Six Doctors Who Never Were

Ahead of Sunday's 50th anniversary special, we pick six unconventional British actors would who really should have played Doctor Who at some point.

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In the eyes of Doctor Who fans the world over, “You would make a great Doctor” is just about the highest compliment you can pay an actor. So ahead of this weekend’s 50th anniversary, we’re going to take a look at what could have been.

This list could be about one hundred times longer than it is: when you consider all the great British actors who could have played the role, the mind boggles. We’ve eschewed some of the more obvious (but no less exciting) choices — Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie etc — for a few names who aren’t dream-listed nearly enough.

Sit back and look at the roster of Doctors Who, from a wonderful parallel universe…

David Thewlis

Thewlis has been lending his offbeat brilliance to all sorts of films and TV shows since the 1980s, but he’s best known to modern audiences as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series.

David Thewlis 4

What Sort of Doctor Would He Make? A reluctant one. His name has been thrown into the ring by an eager tabloid press more than once in the past, and he’s reportedly balked at the idea of going anywhere near the role. Still, if he did do it, he’d likely be an edgy, battle-scarred Doctor, capable of the occasional moment of softness. A bit like Eccleston, but with a totally different energy.

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much He’d Nail It? Mike Leigh’s 1995 masterpiece Naked. You’ve never seen anything like what Thewlis does in that film.

Michael Redgrave

The patriarch of the legendary Redgrave acting clan (father of Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, grandfather to Natasha, Jemma and Joely Richardson, and, hell, grandfather-in-law to Liam Neeson), Redgrave has starred in productions across cinema, television and theatre. He was in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Dam Busters (1955), The Quiet American (1958), Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) and far too many others. And if you don’t know him from those things, get ye to a video store. Oh wait, they don’t exist any more.

What Sort of Doctor Would He Make? Depends which part of his career you got him in. He was actually born only two months after Actual First Doctor William Hartnell, so if he’d started in 1963 when the show did, he’d have likely been the grumpy, impish grandfatherly figure that Hartnell himself was. But if you’d somehow got the young Redgrave in, you’d have a dashing, handsome, cheeky Doctor that would presage David Tennant by seven decades.

Michael Redgrave 2

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much He’d Nail It? His very first movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 comedy-thriller The Lady Vanishes. Good luck not falling in love with him after that.

Julian Rhind-Tutt

You might know Rhind-Tutt from UK comedy series Green Wing, or from his spots in The Hour, Black Books and Notting Hill. Recently, he was part of Chris Hemsworth’s team in car racing biopic Rush.

What Sort of Doctor Would He Make? There’s absolutely no way for me to prove that he’s the love child of actor Bill Nighy, and I really no evidence beyond the astounding similarities in both appearance and mannerisms. But if you want to know how Rhind-Tutt would likely do the role, think Bill Nighy, only younger and ginger. Frankly, he’d be absolutely brilliant.

Julian Rhind Tutt 1

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much He’s Nail It? Forgive the obscurity of this choice, but if you can find his one or two guest appearances in BBC drama series Clocking Off (also featuring Doctor Who alumni Christopher Eccleston, David Morrisey and John Simm), his brilliantly mannered performance as the lawyer is all the audition the man needs.

Sally Hawkins

Hawkins’ biggest recent role has been in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, in which she nearly stole the show from her on-screen sister Cate Blanchett. You may also have seen her in Jane Eyre, Submarine, Made In Dagenham, Never Let Me Go, Desert Flower and An Education.

What Sort of Doctor Would She Make? For a while, my primary wish for a female Doctor was the fairly predictable choice of Tilda Swinton, but she’s bumped down to a close second now. Because although Swinton’s Doctor would presumably be an intense, brilliantly-fierce character, I’m suddenly intrigued by the idea of what Hawkins could do with the part. Hawkins has a ridiculous amount of range, but I’m guessing she’d pitch her Doctor in the manic, million-miles-a-minute camp that Matt Smith currently occupies. And it would be extraordinary.

Sally Hawkins

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much She’d Nail It? 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, proving that the works of Mike Leigh are basically just casting pools for Doctor Who.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Ejiofor is currently ripping it up across US screens as the lead in 12 Years a Slave, finally becoming the worldwide household name he’s always deserved to be. But you’ve probably seen him in Children of Men, Kinky Boots, Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, Love Actually, or Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Ah, got your attention with that last one, didn’t I?

What Sort of Doctor Would He Make? Do you remember that bit in Serenity when Mal is trying to convince Ejiofor’s Operative that he doesn’t kill children, and Ejiofor responds with “I do”.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Think of all the ways that line could have been delivered. Menacingly. Shouted. Whispered. Growled. Instead, Ejiofor goes for a completely counter-intuitive choice: he’s plaintive, as though he’s despairing at his own mercilessness, and wishes more than anything that Mal be spared of it. In the space of two damn words! Ejiofor demonstrated right there the kind of unexpected delivery that makes for a great Doctor. Rumours persist that he was offered role of the Eleventh Doctor ahead of Matt Smith, so of everyone on this list, this is the one we’re most likely to have seen.

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much He’d Nail It? Like I said, that one moment in Serenity sews it up. But the rest of his performance is pretty great, too.

Peter O’Toole

O’Toole decided to start small, taking the lead role in one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. He played King Henry II twice, in the brilliant Becket opposite Richard Burton, and the even-better A Lion In Winter, opposite Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins. Recently, he’s turned up as the older version of David Tennant in Casanova, received an Oscar nomination for 2006’s Venus, and played Pope Paul III in TV series The Tudors. Bottom line: even if you don’t realise it, you’ve seen him in something.

What Sort of Doctor Would He Make? As with Michael Redgrave, it depends on which stage of his career you got him. I’d have particularly enjoyed seeing the younger O’Toole take on the role. He does heroic and vulnerable all at once, soft and hard-as-nails, physical and intellectual. His Doctor would have been every Doctor.

Peter O'Toole

Which Role Best Demonstrates How Much He’s Nail It? Well, 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. He’s quite simply unbeatable in that. “The trick is not minding.” God, I get chills just imagining that line.

Day Of The Doctor is screening on ABC1 at 06:50 AEDT, 05:50 QLD, 05:20 NT, 06:20 SA and 03:50 WA. It will be repeated at 19:30 that evening.

There is also an array of cinemas holding special screenings; to find the closest one to you, click here.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah