This list includes episodes beginning at the 2005 revival. While I’ve watched a few seasons of the older doctors, I haven’t watched enough to have any of them be in this list. I also haven’t kept up to date with Jodie Whittaker’s episodes, so if you think one of the newer ones deserved to be here, that’s the reason it isn’t!
I have to say I love Doctor Who and it was so hard to narrow this list down to just ten episodes. Some of my favourites are missing from this list because there are just so many great episodes.
10. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)
Who would have thought the phrase: “Are you my mummy?” could be so creepy? This was by far the scariest episode for me watching as a ten-year-old. Watching it back now, it’s still very eerie and the gasmask transformation is disturbing. The adults saying “mummy” is quite funny to me now, but for the most part, still a creepy episode. The setting of London during the Blitz is not a new one, but the first for the revival. It adds some extra tension to the main story. I always found it a shame Eccleston wasn’t around for longer. Nine is a great Doctor. He is quite intense, still angry but has quite a dry sense of humour which I enjoy. I enjoy the whole of this season; however, I think they were still trying to find their feet. These episodes stand out for me though. One of the reasons this two-parter ranks so highly for me is the introduction of Captain Jack Harkness, a super interesting character. Furthermore, the idea of a zombie-like plague is a great way to amp up the tension. The Doctors elation at the idea he can save everyone, “just this once, everybody lives”, is slightly undercut by the fact they are mid air raid. Nevertheless, it’s still a nice moment.
9. Gridlock (2007)
I did a little bit of research into other top ten episodes lists. Of all I read, this episode did not seem to appear. I had to include it though because, for me, it epitomises what I came to love about Doctor Who. Russell T Davies was a master of writing through-season arcs, and there are several included in Gridlock. We re-visit somewhere we’ve been previously, giving the viewer a different view of the same place as well as the feeling of being in the know. The main premise is one I really enjoy, the motorway that goes on forever. The ‘villain’ of the episode, the Macra, aren’t particularly terrifying. However, they are simply a product of the more significant events in the episode. I really enjoy the side characters in this episode. The scenes of singing in the cars is particularly moving to me. Perhaps it is heightened by the pandemic, but it’s such an emotional moment to see the solidarity and hope in the face of uncertainty. They bring back the Face of Boe for this episode and he is revealed to be the saviour of those trapped on the motorway. Of course, Boe dies and leaves the Doctor with the message “you are not alone”. This has a great payoff with the season finale: Y.A.N.A. It also helps set in motion the speculation that Captain Jack is the Face of Boe. I just think this episode epitomises the excellence of Russell T Davies’ writing and that he was the only choice to bring back this show.
8. Midnight (2008)
This episode should be shown in creative writing classes. I honestly think it is a masterclass in writing. Yes, the concept has been done before but do adapt it to sci-fi in the middle of a season is a great change of pace and just a great idea. Back in the day, when I was watching this on BBC and waiting every week for a new episode, I remember being disappointed by this one. But upon re-watching it quickly became one of my favourites. There are very little special effects. The characters stay in the carriage for most of the episode. It serves as a testament to what you can create with just words. The idea that the alien inhabits Sky’s body and learns through speech is a genius way to illustrate this. Having the Doctor’s voice taken away leaves the audience on the edge of their seat, as he is left vulnerable and in the hands of scared humans. It also delves into psychology a bit, showing the reactions of the different people and how they conform under certain pressures. Lesley Sharp and David Tennant’s back and forth in this episode is perhaps the most impressive parts. Throwing Colin Morgan in an already talented cast is another way to get my approval!
7. Listen (2014)
This is the only Capaldi episode on my list. I sort of fell-off the wagon during this season, after having been an avid fan for years. But this episode always stuck in my mind. Maybe it is because I am partial to horror and the scarier episodes of Doctor Who. What I love about this episode is it reminds us who the target audience is: children. It plays on the basic fear of a monster under the bed but acknowledging the adult/older viewers, they add in the layer of forgetfulness or things just turning off. It adds a nice layer to the tension and the fear. It’s a clever way of doing horror, because a simple dip in the bed when the characters are under it, or a person under a blanket, is such an inexpensive way to create fear. Then having the creature out of focus in the background, so the audience is focusing on it, but can’t fully see what is happening. There is something very comforting and intense about Capaldi’s Doctor. He created quite a polarised character and it works well for a Time Lord. I like the idea that Clara has such weight on the Doctor and his timeline. It is something seen across the previous two companions as well. The crack in time centring around Amy and the pull of the Doctor to Donna. Suggesting that the companions are ‘chosen’ for a reason, something more than simply an accomplice. Another element to this episode that I like is that the motive for the whole thing emanates from the Doctor’s need to know. His curiosity. He simply can’t let it go sometimes.
6. Turn Left (2008)
This is by no means a new idea; a few series have done something similar on the lines of choices and “what ifs”. Off the top of my head I can think of Buffy and iCarly, oddly enough, though I’m sure there are more. What is great about this episode is that it centres around Donna. She is such a great character who has excellent character development throughout the series. One of Donna’s character arcs is her self-identification. She often refers to herself as ‘just a temp’, despite all she has done and seen. Turn Left illustrates how important she and her choices are in this universe. What’s great about Doctor Who choosing this formula is that the stakes are so high. It also shows the other side of the Doctor’s adventures, the aftermath of what may happen should they fail. It’s great to see the past events by the side of Donna’s hilarious life view and dismissal of the alien activity. “England for the English”, gosh I forgot how dark this episode is. With the inclusion of Rose too, this episode makes for a great introduction to the following two episodes. I’m sure if I think about it too hard, there are plot holes in this as it wasn’t simply Donna’s time that would have been affected if Donna hadn’t saved him. The events in ‘Shakespeare’s Code’ should have still happened, the apocalypse would have happened in 1599. Perhaps it could be explained away, but it does provide some inconsistencies. Despite that, this is a well-written episode and helps add to the conclusion, the very sad conclusion, of this series. Oh, and that ending, “Bad Wolf”, chills every time! Any episode that shows us more Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins is always a plus.
5. Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
This is my first entry of Matt Smith’s Doctor and I have to say, despite my immense love of Tennant, Smith did an incredible job of filling his shoes and creating his own unique Doctor. While on this subject, though I think the music throughout Doctor Who is great, the music in Matt’s first season (Season 5) is something special. Murray Gold, correct me if I’m wrong, has been the composer from at least season 2 and deserves a lot more credit. Personally, I really enjoy the music he created for season five. Amy’s Theme is beautiful and the through-running motif from I Am the Doctor, appearing in Eleventh Hour and continuing throughout the season, is one of my favourite pieces of music from the whole series. Sorry, got a little distracted there, back to the main matter at hand.
The episodes that centre around historical figures always come with their issues. In this episode, for example, using an alien to explain Van Gogh’s mental health issues is a questionable decision. However, they don’t completely brush over it, pun intended. They do mention depression. The overall story of defeating an invisible alien that can only be seen by a genius artist does make sense, it’s just not the strongest storyline. Where this episode succeeds is in writing Van Gogh and bringing him to screen. Tony Curran does an incredible job. His emotive performance is something to be marvelled at, aided by the writing. Richard Curtis wrote this particular episode. Something new I learned for this review. The writer of Love Actually, About Time and The Boat that Rocked. I’m starting to see why Bill Nighy is in this episode. And while on that subject: Bill Nighy!! When Amy and the Doctor take Vincent to see his future exhibit, it is such a highly emotional scene. There is something so incredibly cathartic and painful about it. The scene that steal the show, however, is the one where Vincent talks so passionately about colour and the sky is animated in the style of ‘Starry Night’. It is simply stunning.
4. The Day of the Doctor (2013)
I want to preface this little review by saying I have not watched this since it aired! (Seven years ago!? Am I old?) I watched it again to see if it should make it on my list, and I think it definitely deserves to be here.
This was a hugely anticipated episode, something fans, like myself, never thought they would actually see! The beginning of this episode, with the Tardis being helicoptered over London, feels rather cheesy. A small nod to Sherlock, Moffat’s other show, with the mention of using Darren Brown to cover things up! That’s something I didn’t notice the first time around. I think John Hurt was an excellent choice for the wartime Doctor, he does an outstanding job of portraying how tired the Doctor is of war, death and suffering. The glimpse into the Time War is pretty epic. Ah, the sonic-off that led to a million fanfics that should never see the light of day. I love Matt Smith’s Doctor, don’t get me wrong, but seeing Tennant again just re-ignites my love for ten. That being said, eleven still stands out here, it being his season and all. The banter between the three is the best part of this whole episode. The ending with the thirteen Doctors is just something else, what an introduction for Capaldi. I know the interface of Moment just takes Rose’s face, but it’s painful not to get to see ten interact with her. The one thing that frustrates me about this episode is trying to get my head around all the timeline stuff. But I’m sure the other viewers are far smarter than I am. The Tom Baker cameo, they really pulled out all the stops for this one, didn’t they? The epic scale of this special episode is the reason it had to be in my top five, even if I don’t watch it that often!
3. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006)
Another great two-parter! The theme continues here of my top ten being the episodes that scared me the most. This is certainly no exception. The possessed Ood and Toby were enough to have me hiding behind a cushion. Written by Matt Jones, a one-off Doctor Who writer as far as I can tell, this episode has many of the Whovian elements that make it fundamentally Doctor Who but with a twist. The planet that shouldn’t exist, orbiting a black hole. With another writer, we would have perhaps seen a more predictable explanation. However, Jones does not shy away from using religion and I really like the way it is done. Never specifically pinpointing what the origins of the Beast are, but simply that it exists and will exist as long as people fear it. The Tardis just happening to be in the pit is something I can look past because, well, it’s Doctor Who. It is such a tense two-parter, with barely room to breathe. It again shows us the Doctor’s need to know, that curiosity and temptation that aligns him with humans. While it’s painful to see, splitting up the Doctor and Rose really allows Rose (Billie Piper) to shine. She is great in these episodes, taking control but always displaying both fear and hope as well. The side characters in this episode are what makes it even better. Each of them is compelling and well-written and acted, making it all the more moving at the end when Captain Zach is listing the dead.
2. The Doctor’s Wife (2011)
Excellent cast. I can’t stress that enough. Having the Tardis trapped in a body leads to a few great story-telling devices. 1. You can play around with time as the Tardis can see into the future. 2. It gives the Tardis some limitations, the human body creates weaknesses that allow for conflict. 3. The relationship between the Doctor and the Tardis is given actual two-way dialogue. What makes this episode so good is that the writers utilise each one of these. The dialogue of the Tardis in Idris’ body is funny and perplexing at the beginning as she is speaking in multiple tenses and suggesting things that will happen. This leads to nice payoffs in the second/third acts of the episode. Often Doctor Who will have guest writers and, I’m a little ashamed to say, I had to Google who wrote this one. Of course, it was Neil Gaiman. He is one of my all-time favourite writers and I should have known this! The episode feels correct within the Whoniverse, but also feels unique due to Gaiman’s writing. The mismatch, rubbish-tip likeness of this planet gives me major Labyrinth vibes. The garbage people scene? If you know, you know. The b-story, with Amy and Rory trapped inside the Tardis that’s been invaded by House, is tense. We see the theme of waiting play out yet again, adding to the arching storyline of the series. What’s really special and quite emotional about this episode is we get to see how much the Doctor cares for the Tardis, the two constants in this universe.
- Blink (2007)
Being a controversialist, I wanted to put something less predictable at the top of my list. Blink can be found holding the number one spot on many Doctor Who rankings; and for good reason! As I have explained in my other reviews, I love the episodes that scare me, so I really loved this one! It’s a little different in tone, not only because it doesn’t revolve around the Doctor and Martha. This episode is written more like a mystery or detective show with a supernatural twist. It’s got a cleat Moffat feel about it. The puzzles and riddles all fitting together, but with the addition of time travel. I find it fascinating how Moffat managed to create these monsters, who’s actual power isn’t all that scary, terrifying. Because the angels don’t kill you! The Easter egg part is my absolute favourite. I think it’s so clever. It’s introduced to characters that don’t know who the Doctor is but we, the audience, do. The part where Sally has the conversation with him is so great, and when the script runs out because the angels are coming, that is so tense! This has to be one of the most quotable episodes. Some gems include: “It goes ding when there’s stuff.” “The angels have the phonebox. That’s my favourite. I have got that on a T-shirt!” “Don’t turn your back, don’t look away and don’t blink!” And the way they end it with random statues around Britain, ultimate trolls. Just. So. Good!
Okay, so that’s it. I’ve had such a good time re-watching some of these episodes. I often forget how much I love this show! I would love to know your opinions on my list and if you think I missed any out!
Remember, this is just my humble opinion.