Does modern Doctor Who waste its guest stars?

Drawing up the poll list for favourite Series 1 guest character reminded me of a little bugbear I have with the modern series - it’s habit of casting recognisable faces in small, often insignficant roles.

In Series 1 alone we have Tamsin Grief in a tiny role, Richard Wilson in a not much bigger one, Paterson Joseph in a tiny role and Jenna Russell - who is a very accomplished actress - in the really odd role of ‘Floor Manager’ at the TV station.

Series 2 would see this happen less but then in Series 3 we get Roy Marsden doing very little, Thelma Barlow getting killed off pretty swiftly, Alexandra Moen in the weirdly almost non-speaking role of Lucy Saxon (and the incomparable Nichola McAuliffe in a tiny role).

It always struck me that Olivia Colman and Nina Wadia are pretty much wasted in The Eleventh Hour (although I appreciate this is before Colman went stratospheric). But Terence Hardiman does very little in The Beast Below, and there are others later on too.

So, does modern Doctor Who sometimes waste its guest stars and do you wish some of those great actors had been given better roles to get their teeth into?


Now you mention it yeah, the lack of utilization of Coleman in The Eleventh Hour is one that bugs me every so often, but upon seeing the topic title my mind went straight to Sian Clifford in the most recent episode, although who knows, she may yet make an appearance in the future.

I’m thinking maybe some writers are wary of giving guest actor characters too large or notable a role to play in the story, out of some concern that a companion may get overshadowed by side-character performances across a series? Could also just be that some of these guest actors want a part in the show but have schedules that preclude taking a main role in the story?


Oh absolutely Sian Phillips - a powerhouse of an actress (have you seen I, Claudius) and she is given a role where she sits at a pub bar and is only in it for about 10-15 minutes!

RTD made such a big deal about casting her and then that is all she does (even if she was good)!


I don’t know most of the names you listed there :joy:

That being said, I always think of Stephen Fry being wasted in Spyfall.


Oh, I’d completely forgotten about Sian Phillips appearing, which is criminal. (I first watched I, Claudius a couple of years ago now and all of the acting is just phenomenal; I was so engaged in it due to performances like hers as Livia, proper character that actually bothers you irl acting, like David Warner as Captain Sawyer in a couple of the Hornblower films for me. Actually I went out and bought I,Claudius and Claudius the God a while after but I still havent got round to reading them…) Although I don’t think 73 Yards would lend itself to characters with larger roles, with it putting importance on no one staying too long in Ruby’s life, so maybe she could have been better utilised in a different story.


Siân Phillips is 91. She may not have wanted to do more than a cameo appearance.


I like that we have good actors in small parts and it is not like Doctor Who is foreign to the concept of using the same actor in two different roles. I do think that it would be nice to return to characters more often. We have a lot of interesting characters that have survived their plots that would be interesting to meet again.


I don’t mind it, I think that with well known guest stars there’s often a danger of them overshadowing the doctor and companion, who should be the main characters. That way it’s a nice little thing for people who recognize the actor.
I do think bigger roles for guest stars are fun too though, but I think those fit especially well in Christmas specials and the like.


Remember the time they went and cast Derek Jacobi as the Master, then had him regenerate almost immediately? I don’t wish a different role on him, but I so wish he’d gotten to play it more.

I’m not sure this is exclusive to modern Who, though. There’s always City of Death and John Cleese, though it also had Julian Glover all over that episode, and he was great…

(I do suspect money might be a factor. Big actors are going to equal big salaries, generally.)


The John Cleese thing isn’t really the same though because, as I understand it, he (and Eleanor Bron) just happened to be nearby so were free to do a fun little cameo.


Exactly my thought. I always think if they would do a bigger role and shower makers wanted that, they would do that. Nothing is going to stop that from still doing that after already having had a guest role.


I think that there is an element of ‘acting Easter eggs’ that comes into play. I think some of them are more for ‘actor I know’ getting a part.

(A slightly different note is the guest appearence in Night Terrors. Daniel Mays really owns that episode and shows off how good of an actor he is.)


Yeah that’s more a little cameo. & an “exquisite. Absolutely exquisite” one.


I suspect availability comes into play to some extent, as does how much the guest star costs. Perhaps it comes down to having someone for one or two days’ filming or not having them at all? Big names are in high demand, so it might simply be that they might be happy to appear in a Doctor Who, but can only spare a little time, so they get cast in one of the smaller, supporting roles that minimises their call time. I quite like seeing stars in cameos. Of course it would be lovely to see them play a major guest role, but I guess that’s just not practical.

I think with Sian Phillips her age and mobility probably had a lot to do with the role she played. I thought she still knocked it out of the park, which was no mean feat at 91.


i always considered this a feature rather than a bug, so to speak. i think it adds to the charm of the show that “bigger names” can get smaller parts and “smaller names” can get bigger parts (as well as being really good for the aforementioned smaller names’ CVs). it’s like when you’re watching a mystery show, where the guest star has a 50/50 shot of being the culprit or the victim, except the odds are skewed much further toward “victim” in Doctor Who.


It’s a bit like the Death in Paradise trope where the most famous guest star is probably the one who will be dead before the title sequence kicks in.


Shame Ian McKellen only appears via voice in the Snowmen.


Likewise Michael Sheen in The Doctor’s Wife.


Well, if we include Big Finish, then Jacobi did get to play the Master a lot more. Although I do appreciate not everyone does listen to the audios.

As far as big name actors being ‘wasted’ is concerned, I did think that Art Malik was somewhat wasted in The Ghost Monument. I think I’d also agree with Stephen Fry as someone mentioned earlier.

But equally, just because a role is small, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a waste for a big name actor. In the cases of both Derek Jacobi and Richard Wilson, the roles might have been small but they were certainly memorable. We’ll be seeing their scenes in compilations and clip shows for years to come.


As mentioned by others Olivia Coleman is always the big one for me