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From William Hartnell to Sylvester McCoy, a retrospective on the epic EF classic ‘Doctor Who’ binge

Our reviewer Greg Jameson, one third of ‘Doctor Who’ and cult British TV podcast ‘The Complete Menagerie‘, embarked on a marathon mission to watch (or listen to) every single episode of classic ‘Doctor Who’ in order of transmission, including those from the 1960s still missing from the archives.

The journey through seven hundred episodes spanning seven Doctors across two and a half decades began in November 2021 when he posted about William Hartnell’s era and ended in spring 2023 on reaching the end of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure.

What did he learn along the way? Join us for a final roundup, which includes each Doctor’s era ranked from first to seventh place. Will you ever conduct the experiment yourself? Will our intrepid reviewer ever re-run it?

Drumroll please – the final ranking of the seven classic Doctors

This list is not my instinctual personal preference having watched each Doctor in order. This ranking is based on an average score out of five that I awarded each and every story, with half-points available. Only once I had scored all of the stories from every single Doctor did I work out the average for each one. The scores are calculated to two decimal places because the margins between some of the Doctors are very narrow…

So, without further ado, this is how the results shake out:

  1. Pertwee 3.67/5
  2. Tom Baker 3.64/5
  3. Troughton 3.62/5
  4. McCoy 3.38/5
  5. Hartnell 3.22/5
  6. Davison 3.18/5
  7. Colin Baker 2.68/5

Two interesting things to note. I am surprised to see Jon Pertwee in first place. Although I have always loved the Third Doctor’s era, I have never considered him to be my favourite (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my long-established go-to Doctors). However, steady and consistent wins the day. Only four Pertwee stories, ‘The Mutants’, ‘The Time Monster’, ‘Monster of Peladon’ and ‘Planet of the Spiders’ score lower than 3/5.

I am unsurprised by the rest of the rankings. Every Doctor other than the Sixth achieved at least one 5/5 story. Having said that, it is a shock to see that there is as large a gulf between Davison in sixth place and Colin Baker in seventh place (0.5/5) as there is between Davison in sixth place and Pertwee in first (a fraction under 0.5/5)! In other words, the top six are all pretty close, but the Sixth Doctor is the outright last. There are Colin Baker stories that I enjoy, so I had not anticipated the final scores being quite so decisive in revealing a bottom-placed Doctor.

Judged only on his first three seasons, Tom Baker would have been the outright winner

From Tom’s opening story ‘Robot’ to ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ which closed his third year in the part, his tenure sees no fewer than 9 out of the 17 stories scoring 5/5. That’s basically just over half of all of his stories from the years produced by Philip Hinchcliffe that are undisputed classics as far as I’m concerned. It is a ridiculously high standard. Only ‘Robot’ (scoring 2/5) is a dragging anchor, so the Fourth Doctor’s average is 4.24/5 for his opening three seasons. This would trounce Pertwee (3.67/5, remember) into second place. However, each Doctor was judged on their era as a whole, warts and all. Although there is a lot to enjoy in Tom Baker’s final four seasons, the standard was never as consistently good again, and ‘City of Death’ is the only story from those years to achieve another 5/5. Two awful stories (‘Underworld’ and ‘The Invasion of Time’) score only 1/5 and cost Tom Baker the crown of top Doctor, which to be honest, I assumed he would easily win. What’s worse is that the stories are consecutive, leaving viewers with ten episodes of interminably bad television to have to wade through before the blessed relief of the ‘Key to Time’ season.

Judged only on his final two seasons, McCoy would have won

This one’s a little more tenuous, since Sylvester only made twelve stories, so even slight variations in scoring can massively impact on the overall average. But having said that, the final eight stories of the Seventh Doctor’s era score a commendable average of 3.68/5, which would just about beat Pertwee (3.67/5) and Tom Baker’s (3.64/5) overall averages. It’s interesting to conjecture that it’s Sylvester’s opening season and only ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Battlefield’ out of his final seasons that ensure he finishes mid-table. It’s a shame, because when he’s at his very best, the Seventh Doctor is one of my favourites!

For many years, Peter Davison was my favourite Doctor

One of my earliest memories is watching ‘The Five Doctors’. I was a dedicated viewer of ‘Doctor Who’ by Davison’s final season. He was the gold standard as far as I was concerned, and for many years I cited him as my favourite Doctor. Then stories started to arrive on VHS cassette. Producer John Nathan-Turner was right: the memory cheats! Although ‘Warriors of the Deep’ was the most exciting thing my five-year old self had ever witnessed, by the time I was a jaded teenager revisiting it after forking out my hard-earned pocket money, I was less convinced. Holy memories didn’t quite stand up in the harsh light of reality. Watching his era back, I found it had dated badly. The pacing was slow, the storytelling stodgy (rare exceptions like ‘Earthshock’ and ‘Caves of Androzani’ aside). A lot of it was OK, but not especially exciting… Nevertheless, it was somewhat stark to see Davison’s Doctor come sixth out of seven. It’s not that his era was bad, it’s more that it just never quite maintained the sparkle of the others.

Watching the stories in sequence changes your mind on things

As I mentioned in my pieces about the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, I had for a long time considered Bonnie Langford to be an indifferent companion. Watching her entire run of only twenty episodes endeared to me her character of Melanie Bush like never before. Plucking a story to view in isolation, she can come across as irritating. But when you’re with her for the journey, she grows on you and is really very affable and sweet. In the end, I thought that Bonnie was a great companion who was part of the show during an especially troubled and sub-par era. None of that is her fault. She wasn’t particularly well-served but turned in a highly professional performance. Perceived wisdom that Mel is a bad companion should be challenged. I also noted that William Hartnell’s Doctor is softened immediately after the pilot episode (in which his performance is unbelievably dark and sinister – clearly notes came from above for him to tone it down). After ‘The Daleks’, he rarely shouts at his companions or endangers them again. By his second year he’s entirely whimsical and playing it like a mischievous fuddy-duddy. The First and Second Doctors are more similar personality-wise than convention would have it.

The show constantly changes

It’s hard to imagine dropping any Doctor into another Doctor’s era without it jarring badly. There are one or two exceptions. The UNIT-based later Troughton stories could have been rewritten for Pertwee’s Doctor. Tom Baker’s debut ‘Robot’ feels like a Pertwee hangover. Both Pertwee and Tom Baker had gravitas, confidence and large personalities, and could command a room or impress in any scene. Tom’s earthbound adventures therefore might have suited Pertwee’s Doctor. But other than that, it starts to become improbable. The dark tone of Colin’s opening season wouldn’t have suited his predecessor Davison nor his successor McCoy. Can you imagine either of them in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’? Similarly, the laid-back, jazz-inspired vibe of ‘Silver Nemesis’ only works thanks to Sylvester’s performance. When we see the Fifth Doctor wandering around Amsterdam in ‘Arc of Infinity’, he’s tense and angst-ridden. Maybe Tom Baker could have pulled off ‘Silver Nemesis’, but it would have been a stretch… When you watch the episodes sequentially, it’s easier to see the large-scale changes. Perhaps the biggest jolt is heading from ‘Shada’ into ‘The Leisure Hive’. They are like two different shows. As I said in my review of Tom Baker’s era, thank goodness we had his final season to aid the transition in styles from the 70s to the 80s, though. Imagine going from ‘Shada’ straight into Peter Davison’s debut ‘Castrovalva’!

I enjoyed the experiment but I don’t need to repeat it!

It was quite the long slog, watching (or listening to) every single episode of ‘Doctor Who’ ever recorded (including ‘Shada’!) in sequence. It took me over a year and a half, averaging around nine episodes per week! I learnt a lot, as I have recorded here, but I also have nothing to gain (and possibly my sanity to lose) if I were to ever try it again. Once in a lifetime is enough. In many ways, I think that this Herculean labour has been more about putting a lifelong love affair with a television show into context. I still love ‘Doctor Who’. I’m sure that I always will, but it doesn’t consume my every waking hour in quite the way that it used to. Part of that is probably down to the fact that ‘Doctor Who’ now means something entirely different to most people. As I haven’t taken any interest in the reboot, which is not made with me in mind, it’s been easier to portion off my obsession with the show and see it more as just one aspect of my life among many. Feasting on ‘Doctor Who’ has sated my appetite. When I watch it next, I will hand-select the ripest, tastiest bottles from only the finest vintages. As a great man once said, stay tuned! And if you’ve completed the journey with me, thank you!

Watch ‘Doctor Who’ (1963-89) on BritBox.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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