When the BBC aired Doctor Who for the first time in 1963, who knew if they realized what kind of television programming they were introducing to the world. The show was originally created to be an educational show for children, and created by Sydney Newman, C.B. Webber, and Donald Wilson. Doctor Who is about the adventures of a Time Lord known as “The Doctor” as he travels through time and space in his TARDIS in the form of a police box. He travels with different individuals throughout the series known as 'companions'. The Doctor has the ability to regenerate into a new body - cleverly giving the series longevity by using different actors for the title character.
The series first aired from 1963-1989 with 25-minute episodes, and then went on a prolonged hiatus. Doctor Who then saw a comeback in 2005 when producer and writer Steven Moffat was part of the team that brought the series back to the BBC with a new doctor and new companions - and 45-minute episodes. Since then, the series has encountered a boom in popularity and the cult doesn't show signs of going away anytime soon. The series has earned many awards and acclaims, and is an international hit with a huge fan base in the UK, North America and even worldwide.
In total, Doctor Who has had 33 seasons (plus one TV film), and about 800 episodes (with 97 missing). Steven Moffat rocked the world of Whovians (the Doctor Who fanbase) when he introduced another Doctor (played by John Hurt) for one episode in between the Eighth Doctor played by Paul McGann (for one TV movie and a mini episode), and the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston in the 50th anniversary special. For the purposes of continuity, we will still refer to the Doctors in their original numbers as if John Hurt didn’t rock the number order that Whovians cherish.
With the much-hyped introduction of the twelfth Doctor, being played by Peter Capaldi, let’s take a look at the actors who have spent the longest time playing the world’s favorite time-travelling Doctor. Although we acknowledge that counting the number of episodes may be a bit controversial - given that the episodes in the first run of the series lasted for 25 minutes and the revival’s episodes are 45 minutes long - for the purposes of consistency, we’re going to count each episode as a single unit: These are the 10 most enduring incarnations of Dr. Who.
10 Christopher Eccleston (The Ninth Doctor) – 13 Episodes
Christopher Eccleston was the first actor to take on the titular role in the Dr. Who series when it was revived after a 16 year hiatus. His contract with the show was rather short reportedly due to the BBC's uncertainty over whether the show would be sustainable for longer than a season. Eccleston was born in 1964 in Manchester (he actually kept his Northern accent for the show), and prior to landing the role of Dr. Who he was a successful working actor with plenty of recognition and awards. There have been rumors that Eccleston didn’t get along with the crew, and when he failed to make an appearance in the 50th anniversary episode 'The Day of the Doctor'. But Moffat has been publicly positive about his time on the show.
9 Colin Baker (The Sixth Doctor) – 31 Episodes
Colin Baker’s time with Doctor Who was rendered difficult due to the fact that there were BBC higher-ups who reportedly wanted to scrap the show. His Doctor was presented as arrogant, brash, and volatile, and at one point he almost killed his companion in a fit of madness. To add to the eccentricity, his costume was colorful and flamboyant. Even though Baker was fired in 1986, regardless of having a full season left in his contract, he remained supportive of the show and often lends his talents to fan-made productions of Doctor Who.
8 Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor) – 43 Episodes
You may recognize him as the wizard Radagast in the new film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. McCoy was the first non-English actor to play the role of the Doctor, and McCoy was also the last actor to play the Doctor in the series' original incarnation: He took on the role in 1987, and remained until 1989 when the show took an indefinite break. McCoy would return for the 1996 television movie to 'regenerate' into Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor; the movie was a failed attempt to revive the series. McCoy’s take on the Doctor was unique from his predecessors because of his portrayal of the Doctor as rather comedic but with a darker edge; landing him the nickname the “Sad Clown”.
7 Matt Smith (The Eleventh Doctor) – 44 Episodes
Matt Smith is currently the youngest actor to portray The Doctor, stepping into the role at the age of 26. Producers of the show were concerned as to whether Smith could pull off the role at such a young age, but he proved them wrong by becoming one of the world’s favorite Doctors with his absent-minded quirks while sporting a bowtie and tweed jacket. Smith stepped into the role in 2010, and recently departed from the show with his last episode airing on Christmas Day 2013.
6 David Tennant (The Tenth Doctor) – 47 Episodes
David Tennant is an outspoken Whovian and credits Doctor Who as the reason he got into acting. In 2005, his dream came true when he was cast as the next Doctor after Eccleston’s departure from the series. He was the first Doctor to appear with a companion from the classic series, Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen. Tennant chose not to play the character in his Scottish accent and instead adopted an Estuary accent for the character. He departed the series in 2010 - in his words, “while he still could” knowing that if he didn't leave soon, he would never quit the show. Tennant's father-in-law is, in fact, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, but more on that at number five.
5 Peter Davison (The Fifth Doctor) – 69 Episodes
Before Matt Smith came along, Peter Davison was the youngest actor to play the time-traveling Time Lord at the age of 29. Davison was originally born as a Moffett, but because there was already a Peter Moffatt in the English acting world, he changed his name. Davison made his first appearance on the show in 1981 and played the role until 1984. He has a daughter named Georgia with his wife, Sandra Dickinson. His daughter married David Tennant, who was the Tenth Doctor, and Georgia herself played the role of the Doctor’s Daughter (sort of); making them a truly Whovian family.
4 Patrick Troughton (The Second Doctor) – 119 Episodes
Patrick Troughton made his first appearance as the Doctor in 1966 and would play the role until 1969. Troughton was a working actor in New York when World War II broke out and returned to England to serve. Like other Doctor Who actors, he served in the military and had a decorated military career. After he got out of the military, Troughton went on to have a very successful career in acting and was eventually approached in 1966 to play the second Doctor, which he accepted. His children and grandchildren also became actors, and one of them is Harry Melling, otherwise known as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films.
3 Jon Pertwee (The Third Doctor) – 128 Episodes
Jon Pertwee came from a family of actors, and when he heard that the producers were seeking a new Doctor, he contacted producers to express his interest. Pertwee found out that he was already on the shortlist of potential Doctors and was eventually cast in the coveted role. His first appearance as the Doctor was in 1970, and it was different from the two previous Doctors as he performed his character with opera capes and driving cars (especially the Whomobile) in the manner of an action hero. His James Bond-like character was well-received by viewers. He stepped down from the role in 1974.
2 William Hartnell (The First Doctor) – 134 Episodes
William Hartnell is the man who started it all as the First Doctor in 1963. Born in 1908, Hartnell came from humble beginnings as his mother was unwed and he never knew his father. At the age of 18, he got a job as a stagehand and immediately fell in love with the art of acting and performance, and found he could land roles consistently. He had to take a break from acting to fight in World War II, but when he returned, he enjoyed a rather productive career. When he was approached about playing The Doctor, he jumped at the opportunity and greatly enjoyed his time on the show. But in 1966, his health prevented him from continuing with the show, and the producers came up with the idea of the character's regeneration - a decision that would launch a 50-year long franchise and counting. It was Hartnell who suggested Patrick Troughton as his heir to the Doctor Who throne.
1 Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor) – 172 Episodes
Tom Baker hails from Liverpool and was born in 1934. Baker would break records with his time on Doctor Who with a whopping seven-season career before retiring from the show. Baker has quite the extensive acting career with theatre and film credits, and even worked under Laurence Olivier. His first film role was playing Rasputin in the film, “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971). Baker’s Doctor became iconic for his long scarf and stood out from his predecessors for his rather bohemian, colourful interpretation of the role.