Top Five Episodes of Modern Doctor Who
With Season 10 of Doctor Who about to premier, and with Moffat’s tenure about to expire, I have looked back at the past nine seasons of the show and ranked my favorite episodes. As much as I love this show, I must admit that Doctor Who can be very hit-or-miss at times. With that said, there was a plethora of phenomenal episodes to consider, and a finite number of slots. Many of my favorite episodes, which I love dearly, have been excluded from this list.
I also notice that my list is very different than others I have seen online. I ask you to keep in mind that I have no interest in attempting to construct a ‘definitive’ list of Doctor Who: this is simply my opinion.
– “The Pandorica Opens”
– “Parting of the Ways”
– “A Good Man Goes to War”
– “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”
“The Doctor’s Wife”
When Season six premiered, I was excited to learn why that Tardis had been destroyed, what ‘silence’ meant, and most of all, who River Song was. Although I am an avid defender of Season six, I cannot deny that Moffat’s set-up in his sophomore year was far more effective than the eventual pay-off at the end of the season.
Instead, what stuck with me from that year was Neil Gaiman’s excellent script that offered an in-depth study of the relationship between the Doctor and the Tardis.
It’s not something we consider very often, because we are usually focused on the mind-bending plot, or the connection between the Doctor and his companion. Yet, something that we so frequently forget is that the Doctor’s bond with the Tardis has outlived every plotline and any companion.
Gaiman decision to explore this relationship offered a refreshing break from the complicated plotline that dominated Seasons five and six, while also providing a dark, and humorous view of a long-overlooked aspect of the program.
The brilliant twist of this episode is simple: the Tardis’s consciousness is transferred into the mind of a young woman, and the Doctor must work to put it back in place before the woman’s body is destroyed.
The even smarter twist that Gaiman provided reshapes the entirety of the show: the Tardis has a mind of its own, and lived with a burning desire to see the universe. So to escape Gallifrey it seduced a young timelord and used him as a vehicle. The Tardis stole the Doctor, and not the other way around.
On top of that, this episode managed to balance the comedic and creepy sides of Doctor Who exceptionally well. Amy and Rory’s capture in the Tardis still frightens me to this day, and the frequent banter between the Doctor and the Tardis was amusing while still providing clever insights into their relationship.
Wisely, the episode doesn’t end with a nod to the series finale, or a reference to the ongoing conflict with River Song. Nor does it conclude with the Doctor and his companions. Instead, Gaiman ends the episode acknowledging that the voyages of the Tardis and the Doctor will outlive them all.
Many consider Blink to be the greatest episode of Doctor Who ever made. And while I disagree, I must admit that this episode is absolutely phenomenal.
Blink is a mystery story told from the perspective of Sally Sparrow, a young woman who has recently stumbled upon an abandoned mansion. By peeling back the wallpaper, she finds a message from a man called the Doctor, telling her to duck and to avoid the Weeping Angles.
At this point, if you are familiar with Doctor Who at all, you probably know the plot of this episode, and at the very least, the nature of the Weeping Angles. But when Blink first premiered, the structure of this episode, and the eventual twist, was nothing short of staggering.
Watching Sally Sparrow as the people in her life disappear and die, and eventually discovering what the Weeping Angles are capable of, provides an intense and uneasy experience. Rarely has an episode of television terrified me to this extent, let alone an episode of Doctor Who.
However, there are a few reasons I do not consider this to be the best episode of Doctor Who.
First off, its missing the Doctor. While his absence aids in creating suspense, since we don’t get the reassurance that the Doctor will eventually figure it out, I feel it robs the episode of its character depth.
While the characters in Blink aren’t vague or shallow, none of them have the hours of exploration that a traditional companion receives, or the decades of depth that the Doctor has been given across a plethora of writers.
Sallow Sparrow is a determined and likeable character, but that’s all I can really say about her because I don’t know much else.
This episode isn’t as deep as others either. Whereas some episodes of Doctor Who explored the nature of war and mercy, like The Zygon Inversion, or the relationship between fear and courage, like Listen, Blink feels thematically one-note.
The idea of monsters that kill you by waiting for you to die is interesting, but compared to what else this show has offered me, I cannot say it is the most provocative concept I have seen.
This episode is still one of my favorites, and a shining bright spot in the early years of modern Doctor Who.
“The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances”
The concept behind this two-part episode is not as flashy or unconventional as other concepts Doctor Who has pioneered. In fact, on paper it sounds pretty cheesy.
Throughout the runtime of The Empty Child, the Doctor discovers that a child wearing a gas mask has been terrorizing the streets of London. As the episode progresses, the Doctor learns that the gas mask isn’t a mask at all: it is part of the child, made of flesh and bone. Not only that, but the gas mask is a symptom of a viral infection that is spreading throughout the city. The Doctor, Rose, and the newly introduced Captain Jack Harkness, discover an entire hospital filled with patients suffering from this disease, all of whom try to infect them.
If you haven’t seen these episodes before, you’re likely wondering why I’ve put them so high on this list.
But those of you who have seen them know why: execution.
A brilliant premise is great, but if it is met with an illogical plot and stale characters, the final product will fall flat. Although these two episodes sound ridiculous, they contain some of the most dramatic and heartbreaking moments in any episode of Doctor Who.
The disease itself was the result of an accident at the hands of Jack Harkness. In an attempt to con the Doctor and Rose, he placed a capsule in the middle of the London blitz, which he claims will be destroyed by a German bomb if they do not meet his demands. He assumes the capsule is worthless, but what he doesn’t know is that the capsule contains microscopic robots, all of whom are programmed to repair wounds.
Since the technology is alien, it has never seen a human before, and has no knowledge of how to properly repair one. So when the machines find the corpse of a young boy, wearing a gas mask, they analyze the body and make their best attempt to repair it.
As a result, the child is no longer dead, but he hasn’t been fully revived either. He exists as a confused monster, searching for his mother through the dark streets of London.
And since the nanobots assume that the child is what a proper human should look like, the entire human race appears wounded. Once the machines can spread throughout the air, they will begin the process of making every human appear exactly as the child: with the same wounds, and a gas mask fused onto their skulls.
And yet, the execution of the premise is only a small part of what makes this episode great. The scenery of the London blitz and the performances from every single actor convey a sense of dread and hopelessness that this show has yet to display again.
Even though this episode is heartbreaking, it manages to balance its dark tone with the pacifist and optimistic messages that have defined Doctor Who throughout its current run.
This two-parter, more than any episode in Season one, proved what the revival of this show could be. It didn’t need the Daleks, it didn’t need the Time War, and it didn’t even need outer space. All this show needed was the Doctor and a good script, and that is why it has lasted for over fifty years.
As a relatively recent episode of Doctor Who, I wasn’t sure if I should place Heaven Sent so high on this list. But every time I watch Heaven Sent, I am reassured that this episode deserves to be considered one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who.
It isn’t only one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, it is one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen.
I have written extensively about this episode in my take on why Season nine worked so well, so I will try to keep my summation concise.
After being tricked by Ashildr in “Face the Raven”, the Doctor is trapped inside an enormous castle, functioning as a maze and prison, in the center of a vast ocean.
As the Doctor explores the prison, he learns that he has been trapped in the prison for 7,000 years, and that every week or so, he dies and is reincarnated after making a small dent in the exit. In total, it takes the Doctor 3.5 billion years to escape the prison, after reliving the same week in hell over and over again.
That is genius, but what makes this episode even better is its exploration of the titular character. On the surface, “Heaven Sent” explores the best sides of our hero: we see the Doctor’s brilliance on full display as he manages to survive in his own personal torture chamber, and we see his resilience as he continues to relive the same painful week for an eternity.
But look beneath the surface, and you will find a far darker view of the main character.
We discover in “Hell Bent” that the Doctor’s main goal was to escape the prison so that he could revive his companion Clara, who was killed in the previous episode. In order to do this, the Doctor is willing to destroy time itself and risk the entire universe, just so he can continue his journey with his best friend.
“Heaven Sent” shows the Doctor’s genius and his resilience, while also reminding us of his arrogance and his inability to accept mortality. It presents an admirable hero, while making sure his flaws are on full display.
Couple that with masterful cinematography and a heart wrenching performance from Peter Capaldi, and you have what I would argue is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, and one of my favorite episodes of any television program.
“The Day of the Doctor”
This isn’t an episode that many consider to be the best Doctor Who has to offer, but I would not have chosen it as my favorite episode if I did not believe there was a great story beneath the eye candy.
Yes, “The Day of the Doctor” is a Doctor Who fan’s dream, but the combined talents of Tenant and Smith aren’t all that hold up this episode. Steven Moffat did not write a fiftieth anniversary built on the foundations of fan service.
Admittedly, we are shown what we had always wanted to see: the tenth and eleventh Doctor joining forces, and the Time War up close. But it is what Moffat explores in this episode that makes it so remarkable. It would have been so easy for Moffat to wave Tenant and Smith in front of us, and that watch as the viewers gladly ate up a half-baked story.
Instead of taking the easiest option, Moffat dives into the moral themes that Doctor Who had explored for years. “The Day of the Doctor” provides the most thorough exploration of the theme that has defined the Doctor more than anything else: mercy.
The Doctor is a pacifist trapped in a universe at war. Everywhere he goes, someone wants to kill him, and someone probably wants the Doctor to kill that person first. There is always a war, a murder, or an evil that is confronted with. But the writers have always been careful to offer the audience a question: if the Doctor kills to defeat his enemies, is he better than those he defeated?
“The Day of the Doctor” places the character in his lowest moment: in order to kill the Daleks, he must also burn his home world. The billions of people trapped on Gallifrey, the children included, will be slaughtered so that the Doctor can rid the universe of the Daleks once and for all.
Before this episode premiered, we all thought that the Doctor chose to destroy Gallifrey, only to find the Daleks ready to conquer the universe again. In this episode, we meet the ‘War Doctor’ (the regeneration that fought during the Time War) for the first time, mere moments before he annihilated Gallifrey.
Here, Moffat decided to place the Doctor back in this same situation, and give him a chance to fix his mistake.
For all that it does right, “The Day of the Doctor” decides to be very clear cut about its message rather than leaving a bit of grey area. The Doctor affirms that his decision to destroy Gallifrey was wrong, and finds a way to save it (although he wasn’t yet sure if it had worked).
For better or worse, this is Doctor Who. The show has always provided a path to victory without collateral damage, and this episode robs the Doctor of one of his few dark decisions.
But its mature exploration of pacifist ideals, bolstered by the beloved performances of David Tenant and Matt Smith, offers a mentally challenging experience all the same.
As the episode ends, none of the three Doctors are certain if their plan to save Gallifrey worked.
The War Doctor, however, finds himself at peace with his decision, stating that “at worst, we failed at doing the right thing, as opposed to, succeeding in the doing the wrong.”
And nothing summarizes the essence of Doctor Who better.