Alternative Doctors: Tom Baker (Again) Or Judi Dench Instead Of Eccleston, And Bill Nighy As The Twelfth

By David Wharton | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

BakerThe notions of roads not taken is a topic that’s popped up quite a bit over the years in Doctor Who — par for the course for a show that can go anywhere and anywhen. We’ve seen Rose Tyler alter the past and save her father…and learn why doing so brings about even more tragic circumstances. We’ve seen the Weeping Angels, frightening not only because they move when you’re not looking, but because they drop you alone in the past, feeding off what had been your potential future. But for a show that regularly recasts its main character, there are countless real-life roads not taken, choices that would have given us a very different Doctor Who than the one we have now. For instance, what if Russell T Davies’ 2004 relaunch of Who had starred not Christopher Eccleston, but former Doctor Tom Baker, or even Judi Dench?

They may sound far-fetched, but these were ideas that were tossed around in the early days when serious thought was finally being given to resurrecting the franchise, which had been off the air since the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. There are some fascinating looks into that period included in The Unquiet Dead, a featurette on the special edition DVD release of The Green Death, which hit shelves this past summer. It includes interviews with former Who executive producer Russell T Davies and former BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning Jane Tranter.

The former Who showrunner says notions of bringing the Doctor back to the small screen with Davies’ involvement were stirring as early as 1999, when he was making a name for himself with Queer as Folk. Speaking of the first meeting on the subject, Davies recalls Tom Baker’s name being thrown into the ring as a lead for the new series. As fans well know, he had already played the Doctor, the fourth incarnation, between 1974 and 1981. Davies says, “I remember, actually, someone in the room said, ‘Why don’t we bring Tom Baker back?’ and we all said, ‘Yes!’ I was sitting there, going with anything, ‘Yeah, that’d be great!'”

It’s a truly bizarre notion, even if it never got any traction. How exactly would that have worked? The Doctor was already several generations beyond Baker’s incarnation, and the actor himself would have been 70 years old when the show finally returned in 2004. Would they have come up with some timey-wimey explanation for why the Time Lord looked like an old Tom Baker? Or would it have effectively been a reboot of some sort, casting Baker as a new First Doctor? I’m glad it didn’t happen, but part of me really wishes they had done a screen test or something for the concept.

The path that eventually led to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor had a few other odd bumps along the way. Tranter wanted Judi Dench for the role — a gender-swap for the Time Lord that is rumored pretty much every time the search is on for a new actor for the role. If I recall correctly, Dench’s name even came up during the most recent debates, before Peter Capaldi was announced to be playing the Twelfth Doctor. It definitely confirms they were looking for an older Doctor this time around, after the comparatively young David Tennant and Matt Smith. I don’t regret the Doctors we got, but it would have been fascinating to see what an actress as talented as Dame Judi Dench would have brought to the role.


And speaking of dead-ends for the Twelfth Doctor, Express UK caught up with one of the actors who had been on the list before Steven Moffat and the BBC settled on Peter Capaldi. Bill Nighy was among the names rumored for the new Doctor at the time, and sure enough, he was not only on the list — he turned it down.

Nighy told Express UK that “…I didn’t want to be the Doctor. No disrespect to Doctor Who or anything, I just think that it comes with too much baggage.” A fair point. Playing the Doctor will put an actor in the limelight in a way few other roles will, with fans around the world suddenly obsessed with your every move. If I were an actor I think I would jump at the opportunity to take up the TARDIS keys, but I can also understand why David Tennant and Matt Smith both decided to step away from the role after only a couple of seasons.