My Top 10 Episodes of New Doctor Who

I’ve done a few Doctor Who-themed Top 10 lists already on this blog, usually in advance of a new season coming up. Well, starting sometime this fall, there’s a new season, featuring a new Doctor played by Jodie Whitaker, and the show is in the hands of new show-runner Chris Chibnall. Lots to be excited about!

I’m pretty sure new episodes don’t start until October, but since my annual October Top 10 list is always about the Major League Baseball playoffs, I’m celebrating the new Doctor Who stuff a month early.

The upcoming season is Season 11 of the 2005 reboot of the series, affectionately referred to as “New Who.” With ten previous seasons, I figured a Top 10 episodes list could be a lot of fun. I really really wanted to have one episode from each of the ten seasons, but I just couldn’t make that happen. Two of my three favorite episodes come from the same season, and I couldn’t omit either of them because they’re too awesome. I went up to six Honorable Mentions, just so I could include something from Season 7.

Just sound ground rules first. Though I’m calling this an “episodes” list, I’m counting two- (or more) part stories as one episode. Also, there’s a very good chance there’ll be SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned.

Fantastic! Allons-y! Geronimo!

 

#10 – Flatline

From Peter Capaldi’s first season (Season 8, episode 9), comes this really cool concept. The Doctor and Clara land on Earth in an area where there has been a series of missing persons. When they briefly return to the TARDIS, its exterior dimensions have been reduced by about half. Nothing’s wrong with the inside because of the whole it’s-bigger-inside thing, so the Doctor crawls in to try to fix it. Meanwhile, Clara gets to play Doctor outside and investigate. The TARDIS gets even smaller so that it can fit in Clara’s purse! The imagery of The Doctor’s hand coming out of the door is hysterical. But the rest of the episode is really gripping, unsettling, and even scary. The monsters-of-the-week are two-dimensional beings that first may be studying humanity, but then they become malevolent without any explanation. But none is needed. There are some great effects, particularly when a local police officer is sucked into the floor and when the creatures make origami-like bodies to invade the three-dimensional space. Clara has to think like the Doctor, and though she does an admirable job, he reminds her that there are difficult life-and-death decisions to be made. The story arc of Clara becoming more Doctor-like started about here and continued through her tenure on the show, but the clever concept and tense execution make this one jump from page to screen.

 

#9 – Dalek

My favorite episode of Christopher Eccleston’s one-season stretch as The Doctor is also the first to feature his most popular nemeses—the Daleks. In Season 1, episode 6, he finds supposedly the last living Dalek in a bunker owned by a collector of extra-terrestrial stuff. When he finds out The Doctor is also alien, the stakes build. What really works in the episode is all the rage Eccleston throws at this last, weakened Dalek. They’re the same—the last of their respective races since the events of the oft-mentioned Time War (which we later learn is from The Doctor’s incarnation right before Eccleston). The interchange between them is tense with sharp, crackling dialogue. And Rose injects some compassion into this Dalek, who upon learning it’s the last one, starts going on a rampage. Up until this episode, I thought the Daleks were easy to evade by simply running up a flight of stairs, but I believe for the first time in the series, we see one use thrusters to fly! More Dalek episodes were to come, but this first one was nothing short of captivating.

 

#8 – Vincent and the Doctor

There are some very good entries in Season 5. Matt Smith’s first episode, The Eleventh Hour, is one of the best post-regeneration stories in the entire series. The antagonist is kinda weak, as is most of the plot, but the character work between him and Amy, both child and adult, is awesome. This is another episode (episode 10) from that season where the monster is kinda lame, but the character interactions are phenomenal. While visiting a present-day art exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh, The Doctor notices something amiss in one of the paintings. He and Amy head back in time to investigate. Forget about that monster-of-the-week part of the plot. This is really a study on mental illness, particularly the depression of Van Gogh, sensitively portrayed by Tony Curran. He’s charming and romantic and brilliant and flawed and completely human. The strength of this episode is all in its little moments between him and Amy, and between him and The Doctor, who tries to quash his doubts by showing him the exhibit in the present. The exchange between The Doctor and the museum curator (an uncredited Bill Nighy) is funny when they talk bowties and touching when they talk Van Gogh. The episode reveals that Doctor Who isn’t just about science fiction; it’s often about humanity. It’s true art.

 

#7 – The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Season 6 began with a shocker. The Doctor (Matt Smith) is having a picnic with Amy, Rory, and River when an astronaut rises from a lake. The Doctor goes to investigate and is shot. He starts regenerating and is shot again, so he dies. After River gives him a Time Lord funeral at sea, he shows up in the flesh! There’s some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff going on here. Then a mysterious figure named Canton Everett Delaware III arrives. He was an FBI agent while Richard Nixon was President, and he worked with The Doctor and company! So they go back to the late 60s and weird stuff happens. This audacious story, penned by then show runner Steven Moffat, showed the full scope of Season 6. It introduced new alien race The Silence, who have the power to make you forget you saw them once you turn away. It showed Amy Pond having bizarre hallucinations of an eye-patched woman sliding open portals from what we think might be another dimension and spying on her. It shows The Doctor, River, Amy, and Rory on the run with lots of tally marks on their arms keeping track of seeing The Silence all around. It employs the 1969 Moon Landing into their solution of the problem. It shows an unidentified but scared girl (who left messages for President Nixon) regenerate?! Oh wow! And the scenes in the White House are wonderful. The pacing was non-stop heart-racing, and it told a complete story in those two episodes while still raising questions for a relatively strong season, proving high concepts weren’t impossible.

 

#6 – The Girl in the Fireplace

Before he was the show runner, Steven Moffat was one of the most creative of the script writers they employed on the show. His first season two-parter The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances was creepy (“Are you my mummy?”) and funny (it introduces Captain Jack Harkness) and hopeful (“Everybody lives!”), but in his script for Season 2, episode 4, he goes way out there. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose, and Mickey Smith arrive on a spaceship inhabited by a bunch of clockwork androids who periodically utilize time portals to travel to 18th century France, where they stalk King Louis XV’s mistress Reinette a.k.a. Madame de Pompadour (a fetching Sophia Myles) and try to decapitate her because they need her brain for spare parts to fix the ship! The explanation why actually makes sense in a kind of Easter-egg at the end of the episode. After wandering through the portal, with its other end in Reinette’s fireplace, The Doctor learns what the droids are up to and want nothing to do with it. Firstly, this is a high concept romp, so in creativity alone, it’s awesome. Secondly, it’s the most romantic episode of Doctor Who, another example of the show being so much more than just sci-fi/fantasy. The chemistry between The Doctor and Reinette is sweet and hot, and there’s even some swashbuckling with him on a horse. Great stuff—and award-winning, one of four recipients of the science fiction/fantasy Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form on my list.

 

#5 – Midnight

We go from the most romantic to the most scary. Like psychologically scary. It’s Season 4, episode 10. The Doctor and Donna Noble visit the planet Midnight for some rest and relaxation. She stays at a spa (it’s a “companion-lite” episode) while he goes on a shuttle to see a waterfall made of sapphires. The surface of the planet is lethal, so they have to stay in the enclosed shuttle. The handful of passengers start chatting, and it’s all very cordial…until the shuttle stalls. They’re concerned at first, but then it gets really freaky. There’s knocking from outside, the shuttle rocks, the lights go out, and then the cockpit is gone. Even scarier is when one of the passengers starts repeating what the others say. They think she’s possessed by the entity that had shaken the shuttle—it must have gotten inside! Then she only repeats the Doctor, and the delay between them decreases until they’re speaking simultaneously…and then she’s talking before him. Is he now the possessed one? It’s riveting and terrifying, and we never learn what the creature is, but that’s not important. This mimics some of the classic base-under-siege episodes of the Troughton (Second Doctor) episode, which is fitting since it features Troughton’s son David as one of the passengers. The paranoia builds in the confined space, and your heartrate will build too when you watch it.

 

#4 – Heaven Sent

Here’s another “companion-lite” episode to the highest degree. The penultimate episode of Season 9 featured The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) as the only character with spoken dialogue. Jenna Coleman appears as Clara—kind of. She had died in the previous episode Face the Raven, and here she appears, only with her back to the camera, writing on the chalkboard inside the TARDIS when The Doctor is thinking aloud. She’s kinda like a sounding board inside his head, as The Doctor is separated from his TARDIS. The main story has is Peter Capaldi ALONE in a castle surrounded by water being hunted by a shrouded figure. This was big risk taking by writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, and I think only gruff and grumpy Capaldi could have pulled it off. He runs around the changing landscape of the castle like it’s an escape room, trying to find his way out. He knows that he can get out easily by confessing something to the shrouded figure, but he’s not going to do that. Instead, there’s a wall of Azbantium, which is a material a few hundred times harder than diamond. If he can get through it, he can escape. I’m not going to spoil this amazing episode, but when the reveal comes—showing the lengths The Doctor would go to in order to preserve that secret—it’s mind-blowing moment. This is a story about dealing with grief, how it can confine us, and it’s one of the best they’ve ever come up with.

 

#3 – Blink

I’ve just listed two “companion-lite” episodes, and here I’ll recognize a “Doctor-lite” episode. It’s no surprise that this Season 3, Episode 10 Moffat-penned episode appears on the list. It’s universally regarded as one of the best episodes of the new series and of Doctor Who in general, also winning that Hugo award. The main character in this story is Sally Sparrow, beautifully portrayed by eventual Oscar-nominee (for the film An Education) Carey Mulligan. While exploring an abandoned house, she finds a painted message for her behind some peeling wallpaper. The next day, she brings a friend to investigate, but the friend disappears. We follow the friend to the past (1920), where she is trapped, but the friend sends her grandson with a message for Sally—arriving only moments later to her, kinda like at the end of Back to the Future, Part 2. But the timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly nature of this episode (the one where that phrase is introduced, by the way) doesn’t stop there. The story is about The Doctor and Martha trying to get back to the present where the TARDIS is. They were sent back to 1969 by Weeping Angels—in their amazing debut. The Weeping Angels are quantum-locked beings, who are stuck as statues when they’re being observed, but move super-fast when not and can absorb people’s remaining time energy by zapping them back in time. It’s amazing, and freaky, and I don’t want to reveal anything else. The causality of events is brilliant, particularly the DVD Easter-egg conversation with Tennant’s Doctor and the way the loop is closed at the end of the episode. Watch it now, and whatever you do, don’t. Even. Blink!

 

#2 – The Doctor’s Wife

Another one from Matt Smith’s middle season. Season 6, Episode 4 is written by sci-fi/fantasy legend Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Stardust, Coraline, American Gods), who won that Hugo award for this episode. It immediately starts with a quirky, macabre tone, as two odd characters named Auntie and Uncle and preparing a woman named Idris for…something. They’re ordered around by an entity they call House, who seems to be the living essence of the asteroid where they reside. Meanwhile, The Doctor (Matt Smith) receives a distress call from an old Time Lord friend, known as The Corsair. He’s thrilled, and he takes the TARDIS, with Amy and Rory, to a smaller Bubble Universe to find his friend. But there he finds House. And the TARDIS loses power. The Doctor goes out to investigate, and ultimately, House steals the TARDIS! House wants to go invade the full universe, but before stealing a TARDIS, House had to remove its consciousness—which he has placed inside Idris! The conceptual brilliance of this episode lies in the idea of personifying the TARDIS, something that all Doctor Who fans wanted without realizing how much they wanted it, but it wouldn’t work without the right actor/actress to pull it off. Enter Suranne Jones. She is manic, intelligent, hysterical, heart-breaking, and sexy (what Matt Smith calls her!) in the episode. The secondary plot of Amy and Rory running through a House-possessed TARDIS is just okay, which is part of the reason this episode is #2 on my list. The real fun is in the interaction between The Doctor and Idris/TARDIS/Sexy, particularly her observations of human nature (“They’re so much bigger on the inside.”), her explanation for the TARDIS’s navigational unreliability (“I always took you where you needed to go.”), and her final word (“Hello.”). I won’t deny that I got teary-eyed in this absolute love letter to the fans episode.

 

Before I get to MY FAVORITE EPISODE OF NEW WHO, here are six Honorable Mentions:

The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion – Season 9, episodes 7 & 8: Though it drags in places, the themes of racism and war are strong, and Capadli’s Doctor’s monologue at the end about the futility of war while presenting the two Osgood boxes is solid writing.

The Waters of Mars – Post-Season-4 special: Another Hugo winner, this is creepy, where scientists on Mars are infected by a water-like parasite. Tennant’s Doctor goes all I’m-the-savior, which I don’t like, but Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) tells him off, which I did like.

Extremis – Season 10, episode 6: the first of the mid-season Monks trilogy isn’t perfect (nor is the trilogy), but it’s got such an awesome boffo twist. Throughout, something always feels amiss, and when Capaldi’s Doctor learns what it is, we see why his sonic sunglasses were actually useful.

Cold War – Season 7, episode 8: An Ice Warrior found frozen is brought onto a Russian submarine in the early 80s. It’s a great concept, and an even greater location and atmosphere. Smith’s Doctor tries to keep the Russians from attacking his old foe and the tension increases, even if it rushes to a lame ending.

Gridlock – Season 3, episode 3: Tennant’s Doctor and Martha arrive in a future New Earth, where the people are kept in an eternal traffic jam. A great concept with an ultimate awesome explanation why they’re kept there—an a surprise appearance by The Face of Boe.

Sleep No More – Season 9, episode 9: The more times I see this episode, the more I recognize its brilliance. Shown as found-footage, it chronicles how the sleep dust in our eyes became conscious and malevolent…maybe. There’s a great framing device with an unreliable narrator, leading Capaldi’s Doctor to proclaim that he doesn’t even understand it.

 

And finally, MY FAVORITE EPISODE OF NEW WHO…

#1 – HUMAN NATURE / FAMILY OF BLOOD

Another entry from Season 3, this two-parter (episodes 8 & 9—sequenced immediately before Blink) is something special. It introduces us to teacher John Smith at Farringham School for Boys, and he looks like The Doctor (David Tennant). Then companion Martha, who’s his maid, enters, and he tells her about dreams he’s had about being an alien and traveling the universe with her! What’s going on? I love this set up because it plays with that idea for a bit, leading the viewer to believe he’s really a human schoolteacher. He also tells these dreams to Joan Redfern, the school’s nurse, and there are hints at an attraction between the two of them. So is The Doctor a human teacher? Or is he the same Gallifreyan Time Lord we know disguised as a human? It’s the latter, and we learn that he used something known as the Chameleon Arch to change his physiology to human to escape detection from aliens chasing them—beings ultimately referred to as the titular family of blood. Yes, there’s the main plot of them hiding from fierce predators, but all the subtextual themes of identity elevate the story above many others. The Doctor has to choose between human love and universal duty. The boys in the school have to defend the school. Joan has to choose between the human man she loves and the avenging Time Lord he (to her) suddenly becomes. And then there’s Martha, who had often had weak writing to deal with, but here she gets to sink her teeth into social commentary: in the present, she’s a doctor, but in 1913, she’s a maid, as she wouldn’t have been able to have gotten any other opportunities. All that together with the main story makes this a fantastic two-parter, and my favorite story.

 

Agree? Disagree? Comments, compliments, complaints? Can’t wait to see how Jodie Whitaker will add to this!

 

Speak Your Mind

*