Who could’ve been Who? An alternate history of Doctor Who

Alex provides a comprehensive look at every Doctor Who who might have been

As Harry Hill once observed, you need a system for remembering the list of Doctor Who actors. “Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, – Baker, Davison, Baker, Baker, Davison, Baker – McCoy!, McGann! ” was his (pre-Eccleston) system. But imagine how different that list (which has imprinted itself on the minds of several generations of sci-fi fans) could have been… Cusack, Horden, Moody, Crowden, Griffiths, Blessed, Campbell, Lindsay… anyone?


Cyril Cusack, Hugh David, Leslie French WILLIAM HARTNELL

The first Doctor could have been noted Irish actor Cyril Cusack or Hugh David who directed a couple of Troughton tales or Leslie French who appeared as a mathematician in the McCoy era. William Hartnell was cast after producer Verity Lambert saw him giving a rare character performance as “Dad” Johnson, an ageing sports agent in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. Hartnell relished the chance to abandon the Army roles he had become famous for, notably in ITV’s The Army Game and as Sgt Grimshaw in the trailblazing Carry On Sergeant. Though only 55 when cast in 1963, Hartnell’s health deteriorated and he eventually became too ill to play the part he loved.

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Rupert Davies, Valentine Dyall, Michael Horden, PATRICK TROUGHTON

Patrick Troughton was the production team’s first choice for the second Doctor, even apparently being suggested by William Hartnell. Other actors considered were Rupert Davies, already famous as Maigret, Valentine Dyall, radio’s Man In Black, later Who‘s Black Guardian and Michael Horden, the distinguished character actor, who went on to charm children as the voice of Paddington Bear. None of these actors wished to commit to a long-running series. Once the concept of regeneration had been established and Troughton had proved successful, the potential for the BBC to change the lead actor whenever required (or desired) became Doctor Who‘s unique selling point.

As man stepped onto the moon it was decided Doctor Who should come down to earth. This was essentially for economic reasons to allow the new series to be made in colour. A new lead was required. Top the list was Ron Moody…



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Ron Moody was at the height of his powers after his success as Fagin in Carol Reed’s musical Oliver!, however, he didn’t want to be tied to a particular role. Actor Tenniel Evans suggested the role to his Navy Lark co-star Jon Pertwee. As a middle-aged eccentric character actor, Pertwee felt he had little chance of being offered the part (strangely missing the point!). When Pertwee’s agent approached producer Derrick Sherwin at the BBC he was amazed to find his client second on the list after Ron Moody!


Bernard Cribbins, Jim Dale, Michael Bentine, Fulton MacKay, Graeme Crowden, Richard Hearne, TOM BAKER

In early 1974, producer Barry Letts was tasked with casting the fourth Doctor. Potential Doctors this time around included Bernard Cribbins, who appeared in the spin-off Peter Cushing Doctor Who movie Daleks Invasion Earth: 2150AD, Jim Dale, star of several Carry On films as well as children’s films like Digby The Biggest Dog In The World. Sometime Goon, Michael Bentine was interested but wanted script approval. Fulton MacKay, a year away from his most celebrated role as Mr MacKay in Porridge had impressed Letts in Doctor Who and The Silurians. Graeme Crowden, later to co-star with Peter Davison in A Very Peculiar Practice only wanted to do the role for one season. Richard Hearne, best known as eccentric children’s TV character Mr Pastry offered a version of the Pastry character as an approach to The Doctor.

Eventually a suggestion by the wife of BBC drama head Bill Slater was followed up and the production team found the wild-eyed and naturally eccentric Tom Baker mixing cement on a building site. Baker played Rasputin in the acclaimed historical drama Nicholas and Alexandra as well as working for Italian director Pasolini but it was his role as magician Koura in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad which convinced Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks they had found the ideal Doctor.


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Richard Griffiths, PETER DAVISON

When Tom Baker left the part after seven years, Shakespearian actor Richard Griffiths (who would find fame as Henry Jay in computer age thriller Bird Of Prey and later as Henry Crabbe, a detective turned chef in Pie In The Sky) was approached to play the fifth Doctor. A sci-fi fan, Griffiths expressed a keen interest until he discovered the role clashed with a prior acting engagement. Incoming producer John Nathan-Turner had worked on All Creatures Great and Small. A photograph of one of the series’ stars in cricket whites at a charity match gave him a costume idea and a potential Doctor. He approached Peter Davison. At 29, Davison felt too young for the part but after some thought, he realised the idea of turning down one of the most famous roles on television would be a mistake. He later joked that when Nathan-Turner took him to lunch to discuss the role, he realised the producer must be serious as the BBC rarely offers lunch!…



Peter Davison’s forthcoming departure was announced in the summer of 1983 and within days the tabloids had the ultra loud and immensely likeable Brian Blessed as the next timelord. In truth Colin Baker was (unusually) the only choice for the Sixth Doctor. Producer John Nathan-Turner, impressed by Baker’s social skills at a party felt if the actor could hold the attention of so many people maybe he could do the same as The Doctor. To be fair Colin Baker was always at a disadvantage. Saddled with a mockery of a costume and then returning from an enforced 18-month hiatus he shared the billing with Bonnie Langford, stunt-cast (weirdly) on the strength of her having ginger hair… (Nathan-Turner, prone to many strange spur of the moment ideas, felt this would be a radical departure!) Aware that many viewers now preferred to spend their Saturday with The A Team, BBC1 controller Michael Grade decided it was time for a new Doctor…


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Ken Campbell, Alexei Sayle, Tony Robinson, Dermot Crowley, SYLVESTER McCOY

In early 1987, John Nathan-Turner found himself casting his third leading man as the seventh Doctor. This time Ken Campbell, a truly eccentric character actor with an almost scary approach was considered along with comic actors Alexei Sayle and Tony Robinson and Irish actor Dermot Crowley, then famous for the short-lived series Call Me Mister and more recently seen as an eccentric priest with an obsession for bad workmanship in Father Ted. If Ken Campbell’s approach was just a bit too much for a family audience then his one-time colleague Sylvester McCoy appeared to be ideal. The once self-styled “human bomb” was no stranger to putting whippets down his trousers and playing the spoons. Familiar to children from TISWAS, Jigsaw and Eureka, it was felt McCoy embodied the eccentricity and charisma missing in the role since Tom Baker’s time.

Cancelled in December 1989, the show spent several years in production limbo with occasional suggestions of how it may one day return and who might be The Doctor. Eric Idle, David Warner and Donald Sutherland were suggested largely by the tabloids on slow news days. Fans of Doctor Who grew more resigned to the fact the show wasn’t going to return anytime soon and greeted each new announcement with increasing scepticism.


Robert Lindsay, John Sessions, Tony Slattery, Anthony Head, Mark McGann, Michael Crawford, PAUL McGANN

In 1996 the BBC and Universal brought back Doctor Who as a one-off special for Whit Monday. Paul McGann was a reluctant eighth Doctor. Screen-tested this time were Robert Lindsay, who memorably met the Daleks as Michael Murray in a sublime scene from Alan Bleasdale’s GBH; improv comedy stars John Sessions and Tony Slattery, a pre-Buffy Anthony Head, Mark McGann (one of Paul’s three acting siblings) and Michael Crawford, who despite fame as T.P. Barnum and The Phantom Of The Opera will always be Frank Spencer. Although ratings and reviews were good in the UK, the film flopped in the US where it was scheduled opposite the last-ever Roseanne and so Doctor Who returned to TV limbo.

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In the late nineties a number of A-List Hollywood actors were in the frame if the series was ever made into a blockbuster movie. Everyone from Laurence Fishburne to Tom Selleck were linked to the role. In Britain Richard Briers got the nod as did respected character actor Michael Sheard. Although best known as the stern Mr Bronson in Grange Hill, Sheard notched up several credits in Doctor Who itself working with many of the Doctors.

1999 saw Mark Gatiss play the Doctor in a series of sketches he and David Walliams put together for BBC2’s Doctor Who Night. Earlier in the year, Comic Relief transmitted probably the best spoof of the show, written by Stephen Moffat and featuring Rowan Atkinson as The Doctor. Julia Sawalha was his companion Emma. Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley had a few scenes to “audition” for the role before regenerating. Jonathan Pryce was particularly well cast as The Master. Lumley’s casting as a female Doctor was itself a spoof on the long line of potential female candidates for the role. The female Doctor was originally an idea by Tom Baker and John Nathan-Turner. They devised it as a publicity stunt to get maximum coverage for the news of Baker’s departure in 1980. The possibility of a female Doctor is now always mooted every time the Timelord is re-cast though is never given much genuine consideration. Names as varied as Victoria Wood, Frances De La Tour and even Margaret Thatcher have been suggested, mainly by the tabloids and the general public. A female Doctor was played by Arabella Weir as part of a series of audio dramas featuring alternative Doctors. Others included Geoffrey Bayldon and David Warner. The Scream Of Shelka, a groundbreaking animated online Doctor Who adventure, starred Richard E Grant as the Doctor, in a return to the role (of sorts) and featured would be Doctors Stephen Fry and John Sessions. Tellingly it was the BBC’s biggest Internet hit at the time.


Alan Davies, Stephen Fry, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON

In 2003 BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggassey announced Russell T Davies was to mastermind a reboot of Doctor Who for early 2005. The rumour-mill went into overdrive and many familiar names were once more touted as potential Doctors.

Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies was an early front runner, Stephen Fry was again suggested. Bill Nighy got the vote of those after an older Doctor, whilst Alan Rickman, so effective in the Harry Potter films, was the eccentric choice.

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Casting Christopher Eccleston in April 2004 Russell T Davies signalled the show was a serious undertaking that actors wouldn’t be allowed to take lightly.This in turn ensured a queue of high quality actors desperate to appear on the revamped show.



Was the Tenth Doctor always going to be David Tennant? “The clues are there…” Russell T Davies cryptically told Mark Lawson in a recent BBC4 interview. Certainly Tennant, cast as Casanova in Davies’ production of the classic novel, was in the writer’s mind as a potential replacement. Russell T Davies knew from the outset Christopher Eccleston had only committed himself to one season but was somewhat caught out when the story leaked to the press. Mark Gatiss, who at one stage was part of a consortium trying to bring the show back, is one of a number of names who would relish the part. When he discovered his friend David Tennant had been asked, Gatiss encouraged him all the way.

So who’s next? Although David Tennant appears to have no plans to quit the role in the near future, possible replacements are continuously trotted out. Robert Carlyle is the latest actor to be “linked” to the part. James Nesbitt and the ever-popular Stephen Fry being other potential contenders. As the Doctor himself might say, time will tell…