Have you ever found yourself watching a film or a TV show, other than Doctor Who... and suddenly the Doctor turns up?
I don’t mean one of the actors to have played the Doctor, or actors who would be good choices to play the Doctor. I mean actors who are already playing an incredibly Doctor Who-ish character... but not in Doctor Who.
It’s tricky to define what makes a character Doctor Who-ish, but he or she should be intelligent, funny, obsessive. He or she should disrespect authority and flout convention. There should be something compellingly odd about them, something mercurial and enigmatic. A sense that, beneath the surface, darkness lies.
I’m not talking either about characters who may allegedly have been inspired by the Doctor, such as Marcie from Dark Season, Ken Campbell’s Erasmus Microman, Dr John Cornelius from Virtual Murder, Dr John Strange from Strange (what is it about Doctors and being called John?) or even Dr John Chessington, the dotty inventor with Jon Pertwee’s bouffant and Peter Davison’s jumper who appeared in adverts for Chessington World Of Adventures.
There is something quintessentially British about the Doctor’s character and what really brings that home is seeing American attempts to do the same sort of thing. It’s as if they’re attempting to do ‘eccentric’ - but only within rigidly-defined parameters of eccentricity, due to a fear that audiences might not warm to a character they don’t entirely understand. The best of the bunch is Dr Emmet Brown from the Back To The Future movies, a US attempt at the Doctor, but without the danger or mystery. Doctor Who without the Who, basically. The same goes for Professor Arturo from Sliders; a fine character and a fine performance, but in comparison to the Doctor, decaffeinated.
The difference is that the Doctor is drawn from a tradition of dark and amoral figures from British children’s literature; think of the Professor from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe or Cole Hawlings from The Box Of Delights (later played on television by Patrick Troughton). Most pertinently, there’s Professor Wedgwood from the Target Luna series and the various Quatermassi, all direct antecedents of the Doctor.
Anyway, here’s a top ten of the most Doctor Who-ish performances outside of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, because David Tennant was later cast as the Doctor, I couldn’t include his incredibly Doctor Who-ish turn as Dr John Casanova in Casanova...
10 Alan Davies as Jonathan Creek.
Okay, so he’s a bit nasal, mumbly and lackadaisical, but on the other hand, he’s got perfect Doctor Who hair.
9 David Dixon as Ford Prefect in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
David was cast partly because of his unusually pale blue eyes; he looks alien. And with his breathlessly fretful delivery, he’s playing Peter Davison’s Doctor before Peter Davison did. And of the two, his costume is clearly the more Doctor Who-ish.
8 David Collings as Silver in Sapphire & Steel
Following his twinkly and charismatic cameo in this early ‘80s ITV show, David Collings was on every fan’s wish-list to play the Doctor; eventually he played the part in one of Big Finish’s Unbound stories. But, ironically, he was more like the Doctor in Sapphire & Steel than in Doctor Who.
7 Richard O’Brien as Richard O’Brien in The Crystal Maze
Another one for the wish-lists, Richard O’Brien comes across as one of those people who spends most of their lives acting as though they’ve recently been beamed down to Earth. If anyone could pull off a suit covered in question marks, it’s him.
6 Jeff Goldblum as Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
Or the scientist he played in Independence Day, they’re both the same. Jeff’s quirky, train-of-thought delivery and ability to make technobabble sound sexy means that if anyone should’ve been the Doctor in a ‘90s Hollywood movie, it should’ve been him. Strikes me as being, potentially, a very Matt Smith-ish Doctor.
5 Ian Richardson as The Magician in The Magician’s House
In House Of Cards and Murder Rooms Ian demonstrated he could be both charming and terrifying at once. That’s what you want from a Doctor. And in The Magician’s House, he played a Hartnell-esque Doctor possibly even better than Hartnell did.
4 David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige
We all know David Bowie is, in fact, an alien who fell to Earth during the ‘70s in order to make the homo superior children boogie. But never mind that, what matters is that in this role he’s mesmerising as a 19th-century scientist with a sinister secret and an even more sinister moustache. He could well have been the Doctor all along.
3 Donald Sutherland as Merrick Jamison-Smyth in Buffy The Vampire Slayer
No, not Anthony Stewart Head as Giles - Donald Sutherland’s watcher is the one to watch. He even has a floppy Doctor Who hat! Hypnotic, world-weary, inscrutable and absolutely a Time Lord. And that’s just in the video for Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting.
2 Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow has to be, without doubt, the greatest Doctor Who story ever told that isn’t actually a Doctor Who story. Depp is every inch the Doctor – an unconventional 18th century detective, passionate, magnetic and with a love for outlandish gadgets.
1 Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
And at number one, it’s Gene Wilder giving one of the most Doctor Who-ish performances ever given (and that includes Doctor Who). He has it all; the costume, the hair, the eyes. The hat. The eccentricity, the easy charm, the unpredictability and the darkness. The understated black humour. If anyone shows how the Doctor should be played, it’s Gene in this film. He’s simultaneously adorable and terrifying. In particular, check out the scene where they’re on the boat ride and he starts reciting a rhyme about how ‘there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going’...
All that’s missing is a cliffhanger sting.