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Five actors who nearly played Doctor Who

Ncuti Gatwa in Sex Education (2019)
Ncuti Gatwa has been cast as the new Doctor Who. (Image credit: Netflix)

The world’s biggest game of Guess Who is over and with Ncuti Gatwa confirmed as the next Doctor Who we can breathe a sigh of relief that James Corden didn’t get anywhere near the fabled blue box.

Returning show runner Russell T. Davies had another actor in mind (opens in new tab) but Gatwa’s audition proved so spectacular that Davies’ previous choice went out the Tardis window. "I thought someone else was a guaranteed hit and then in [Ncuti] came and that person will never know,” he explained.

But with a grand total of 14 Doctors, Gatwa included, there have been more than a few actors who were almost the Doctor. Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley played them in the Comic Relief spoof “The Curse of Fatal Death,” but both had also been in the running for the proper job.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn just who came close to stepping into the Doctor’s shoes. Here are five actors who, whether they were passed over or just plain turned down the role, could have given us some very different Doctors.

If you’re not all caught up yet on the show, our Doctor Who streaming guide will help you. And, while you’re at it, why not check our Doctor Who Doctors ranked list too.

1. Bernard Cribbins

Bernard Cribbins and David Tennant in Doctor Who (2005).

(Image credit: Photo by BBC/Adrian Rogers)

Viewers of the revived Doctor Who series may know him as Wilfred Mott, grandfather of series four companion Donna Noble, but a much younger Cribbins was considered for the role of the Fourth Doctor. He’d previously played companion Tom Campbell alongside Peter Cushing’s Doctor in the Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D movie.

So, when Third Doctor Jon Pertwee was leaving, Cribbins met with the show’s producer (opens in new tab). He, in turn, asked Cribbins what he could bring to the role, to which he replied, “Well, I was a paratrooper, so I can fight.” The producer was not happy with the implication that the Doctor would resort to violence and that was it for Cribbins.

Tom Baker got the role and, as Cribbins notes with a hint of bitterness, did engage in an on-screen punch-up or two. And, as has been pointed out, the Doctor has resorted to violence and murder on several occasions. Still, Cribbins did get his revenge when he was responsible for the ‘death’ of the Tenth Doctor.


2. Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed in Flash Gordan (1980)

(Image credit: Starling Films)

Speaking of violence, while we can’t honestly imagine Bernard Cribbins’ Doctor putting the boot in, Brian Blessed is entirely another matter. That’s not to say the actor and mountaineer is, by nature, a violent individual, but he has such a powerful personality it enters the room before he does.

Blessed is perhaps best known for playing King Vultan in 1980’s Flash Gordon. However, years before that he was up for the role of the Second Doctor. So, why didn’t he get it? The answer is, as it turns out, multiple choice.

In August of 2020, Blessed told the Radio Times (opens in new tab) he was turned down because he wanted to play the Doctor as if he was Chinese, a dated and downright racist practice that’s been dubbed “yellowface,” which horrified the BBC. However, in a 2014 interview (opens in new tab), he stated that it was due to scheduling conflicts which, given how bizarre some of his tales are (opens in new tab), seems a more likely explanation.

He went on to play King Yrcanos in the Sixth Doctor serial Mindwarp, though we can’t help but think about what might have been. We’d love to have seen him bellow at the Daleks before punching Davros off the top of Mount Everest.


3. Russell Tovey

Russell Tovey from The Sister (2020)

(Image credit: Euston Films)

Russell Tovey has had many acting roles, including a turn as midshipman Alonso Frame in the Doctor Who Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. But to us, he’ll always be George, the adorably inept werewolf from Being Human. We’d love to have seen him bring that same energy to Doctor Who, as a Time Lord who was reassuringly unsure of himself.

He’d also have been the first openly gay actor to play the character and, after his name was put forward by Russell T. Davies, he screen tested for the Eleventh Doctor. The role eventually went to Matt Smith and Tovey accepted this decision with some relief.

“It would have terrified me. I don’t know what I would have done with all the attention,” he told The Independent (opens in new tab). Given how contentious Matt Smith’s casting was (opens in new tab) at the time, his cautiousness may have been justified.


4. Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff and Jean Rogers in the movie Night Key (1937)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Dr. Who and the Daleks as well as Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., released in 1965 and 1966 respectively, cast Peter Cushing as an alternate, distinctly human version of the time traveler. It wasn’t, however, the only time that Doctor Who crossed paths with a horror icon.

Shortly after the release of those movies, Boris Karloff was approached to play the Doctor in a series of radio plays, developed by Stanmark Productions. Karloff was best known for playing Frankenstein’s monster in several Universal Pictures movies, though the truth is he’d been acting for 20 years before he donned the neck-bolts.

Karloff undoubtedly had the acting skills to bring the Time Lord to life, but he was “unavailable” at the time, which could also have been a polite way of rejecting the role. Stanmark then went back to Cushing who, playing the film version of the character, recorded a pilot episode, “Journey into Time.” Unfortunately, the BBC didn’t pick the series up and the recording has since been lost.


5. Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench in Skyfall (2012)

(Image credit: Photo by Francois Duhamel/MGM)

Dame Judi Dench will, of course, always be best known for her iconic role in Cats, 2019’s CGI abomination. However, before she was an animal with human hands, she was under consideration for the Ninth Doctor.

Doctor Who producer Sydney Newman, though he no longer worked for the BBC, suggested back in the 80s that it was time for a female Doctor (opens in new tab) though Joanna Lumley was passed over in favor of Sylvester McCoy. But when the series was being revived in 2005, Dench’s name came up.

Television executive Jane Tranter, who commissioned the new series of Doctor Who, put her forward, though Dench has never confirmed that she was interviewed for the role. Christopher Eccleston ended up getting the part and the rest is history. Russell T. Davies did, however, express regret that he didn’t at least give her a cameo (opens in new tab) as the Doctor.

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Chris is a freelance journalist who, aside from covering games and gaming-related tech, has a taste for horror, sci-fi and the post-apocalyptic. As well as Space.com, you can find his work at The Escapist, GameSpew (where he’s the morning news writer) and more. You can follow him on Twitter @MarmaladeBus (opens in new tab).