Looking around the internet for polls or lists on the topic of ‘Best Doctor’ in Doctor Who is essentially the equivalent of opening the Whovian equivalent of Pandora’s Box. Not only will any given list undoubtedly be wrong because it contradicts your own predetermined idea of who the Top 5 Best Doctors actually are, but any such list or poll that has a readily accessible comments section will, without fail, erupt into a war zone of competing opinions. But ultimately, is this all totally futile? How can anyone determine who the ‘Best Doctor’ actually is? What criteria do you use? Surely anyone who tries to rank the Doctors will be confounded by their own personal bias? To analyse this issue, I will be focusing on several trends that I often see in these lists that, whilst not necessarily unpopular, can be criticised nonetheless. To begin, a trend that disappoints me more than any of the others…
The 80s Doctors are Always at the Bottom
The more mainstream lists on outlets like WhatCulture and the Radio Times obviously try to stir up as little controversy as possible with their lists. Unfortunately, this also means relegating the more unpopular Doctors to the bottom of their lists, notably Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. At first glance this does seem to be the most logical move – their eras were mired with production issues, inconsistent storylines and direction from a certain John-Nathan Turner that ran the show into the ground thanks to the extreme bias of Michael Grade, Margaret Thatcher’s puppet in the BBC. But when assessing who is the ‘Best Doctor’, should outside factors like production value and relative success of the seasons factor in? After all, anyone who has seen any of Sylvester McCoy’s episodes will agree that he makes a fantastic Doctor – in fact in the 1990s, during the wilderness years, he consistently topped polls of ‘Best Doctor’ because fans of the show were genuinely devastated that it had been cancelled – Seasons 25 and 26 were a notable improvement over their predecessors and it has essentially been confirmed now that Grade cancelled Doctor Who in the 80s based primarily on his own personal bias against the show, and little more.
Similarly, Peter Davison enjoyed a fairly successful run as the Doctor, with episodes like The Caves of Androzani, The Five Doctors and Earthshock being among the shows most popular DVD releases, even today. He was almost the ‘David Tennant’ before David Tennant was the Doctor, in that he was a younger, more energetic Doctor who was popular among female fans. Interestingly, David Tennant himself has stated that Davison was his primary inspiration for how he handled the role of the Doctor, and maintains that Davison is one of his favourite Doctors, so it seems ironic that he would consistently come at the bottom of more recent ‘Best Doctor’ polls. The oddball in all of this is Colin Baker who, unfortunately, is more justified in coming near the bottom of the polls – whilst he enjoyed an excellent run of Big Finish audios, it is understandable that they do not factor in as audiobooks are arguably the most niche of the Doctor Who expanded media, and his televised episodes are among the classic shows weakest, although there are some standout entries. The question remains – why the bias against 80s Doctors? It could mostly come down to taste – whilst 80s Who has some fantastic storytelling, the production values do let the show down in the eyes of many fans, and in the end the decision comes down entirely to personal taste. John-Nathan Turner’s campy style of set and costume design do not sit well with modern audiences, particularly compared to the more extravagant NuWho. One cannot help but shake the feeling that Doctors like McCoy and Davison coming bottom in the polls is down to little more than ignorance, however, since fans of NuWho are less and less likely to give their eras the chance that they deserve.
The Relative Positions of Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee
This one is entirely dependant on the list in question, since some revere the position of Hartnell’s Doctor as ‘the one that started it all’ and others are based solely on fan voting input, which unsurprisingly gives Troughton a boost. In many ‘home made’ lists, however, particularly those made by fans who have self-confessed to never having seen any Classic Who, Hartnell and Troughton are used as ‘filler’ for the lower end spots despite their relative popularity. Whilst this may come as a surprise to some, Patrick Troughton in particular in one of the most popular Doctors, despite the fact that his era has huge gaps due to missing episodes. Stories like The Power of the Daleks, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Fury from the Deep, The Mind Robbers, The Invasion, The Evil of the Daleks and several others are considered essentials of Doctor Who’s monochrome era, and yet Troughton’s position in polls fluctuates more often that Steven Moffat’s script quality. Why is this?
Again, it comes down to simply ignorance. Many fans are put off by Classic Who as it stands and so are even less likely to watch Classic Who in black and white, regardless of how well the episodes are received. Still, at the end of the day, it’s their loss, and the relative position of Troughton on ‘Best Doctor’ lists has become a sort of litmus test for stalwart 60s Who fans to determine the extent of Classic Who that the creator of the list has actually seen, for better or worse.
Unfortunately, a similar occurrence mires Jon Pertwee’s era, which is due in part to the format changes that occur during this time – grounded on Earth for his first few seasons, Pertwee’s Doctor foregoes a lot of the space-time exploration to instead hold his ground on Earth, working with UNIT to fight off many alien invasions. The show morphed into more of a James Bond meets X-Files theme, as Pertwee’s Doctor took a more physically violent approach to dealing with menacing aliens, most notably his use of kung-fu and the occasional stolen alien blaster to dispatch his foes. Pertwee’s era also introduced us to fan-favourite companions like Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith, so the impact of thie era cannot be underestimated. Another factor to consider in his era is the introduction of The Master, and Roger Delgado expertly fills the role of the Moriarty to Pertwee’s Holmes. It’s great fun, but again, it comes down to personal taste – and it would seem that more recently the odds have not favoured the Third Doctor in fan polls, despite some genuinely fantastic episodes in his era like Frontier in Space, Terror of the Autons and The Time Warrior.
David Tennant at the Top
One of my previous articles on David Tennant may have given the impression that I don’t rate him very highly as a Doctor, but that isn’t the case. David Tennant was the Doctor that I grew up with, along with Eccleston and McCoy, so in many ways he is ‘My Doctor’, and I look on his era with fondness, despite the disproportionate amount of criticism that I dish out against it. Regardless, it does not sit right with me that Tennant regularly tops lists of ‘Best Doctor’ – obviously he is a lot of people’s favourite Doctor, that much is clear, but it seems that a lot of lists put him at the top to avoid controversy rather than to actually celebrate him as a Doctor. After all, his run was good, but was it consistent? Tennant took the Doctor to a dark place, essentially transforming him from a simple space-time traveller into an allegory for Space Jesus, with prophetic (and shamelessly and tediously repeated) arc words of his death, many episodes before it actually happened. Russell treated the end of his run as if Doctor Who itself would die with the Tenth Doctor, and unfortunately as a result many fans turned off when Tennant left, buying into the hype.
David Tennant played the Doctor well when he was actually playing The Doctor, but a big problem with his characterisation is that he would often forget who he was playing. For the self-proclaimed ‘Man Who Never Would’, Tennant’s Doctor dabbled in an inordinate amount of genocide, cold-blooded murder and insane megalomania, which in many ways unravelled his mandate as the Doctor in a way that most other actors who played the role did not have to contend with. It is also impossible to ignore that whilst Tennant had a handful of stellar episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace and Midnight, he also played host to many of Doctor Who’s most embarrassing episodes, ones like Fear Her, Love and Monsters, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Partners in Crime and New Earth. Again, this is down to personal opinion, but if people who have never even seen the majority of Doctor Who can attempt to rank the Doctors based on anecdote, rumour and affirmed negative consensus, then I can objectively rank episodes of David Tennant’s run that I feel are bad, thank you very much. Is Tennant a popular Doctor? Yes. Is he a good Doctor? Yes. Is he the best Doctor? Doubtful.
Baker and Smith, the old Second Best
In light of the ‘Tennant Problem’, more self-aware lists have deliberately denied him the top spot in favour of an equally safe alternate choice for number one – Tom Baker or Matt Smith. The word ‘overrated’ is often thrown around to refer to the trio of Baker, Tennant and Smith, but this isn’t entirely fair – all three have legitimate reasons for coming in the top five, as they are all brilliant actors – if anything the continual reappearance of any of these three in the top spot has just become annoying, mostly because, as anyone who has seen most of Classic Who will tell you, all of the Doctors are played by brilliant actors. After all, this entire issue comes down to personal opinion, both in how you rank the Doctors and also how you decide the criteria for ranking the Doctors. Target Audience is a massive factor too – ask a group of hardened Big Finish fans to rank the Doctors and Tennant will undoubtedly come near the bottom, with Colin Baker usually appearing near the top. Ask the same of a group of NuWho fans and the positions will be reversed. So why not shake things up a bit?
If it has just become the norm to always put Tennant at the top, Smith and Baker in second and Davison, McCoy and poor old Colin at the bottom, then what is even the point of doing a ‘Best Doctor’ list at all? Fans could debate endlessly over the fact that McCoy is an underappreciated gem, or that Colin Baker is much better in the audiobooks, or that David Tennant is overrated, or that NuWho is better than Classic Who, or whatever the debate happens to be, but at the end of the day, there will never be a consensus. And why is that?
Well, its because Doctor Who is so vast and so diverse, and it spans such a colourful and controversial history that it has attracted fans of all different walks of life from all over the world, and getting such a huge amount of individuals to agree on such a widely spanning range of different factors is simply impossible. After all, how many other shows have such a diverse audience? To many, the Doctor Who fandom comes across as more like a religious cult than a fanbase – and their religion has many different sects, each with their own unique beliefs and customs. Big Finish fans, NuWho fans, Moffat fans, Davies fans. Classic fans – they are all fans of Doctor Who for different reasons, they all enjoy the same franchise via radically different mediums, and many cross over many of these – I consider myself to be a member of all of these creeds, some more than others, so within the fanbase I find my loyalties divided – but at the end of the day, one must remember that all of these factions come under the monolithic umbrella-term of simply being a Doctor Who fan – something that requires dedication but is an enormously rewarding experience. So if NuWho fangirls love Tennant, let them. If Big Finish fans love Colin, let them. And I’ll happily enjoy Sylvester McCoy episodes in spite of where he might rank on ‘Best Doctor’ lists, like many more who are certain, regardless of what anyone else says, that whoever happens to be ‘their Doctor’ is the best.
So there’s my rambling thoughts on the idea of the ‘Best Doctor’, if you enjoyed then be sure to leave a like and you can follow us either here or on Facebook for more content like this. Thanks for reading!