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‘Doctor Who’ Doctors: Every Actor Who Has Played the Part

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The Guinness World Records once listed the BBC’s Doctor Who as the “most successful Science Fiction television series in the world,” and, in November 2023, the show turned an impressive 60 years old. Doctor Who originally ran from 1963 to 1989 and was relaunched in 2005. 

Despite its grand age, it’s not demonstrating any signs of slowing down.

Former showrunner Russell T Davies (fresh from his success with It’s A Sin) returns to the franchise following last year’s Christmas specials with fan-favorites David Tennant and Catherine Tate. With the 14th season — which, for the first time ever, will premiere simultaneously worldwide thanks to Disney+ (on Friday at 7 p.m.) — Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education and Barbie) officially becomes the newest incarnation of the errant Time Lord.

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But, what about those who have already played the role of The Doctor (a.k.a. Doctor Who) over the past seven decades? Below is your 101 to all of the lead actors.

The First Doctor: William Hartnell (First appearance – 1963)

William Hartnell Courtesy Everett Collection

Debuting the day after JFK was assassinated, William Hartnell hit television screens as a rather crotchety grandfather with a fine line in the subversive anti-hero (though the actor himself described the character as a “cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas”). Hartnell had been known for playing authority figures and heavies, and saw Doctor Who as a way out of this stereotyped rut. His decision was well-founded with audiences both young and old falling in love with this mysterious man who travelled in space and time in a big blue box.

He would go on to stay in the role for just under three years but packed in an incredible 134 episodes. Hartnell returned to the role for the first ever multi-Doctor story, “The Three Doctors,” starring with his two successors but died shortly after. Since then, the character of the First Doctor has returned to the show, though played by different actors.

The Second Doctor: Patrick Troughton (First appearance – 1966)

Patrick Troughton BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Could a beloved television show work with its lead actor replaced? It’s wild to think now, but this was the BBC’s gargantuan gamble. Patrick Troughton, a staple guest star of many U.K. shows, stepped in to the TARDIS and ensured the show was good to go. Due to policy at the time, many of the Second Doctor’s episodes have been destroyed by the BBC.

He returned to the role three times after his departure in 1969, coming back for the imaginatively titled adventures “The Three Doctors”, “The Five Doctors” and then, finally, “The Two Doctors.” Hugely popular with fans, Troughton was a firm fixture of the fan convention circuit right up to his death in 1987.

The Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee (First appearance – 1970)

Jon Pertwee BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Enter the ’70s and Doctor Who’s greatest challenge yet: color television! Up until the introduction of Pertwee’s Third Doctor, every episode had been broadcast in black and white. For this visual feast, producers banked on comedic actor Jon Pertwee to pick up the baton, or sonic screwdriver. His flamboyant and energetic portrayal chimed with the show’s new action-based direction. Another hit with viewers, Pertwee stayed for five seasons.

The Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker (First appearance – 1974)

Tom Baker Courtesy Everett Collection

Hat. Scarf. Jelly babies. Teeth. The Fourth Doctor’s calling cards.

Despite picking up two Golden Globe nominations for portraying Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Baker was working on a building site when he landed the role of the Time Lord. He was certainly less well-known than his predecessors but quickly won them over, hitting audience figures of over 16 million.

Baker stayed in the role for a record-breaking seven seasons and an unmatched 172 televised episodes. He stayed away from the world of Who for many years (declining to join his other selves in the 1983 special “The Five Doctors”) but made a glorious return as the mysterious Curator in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” For many, Baker still remains the definitive article when it comes to the part.

The Fifth Doctor: Peter Davison (First appearance – 1981)

Peter Davison BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

The youngest actor to play the role up until that point (usurped by Matt Smith when he turned up for the role nearly 30 years later), Davison was very familiar to television audiences as fresh-faced Tristan Farnon in the BBC’s All Creatures Great And Small. With a more youthful vibe, the Fifth Doctor bounded successfully across the mid-’80s with a very busy TARDIS crew (often with three companions). Taking advice from previous Doctor Patrick Troughton, Davison left after just three seasons.

The Sixth Doctor: Colin Baker (First appearance – 1984)

Colin Baker Courtesy Everett Collection

For the first time in the show’s history — but not the last — an actor who had already appeared in Doctor Who returned to play the lead (Baker had guest-starred in a 1983 story). Perhaps unwisely, though, Baker chose to go back to the character’s more grumpier and stern roots. After Davison’s affable charm and pleasant demeanor, Colin Baker’s take wasn’t the success producers would have wished for. Viewing figures dropped and the BBC felt it was time for a new face and forced Baker out of the role.

The Seventh Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (First appearance – 1987)

Sylvester McCoy Courtesy Everett Collection

Now known across the world as Radagast from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, McCoy took on the role in the face of dwindling audiences. While many fans felt Sylvester’s era was a return to form, adding mystery to the Gallifreyan, it wasn’t enough to save Doctor Who as, after just three short seasons in, the BBC quietly dropped it from the schedules.

The Eighth Doctor: Paul McGann (First appearance – 1996)

Paul McGann Universal Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

For one night only in the ’90s, and co-produced with Universal Studios, Doctor Who went stateside for a TV movie (shooting in Vancouver doubling for San Francisco). McGann was already known for the likes of Withnail & I and was a choice lauded by fandom. Sadly, the pilot wasn’t picked up and the show returned to the wilderness for almost a decade.

Some 17 years later, McGann wowed fans around the world with a surprise return in the mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor” (penned by Steven Moffat).

The Ninth Doctor: Christopher Eccleston (First appearance – 2005)

Christopher Eccleston Sci-Fi Channel/BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

When Davies brought back Doctor Who and announced that actor Christopher Eccleston would be at the helm of the TARDIS, everyone sat up and took the show much more seriously as it had now become a different proposition altogether. Eccleston’s gravitas and reputation gave a halo effect to the show.

The actor established himself in the BBC’s gritty drama Our Friends in the North, alongside the likes of Mark Strong and Daniel Craig, and dabbled in diverse movies such as Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Elizabeth (1998) and 28 Days Later (2002). Eccleston bowed out after just 13 episodes and doesn’t look like he’ll be returning any time soon.

The 10th Doctor: David Tennant (First appearance – 2005)

David Tennant Sci-Fi Channel/BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

The second Scottish actor to play the part and the first fanboy to inherit the role, David Tennant took the show to new levels of popularity, but also to new levels of emotional heft. Previously, he’d impressed as the titular character in the BBC 2005 miniseries Casanova (as a younger version of veteran actor, Peter O’Toole) but it was playing the 10th Doctor that made a global audience fall in love with him.

When Davies decided to step down as showrunner, Tennant did consider staying on with his successor Moffat. However, it was not to be. After three seasons and a year of specials, the actor finally said goodbye in the epic two-parter The End of Time.

Of course, it was less than just four years later when he returned — starring alongside Matt Smith in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” And he would return again… (more on that later).

The Eleventh Doctor: Matt Smith (First appearance – 2010)

Matt Smith (with Karen Gillan, left) Adrian Rogers/BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Now famous for many roles — including Daemon Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and Prince Philip in Netflix’s The Crown — Smith was a virtual unknown when showrunner Moffat chose him to be the successor to the hugely popular and universally-loved David Tennant. (Some big sneakers to fill.)

But instantly, and very instantly, the youngest actor ever to play the role (just 26 years old when cast) knocked it out of the park — and then some. Aided by Guardians of the Galaxy star Karen Gillan (also an unknown at the time), the pair helped launched the show properly in the U.S. when their seasons aired on BBC America; even filming episodes in Utah and New York. Smith bowed out in dramatic style during the show’s 50th anniversary in 2013.

The Twelfth Doctor: Peter Capaldi (First appearance – 2013)

Peter Capaldi BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Another Scot and one very familiar to U.K. television audiences as the curse-word-spewing master of spin Malcolm Tucker in the BBC’s political sitcom The Thick Of It (remade for the U.S. by HBO as Veep), Capaldi’s eyebrows debuted in the aforementioned “The Day of the Doctor.” His full season debut followed a year later. Old-school fans loved his Tom Baker-ish style and his impressive Whovian credentials (Peter once lobbied the BBC to be the secretary of the official Doctor Who fan club).

The Thirteenth Doctor: Jodie Whittaker (First appearance – 2017)

Jodie Whittaker James Pardon / BBC-America / Courtesy Everett Collection

The first female to play the Doctor — and about time, too many thought. New showrunner Chris Chibnall, who had penned some previous episodes, brought in Whittaker who he’d worked with on ITV’s Broadchurch (which also starred Tennant). Jodie was not known for family friendly viewing, with films like Attack The Block (2011) and Venus (2006) and the small screen’s Black Mirror under her belt. But she embraced the part with Tennant-esque energy and gusto. Like many before her, three seasons was enough: She departed in a special episode to celebrate 100 years of the BBC.

The Fourteenth Doctor: David Tennant, Again (First appearance – 2022)

David Tennant Courtesy: Everett Collection

How? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know that either. But, we suspect that, with Davies returning as showrunner, the answers will leave audiences as a collective emotional wreck if his previous finales are anything to go by. We do know when though: For the upcoming 60th anniversary special episodes, Tennant returns as the Fourteenth Doctor, alongside Catherine Tate reprising her role as Donna Noble. Tennant will be back later this year for just three specials before he hands the reins over to…

The Fifteenth Doctor: Ncuti Gatwa

Ncuti Gatwa Kate Green/Getty Images

After lighting up the big screen as one of the many Kens in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Gatwa rose to fame in Netflix teen comedy drama Sex Education as French horn-loving Eric Effiong. Fans caught a brief look at the Scottish/Rwandan Ncuti (pronounced “Shooty”) in the throw-forward in 2022’s special, “The Power of the Doctor” but it wasn’t until 2023’s Christmas special “The Church on Ruby Road” that he revealed just how he will play the favorite Time Lord. In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg praised the new season refresh. “Gatwa is a thoroughly likable addition to the franchise,” said Fienberg, calling the star a “lively burst of energy, bringing back some of the wide-eyed, loopy enthusiasm that I enjoyed in [Matt] Smith’s take on the role.” The 14th season launches Friday, May 10 at 7 p.m. on Disney+.

Honorable mentions:

The War Doctor: John Hurt (First appearance – 2013)

The Alien actor was drafted in when it became apparent that Eccleston would not be joining Tennant and Smith for the show’s 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” Hurt was well-received by fans with his grumpy approach to his older selves (who, in typically timey-wimey fashion, were played by younger actors). This was to be his only outing.

The Fugitive Doctor: Jo Martin (First appearance – 2020)

We’re not going to confuse matters by going too much into detail about this one (as it might cause a headache!), but Jo Martin livened up proceedings in the Thirteenth Doctor era as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor.

This list originally published Aug. 19, 2023.

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