Not long ago, I posted a short remark on Facebook referencing a (then purely hypothetical) list of favorite Doctor Who episodes. But as tends to happen with me, the goal of the list changed while I was making it. Eventually I decided that rather than rattle of a list of my favorites, I’d try to include lots of different kinds of episodes on this list, in the interest of picking titles that represent as many of the different stripes of modern-day Who episodes as I thought worthy of inclusion. In the process, I decided the only way to really do this would be to split the list in two, with the first devoted to the four seasons executive produced by Russell T Davies, and second (which is still in the conception stage) to focus on the Stephen Moffat years.
This list is presented in chronological order of air date. Additionally, I've decided to count two-parters as a single episode for the purposes of this list. As always, feel free to disagree in the comments.
“The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) – written by Stephen Moffat
As tends to be the case with many TV shows, reboot or not, series 1 of Doctor Who got off to something of a rough start, with some questionable effects and an overreliance on the flatulent but not particularly frightening enemies the Slitheen. However, Christopher Eccleston’s sole season in the TARDIS did produce one stone-cold classic, this two-parter set during the London Blitz. Fans of the series and its spinoffs remember this episode fondly as our introduction to the dashing omnisexual con man Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), to say nothing of the comedy inherent in Billie Piper’s Rose hanging from a barrage balloon in the middle of an air raid, sporting a Union Jack t-shirt. But it also produced one of the Davies years’ most lingering images, that of a little boy wearing a gas mask and asking, “are you my mummy?” The solution to the mystery of the little boy is first haunting, then poignant. The first sign that the new Who was set for the long haul.
“New Earth” (season 2) – written by Davies
With the first season of Doctor Who behind him, Davies set forth in season 2 to expand the possibilities of the show’s universe, and this began with its premiere episode, in which the Doctor takes Rose further into the future than she’s ever traveled, to the city of New New York on the titular planet after the original Earth has been destroyed. After arriving, they encounter a number of characters they met during the first season, namely the ancient Face of Boe and the last “pure” human, Cassandra, who is little more than a face in the middle of a sheet of tightly-stretched skin. However, she doesn’t stay that way, having formulated a system for transplanting her consciousness into others- in this case, Rose. Davies resolved in season 2 to write Billie Piper an episode that would allow her to be funny, and she’s a hoot here, with her lower-class wardrobe contrasting nicely with the snobbish, bitchy lines coming from Cassandra’s brain (it’s particularly funny listening to her attempt Cockney rhyming slang). The Doctor would return to New New York the following season with Martha in the similarly good episode “Gridlock,” but if I’m forced to choose only one New Earth episode, this is it.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) – written by Moffat
One of the original edicts mandated by the BBC during the first years of the original series was that Doctor Who should serve as an educational show, with storylines set against the backdrop of history alternating with the monster storylines. This mandate eventually fell by the wayside when audiences responded more to the creepy-crawlies than to the educational episodes, but even in its new incarnation the producers include the occasional historical adventure, and this one may be the best. Taking a page from the best-selling The Time-Traveler’s Wife, the storyline finds the Tenth Doctor popping in and out of the life of Reinette Poisson (the fragrant Sophia Myles), later to become Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Henry V. The primary threat comes from some nifty-looking clockwork maintenance droids, who are stalking Reinette through time for their own (icky) purposes, but the real highlight is the chemistry between Myles and David Tennant, who demonstrates enough wit, charm, and dashing romantic spirit to cement himself as one of the great “boyfriend doctors.”
“Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel” (season 2) – written by Tom MacRae
One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between the Davies years and the seasons exec-produced by Stephen Moffat is that the Davies years seemed to place a stronger emphasis on character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the frequency we see the families of the Doctor’s companions and other associates. Whereas in the Moffat seasons family members would occasionally turn up then disappear with scarcely a thought given to their whereabouts, Davies and his writers would often give his characters complicated family dynamics off which they could bounce the main storylines involving the Doctor. This was done to particularly good effect in this two-part episode, which presents an alternate-universe version of Rose’s family, in which Rose’s father is not only still alive but a successful business man, her blue-collar mum is a nouveau-riche snob, and Rose has been replaced by a dog (also named Rose). Meanwhile, the alternate version of Rose’s off-and-on boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke, who was never better than he was here) is a revolutionary, and the Cybermen, one of the Doctor’s oldest adversaries, are the brainchild of a dying inventor. MacRae brings these plot strands together capably, but what makes the episode really effective is how it illustrates the idea that, even in a universe full of unlimited possibilities, you still have to choose what’s most important.
“Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” (season 3) – written by Paul Cornell
In most of his adventures, the Doctor comes off as an intergalactic superhero, landing in a perilous situation and clearing it up through cleverness, an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe, and technological savvy. But in this two-part episode he’s far more human, literally- in response to a threat, he actually becomes human, in the process losing his memories and his identity. Here we see him as a teacher in a boys’ boarding school, even embarking on a sweet romance with the school’s nurse. Eventually, a group of sinister aliens sniff him out and launches an attack on the school. But most of the story’s drama has less to do with the alien threat than with companion Martha’s (Freema Agyeman, in perhaps her finest performance on the series) perspective on the event, as the Doctor to whom she’s sworn loyalty not only can’t remember who he really is- or who she is, for that matter- but also is powerless to stop the threat. In the end, the Doctor we all know returns, but not without some sacrifice.
“Blink” (season 3) – written by Moffat
With a series called Doctor Who, you would think that the producers would put the Doctor front and center, and in most cases you’d be right. But on a number of occasions, producer Russell T Davies shook up the formula in order to serve up a story in which the Doctor’s involvement was more tangential. Season 2’s “Love & Monsters” told the story of a group of Doctor fanboys and –girls, while Season 4’s “Turn Left” imagined an alternate reality in which then-companion Donna (Catherine Tate) had never met the Doctor. But best of all- and one of the overall highlights of latter-day Who- is this episode, which introduced audiences to perhaps the eeriest of modern-day Who baddies, the Weeping Angels. The focus of the story is Sally Sparrow (future Oscar nominee Carrie Mulligan), who happens upon the Angels and soon finds herself having to contend with repeated threats from them, with little more than oblique hints from the Doctor (a message written on a wall, a one-sided conversation included as a DVD Easter Egg) to get her out of the jam. Clever, impeccably performed, and above all, seriously spooky.
“Voyage of the Damned” (special episode) – written by Moffat
One of the hallmarks of the Davies years is that, unlike the more neurotic incarnations that followed, Davies’ Doctors genuinely liked people as a whole. This was most apparent in the episodes when the Doctor was without his usual companions and had to enlist people on the fly to help him save the day. Given the frequent turnover of the Tenth Doctor’s companions, this happened quite a bit, and one of the temporary companions (Donna) ended up a full-season companion later on. “Planet of the Dead,” in which Doctor #10 teams up with rich-girl-turned-jewel-thief Lady Christina De Souza, is a lot of fun, I’m giving the edge to “Voyage of the Damned” for three reasons: (1) the fact that the story is set on a space-edge version of the Titanic, which at one point ends up in free-fall and headed right for Buckingham Palace, (2) the introduction of Donna’s ornery old grandpa, Wilf, and especially (3) because the episode’s single-serving companion is played by Kylie Minogue, who would have been an awesome companion if somehow Catherine Tate hadn’t been available.
“The Fires of Pompeii” (season 4) – written by James Moran and Davies
Of all the Tenth Doctor’s companions, Catherine Tate’s Donna was the most three-dimensional, mostly because she wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her centuries-old Time Lord traveling partner, which made her a welcome change from Rose and Martha, both of whom nursed crushes on the Doctor. But with so many classic Donna moments, which am I to choose? I’m tempted to pick “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which provided the funniest Doctor/Donna scene of the series. But instead, I’ll give the edge to “The Fires of Pompeii,” in which she gets plenty of comedic moments while also displaying her other great strength, which was to provide an empathetic sounding board for the Doctor, encouraging him to follow his better (non-Weeping) angel. Throw in appearances not only by a future companion (Karen Gillen) but also a future Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and you’ve got yourself a damn fine hour of Doctor Who.
“Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” (season 4) – written by Moffat
For sheer horror, it’s hard to top the Weeping Angels, but the Vashta Nerada come close. In this episode, the Doctor and Donna land in a planet-sized library that contains copies of all the books in the universe, but which is totally uninhabited except for the Vashta Nerada, a race of microscopic and highly carnivorous creatures referred to as “the piranhas of the air.” Or is it all the dream of a troubled little girl? Doesn’t matter- this two-parter is full of unnerving moments, not least during the “ghosting” scenes, in which the consciousness of a recently-deceased person continues to converse with those around him. In terms of pure inventiveness, this storyline is hard to top. All that plus the introduction of River Song, of whom we’d be seeing much more during the Moffat years.
“The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” (season 4) – written by Davies
Whether this is best Tennant/Davies episode is a debate for another time. But in many ways this is the ultimate Tennant/Davies episode, to which the entire series up to that point had been building. The baddies are the Daleks, naturally, unleashing perhaps their boldest scheme yet, pulling the Earth (and 26 other planets) out of their normal places in the universe into a formation in order to create a “reality bomb.” But never mind the details. This episode has everything one would want from a Tennant episode – Daleks a-plenty (including their creator Davros and the crazed Dalek Caan), multiple Tennants, and Donna finally fulfilling her destiny as a companion. Plus there are guest appearances galore, including a scene in which the Tenth Doctor’s companions past and present all fly the TARDIS together. Tennant would continue as the Doctor in a handful of subsequent specials, but this feels like the climax to which the Davies years had been building all along.
“The Next Doctor” (special episode) – written by Davies
The Christmas episode was a new Doctor Who tradition that began with Tennant’s first full episode. These episodes, which have rarely involved the current companions, are generally stand-alone stories meant to tide viewers over until the beginning of the next season. A number of these episodes have been noteworthy (including the aforementioned “Voyage of the Damned”), and I have a soft spot for the Matt Smith-starring “A Christmas Carol,” in which the Eleventh Doctor softens the heart of grinchy industrialist Michael Gambon. But I’m going with “The Next Doctor” here, largely for the ingenious touch of bringing the Doctor face to face with himself (in a manner of speaking) by placing him in the path of another man who claims to be the Doctor and does the Doctor’s work, after his own fashion. Part of the novelty of this episode was that Davies paired Tennant with David Morrissey, who at the time was rumored to be the frontrunner to succeed Tennant at the TARDIS controls. Alas, it wasn’t to be- which is kind of too bad, because Morrissey’s “Doctor” cuts a similar sort of courtly swashbuckling figure to Doctor #3. But what I enjoy most about this is that it gives Tennant the chance to do a victory lap, the first in a series of them culminating with…
“The End of Time” (Parts One and Two) (special episode) – written by Davies
The Doctor’s most famous adversaries are The Daleks, but no enemy has made the fight more personal than The Master. After turning up periodically on the show’s original incarnation, The Master (played here by John Simm) first appeared on the new version during season 3, making life hellish for the Doctor in particular and the world in general. After being vanquished during season 3’s finale, the Master (a Time Lord himself) was resurrected again for Tennant’s final two-part episode. The Master’s plan is an especially crafty one, in which he invades the body of nearly every person on Earth, from the President of the United States to the head of NATO command- and the only thing standing between him and total world domination is that pesky Doctor, with the occasional clumsy but always loyal assistance of good ol’ Wilf. Does the Master prevail? You can probably guess. But what really puts this episode over the edge into classic status is the denouement, in which the Doctor (who to be fair takes FOREVER to regenerate) pays one last visit to his old friends before stumbling into the TARDIS and proclaiming, with a tear in his voice, “I don’t want to go.” We know the feeling, Doctor #10. We hated to see you go, but we loved to watch you leave.