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At the time of writing, there are an incredible 738 individual episodes of Doctor Who, making up a total 239 different stories. Unsurprisingly, then, over the last five decades the fandom as a whole has tended to find it difficult to pin down exactly which is the undisputed “best episode.” The show means so many different things to so many different people, that the concept of a favorite episode can vary wildly depending on what a particular viewer actually looks for in the show. As such, while Doctor Who Magazine readers voted “The Caves of Androzani” as their number one story back in 2009, for the superfans we polled it didn’t even make the top 10. That’s not to say it isn’t highly-regarded—just that the range of choices were so varied that the tiniest margins could bump an episode up or down the list. Indeed, as many as 87 different episodes were nominated somewhere in the top fives of our jury.
So, which stories made it into their top 10? Well, we start in what is potentially a quite surprising place…
Parallel universes have rarely been explored in Doctor Who, despite the wealth of opportunities opened up by a time travel show when it comes to exploring alternative timelines. Perhaps it’s simply that the one time the classic series did dabble with the concept, in this 1970 Third Doctor story by Don Houghton, it was such a definitive take. Regular guest cast Caroline John (Liz Shaw), John Levene (Mike Benton) and—most notably—Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, get to have a whale of a time playing genuinely unsettling, “evil” versions of themselves. Ironically, this side of the story wasn’t originally part of the plot—which in the main focuses on the titular project to drill through the Earth’s crust—but was added to help pad out the serial to seven episodes, making it a classic example of Doctor Who almost accidentally producing moments of sheer magic.
“It’s so unsettling,” says Kyle Anderson of Nerdist.com. “There’s an air of doom throughout the seven parts and the constant hum of the turbine drilling into the Earth’s core creates an unpleasant atmosphere. It’s also incredibly apocalyptic as the Doctor gets to see the parallel universe get destroyed before he’s able to save the regular one. And the performances? Terrific.”
9. “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances”
It may seem unfathomable now, but once upon a time Steven Moffat was only known as a writer of plot-twisting sitcoms (Coupling, Joking Apart) and edgy teen soap (Press Gang). While he was known as a Doctor Who fan—and had written the 1999 Comic Relief special The Curse of Fatal Death—few could have expected just what would result when he was given the second two-part story in the first season of the revived show. A devastating mixture of genuine scares—with the possible exception of the Weeping Angels, Moffat still hasn’t really topped the “Are you my mummy?” gas-masked zombies—and delightful wit; and that’s before you even get to the introduction of Captain Jack Harkness (and who could have predicted where that would lead?) and the rare, joyous “Everybody lives!” ending that gains more and more significance the more we would later learn about the Doctor’s experiences just prior to Christopher Eccleston‘s incarnation.
8. “The Eleventh Hour”
It’s never easy telling the new story of a first Doctor, with all the weight of expectation and/or yearning for the departed predecessor that one naturally brings. It’s to Steven Moffat’s credit, then, that his and Matt Smith‘s first story together remains among their very finest shared achievements. The opening ten minutes or so absolutely flip on its head the concept of what a Doctor Who story should be, setting up the “fairy tale” theme of the showrunner’s tenure, and giving us an entirely fresh introduction to a new companion. Airing a mere four months after the departure of the phenomenally successful David Tennant, perhaps its greatest achievement was in taking so little time to make viewers stop missing the Tenth Doctor.
Thayer Juergens of WhatCulture.com says, “The episode breathed new life into the show not only production-wise but in turning Matt Smith into the fairy tale Doctor. It didn’t try to top Tennant or completely turn against the new Who of the past few series. It was fun, self-contained, and brought a charm and fantasy that set the tone for Smith’s tenure.”
Download “The Eleventh Hour” on iTunes.
7. “Genesis of the Daleks”
Routinely heralded as the classic series’ finest hour (well, three hours), this Fourth Doctor tale from 1975 is arguably responsible for the Daleks’ popularity continuing into successive decades, after a couple of slightly generic Third Doctor stories had lessened their impact among the viewing public. The tinpot terrors’ original creator Terry Nation decided to go back and tell the story of their creation, in the process creating another villain whose name would echo through the ages: Davros, memorably played by Michael Wisher. The story was the closest exploration yet of Nation’s underlying theme of the Daleks as a parallel to the Nazis, and placed the Doctor in a greater moral quandary than he’d ever faced before: could committing genocide by preventing the Daleks’ creation ever serve a justifiable greater good?
“It just had to be ‘Genesis,'” writes Paddy O’Meara of WhatCulture.com. “Tom Baker at the height of his powers, Sarah Jane, Harry, a claustrophobic underground city and one of the finest quarries ever used. Michael Wisher as Davros. Perfection.”
Download “Genesis of the Daleks” in the Monsters: Davros iTunes collection.
6. The End of Time
After a four-year run that saw Doctor Who soar to unprecedented heights of popularity, just how was Russell T. Davies ever going to give David Tennant an adequate send-off? The answer was this two-part finale, broadcast over Christmas and New Year 2009, in which the outgoing showrunner threw everything plus the kitchen sink at the screen in a manner that exceeded even his usual standards: the resurrection of the Master, the return of the Time Lords, and touching farewells to every one of the Tenth Doctor’s companions. And yet the Doctor survived it all, only to give up his Tenth life to save just one man.
“It made me laugh and cry,” says Jessica Naki of ScienceFiction.com. “Emphasis on ‘cry’. Wilfred was the best choice as companion during this point as well.”
“We see the Doctor at both his most courageous and vulnerable moments,” adds Earl Dittman of Digital Journal. “Revealing sides of himself viewers had only caught glimpses of in the past, this episode forces the Doctor to reconcile his past with his current state. An incredible milestone for the series and a stunning goodbye to David Tennant.”
(Download “The End of Time” in the Monsters: The Master iTunes collection.)
5. “The Doctor’s Wife”
To say that anticipation was high when it was announced that bestselling fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman was to write an episode of Doctor Who is underselling it somewhat. That “The Doctor’s Wife” actually managed to deliver on that promise was nothing short of remarkable. Here was the story you could tell Gaiman had been itching to tell his entire Who-watching life: the tale of what happens when the Doctor’s favorite toy, oldest friend, life-long home and—yes, essentially—his “wife”, comes to life and is able to hold a conversation with him. The sparky interplay between Matt Smith and an absolutely spellbinding Suranne Jones as Idris, the TARDIS made human, is a delight to behold, and it’s rare to see something or someone that can make the Doctor feel the way his companions feel about him.
Paula Luther of WhatCulture.com says, “Watching the Doctor and the TARDIS interact gave the audience a chance to fully see just how important they were to each other—more importantly, that they needed each other.”
Shelley Duncan, who runs Denver, CO fan group Mile High Who, adds: “Throughout the history of the show, the Doctor has expressed many emotions towards his TARDIS. Adoration. Anger. Frustration. Love. But in this one story, just this once, we heard how SHE feels. And that was awesome.”
(Download “The Doctor’s Wife” in the Matt Smith box set iTunes collection.)
4. “City of Death”
The most-watched Doctor Who story ever broadcast—admittedly in part because of a technicians’ strike at rival broadcaster ITV, but still—is also one of its most idiosyncratic. Written by the legendary sci-fi author Douglas Adams, it’s a ridiculously entertaining romp that takes the Fourth Doctor and companion Romana on a romp through Paris (thanks to a rare case of foreign location shooting) as they attempt to stop marooned alien Scaroth from stealing the Mona Lisa to fund his time-travel experiments. It features hugely funny and quotable dialogue, a distinctive and memorable soundtrack, Tom Baker and Lalla Ward at their relaxed, carefree best, a superb guest performance from Julian Glover as Scaroth… and even a cameo from John Cleese. With its whimsical tone, it’s one of the biggest influences on the revived series—and is still a remarkably enjoyable watch to this day.
(Watch “City of Death” on Hulu.)
3. “The Girl in the Fireplace”
Despite what some would have you believe, romance and emotion have been part of Doctor Who‘s genetic makeup since the very beginning. It took Steven Moffat, however, to really explore the concept of the Doctor falling in love in its most heartbreaking fashion, in this 2006 episode. A story that places the concept of time travel right at its core—setting the tone for many of Moffat’s later episodes—it’s also anchored by one of the revived series’ finest guest performances, in the shape of Sophia Myles as Reinette/Madame de Pompadour. By turns clever, funny and moving, it also contains an absolute gut-punch of a closing shot that makes you want to go back and watch the entire thing over again immediately.
It shows that the Doctor—despite his alien origins, his magic box and his sonic screwdriver—is really just a man,” says Morgan Jeffrey of Digital Spy. “He falls in love, he loses her and then, like a typical silly man, hides his feelings from his friends. Ten’s ‘I’m always alright’ and sad smile to Rose is one of my all-time favorite Doctor Who moments.”
(Download “The Girl in the Fireplace” on iTunes.)
2. “Human Nature / The Family of Blood”
After tugging on viewers’ heartstrings with his 2005 episode “Fathers’ Day,” writer Paul Cornell went even further in adapting his own novel two years later. Human Nature was already one of the most well-received novels in the Virgin Publishing New Adventures range in the 1990s, but although many elements of the text were unable to be squeezed into the two-part story, in many respects the TV version actually managed to improve on the source material. For one thing, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor—as arguably one of the most “human” of all the incarnations—actually seemed better-suited to the story than the Seventh (who featured in the novel). For the second season in a row, the Doctor found and then lost love in an unlikely place, but this story ultimately felt that bit more tragic, as Nurse Joan Redfern also represented an ordinary, human life that he could ultimately never have. What’s more, in introducing the Chameleon Arch technology that enabled Time Lords to become human, it set the stage for the Master’s surprise return just a few episodes later. But first, there was the small matter of a Steven Moffat-penned story about statues to come…
“Everyone is vulnerable,” says Anglophenia’s own Fraser McAlpine, explaining his choice. “There are dark omens and something dreadful is clearly about to happen, whether it’s an attack of deadly scarecrows or a World War. The Doctor changes into a human and falls in love, and suddenly has a future, which he then has to give up in order to save the day. He is saved by Martha, after treating her appallingly, and roundly chastised by Joan, who shows him just what he has given up. It’s a story only Doctor Who could tell without being utterly preposterous.”
When Doctor Who was first revived in 2005, the BBC budgeted for a thirteen-episode season. The huge popularity of the revival meant, however, that later that year a Christmas special was commissioned. This would become an annual tradition—but the increase in budget and resources made available to the production crew wasn’t equal to that of a full episode. As such, the team were essentially making fourteen episodes for the cost (and in the timeframe) of not much more than thirteen. This necessitated the inclusion, from the second season onwards, of what might be termed “bottle episodes” in U.S. television terms, but which in Doctor Who circles were generally referred to as “Doctor lite” episodes.
The first of these, “Love & Monsters”, was a modest—if divisive—success, but nobody could have predicted what the next one, Steven Moffat’s “Blink”, would go on to become. Based loosely on a short story that Moffat had written for the 2006 print annual called What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow, it was a time-bending curio that only features the Doctor for a few minutes—and most of those on a television screen—instead focusing on a young woman named Sally and her friend’s brother Larry as they attempt to solve the mystery of a series of disappearances at an old house. Originally airing early in the summer (with “The Family of Blood” and “Utopia” either side of it, making for a quite remarkable run of quality episodes), on its original broadcast it attracted the lowest ratings of the third season—and indeed, remains one of the lowest-rated New Who episodes on original transmission.
And yet, for those who did watch, there was something undeniably special about it. It was devilishly clever, laugh-out-loud funny, filled with nods to Who fandom itself (particularly the obsession with picking over minute details and DVD special features) and other time-travel stories (most notably Back to the Future), and David Tennant was barely missed thanks to the wonderful performance of soon-to-be-Hollywood-superstar Carey Mulligan. Oh, and it introduced something called the Weeping Angels, which we gather went on to be quite popular?
Winning Moffat his third Hugo award in a row, it became an instant fan-favorite—and to this day it remains perhaps the best self-contained 45 minutes that you can show to a non-Who fan to explain to them what the show is capable of. Despite barely featuring the Doctor himself, it’s nevertheless a perfect encapsulation of so many of the show’s biggest strengths—and yet even outside of the context of being great Doctor Who, it’s simply great standalone television in its own right.
Michael Stailey of DVD Verdict had the episode at the top of his list, calling it “hands down the most compelling singular creature feature in franchise history. Craig Hurle of The Doctor Who Hub, meanwhile, adds: “When asked by someone to explain Doctor Who, I tell them to watch ‘Blink.'”
Nick Lyons of DVDCorner.net agrees. “Blink is essentially everything that is great about Doctor Who rolled into one. It’s clever, funny, scary and filled with great characters and writing. Besides, how can you not love an episode that contains a DVD easter egg as a plot device? As a longtime DVD reviewer, I couldn’t be more thrilled by that!”
(Download “Blink” in the Monsters: the Weeping Angels collection on iTunes.)