Grab your sonic screwdrivers and don’t blink! DOCTOR WHO — now starring Peter Capaldi — comes back August 23rd, so we’re counting down the ten greatest episodes of the modern era.
There has never been a show like Doctor Who: science fiction, adventure, history, fantasy, romance, horror, heartbreak, running (so much running) — it has it all, and is more popular than ever…even having just celebrated its 50th anniversary. As part of its worldwide success, it has never been afraid to change with the times — its lead character especially. With anticipation at a fever pitch for what the legendary Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) will do with the titular role, we thought the time was right to look back at what had gone before, since the series got its modern reboot in 2005.
When David, Rachel, and Chase got together to make this Top 10, the debates were hot, and numerous deserving stories were left out in the cold of space. Though it is not the ten “best” episodes, or the most “important” episodes, we feel like this is the definitive and accurate portrait of what this wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey series has to offer, and would be a marvelous diving-off point for anyone new to it. (Though spoilers abound, naturally.) As always, debate with us, harangue us for what we left out (or in), and make your own list in the comments! At the least, it should be readily apparent whether we prefer David Tennant’s Ten or Matt Smith’s Eleven.
So without further ado…
10. DOOMSDAY (Season 2, Episode 13)
Written by Russell T. Davies; Directed by Graeme Harper
Technically a two-parter along with “Army of Ghosts,” this episode is the first combined appearance by the Daleks and Cybermen in Doctor Who’s entire 45 year history, and it largely consists of the global war between the two species. But “Doomsday” is here for one reason: emotional resonance. The final episode featuring Rose Tyler as the Doctor’s primary companion, she’s wrenched away from him at the battle’s apex. Separated in alternate dimensions, the should-be couple are momentarily reunited when the Doctor is briefly able to appear to her again in the episode’s closing moments. The final meta-goodbye in Bad Wolf Bay is an emotional sucker punch as the Doctor confesses he’s using up a powerful star, burning through its awesome power, just to say his final goodbye. The Doctor is on the verge of finally professing his love for Rose when the star burns out, leaving the two separated for good despite their undeclared love. It’s an unspoken feeling that will linger around the edges of David Tennant’s entire tenure as the Doctor. To date it’s the only Doctor Who episode to make me cry. I watched it again for this article, and, again, I bawled like a child.
9. SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY / FOREST OF THE DEAD (Season 4, Episodes 8-9)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Euros Lyn
Some of my favorite Doctor Who moments come when I am truly frightened by the magnificent power and quiet rage of the Doctor. In this two-parter, we visit a mystifying library – the largest in the universe – with grand marvels of text and unlimited knowledge; where Donna dies, marries, has and loses children; a flesh-eating horde of Vashta Nerada stalks the only human inhabitants of the suddenly abandoned place; and the Doctor gets a wife: River Song (Alex Kingston) is introduced for the first time with one, big “Hello, Sweetie.” It’s the kind of episode where Steven Moffat proclaims, “I know where I am going with this; just trust me.” And we do because there is a girl who is not quite right, a father who is not quite fatherly, and a Dr. Moon whom we trust, but we really do not know why. In this episode we are reminded why the Doctor is able to sometimes save everyone but at a great loss to himself, and more importantly, how he can silence an enemy by the mere rumor of his deeds. I always refer to the conclusion as the “Fry’s Dead Dog” episode, because it is so heartbreakingly sad, I’ve never gotten over it. It gets me every time.
8. THE PANDORICA OPENS / THE BIG BANG (Season 5, Episodes 12-13)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Toby Haynes
Moffat’s brand of whiz-bang timey-wimey reaches its zenith here, in the two-part finale of his first season as showrunner. Following seasons would get needlessly, frustratingly convoluted, but Season 5 — from “The Eleventh Hour” (fish fingers and custard!) to “The Big Bang” — is one of the more consistent in the show’s run. Large credit for that is due to the unflagging energy of the new leads, a young, gangly Matt Smith as Doctor Eleven, and Karen Gillan as his snarky companion, Amy Pond. Together, they land massive moments in this finale: the Doctor’s blustery challenge as every alien race he’s ever defeated descends upon Stonehenge; the heart-stomping story of Amy’s fiancée, Rory “The Lone Centurion” Williams; the blatant yet entertaining waving away of paradoxes (a Moffat trademark); and the immortal line: “I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” But best of all are the season’s final moments, when Amy draws the Doctor out of nonexistence at her wedding ceremony…something borrowed, something blue. Smith had some pretty big sneakers to fill (and count me among the doubters), but by the end of this season, he had earned his place in the fabric of spacetime.
7. VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR (Season 5, Episode 10)
Written by Richard Curtis; Directed by Jonny Campbell
By far one of the most emotional episodes of the Matt Smith era, “Vincent and the Doctor” tells a powerful story about inspiration, art, and the rewards in making even the smallest difference in a person’s life. Vincent Van Gogh is a troubled, tortured soul, but Amy and The Doctor make his life just a little bit brighter — culminating in the tear-jerking (yeah, I definitely cried) conclusion, when they take the unusual step to bring Vincent to the present day: he breaks down, seeing the joy his art will bring the world decades later, and Amy wants to believe that this intervention will keep him from taking his own life…but, in this case, time cannot be completely re-written. When the Doctor consoles her, he sums up not only the spirit of the show, but something even deeper:
The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.
In this episode the monster (yes, there’s still a monster) is a distant second to these human connections, and the striking visuals — like when the three look up at the stars, catching a glimpse of what will inspire Vincent to create his most famous work — make it one of Doctor Who’s most moving and evocative hours.
6. THE EMPTY CHILD / THE DOCTOR DANCES (Season 1, Episodes 9-10)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by James Hawes
The first story written by future head writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, these episodes demonstrate much of what would become his signature: an incredibly creepy villain, love torn apart, and powerful emotions. Telling the story of a gas mask-wearing boy haunting a blitz-torn London suburb during World War II, the episode’s haunting child-villain is among Moffat’s best. An injured child with terrifying abilities who only wants to get home, it paints a powerful picture of mothers and children, and Moffat’s soon-to-be over-used “power of love.” But here everything works to perfection. The episode also features John Barrowman’s first appearance as a future companion, pansexual action hero Captain Jack Harkness, who would later spin off onto his own series, Torchwood. He’s a big part of what makes the episode surprisingly funny despite its many heavy moments. Featuring a miraculous but plausible conclusion (when “everybody lives” was magical and not yet a Doctor Who cliché), Christopher Eccleston gives his best performance during his brief tenure as the Doctor in this episode.
5. MIDNIGHT (Season 4, Episode 10)
Written by Russell T. Davies; Directed by Alice Troughton
Ohhhh, man. I love “Midnight.” As a token “bottle episode” (done to save the show some money), with the bulk of the hour taking place inside a broken-down planetary shuttle, it’s light on plot but heavy on character — and, along with the special “The Waters of Mars” and a certain other classic that will come up later, one of the creepiest episodes in the show’s run. As Donna Noble enjoys a day at a luxury space resort, the Doctor sightsees…but when a mysterious creature attacks the shuttle, taking over the consciousness of one of the other passengers, the sense of coiling dread begins to build and never lets up. Before long, the other tourists — that we’ve taken time to get to know — start to turn on each other, and even on the Doctor, revealing a deep-set paranoia that is recognizably, frustratingly human. The monster is never actually shown, but you feel its presence for the entire run time, as the claustrophobic direction enhances a pair of magnificent performances: Tennant (one of his best) and guest actress Lesley Sharp. It’s arguably Russell T. Davies’s finest one-off script, and — unusual for a “family show,” scary as hell — but the terror is entirely psychological. The Doctor is legitimately shaken at the end, and so are we.
4. THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR (50th Anniversary Special, 2013)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Nick Hurran
How exactly does one celebrate an historic milestone of epic proportions – that is, a television program which outlasted prime ministers, presidents, the invention of cable, the internet, and hipsters, for fifty years — under the stress and scrutiny of the frenzied universe of nerd-dom? Simply this: bring back the most popular Doctors of all time along with Billie Piper, coupling them with the incomparable John Hurt whilst simultaneously celebrating the history of the Doctor and ushering in a new era with the tantalizing tagline: Gallifrey Falls No More. The timeline of the Doctor’s life intersects with a mysterious painting, an attack on the most important security bunker in England, and the end of everything. Filled with love notes to fans and enough story for beginners, these two hours were a near-perfect commemoration of our beloved Time Lord. Fans are able to definitively say goodbye (and Hullo!) to Tom Baker (the beloved 4th Doctor), John Hurt (turns out, he’s the 9th Doctor?), David Tennant (the best Doctor), and Matt Smith – who received a better farewell here than in the follow-up Christmas outing. If the series showed any signs of wear, this little film reignited the flames. Doctor Who?
3. HUMAN NATURE / THE FAMILY OF BLOOD (Season 3, Episodes 8-9)
Written by Paul Cornell; Directed by Charlie Palmer
Adapted by Paul Cornell from his own Doctor Who novel, this is the Doctor at his most human – literally. Chased across time and space by an enemy seeking to drain the Doctor’s life force, he and Martha hide in a small English town in 1913. The Doctor transforms himself into a human man named John Smith, a teacher at the local school for boys, leaving his Time Lord DNA and consciousness hidden away in an unassuming fob watch. Not knowing his own past, The Doctor lives a quiet life, falling in love with a woman and haunted by fantastical dreams of alien worlds and a time traveling blue box. There’s not a weak performance among the slew of excellent guest actors, but special notices go to future Game of Thrones actors Harry Lloyd and Thomas Sangster’s (Viserys Targaryen and Jojen Reed) brilliant turns as a not-quite human entity and precocious school boy, respectively. With the understanding that many of these school boys will go on to die in World War I the following year, it’s a powerful story of duty, love, and the horrors of war. There are no easy answers here – love can’t solve all problems. It’s perhaps the wisest story in the Doctor Who canon. You know John Smith must eventually learn of his identity and return to being the Doctor, but, surprisingly, you won’t want him to.
2. THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE (Season 2, Episode 4)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Euros Lyn
What do monsters under the bed have nightmares of? – Reinette
Me! – The Doctor
The Doctor has had his share of encounters with historical figures, frequently betrothed to heiresses, queens, and actresses, but it is Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles before being dragged into Transformers: Ugh) that has one of the greatest impacts on his life. The precursor to so many things: “Voyage of the Damned,” “Blink”, The Girl Who Waited,” the Doctor/Donna – there are Easter Eggs here for diehard fans that can trace storylines back to this single episode. The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey land on an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century only to discover time windows into 1700’s France, specifically the life of Jeanne “Reinette” Antoinette-Poisson – future mistress to Louis XV. The time traveling trio must discover the mysterious connection between the ship and Madame de Pompadour before it’s too late: as the Doctor battles his feelings, Rose tackles building jealousies, and Mickey subtly revels in the prospect of a woman separating Rose and the Doctor. Plagued with creepy clock men and juxtaposed with sweet Doctor-silliness, this is Moffat at his best. Except, of course, for…
1. BLINK (Season 3, Episode 10)
Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Hettie Macdonald
The gold standard, insanely clever, and a perfect hour of television — what more is there to say? Everyone loves “Blink,” and it has no competition. Here’s Rachel’s entry on it from our Pick 3: Drama Episodes feature:
The quintessential Doctor Who episode, introducing audiences to Carey Mulligan as protagonist Sally Sparrow, time as a “big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff,” and the Weeping Angels: the stuff of nightmares. “Don’t blink! Blink and you’re dead!” Writer (and future showrunner) Steven Moffat penned the lightening-quick horror mystery surrounding an intriguing young woman, a dilapidated estate inhabited by creepy statues, and time travel, natch. For one moment in time, Sally is the most important person in the Doctor’s life, and he in hers, each changing the path of the other though they only share a single scene. Like a Cliff’s Notes version of the series, “Blink” basically sums up Doctor Who in just over forty-five minutes, even with the Doctor barely getting real screen time. Though “Blink” appears in the third series of the retooled Who, it is the perfect episode to watch before diving into the most brilliant
science fiction…er fantasy… drama show on television.
Also earning votes: The Waters of Mars (just missed!), The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Journey’s End, The End of Time, Rose, Dalek, The Parting of the Ways, The Eleventh Hour, The Girl Who Waited, A Christmas Carol