It’s no secret that Doctor Who is my favourite television programme in recent memory, and while I have taken the time to delve back and sample a fair few stories from the ‘classic’ era, I’d be lying if I didn’t say my heart truly belonged to the newer, more modern take on the series that has been airing on our screens since 2005. Now, a whole decade on from Russell T Davies’ triumphant revival, the show continues to go from strength to strength. Not only is it the most globally successful that it has ever been, but we’ve also just come out of Series 9, a string of episodes which I consider to be one of the best that the last ten years has had to offer.
Doctor Who is one of those rare programmes that offers limitless possibilities, and I can wholeheartedly credit it for inspiring me to be a writer and embrace science-fiction and fantasy like never before. My most prominent early memory of the new series was sitting down to watch The Parting of the Ways – all those Daleks, all that action, and then boom… a whole new Doctor, just like that! I’ve been hooked ever since, and despite the odd few duds and ventures into mediocrity, the show has never let me down and a stand out classic of an episode always feels like it could be right around the corner.
So, in celebration of 10 years of new Doctor Who, let’s raise a glass and take a look at my top ten favourite episodes from Series 1 to 9…
10. The Zygon Inversion (Series 9, Episode 8)
Written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Ingrid Oliver, Jemma Redgrave
War, was it it good for? Absolutely nothing. Except for the premise of this excellent tale.
Following on from the already great The Zygon Invasion, this conclusion to Series 9’s political two-parter is one of the most powerful 45 minutes the show has ever produced. It’s got more or less everything you could ever want from Doctor Who – a well-written script injected with healthy doses of tension and comedy, award-worthy performances from the lead cast, and a whole heap of morals that we could all learn a thing or two from.
It’s cleverly done, too. Instead of simply following up the global scale and worldwide threat of its first part, The Zygon Inversion – like all of the best episodes in Series 9 – hones directly in on character interaction and development. Less is more, and that’s nowhere more evident than in the iconic scene at the end in the Black Archive. Peter Capaldi’s anti-war speech will go down as some of the best writing and acting in any Doctor Who story, providing not only a satisfying resolution to the plot, but also a stern lesson about the horrors of war. This is The Twelfth Doctor’s defining moment and you can really feel the pain and anguish brought forth through Capaldi’s performance. The rest of the cast are no slouches either, Jenna Coleman in particular relishing the opportunity to play light and dark as both Clara and Bonnie – the scenes set in Clara’s mind where the two interact are exceptionally well done, proof that she has been a real asset to the show and will be sorely missed now that she has departed the TARDIS.
What else is there to say? As far as sci-fi twists on political thrillers go, this is as good as they come. And we even find out The Doctor’s real name: Basil. Or was it John Disco? Or Doctor Funkenstein? Or Doctor Puntastic…?
9. Turn Left (Series 4, Episode 11)
Written by Russell T Davies
Starring David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Billie Piper, Bernard Cribbins
Acting as the lead-in to Series 4’s barnstormer of a finale, Turn Left is one of many Doctor-lite episodes the show has seen since its revival. Unlike something like Blink though, here it is not just a practical necessity, but one of its greatest strengths. Turn Left is all about The Doctor being gone and the terrible consequences of his absence. It’s one big “what if?” story showing us a parallel take on the previous few years of Doctor Who if The Doctor wasn’t there to save the day. And what a sorry state it is.
There’s an awful lot going on in this episode – Billie Piper’s eagerly awaited return as Rose Tyler, the stars going out, the space Titanic wiping out London, the non-British citizens being shipped off to “labour camps” to keep the population down – but at its heart, this is all about the acting. Were it not for Catherine Tate’s mesmerising portrayal of Donna Noble, playing beautifully off the impossible-not-to-love nature of Bernard Cribbins, then this episode would fall apart entirely. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen a companion go a whole episode alone without The Doctor, and it’s up there with the finest stories Doctor Who has ever produced. Not bad for an actress who rose to fame as a comedienne! Oh, and of course there’s that cliffhanger… which would of course then be beaten by that other cliffhanger the following week in The Stolen Earth, but regardless, it was a non-stop rollercoaster ride of emotions from start to finish.
Turn Left is a masterclass in powerful performance and writing, and an important part of what makes Series 4 one of the best runs since the revival.
8. Midnight (Series 4, Episode 10)
Written by Russell T Davies
Starring David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Lesley Sharp
Speaking of Series 4’s impeccable run…
In stark contrast to the previous entry, we now go from a Doctor-lite story to our first ever companion-lite adventure. Midnight is Doctor Who at its most creative, brilliant best – as much as I love the huge, epic, bombastic finales, it tends to be the smaller and more thought-provoking episodes that really stick out as the classics. If there’s one word I can use to describe Midnight, it’s “brave”. Compared to the events of the finale only a couple of episodes after this one (which threw everything but the kitchen sink at us), this is incredibly intimate. For more or less the entire story it’s just one set, one enclosed space, and one monster we never, ever see.
The Doctor doesn’t brandish a gun (well, except for in The End of Time, Part Two and Hell Bent) – his weapons are his words. What Midnight does, and fantastically I might add, is take The Doctor’s words away from him. And not just that, oh no. The monster takes his words away from him and throws them right back in his face. The Doctor goes from being the smartest and most reliable person in the room to being the most suspicious, the most disturbing, and the most suitable candidate to be chucked out to his death. Seeing the passengers fall for the monster’s trick and try to hurl The Doctor out of the air lock is absolutely horrifying – it’s only thanks to the stewardess, who sees through the monster’s plan, that he lives to fight another day. Not that anyone remembers her name, of course. Poor woman.
What makes this even more of a triumph is that it was produced both on the quick and on the cheap. If Russell T Davies can knock out a script like this just to fill up a last-minute episode slot, that’s a true testament to his writing talents. Unforgettable, unique, and thoroughly chilling.
7. The Witch’s Familiar (Series 9, Episode 2)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Julian Bleach
Bringing us back up to date, The Witch’s Familiar is the conclusion of Series 9’s opening two-parter. While The Magician’s Apprentice was just as impressive in its own right, it’s this second and more character-driven half that leaves the longer lasting impression for me. It begins with an excellent “consideration” of how The Doctor’s mind works, and just how he – and indeed The Master/Missy – can make such incredible escapes from the jaws of defeat. From there, it’s a story of two pairings: The Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara. The magician and his apprentice, the witch and her familiar. And they all play out phenomenally well.
There’s so many iconic moments crammed into these 45 minutes – The Doctor scooting around in Davros’ chair like a dodgem, Clara being trapped inside the Dalek casing, Davros opening his true eyes for the first time… and lest we forget the “your sewers are revolting!” line that the entire two-parter seems to have been a set-up for. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach shine as the two ancient enemies locked in verbal combat, and I love the origin story that has been introduced with Young Davros on the battlefield – Genesis of the Daleks is my favourite serial from the classic era, so to have a semi-sequel to it is always a winner in my book.
What’s more, the episode is just rollicking good fun. Whereas the likes of Turn Left or Midnight require adopting more of a darker tone and deep thinking, The Witch’s Familiar can be enjoyed simply by sitting back and watching the banter being thrown back and forth between some of the show’s most influential characters. That and, y’know, the Daleks are basically defeated by poo. What’s not to love?
6. Flatline (Series 8, Episode 9)
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade
I’ll hold my hands up on this one straight away – when I first heard that Flatline was going to be about an incredible shrinking TARDIS, I thought it was going to be terrible. “It looks silly,” I cried! “It’s just a pointless gimmick,” I moaned! But anything can surprise you, and boy, did this episode make me eat my words.
Jamie Mathieson’s second contribution to Series 8 had all the makings of an episode that should go horribly wrong, from the comical new look of The Doctor’s trademark time machine to a brand new CGI-centric monster, yet it was a resounding success on every front. Like Turn Left earlier in this list, Flatline is a Doctor-lite story – but you never feel like it is. Peter Capaldi, though trapped in the TARDIS throughout, has a presence that is always felt and his situation forms the core of the narrative rather than a half-hearted excuse to save some of the budget. His absence from the action also gives Jenna Coleman a real chance to step up to the plate as Clara, attempting to be the most Doctor-like that she’s ever been (a trait that ultimately would lead to her downfall in Series 9) – and what a great actress she is, too. Clara got some much needed room to develop in Series 8 following her plot-device approach in Series 7, and this is arguably the pinnacle for her character from the 2014 run.
The script is top-notch as well, with tons of visual gags and one-liners that play up the tiny TARDIS and dimension-shifting themes to great effect. The Boneless are a feast for the eyes, particularly in their 3D manifestations, and the whole thing ties up in a neat resolution that makes a welcome change to a get-out filled with technobabble and sonic screwdrivers.
Fun, innovative, and unlike any other Doctor Who episode we’ve had to date, Flatline is hailed as one of the highlights from Capaldi’s debut series with very good reason indeed.
5. The Waters of Mars (Autumn Special, 2009)
Written by Phil Ford and Russell T Davies
Starring David Tennant and Lindsay Duncan
The Time Lord Victorious may be wrong, but Phil Ford and Russell T Davies got it oh so right when they were making this episode. The precursor to David Tennant’s two-part swansong, The End of Time, this 2009 Autumn special had a lot riding on it – there’d been a good 6 months since the Easter special, Planet of the Dead, and the less said about that one the better.
Doctor Who is the master of making the ordinary seem terrifying, and here we learn to fear one of the very things that keeps us alive – water. The Flood are a blisteringly menacing creation that own the screen whenever they’re on camera, and ultimately they are an enemy even The Doctor cannot defeat. Everything that happens on Bowie Base One is fixed – the deaths, the destruction, the mark it leaves on humanity. Not even a Time Lord and a rubbish talking robot called Gadget can save the day. Or can they? David Tennant brings out a whole new side of The Doctor in the final 15 minutes, fed up of accepting the laws of time and throwing caution to the wind – this is the day The Doctor said “screw it” to the universe, and this is the day it came back to bite him hard. After a tense climax he succeeds in saving Adelaide Brooke’s life, only for her to take it away herself, just to make him see what a monster The Doctor unleashed truly is. The cloister bell rings, and the Ood appears to summon The Doctor to his inevitable demise…
In short, The Waters of Mars is a blockbuster of a special that remains the best of David Tennant’s final stint as The Tenth Doctor – in fact, it’s my favourite Tenth Doctor story of them all. Do not go gentle into that good night…
4. Listen (Series 8, Episode 4)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson
Question: What is the best episode from Peter Capaldi’s first series as The Doctor? Answer: Well, that’s easy…
While The Waters of Mars showed us a darker side of The Doctor that we rarely get to see, Listen showed us another oft-ignored aspect of the Time Lord – what does he get up to when he’s alone and contemplating? The opening sequence from this episode alone tells you that you’re in for an interesting ride, and in the same vein as Midnight, we’re faced with a monster that we never get to see. That is, if there’s even a monster in the first place. Is there really something lurking under your bed, or is it all just a big, bad dream…?
This is Steven Moffat firing on all cylinders, a greatest hits compendium of what made his previous episodes so great, all of which culminate to make this script one of his most polished so far. Monster or no monster, the sense of fear is constant, and it’s one of the scariest episodes of Doctor Who we’ve seen in some time. What’s more, this is a story I could not see working with any other Doctor at the helm. The Twelfth Doctor is very curious, very intelligent, and very professorial – only he could go off in desperate search of a creature in hiding, not to defeat it, but simply to confirm its existence.
There will be those that bemoan the ending, particularly those who feel Clara has played too big a role in shaping The Doctor’s life. But for me, Jenna Coleman delivers the touching final speech to the young Doctor in the barn with aplomb – fear is a superpower, and that’s the foundation that has kept the show running for 52 years and many more to come.
3. The Doctor’s Wife (Series 6, Episode 4)
Written by Neil Gaiman
Starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Suranne Jones
Neil Gaiman writing Doctor Who sounds like a perfect match. And you know what? It actually was!
I hold nothing back when I say that Series 6 was my absolute least favourite of the revived show so far. Too many sub-par episodes, too many convoluted plots, and too much rubbish exposition about River Song. So, for The Doctor’s Wife to not only be the sole shining diamond in a huge pile of coal, but for it also to be one of the best episodes of Doctor Who in all of it history is truly something. It’s pretty much the only reason to ever bother going back to Series 6, single-handedly justifying the entire 13 episode run despite being entirely standalone from the ongoing story arc.
This is a story fans had been wanting for years – The Doctor finally gets to meet his TARDIS in animate form and properly interact together. Suranne Jones is a delight as Idris, the human embodiment of the time machine, and her chemistry with Matt Smith is as magical as you’d hope. The events of the episode toy with just the right amount of mythology and development between the Time Lord and his motor, meaning by the tragic end you’ll likely be wiping away the tears just as The Doctor himself does. Meanwhile, there’s some clever trickery going on with Amy and Rory trapped inside the TARDIS corridors, and a healthy dose of fanservice with the return of the Ninth/Tenth Doctor era console room during the episode’s climax.
Simply put, The Doctor’s Wife is a pitch-perfect script that provides us with a fascinating study of the show’s two most enduring characters. Furthermore, it’s an episode more than worthy of having such an acclaimed writer behind it. It’s just a shame Neil Gaiman couldn’t make lightning strike twice with his ill-fated Series 7 follow-up, Nightmare in Silver. Oh well.
2. The Day of The Doctor (50th Anniversary Special)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Jenna Coleman, Billie Piper
Oh come on, of course this was going to make the list.
The pressure on Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode was immense. How could such a juggernaut of a show with such an enormous legacy possibly celebrate half a century of stories while simultaneously pushing the series forward? Well, like this, as it happens. The two most popular modern Doctors paired together? Check. A brand new Doctor we’ve never seen, let alone heard of before? Check. The return of fan favourite monsters from the classic era? Check. Some conclusive resolutions about the Time War at long last? Check. A surprise cameo from Tom freakin’ Baker? Check, check, check!
David Tennant and Matt Smith bounce off each other brilliantly, and John Hurt’s hardened War Doctor is the perfect contrast to their youthful zaniness. There’s plenty of humour, plenty of action, plenty of wibbly wobbly timey wimey nonsense… pretty much everything that Doctor Who has come to be known for, crammed into 75 glorious minutes of solid, nostalgic fun. It commemorates the show’s heritage while not being afraid to rewrite it for the sake of moving onwards – the final shot of the eleven (no, wait, twelve) Doctors standing on the cloud looking up at Gallifrey in the sky is something that no fan will ever forget. And I don’t think the sudden appearance of Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows will be leaving anyone’s memory in a hurry, either.
If there’s any downside, it’s the slight underplaying of the Zygon storyline (which has since been rectified) – but for all intents and purposes, The Day of The Doctor is the crowd pleaser to top all crowd pleasers. In fact, there’s only one thing better…
1. Heaven Sent (Series 9, Episode 11)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi
Take the opening scene from Listen – The Doctor alone with his thoughts, no companion to aid him, and a huge conundrum to be solved. Now, trap him in a rotating castle and set a slow-moving monster on his trail, stretch it out for 55 minutes, and you’ve got yourself the greatest Doctor Who episode of the past ten years.
Many of the reasons why Heaven Sent is such a stone-cold classic are not dissimilar to others on this list. It’s creative, it’s bold, it’s brave, it’s different. But it dares to go one step further. An episode not only without a companion, but without any other characters at all? It should have been a flop. It should have been a long, dull slog of a story. But with the spotlight firmly on him, Peter Capaldi excels, giving a tour-de-force acting showcase that carries the entire episode from the very first to the very last second – and thankfully, he’s been gifted a script that’s quite possibly Steven Moffat’s magnum opus. Kudos also goes to Rachel Talalay’s spot-on directing, which lends the story an eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere that works in perfect harmony with the performance and writing.
Just as its title suggests, Heaven Sent is a gift from above. It offers us a rare insight into The Doctor’s psyche, gives us a genuinely creepy new monster to fear, and will leave you stunned in awe as the resolution comes around. For the episode is a puzzle, much like its story – we experience it as The Doctor experiences it, complete with his thought processes and realisations – so for a good chunk of the run time, not an awful lot might make sense. But when it suddenly does become clear, everything satisfyingly clicks into place (even more so on repeated viewings), and it makes The Doctor’s plan to punch his way through a twenty foot diamond wall over the course of billions of years all the more torturous. What’s interesting is that, at the end, The Doctor spends an eternity in one place during the space of ten minutes and you feel the tremendous weight and torment of every single moment. In The Time of The Doctor, he spends a comparatively mere 900 years on Trenzalore and it seems to whizz by far too quickly to leave any lasting effect. That is the true impact of Heaven Sent – it is a beautiful, poetic tale that belongs at the very top of the Doctor Who pantheon of greats.
In the final harrowing moments of the episode, The Doctor tells a story about one hell of a bird. Well, you know what? Heaven Sent is one hell of an episode, and an experience I could happily relive over and over and over and over again…