced her with Martha, who ruled and once the writers stopped giving him scripts seemingly written with his predecessor in mind. He did have a number of good episodes, though. School Reunion (which drew significantly on  Dark Season, an earlier show by Russell Davis and Kate Winslet's birst major role) , Human Nature/Family of Blood and Journey's End were phenomenal. John Simm was pleasure whenever he was on the screen.

Unfortunately, we also get Donna Noble, who makes Rose look like Romana. If the Doctor is really this demigod thundering across the stars, how come Donna outwits him more than half the time? Watching her is like chewing tin foil with a mouth full of fillings.

8.) Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor

I got nothin. The COMPLETEly Useless ENCYCLOPEDIA has this entry for Half-Human: "The  contribution to Doctor Who mythos by the makers of the 'US telemovie with Pertwee logo' and judging by the eighth Doctor's interest in Grace Holloway, it's the bottom half."  I was delighted when Tennant reacted in horror at the suggestion that he might be half human, suggesting that this is no longer canon. Thank god.

And it must have been hard for him to fill the role in the short time he was allotted. I think of the TV movie as a pilot, and there's the tedious work of establishing the premise to be done. Had McGann continued, he might have grown into the role.

9.) William Hartnell, the First Doctor


10.) Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, aka Miss Piggy

His interests include walks on the beach, strangling his companions and committing genocide. It's not that a dark Doctor can't work, Eccelston and Tennant have each shown us otherwise. From Wikipedia: "The Sixth Doctor was an unpredictable and somewhat petulant egoist, whose garish, multicoloured attire reflected his volatile personality." He was an unlikeable jerk, but more than that, he was an uninteresting one and I just didn't want to watch him. Also, as the The COMPLETEly Useless ENCYCLOPEDIA points out, Timelash is an anagram for "lame shit".

And it's not entirely his fault. I daresay that John Nathan-Turner had as much, if not more to do with the problems of Colin Baker's tenure as did Baker.

11.) The Valeyard


Ha! You thought I was going to go with Matt Smith here, didn't you?! In your face, hypothetical reader! The Valeyard is, oh, fuck, this is why I get embarrassed telling people that I 'm a fan of about genre TV, because I feel ridiculous writing this stuff down. The Valeyard is the Doctor's future evil self who serves as prosecutor in the Trial of the Time Lord. But he was a pretty decent villain, even if the Trial of the Time Lord makes the War Games seem like Dalek Cutaway when it comes to brevity.  Also, he shows up in about a zillion of the novels.

12.) The Watcher

The figure in white who points the Fourth Doctor in the right direction in Logopolis.

13.) Earlier Incarnations of the Doctor seen during the psychic battle in the Brain of Morbius

 It's unclear, perhaps deliberately so, who those faces seen in the psychic battle are supposed to be. The Fourth Doctor starts the battle, and we see the Third Doctor, then the Second, then the First and then a whole bunch of faces we've never seen before.  I like the theory that they're the incarnations before the Hartnell one. There's no unambiguous support for this interpretation over any other, but  the context and Morbius's question, ""How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?" seems to imply it.

14.) David Morrisey, from the Next Doctor:

15.) The Other, from Lungbarrow: In writing this, I've noticed that I seem to hold two contradictory opinions about the Doctor. I like the C-student from Galiifrey who was good at some stuff and less good at other stuff, and I also like the Seventh Doctor who hints at an ancient past and terrifying powers. When the original series collapsed, the writers were working towards reestablishing some of the mysteries of the Doctor's past. I like this quote about it: "...Omega and Rassilon were the founding fathers of Gallifrey. They towered above the Time Lords who followed. They were demigods...there was a third presence there in the shadowy days of Gallifrey's creation. In other words, the Doctor was also there. So he's more than a Time Lord. He's one of these half-glimpsed demigods."
The Doctor was the third of the Founding Fathers of Gallifrey, the Other. He threw himself into the looms that grow baby Gallifreyans and was eventually reborn as the Doctor, which I thought was a neat way of explaining a bunch of the weirdness surrounding the Doctor's past.

16.) Rowen Atkinson from Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

17.) Richard Grant from Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

18.) Jim Broadbent from Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

19.) Hugh Grant from Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

20.) Joanna Lumley from Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

21.) Peter Cushing, from Dr. Who and the Daleks, now on the Big Screen in Colour!

22 - 99.) Future Doctors to be named later

100.) Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor

"That's right. I'm a tool. What are you gonna do about it?"

I like Moffat a lot as a writer. I like him less when he's charting the direction of the show. I was skeptical about Matt Smith in the role and I didn't like him when I watched his first episode, which seemed like one long warbled yalp of "This is what I think of your tenure on the show, Russell!" And, for as much as I complain about Matt Smith, I don't think he's the worst thing in the world. I took an instant dislike to his portrayal of the Doctor, but it's possible that this one episode doesn't reflect what the character eventually became. But there's so much other stuff out there that I don't feel like watching something I don't enjoy in hopes that it will get better when there is so much stuff that I know I do enjoy.

Also, Moffat's direction for the show seems to be at odds for what I want out of it. I want a Romana for the new series, a true equal to the Doctor  but he's dead set against that idea. And this dovetails into the second concern about Moffat I haven't watched the show since Matt Smith's debut, but I have a ton of friends who have and under these circumstances, one tends to absorb the information osmotically. And something that comes up time and again is that Moffat has a problem with women. He's unquestionably a very talented writer,  and I enjoy his standalone stories tremendously. I have no doubt that he can realize his vision for the series. However, his vision of the Doctor is not something I want to watch.


  1. It's been too long since I watched the original series for me to really rate all the previous Doctors relative to each other, but I more or less agree with this list. I recall liking the 4th, 5th, and 7th Doctors quite a bit.

    Out of the new Doctors, Eccleston is definitely my favorite. He made Doctor Who cool again. I initially liked Tennant in his first outing as well, but grew to dislike him over the course of his first season; he just wasn't able to pull off the role, perhaps, as you suggest, because it was still being written for the intensity of Eccleston. However, once the writers adjusted to Tennant's particular brand of charm, I think he worked much better and I came to like him quite a bit.

    Then came Smith and the 11th Doctor. I want to make that distinction here, especially, because I think Smith has always done a perfectly respectable job with the material he's given. The problem was in the portrayal of the Doctor, who came across not as an ancient, highly intelligent immortal time traveler so much as a high-strung, inexperienced, petulant teenager. The only way I could watch it was to pretend it was a spin-off about the Doctor's much younger cousin.

    That has improved immensely in the seasons since. He still may not be to your liking, I can't say; but I can't remember the last time he freaked out and yelled at his companions because he didn't know what to do, which happened just about every episode in his first season. In light of the character he's grown into, I think he deserves to be on the actual list, not buried under a bunch of characters that aren't really proper Doctors. Possibly still dead last, depending on taste; but at least on the list.

    You might want to give season six a shot to see if you like the show any better now that Moffat and Smith have settled into their roles.

    1. cfc: You might want to give season six a shot to see if you like the show any better now that Moffat and Smith have settled into their roles.

      I probably will at some point. Matt Smith has been feted for his performance, and I haven't seen enough of him in the role to know if he's to my liking. I've actually seen more of Paul McGann as the Doctor than I have of Smith.

      I guess what I'm saying about him is that I saw enough to confirm my initial misgivings and not that I'll never give him another chance, but there's so much stuff I know I like that it's hard to make time for stuff I might not. But I'll probably cue up Netflix one of these days and watch his whole first season all at once.

    2. If you didn't like 11's first episode, I don't think his portrayal changes much during his first season, which was season 5. I would actually recommend skipping ahead to season 6; by that point the portrayal of the Doctor has evened out somewhat. Also, I think season 6 had the most interesting overarching plot to date (though there are some major missteps), and was probably just the best season of Smith's tenure to date. Season 7, which just finished airing its first half, has been pretty choppy so far, but I'm holding out hope for the introduction of new companions in the second half to refresh things a bit.

      I guess I would say Moffat's work on Doctor Who is a very mixed bag. I really loved the episodes he wrote during RTD's tenure, and it's been exciting to see him bring that level of cleverness to the show on an on-going basis, and to finally actually explore some of what it means to be a time traveler: He regularly gives us episodes where time travel is an actual plot element instead of just delivering the Doctor to the plot -- in other words, he treats the TARDIS as an actual time machine instead of just a magic plot-seeking box -- and has explored how being an immortal time traveler affects the Doctor's relationships with the mortals who live mayfly lives around him more than in any of the previous seasons. He's taken the show to a lot of cool places that it's never gone before. The problem is, he's constantly trying way too hard to be clever, and he fails at least as often as he succeeds.

      You know, the more I write about this, the more I see your point. If you have plenty of awesome to watch already and the lack of Doctor Who hasn't left a giant gaping whole in your life, why waste time on something mediocre?

  2. You're wrong and let me tell you why . . .

    Heh heh.

    Just some observations on the new Doctors. I haven't watched enough of the old series to talk intelligently about it.

    1) Really a comment on how every man I know ranks the new Doctors:
    Chris Eccelston: we love this guy!
    David Tennant: he sucks! OR he's decent but not as good as Eccelston! AND except for Martha, his companions suck!
    Matt Smith: he sucks!

    I'm not sure what to make of this myself. I like Tennant the best out of those three, but I think that has a lot to do with getting to watch the character develop with him over three seasons.

    2) Steven Moffat: I'm probably in the minority here, but I think he's a terrible, terrible writer. Or he's out of ideas. The first two seasons with Smith as the Doctor seem like badly rewritten versions of Tennant's last two seasons, and that's saying something, since the latter have their problems. I only continue to watch because I like River Song so much. That and I found myself liking Rory, despite, as folks point out, that Moffat is a misogynist, and it comes out not just in how the Doctor treats women but in how pretty much ANY male character treats women. Mickey from Eccelston's tenure--and I liked him as well--is another good example. Not sure how involved Moffat was with the show then, so this could be pointing to a wider problem among the writers of the show.

    To get back on track, my biggest gripe with the direction the show has gone gets into a point Jugular Josh made about Moffat mixing things up. That seems to drive every episode since Smith became the Doctor. It's no much about the characters anymore as how Moffat can work in another plot twist. Season six ends this way, and, in my not so humble opinion, it's poorly executed. Series One of Sherlock has the same problems (the misogyny, too,I might add), and I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

  3. Eccleston was a badass in a leather jacket. Every guy wants to be one of those. He was also the right age to play the Doctor.

    Tennant and Smith are just... cute. They offer nothing to appeal to (straight) men.

    With Smith, especially, it really seems like they just hired a pretty face. He's the most classically handsome, and by extension the most forgettable, actor to ever portray the Doctor. (With the possible exception of McGann, but I don't really count him.)

    I wish they would have found a timey-wimey plot twist to give John Simms the role. Or Benedict Cumberbatch -- you could transplant his Sherlock unaltered and he'd be just as good a Doctor as Smith's.

  4. The following is the tale of Zach's experiences with Dr. Who. This story will likely be neither short nor entertaining, so if I were you, I'd skip it and read today's chapter from A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER instead.


    So, I'd never seen an episode of Dr. Who until a few weeks ago. Yes, I'm REALLY late on this. I always knew Dr. Who would be a show I'd like, but it seemed intimidating because there were just so many episodes to get through and I had no idea where I'd start.

    Then I canceled my Netflix account in favor of spending more time reading, and any possibility of watching Dr. Who was lost to me.

    Until recently!

    I don't know if you're familiar with at all, but they have a new shirt design every day and rotate out whichever designs aren't in the top-20 bestsellers every week. On rare occasion, they'll have "Random Shirt Day," where you can buy random shirts that are lying around the Woot warehouse. All you get to do is pick your size and how many shirts you want, and hope that you don't end up with a design of a cat playing the Settlers of Catan.

    Random shirts are cheap ($6.66), and I'd always wanted to try it but never had the GUTS. Then, about a month ago, there was a Random Shirt Day and I finally pulled the trigger and bought 2 shirts, telling myself that if even ONE of the shirts was good, that was a solid deal.

    I ended up with a lame shirt whose details aren't important, and a Dr. Who shirt. Not wanting to be totally screwed on BOTH shirts, I decided it was time to watch Dr. Who so I could get some value out of my Random Shirt purchase.

    So I signed up for a free month of Amazon Prime for its streaming video and started with the 11th Doctor. Based on Josh's review, it sounds like the 11th Doctor is played by Merlin, who Shadow-walked into the TARDIS so he could bring ruin and misery to an otherwise respectable TV show.

    (Oh, and the reason I started with Doctor #11 is because he's the doctor portrayed on the shirt I got. Just so we're clear on that.)

    Anyway, I've watched all of series 5 (Matt Smith's first season) and I'm a few episodes into series 6. And, I've gotta say, I LOVE this show. And Matt Smith. Maybe I'm just a half-brained Merlin-lover, or maybe Smith's Doctor is just really entertaining to someone who has no frame of reference--but in any case, I couldn't be happier with the show.

    Maybe my opinion will change when/if I go back and watch some of the older seasons, but as of right now, I'm lovin' Doctor #11.

    Oh, and unfortunately, Josh, I didn't get to read much of this post of yours. I STARTED reading it, then realized it might be full of spoilers, and had to force myself to skip ahead. Boo-urns.

  5. I'm just a casual Doctor Who viewer and I have to say that I don't have any problems with Matt Smith as The Doctor. Hell I liked Tennant and Eccleston too. My dislike of Doctor Who is aimed squarely at Moffat, who I've seen this said elsewhere and I'll echo it too, is a lazy writer. I have never felt like he has clue one on telling a consistent story and can't tell an ongoing story either. By the time the season needs to end I can envision him saying "Oh shit! I have to tie this crap together somehow!". I have friends who staunchly believe he has everything planned out and I just do not see it.

    As an aside I will also admit to despising the phrase 'timey-wimey". I don't know why either but I just hate it. ;-p

  6. All right, based on the advice of some friends, I 'm going to give Matt Smith another chance. They're going to pick out the best episodes and I'll watch them and we'll see if he's any more to my taste this time around.

    Also, my friend Tim ranks the Forgotten Doctors:

    1. If you like Neil Gaiman (and I'm fairly certain you do!), you could check out "The Doctor's Wife," episode 4 of Series 6. It won a Hugo Award, and I just watched it last night, and it was excellent.

      Then again, what do I know? I'm a Matt Smith fan over here!

    2. What's your thoughts after their best of Matt Smith episodes?

    3. I still don't like Matt Smith, but I've come to the realization that my problem is more with Moffat than it is with Smith.