This week's episode of Doctor Who happens to see two actors returning to the series after first appearing in the classic era of the programme. In both cases, the gap between first and most recent appearance is more than 30 years.
Kevin McNally first appeared as Lt Hugo Lang in The Twin Dilemma (1984).
Jump forward 37 years and he is playing Professor Jericho in Village of the Angels (2021) - and possibly later episodes of Series 13. That's a gap of 37 years.
In the same episode is Vincent Brimble, playing the character named Gerald.
He also appeared in the programme 37 years ago, though you'd be hard pushed to recognise him. He played the Silurian Tarpok in Warriors of the Deep, in the same season in which McNally first appeared.
Brimble was in the first story of Season 21, and McNally in the last.
It's understandable for regular characters in a long-running series to be brought back for cameos and guest appearances. Tom Baker bowed out as the Doctor in Logopolis in 1981, but returned to play the Curator in The Day of the Doctor in 2013 - a gap of 32 years. Peter Davison became Doctor in 1982 with Castrovalva, and returned to the role for Time Crash in 2007 (25 years). Katy Manning first played Jo Grant in 1971, and her last appearance in the role was in SJA: Death of the Doctor in 2010 (39 years). John Leeson first voiced K9 in 1977 (The Invisible Enemy), but went on to play the robot dog on and off until SJA: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (2010) - a gap of 33 years.
Talking of Sarah Jane Smith, Lis Sladen first played the role in 1974 (The Time Warrior). Her final appearance was in 2011 (SJA: The Man Who Never Was), which is 37 years in the same role.
The record, however, goes to Nicholas Courtney, who first appeared in the series in 1966 (as Bret Vyon in The Daleks' Master Plan) then returned as Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge Stewart in 1968. He made his last appearance as the Brigadier in SJA: Enemy of the Bane in 2008 - 42 years from first to last, 40 of which were as the same character.
It used to be a small, select group of actors who had appeared in both the classic era and the post 2005 version, but that number continues to grow.
Here are a few non-regular actors whose performances in Doctor Who span 30 or more years:
- Brian Miller (1983 - 2014, 31 years).
Husband of Lis Sladen, Miller made his first appearance in Snakedance, playing the fairground Hall of Mirrors showman. His last appearance was in Peter Capaldi's debut Deep Breath, where he played the old tramp whose overcoat the Doctor "borrows".
- Christopher Villiers (1983 - 2014, 31 years).
Villiers' appearances match those of Brian Miller - Season 20 and Series 8. We first saw him playing the impetuous Hugh Fitzwilliam in The King's Demons. He returned to play Professor Moorhouse, the expert in alien myths and legends, in Mummy on the Orient Express.
- Gabriel Woolf (1975 - 2006, 31 years).
As with a couple of people later in this list, Woolf never got to be seen on TV, but he was heard. He voiced the evil Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars in 1975. He also played the Osiran, but was masked throughout. Later, in 2006, he returned to voice the Beast in The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit.
- Robin Soans (1981 - 2015, 34 years).
Robin Soans made his first appearance in The Keeper of Traken, when he played Consul Luvic. Luvic ended up ascending to the Keepership himself, though only because there wasn't anyone else around to take on the role. His Keepership would have been short-lived, as the entire Traken Union of planets was destroyed by the entropy field in Logopolis (assuming that Nyssa and Adric were seeing it in her present day time zone. Also, the powers of the Keeper might have allowed Luvic to survive in a non-corporeal way).
Soans returned in 2015 for Face the Raven. His character didn't even get a name - simply being billed as "Chronolock guy". He's the old gentleman who we see killed by the Raven.
- Anthony Calf (1982 - 2016, 34 years).
Calf only appeared in the opening section of The Visitation, playing the squire's son Charles. His character was killed off in what these days would be the pre-titles sequence. He returned to the programme for the more substantial part of Colonel Godsacre in The Empress of Mars.
- Louis Mahoney (1973 - 2007, 34 years).
Mahoney first appeared in Doctor Who playing a newsreader in The Frontier in Space in 1973. He returned two years later to play the Morestran trooper Ponti in Planet of Evil. His last appearance was as the aged Billy Shipton in Series 3's Blink.
- Robert Glenister (1984 - 2020, 36 years).
Glenister had previously starred alongside Peter Davison in the sitcom Sink or Swim, so it only seemed natural for him to be cast in Davison's final story as the Doctor - The Caves of Androzani - in 1984. Glenister played a dual role, though the two characters were identical physically and even temperamentally - Lt Salateen and his android replica.
He returned to the show only recently - playing inventor Thomas Edison in Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror (2020).
- Bella Emberg (1970 - 2006, 36 years).
No clear image of her from her first story, The Silurians
, where she was an extra playing one of the cottage hospital nurse. Neither is there a good shot of her as one of the kitchen workers in The Time Warrior
. She had a much better role in Love & Monsters
, when she played Mrs Croot, neighbour and friend of Jackie Tyler. She was supposed to reprise the role in The Runaway Bride
, but the scene was deleted.
- Tony Osoba (1978 - 2014, 36 years).
Osoba played one of the Movellans - Lan - in Destiny of the Daleks. He returned in Dragonfire playing Iceworld's officer Krakauer. His last appearance was as the elderly astronaut Duke in 2014's Kill The Moon.
- Geoffrey Palmer (1970 - 2007, 37 years).
Palmer made his first appearance in The Silurians, in 1970. He played civil servant Masters, who only arrives at the half way mark, and is killed by plague a short time later. All of Palmer's roles in the series will see him bumped off after a relatively short time. In The Mutants he doesn't get beyond the first episode. His final appearance was as Hardaker, captain of the spaceship Titanic in the 2007 Christmas Special Voyage of the Damned. He was killed when the ship was struck by meteoroids.
- Christopher Benjamin (1970 - 2008, 38 years).
Another actor from Season 7, Benjamin first appeared as Sir Keith Gold in Inferno. He's best known, however, for the character of Henry Gordon Jago - larger than life owner of the Palace Theatre - in The Talons of Weng Chiang. His last appearance was as Colonel Hugh Curbishley in The Unicorn and the Wasp in 2008. (Were we to have factored in the Big Finish audios, Benjamin's time span would have reached 51 years, as he continues to play Jago in them).
- Margaret John (1968 - 2006, 38 years).
Best known for Gavin & Stacey, Margaret John appeared as Megan Jones, the no nonsense Director of the Euro Sea Gas company. This was in 1968's Fury From The Deep. She returned to the series to play Tommy's grandmother in The Idiot's Lantern in Series 2 in 2006.
- Pauline Collins (1967 - 2006, 39 years).
The first of two actors who appeared in stories 39 years apart, Collins made her debut as Samantha Briggs in The Faceless Ones in 1967. She was approached about becoming a regular but declined - something she would do again in 1968. Her next appearance was as Queen Victoria in 2006's Tooth and Claw. A portrait of her, as Victoria, appeared in The Empress of Mars in 2017.
- Nick Hobbs (1971 - 2010, 39 years).
A stuntman and background artist, Hobbs may well have featured in the series earlier than 1971, but our first clear sight of him is as the UNIT soldier hypnotised by the Master in The Claws of Axos. As far as Doctor Who is concerned, his best known role was as Aggedor, royal beast of Peladon.
He still does stunt work (you'll see him in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Doctor Who invited him back to play Mr Nainby in Amy's Choice in 2010.
- Garrick Hagon (1972 - 2012, 40 years).
Our last few actors actually have appearances spanning four decades or more. Hagon first appeared as the rebellious Solonian Ky in The Mutants
in 1972. He also provided some of the Skybase tannoy voices in the story. Famously having most of his scenes as Biggs in Star Wars
deleted, Hagon returned to Doctor Who
in 2012 for an appearance as the undertaker in A Town Called Mercy
- David Troughton (1967 - 2008, 41 years).
I couldn't find a clear image of Troughton from his first appearance - as a background guard in The Enemy of the World. The image above is from 1969's The War Games, which was his first credited role in the programme - Private Moor. After a stint as King Peladon in 1972's The Curse of Peladon, he did not return to the show until 2008 when the injury of another actor led to him being offered the role of Professor Hobbes in Midnight.
- Arthur Cox (1968 - 2010, 42 years).
Cox appeared as the rebellious Cully in the 1968 story The Dominators. He returned 42 years later to play Mr Henderson in Matt Smith's opening adventure - The Eleventh Hour.
- Lynda Baron (1966 - 2011, 45 years).
Although she didn't make it to the screen until the story Enlightenment, in 1983, Baron's first credited performance in Doctor Who goes back to 1966's The Gunfighters. It was Baron who sang the song "The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" throughout the story.
Her last appearance was as the salesperson Val in Closing Time, in 2011.
- Ysanne Churchman (1972 - 2017, 45 years).
Like Baron, Ysanne Churchman's first appearance in Doctor Who meant that she was seen and not heard. Unlike Baron, Churchman never got the chance to appear in person. She voiced the Federation delegate Alpha Centauri in the two Peladon stories, then voiced the Queen Spider in Planet of the Spiders. In 2017 she voiced Alpha Centauri once again in The Empress of Mars.
- Donald Sumpter (1968 - 2015, 47 years).
As far as on screen appearances go, Donald Sumpter is the actor with the lengthiest span of years between first and last performances - 47 years. He first featured as communications officer Enrico Casali in The Wheel in Space.
By 1972 he had been promoted to command a Royal Navy submarine in The Sea Devils, but by 2015 he was leading the High Council of Time Lords on Gallifrey, as the reincarnated President Rassilon in Hell Bent.
The first actor to appear in the new series, who had also featured in the classic era, was William Thomas. He had been the undertaker's assistant in Remembrance of the Daleks in 1988, and returned for Boom Town in 2005, 17 years later. He'd go on to play Gwen Cooper's father up to Torchwood: Miracle Day in 2011, giving him a 23 year association with the series.
Amongst the others missing the cut with 20 - 29 years between firsts and lasts we had, in no particular order:
Jeff Rawle (Frontios 1984 - SJA: Mona Lisa's Revenge 2009, 25 years),
John Normington (The Caves of Androzani 1984 - TW: Ghost Machine 2006, 22 years),
Trevor Cooper (Revelation of the Daleks 1985 - Robots of Sherwood 2014, 29 years),
Colin Spaull (Revelation of the Daleks 1985 - The Age of Steel 2006, 21 years),
David Warwick (The Pirate Planet 1978 - The Army of Ghosts 2006, 28 years),
Christopher Ryan (Mindwarp 1986 - The Pandorica Opens 2010, 24 years),
Anne Reid (Vengeance on Varos 1985 - Time of the Doctor 2013, 28 years),
Clive Swift (Revelation of the Daleks 1985 - Voyage of the Damned 2007, 22 years),
Janet Henfrey (The Curse of Fenric 1989 - Mummy on the Orient Express 2014, 25 years),
Trevor Laird (Mindwarp 1986 - Smith and Jones 2007, 21 years).
A number of the actors mentioned above have now passed away, so when we say it was their last appearance then this is truly the case. However, there is always the chance that some of those still around may be invited back for another appearance over the next couple of years.