83. “Daleks in Manhattan” / “Evolution of the Daleks” (season 3, episodes 4/5)
Oh dear. An idea with so much potential – Art Deco Daleks in Depression-era New York – all chucked away. The story is a mess of clichés and half-formed ideas, it sets up then does nothing with the painful realities of self-reliant people being thrown into helpless poverty, and the denouement is an embarrassing hodge-podge of technobabble and the belief that a bloke with a bad accent and a rubber squid glued to his face is scary. Also, in the end we got pig-men instead of Art Deco Daleks. Embarrassing.
82. “The Runaway Bride” (2006 Christmas special)
After the giddy delights of “The Christmas Invasion”, this second seasonal special was a horrible disappointment. The plot is humdrum – something about a big evil spider lady being evil, spidery and big – and Catherine Tate’s performance as Donna is nails-down-a-blackboard unbearable (and not redeemed at all by the hindsight that she’d eventually become a fully-rounded character, rather than merely a decibel range). The only Doctor Who episode I have ever fallen asleep during, and that wasn’t just because I’d eaten too much.
81. “The Curse of the Black Spot” (season 6, episode 3)
The generous interpretation of this episode is that production screw-ups were what made it so incoherent – the Continuity Error of the Missing Pirate. But even allowing that, the tone is still all over the place – cartoon pirate romp or tense nautical horror? - and the plot elements are mostly recycled from better stories. Rory dies! The monster was just medical software blindly following its programming! Nobody cares!
80. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (season 7, part 1, episode 2)
A kid-friendly romp, on a spaceship, with dinosaurs – yay! Thinking that “kid-friendly romp” means “don’t bother with the plot” – less good. Having your kid-friendly romp end with the Doctor casually murdering the bad guy – just no. (The Mitchell & Webb robots were fun, though.)
79. “Fear Her” (season 2, episode 11)
In “Fear Her”s defence, there are some effective chills early on – the idea of a traumatised child’s nightmarish drawing coming to life, like a demonic Penny Crayon, has potential – but it all falls apart with a cringe-inducingly poor ending in which the Doctor saves the Olympic opening ceremony, and the Power Of Love saves the world. To be very clear: the Power Of Love has never, ever been a good ending. Please stop using it. (The only thing that stops this episode appearing lower on this list is the fact that, unexpectedly, the real Olympic opening ceremony did actually save the world with the power of love.)
78. “The Rings of Akhaten” (season 7, part 2, episode 2)
Just makes no bloody sense. There are a couple of nice speeches, and the central idea of experiences-as-currency could have been intriguing. But mostly it’s a plot which fails to join any of its dots, ages of fannying about on a superfluous space-moped, and a laughable climax in which a pound-store Polyphonic Spree save everybody from a greedy sentient star through the power of feelgood singalongs, or something.
77. “Aliens of London” / “World War Three” (season 1, episodes 4/5)
New Who’s first two parter is a mixed bag. On the plus side: the return of UNIT! Blowing up 10 Downing Street! Harriet Jones! On the downside: farting aliens. Yeah, yeah, once again, it’s a kid’s show, but come on.
76. “The Long Game” (season 1, episode 7)
A not especially memorable piss-take of the media that introduced audiences the sub-genre of “Russell T Davies does slightly clunky satire”. Notable mostly for the abrupt (and pleasingly mean) ditching of the companion-who-wasn’t, Adam. Monster is some kind of blob thing. File under “bit of a waste of Simon Pegg”.
75. “Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel” (season 2, episodes 5/6)
Let’s just say it: there has never been a consistently good Cyberman-centric episode of the new Who. They’re basically crap Daleks with legs. This one retcons the Cybermen’s origins in the service of more slightly clunky RTD satire – guys, just imagine if Bluetooth headsets were evil – which rather misses that the Cybermen’s origin story was kind of the whole point of them. The alternate universe world-building is decent enough, but cursory. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses does not make a good villain (although Potter fans at least got to see Barty Crouches Snr. and Jnr. facing off against each other.)
74. “The Lazarus Experiment” (season 3, episode 6)
Mark Gatiss steps from behind the word processor to play a scientist seeking to reverse the ageing process, with the predictable Bad Consequences. His final moments, as he recounts his childhood memories of the Blitz, are moving, but the rest of the episode – when he mostly turns into a sort of unconvincing giant scorpion monster thing – is Doctor Who-by-numbers.
73. “Voyage of the Damned” (2007 Christmas special)
Good things about this Christmas special: It has Kylie; it has Russell Tovey; it’s a sort-of homage to the classic Douglas Adams PC game Starship Titanic but also sort of The Poseidon Adventure in space; and the ending is quite sweet. Bad things about this Christmas special: everything else about this Christmas special.
72. “Planet of the Dead” (2009 special 1)
A so-so standalone effort that tries to re-work Pitch Black as a campy crime romp, with Michelle Ryan’s cartoonish cat-burglar instead of Vin Diesel. The tone’s all over the place, the threat never feels real, and while the image of a London bus in the desert is iconic, nothing else really lives up to it. Lee Evans’ turn as a comedy scientist is enjoyable, but feels dropped in from a completely different show.
71. “The Next Doctor” (2008 Christmas special)
Christmas special + Cybermen + a fake-out title = a triple dose of underwhelming. David Morrissey’s bemused Not-Actually-The-Doctor is charming, funny and a little sad, but the key mystery remains: how, how, how do you take a 100 foot tall Cyberman, ridden by Dervla Kirwan and stomping over Victorian London, and make it a bit boring?
70. “Partners in Crime” (season 4, episode 1)
An opinion-divider. As one colleague puts it, Donna’s re-introduction “sets up in one scene (the pantomime through the windows) the best Doctor/companion chemistry in all of New Who - but it’s also a great marker of just how far those characters have come since the last time they saw each other. The Doctor is kind, and Donna’s finally going after something she wants instead of talking about how it should just fall into her lap.”
The other opinion is that - as much as Catherine Tate is a superb and versatile comic actress, and Donna Noble would develop in significant and affecting ways over the series - in this episode she’s still a screechy bloody nightmare.
Ultimately, it comes down to one question: who’s making this list? I am, that’s who. And I don’t like it. (Feel free to mentally shift this thirty places or forty places higher if you disagree.)
69. “Victory of the Daleks” (season 5, episode 3)
Such a shame. The iconography of WWII Daleks with Union Jack insignias is amazing; the Spitfire battle in space is well worth spending half the series’ CGI budget on; and it’s truly unsettling early on as the Daleks go round being nice and polite and helpful. But there’s no impact when they turn bad: the new range of iPod Daleks are laughably unthreatening, and there’s a bloody Power Of Love ending on top of it all. And for a series that would give us such a bold, unflinching portrayal of depression just a few episodes later with Vincent Van Gogh, to play the black dog-haunted Churchill as a jolly, twinkling uncle seems like a cop-out. Maybe if it had more space to breathe, it might have been better: it feels like a two-parter crammed into 44 minutes.
68. “The Idiot’s Lantern” (season 2, episode 7)
An episode that takes some nice ideas – faceless people, the fear of new technologies, and the fact that prim 1950s BBC announcers are inherently terrifying – and has them not quite add up to the sum of their parts. The only thing that really sticks in the mind in this episode is the affecting tale of Tommy and his bullying father. Was there anybody who wasn’t rooting for the Doctor to take him away and make him a companion?
67. “The Sontaran Stratagem” / “The Poison Sky” (season 4, episodes 4/5)
Fun but lightweight. Martha’s return is nice, but the plot is far too familiar - guys, just imagine if emission standards for vehicles were evil – and the Sontarans, let’s face it, are better used for comedy than a sense of menace. On the plus side, Bernard Cribbins.
66. “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” (2011 Christmas special)
Moffat’s least impressive Christmas special. The framing sections set in WWII tug effectively at the heartstrings, but in between there’s some incomprehensible bollocks about trees. A weary nation doped up on turkey was united in going “eh?”
65. “The Vampires of Venice” (season 5, episode 6)
One of the weaker monsters-in-historical-settings offerings. There’s nothing specifically bad about it - it’s just that there’s nothing terribly specific about it at all. Monsters disguised as humans, classic mythologies explained with science, “we’re the last of our species” as a motivation – it’s all fairly well executed, but everything about it feels done before. Venice looks lovely, though.
64. “New Earth” (season 2, episode 1)
With the Tenth Doctor already introduced, and no new companion, we get the standard “let’s go into the future/past and explore our character dynamics” second episode as the series opener. It’s… OK? This is mostly notable for two things: the point when “everybody lives” started to become a cliché, now it was no longer “just this once”, and the beginning of the Davies era’s obsession with putting animal heads on humanoid bodies. (The cat nuns were kind of cute, though.)
63. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (season 4, episode 7)
Unmemorable historical-literary larkabout. Some decent Agatha Christie jokes, but apart from that… something about a big wasp?
62. “42” (season 3, episode 7)
A decently tense episode, with a 24-style real-time gimmick that works pretty well. But some cheesy old sci-fi tropes that are more Galaxy Quest than anything – puzzling your way through a series of locked doors, a star that’s sentient and just wants you to return what you stole – detract from the impact.
61. “The Bells of Saint John” (season 7, part 2, episode 1)
The weakest series opener since “New Earth”, it’s stuffed with traditional Moffat madcap fun, and yet never really feels… well, fun. The plot (technology steals people and leaves blank-faced replacements) has been done before and better, and the spectacle (riding a motorbike up the Shard) all seems a little hollow. It’s perfectly serviceable, but it has trouble connecting. Trouble connecting. THAT WAS A WIFI JOKE BY THE WAY.
60. “Smith and Jones” (season 3, episode 1)
Another serviceable but forgettable series opener (series openers are hard). The good is that Martha – before the excellent Freema Agyeman was condemned to spend a series puppydogging around after the Doctor to little effect – makes for a compelling and likable new companion. The bad is that literally nothing else about it lingers in the memory, other than the fact that there are yet more RTD animal-heads.
59. “The Fires of Pompeii” (season 4, episode 2)
It’s not one of the great visits to history, and as a “teach the new companion about the moral dilemmas of time travel” episode it rather cops out by actually saving the family, fixed point in time be damned. But the rock monsters are nicely done, and it does have the distinction of featuring both a future companion in Karen Gillan and a future Doctor in Peter Capaldi among its cast.
58. “Asylum of the Daleks” (season 7, part 1, episode 1)
If you’re going to do a story about Daleks who are so crazed and scary that even other Daleks are frightened of them – which, let’s face it, is a stonkingly good idea for a story – you should probably make sure those Daleks are actually scary. Rather than just being slow and rusty. It’s an entertaining episode, but one that simply doesn’t live up to its own premise. Yes, it was a fun surprise to see companion-to-be Jenna-Louise Coleman appear in the show earlier than expected, but come on: “ha, we fooled you about what episodes an actress would appear in” is the sound of a show that’s thinking more about its press strategy than its storytelling.
57. “Night Terrors” (season 6, episode 9)
Essentially a do-over of “Fear Her”, as a child’s terrors become reality, this is a much more effective take on the idea, with genuinely creepy moments on the way to an underwhelming and regrettably predictable Power Of Love ending (albeit one that totally fits with season 6’s thematic focus on parenthood).
56. “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” (season 7, part 2, episode 5)
On the plus side, there are some gorgeous visuals as we plunge deep into the heart of the TARDIS – showing us more than we’ve seen before while retaining an air of mystery – and the charred monsters are also good for a scare or two, even if they owe rather a lot to both Sunshine and Event Horizon. On the minus side, the plot is… well, arse. The premise feels contrived (and out-of-character for The Doctor), the guest characters’ story arc simply doesn’t add up, and the big reveal of the episode is promptly un-revealed once the reset button is, tediously, pushed. Basically the whole episode didn’t need to happen and might as well not have happened.
55. “Nightmare in Silver” (season 7, part 2, episode 7)
The Law of Cyberman Crapness defeats even Neil Gaiman. While there are some undeniably cool upgrades to the basic Cyberman model, the abandoned funfair setting is nicely… Gaimany, and Matt Smith sells the mental chess game against his cyber-self brilliantly, it doesn’t really hold together. That’s mostly because the plot resolution is “I could have saved us all at literally any point in the story but instead I let lots of people die, because reasons”, although the presence of some very annoying child characters doesn’t help matters.
54. “A Town Called Mercy” (season 7, part 1, epsiode 3)
A western that has fun with its surroundings while mostly managing to avoiding pastiche, and centres itself around a well-established moral dilemma. But some of the plot mechanics are creaky, The Doctor’s actions seem out of character, and the whole thing runs out of steam a bit before the end.
53. “The End of the World” (season 1, episode 2)
The second episode takes us on our first adventure in time, expanding the scope (and the effects budget), but keeping the breezy tone and snappy dialogue. The plotting still doesn’t rise above basic, but it’s an effective way of introducing us to the universe through Rose’s eyes. (Also, “This was called… an iPod” was a great joke.)
52. “Utopia” / “The Sound of Drums” / “Last of the Time Lords” (season 3, episodes 11/12/13)
Good/Brilliant/Oh dear. There’s so much that’s excellent about the show’s only true three-parter – the shock reveal of The Master, John Simm’s magnetic performance, and a really cool SHIELD-like flying aircraft carrier thingy. But then it tips over into the ridiculous in the last episode. The image of a beatifically-glowing Doctor rising in a Christ-like pose having been resurrected by people’s faith him is, frankly, just way way too much. It’s what happens when you believe your own hype and there’s nobody to tell you to ease it back a notch. It is the Be Here Now of season finales.
51. “Cold War” (season 7, part 2, episode 3)
A Russian submarine in the 1980s is a brilliant setting for a tense, Alien-style game of hide-and-seek, the story theme and time period that are a perfect match, and there’s an excellent reimagining of a classic monster - which all make this one of Gatiss’s better episodes. On the downside, the key scenes are over-talky and take up valuable corridor-prowling time, and the ending doesn’t even really try.
50. “The Doctor’s Daughter” (season 4, episode 6)
Odd one: giving the Doctor a “daughter” (well, a sort-of cloned female warrior version) is the sort of thing that you’d normally expect to be a big season finale type deal. Instead, it’s casually thrown in mid-run. The actual plot – a not-bad idea of an endless war that’s actually only been going on for a week – gets a bit lost as a result. Fun, though, and the possibility of a return for Jenny (aka Mrs. Tennant) is always out there…
49. “The Rebel Flesh” / “The Almost People” (season 5, episodes 5/6)
An almost-but-not-quite pair of episodes, with the tension and themes and ethical questions ramping up nicely before it all dissolves into a bog-standard evil-thing-chasing-us story that pretty much undercuts the point it was trying to make. But, oh blimey, the twist at the end is brutal.
48. “Love & Monsters” (season 2, episode 10)
Boy, does this split opinion. Either a gentle, playful love-letter to the show’s hardcore fans, or a bitchy piss-take of the show’s hardcore fans, depending on how self-aware and/or defensive you are. Viewed from outside that bubble, though, it’s a warm-hearted, absurdist and pleasingly experimental Doctor-light tale of obsession and unreliable narrators. It’s fluff, but well-crafted fluff with an ELO soundtrack. Also, bold fellatio joke.
47. “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood” (season 5, episodes 7/8)
The Silurians, with their righteous anger that their planet has been stolen by interloping apes, were a great classic monster to reintroduce. There’s also some unpleasantly plausible, “Midnight”-style group-dynamic horror, as good intentions give way to bad actions. Points for effort, but the storyline feels a bit perfunctory, and never quite follows through on its promise; the Silurians, sci-fi stand-ins for displaced peoples everywhere, demand smart and thoughtful plot resolutions, and they don’t quite get it here. The story-arc importance of Rory being erased from history gives the ending extra heft, though.
46. “The Crimson Horror” (season 7, part 2, episode 6)
Mark Gatiss’s best episode since ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is a macabre jaunt to the sinister model communities of the post-Industrial Revolution north (a far-flung alien world that Doctor Who rarely visits, no matter how many planets have one.) The combination of a Paternoster Gang-focused story, Gatiss’s love of Victoriana and classic horror melodrama, and Diana Rigg’s display of Doncastrian high camp all make for a thoroughly enjoyable time. Even if the monster is basically just an ambitious slug.
45. “The Name of the Doctor” (season 7, part 2, episode 8)
Can we admit it now? The Clara storyline simply didn’t work. Not even a tiny little bit. It didn’t work on its own terms: she wasn’t “born to save The Doctor”, she wasn’t especially impossible, and it’s not entirely clear how she actually did save him. It didn’t work for the series, as the Doctor went into all-out time-creep mode, spying on her for reasons a lot of viewers never really bought into. Jenna Louise-Coleman smooths over some of the rough edges with her winning performance - but right now, Clara’s not a character, she’s a plot device. And frankly, it’s getting a bit boring being told that every new companion is the most important woman in the universe (there’s never any question of who the most important man is, of course.)
It’s a shame, because there’s so much to love here – Paternoster gang, River on a conference call, ongoing obsession with the importance of names and stories as a living force, big cool TARDIS tomb thing. But it’s wrapped around a hollow core. The whole seventh series ended up feeling like little more than a really long trailer for the 50th anniversary show.
44. “A Christmas Carol” (2011 Christmas special)
It doesn’t quite nail the translation of the Scrooge story to a sci-fi setting, but there’s plenty of enjoyable fun on the way – flying sharks! – and the central romance (another Moffat love story happening across different time frames) is sweetly depicted.
43. “The Power of Three” (season 7, part 1, episode 4)
The opening two thirds, with a “slow invasion” of sinister/cutesy mysterious cubes appearing around the world, is lovely, inventive stuff, as The Doctor gets to experience Amy and Rory’s home life, and we meet UNIT’s new scientific advisor (squeeeeeeeeeee). Then the ending happens, except nobody could be bothered to actually write an ending, so they basically just push some magic buttons and just this once everybody livezzzzzzzzzz. It’s still a net win, but it could have been so much better.
42. “Let’s Kill Hitler” (season 6, episode 8)
The high, or low, point of Moffatian twisty plot-madness, this was another bafflingly fast-paced episode filled with delightful touches that would have left anybody who hadn’t been taking notes on the series to date completely lost. It was a complete idea pile-up, but it’s hard not to admire the brio with which it was pulled off – and it even managed to find time for an emotional kick at the end.
41. “Planet of the Ood” (season 4, episode 3)
A pretty strong episode: Donna’s calmed down and started developing as a character, the plot arc leading to Tennant’s departure is starting to ramp up, The Ood are a nice return and the whole thing handles the issues of slavery and freedom with appropriate gravitas.
40. “The Shakespeare Code” (season 3, episode 2)
One of the better historical-literary romps, with some fun gags for Shakespeare nerds and great use of the Globe theatre. Nice J.K. Rowling joke, too. Solid.
39. “Boom Town” (season 1, episode 11)
A surprising and bold shift of tone as the first season neared its climax, this is a talky, grown-up episode that revolves around a restaurant two-hander between The Doctor and a no-longer farting Slitheen, which brings a welcome questioning of his actions and motives. The rest of the episode is a bit meh and the ending dodges the question, but it deserves praise for putting front and centre the moral seriousness that’s always been a key element of the series.
38. “A Good Man Goes to War” (season 6, epsiode 7)
It’s been fairly widely noted that Moffat is better at the set-up than the pay-off; that’s either the great strength or the great weakness of this episode, which is almost all set-up – a fractal pile-up of cliffhangers, cliffs dangling off cliffs dangling off cliffs, every revelation prompting ten new questions. I loved it: it’s a blast of pure narrative that starts at 100mph and doesn’t stop. Others point out, not unreasonably, that it’s a frustrating mess. Either way, it has some clear high-points – the introduction of the Paternoster Gang, Victorian lesbian reptile detective and all; the reveal of River’s true identity; and, in its few quiet moments, some playful stuff about the meaning of The Doctor’s name that would grow in importance as the series passed. Also, bold cunnilingus joke.
37. “Gridlock” (season 3, epsiode 3)
The return of both animal-headed humanoids and slightly clunky RTD satire – guys, just imagine if traffic jams were evil – but elevated above the standard through some inventive world-building, winning guest stars, nice plot-arc teases and the Doctor’s eulogizing of Gallifrey. Also rescued by the fact that Welsh choirs singing “Abide With Me” will always be the loveliest sound. Oh, and Macra.
36. “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” (season 4, episodes 12/13)
Doctor Who and Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures and a host of past companions all come together for the apogee of the Davies era’s push for maximum bigness. The fake-out regeneration cliffhanger got people’s attention, but a lot of nicer details got rather lost in the bombast. But it’s memorable for almost entirely for the ending: that kiss, and the shockingly bleak ending Davies gives Donna – after a season of character growth, she has it all snatched away, returned to her previous unlikable state, never to remember anything. Startlingly cruel.
35. “The Beast Below” (season 5, episode 2)
Okay. Okay. Bear with me here. This is an episode that is commonly considered to be a bit crap – an opinion shared, notably, by the man who wrote it. Let me now explain why it is actually pretty great and all of you, including Steven Moffat, are wrong.
“The Beast Below” is grand social satire in the classic tradition of anti-establishment British sci-fi. Starship UK is a happy place, but the cracks are showing – and through them, you can just about make out that it runs on arms-length cruelty and willful self-deception. The choice that the population are faced with in their once-a-decade vote – when they are fully confronted with the horror of the exploitation and violence that enables their society to function – is possibly the best satire of the façade of democracy in capitalist society ever broadcast at 6.15 on a Saturday evening. Protest, or forget. Those are your options. Forget, and carry on in placid, complicit ignorance. Or protest, and face the violence of the state. And of course, they always choose to forget. Unlike Davies-era satire, which sought to blame faddish trends, distant institutions or malign external forces for our woes, this has the courage to turn its gaze back on the audience. Yes, yes, fine, it has plot holes you could drive a Star Whale through. But shut up. This is Doctor Who with ambitions to say something complex and meaningful, and that elevates it beyond any run-of-the-mill Monster Of The Week episode.
Basically, if you understand why “The Happiness Patrol” was a high-water mark of 80s Who (or, say, if you understand why Antz is better than A Bug’s Life) then you will understand why “The Beast Below” is unfairly maligned, and fully deserves its place as the, uh, 35th best episode of the modern series.
Also, Liz 10 is cool.
34. “Closing Time” (season 6, epsiode 12)
The welcome return of James Corden to the show, following the unexpected pleasures of “The Lodger” (which we’ll get to in a bit), brings with it more of his enjoyable double act with Smith; The Doctor’s continuing fluency in Baby and his discussions with Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All being a particular highlight. The only let down is, naturally, the Cyberman part of the story: the Cybermats are a fun revival, but apart from that there’s little threat. And there’s a Power Of Love ending, FFS. Even the decent episodes can’t escape.
33. “The Wedding of River Song” (season 6, episode 13)
The season six tangle of threads finally gets unwound (well, mostly) in another madly inventive, time-compressing, alternate reality-peddling episode (that also gives Gillan and Darvill the chance to have fun as badass versions of themselves). The Doctor/River story arc reaches its satisfying climax. But, let’s be honest… the resolution to the whole season-long mystery was a tiny bit underwhelming, wasn’t it? Fake Doctor. Okay. Gotcha.
32. “The Unquiet Dead” (season 1, episode 3)
Still the best of Mark Gatiss’s episodes, it’s a well-constructed old-school historical chiller with a pleasingly nasty twist, and a charming performance as Charles Dickens from professional Charles Dickens performer Simon Callow. Victorian zombies will always be a winner, basically.
31. “The God Complex” (season 6, episode 11)
“People get confronted with their fears” is the hoariest of fantasy plots, so congratulations to Toby Whithouse for turning it into something fresh, unexpected and emotionally believable. The surreal surroundings of a not-quite-right hotel lend a pleasingly Shining-like creepy atmosphere, and the whole thing dovetails into a crucial character moment that alters the direction of the series while feeling entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.
30. “Amy’s Choice” (season 5, episode 7)
A character-establishing alternate reality episode given a nicely surreal twist, with the Toby Jones brilliant as the jauntily sinister Dream Lord, and Gillan and Darvill really selling their relationship. Also notable for having a Power Of Love ending that actually works, because it develops organically from the story and feels like an honest resolution. Well done everybody.
29. “Hide” (season 7, part 2, episode 4)
Luther creator Neil Cross recovers from his previous outing, “The Rings of Akhaten”, with a brilliantly effective haunted house story that delivers creepy scares all the way up until the gleeful, expectation-defying conclusion. Sure, some of the plot could be a little tidier, but from the understated performances of Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine to the atmospheric images of The Doctor lost in the woods, this is a classy effort all the way.
28. “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit” (season 2, episodes 8/9)
“The Doctor meets the Devil” is a story pitch that could have gone catastrophically wrong; as it is, New Who’s first visit to an alien world managed to combine epic scope with quiet introspection, resulting in a crackling and atmospheric two-parter that successfully grounded its fantastical elements while letting its imagination run wild.
27. “The Waters of Mars” (2009 special 2)
The best of the standalone episodes in Tennant’s swansong, this is a tense and chilling trapped-in-a-base story with some inventive touches, an increasingly reckless Tenth Doctor, and supporting characters who leave an impression.
26. “The Lodger” (season 5, episode 11)
The words “guest starring James Corden” were greeted with groans from much of the fandom, but they needn’t have worried – throwing the Doctor into a domestic comedy proved to be a delight, and Corden (omnipresent as he was at the time) remains a hugely likable actor. I think there was a sci-fi plot about a hungry building that was a disguised spaceship in there as well, or something, but that’s not important right now.
25. “Rose” (season 1, episode 1)
In which we learn that lots of planets have a North. The Doctor’s return is great fun - even if the plot is pretty basic – with a blend of the new and the old. There’s danger, there’s running away from things, there’s a classic monster; but there’s also faster, funnier, Buffied-up take on the show, and a companion who saves as much as she gets saved. No, they hadn’t quite got the tone right. Some of the effects are as ropey as the old days. Yes, the incidental music sounds like it was recorded on a child’s keyboard. But still. It brought Doctor Who back.
24. “The Snowmen” (2012 Christmas special)
The best Christmas special since the first one, Clara’s second introduction mixes a sombre tone - with a brooding and withdrawn Doctor still mourning the loss of the Ponds – with a return to the fairy tale stylings of season five. (The image of the spiral staircase leading up the clouds is one of the most magical in the series’ recent history.) There’s still plenty of fun, though – most notably the series-hopping tribute to Sherlock, in which the Doctor conclusively proves that he would make a terrible Holmes. Even the ending, which a cynical person might possibly suggest revolved around the day being saved through the power of love, felt right.
23. “Tooth and Claw” (season 2, episode 2)
Just a superbly-realised and frightening episode, with director Euros Lyn wringing every drop of tension from a taut RTD script that sees The Doctor and Queen Victoria being chased around an empty country house – all helped by a fantastic wolfman from the effects wizards at The Mill, outdoing their previous lycanthropic work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Granted, the presence of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Werewolf monks didn’t make any sense. Doesn’t matter. The main disappointment is we never got a follow-up episode titled “The Empire of the Wolf”.
22. “School Reunion” (season 2, episode 3)
Oh, Sarah Jane. My Sarah Jane. Always, now, and forever. The plot is standard but solid, alternate universe Doctor Anthony Head has fun being evil (and gets the Whedonest line the show ever had: “Forget the shooty dog thing”), and it all motors along at a decent pace. None of this matters, though, because SO MANY EMOTIONS. The return of the greatest companion in the show’s history, and the greatest robot dog ever. I’ve no idea how any of this would have felt for a non-old school Who fan, but I suspect that old-school Who fan Tennant’s barely-restrained explosion of joy the moment he recognizes Elizabeth Sladen was enough to sell the meaning to anybody. Anyway, I have to stop writing for a moment now, because I’m a bit sad.
21. “The Angels Take Manhattan” (season 7, part 1, episode 5)
After the patchiness of season seven’s opening, Amy and Rory get sent off in fine style, with an episode that restores the Weeping Angels to full creepiness, and hits every emotional bullseye without becoming mawkish. Long foreshadowed, a departure that showed how Amy and Rory would follow each other anywhere was exactly the right way to say goodbye to them. And the Statue of Liberty bit was cool.
20. “Father’s Day” (season 1, episode 8)
The classic time travel scenario of going back to save somebody you love – with Bad Consequences - is given a beautifully understated and moving treatment by Paul Cornell. While the previous installment, “Dalek”, was the moment Eccleston’s Doctor really clicked, this was the episode where Billie Piper got to show her emotional range, and became something more than a feisty sidekick.
19. “The Eleventh Hour” (season 5, episode 1)
A breakneck introductory episode for the Eleventh Doctor, setting the tone for Moffat’s house style, that delivers in spades – the fairy tale vibe is in place from the second scene, the dialogue is fast and funny, the plot jumps through hoops with giddy abandon, and Matt Smith feels absolutely right as the Doctor from the moment he tucks into those fish fingers.
18. “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” (season 3, episodes 8/9)
Another slice of brilliance from Moffat’s pre-showrunner days. Granted, the Vashta Nerada don’t have quite the nightmare-fuel impact of Moffat’s previous monsters, and keeping track of where the shadows are supposed to be is almost as much of a hassle for the viewer as for the poor lighting designer. But there’s a host of compelling ideas, above all the introduction of River Song – someone who knows the Doctor from his future. Even if this hadn’t kickstarted a large part of the plot for three whole future seasons, it would still have been worth it for the clever trick of wringing every drop of humour and heartbreak from the memory of unknown events.
17. “The Christmas Invasion” (2005 Christmas special)
The first Christmas special, and still the best (although “The Snowmen” runs it close). Taking a leaf from the Jaws playbook, they keep the thing we’re all waiting to see off-screen for most of the episode. There’s enjoyable fun with psychotic Christmas trees and bad Santas while we’re kept hanging on, but this is really all about the final act, when David Tennant bounds onto the screen and doesn’t stop talking for twenty minutes. It’s a textbook introduction for the rejuvenated Doctor, mixing comforting familiar elements (he can’t see a big red button without wanting to push it) with his own self-discovery of what kind of man he is (this Doctor gives “no second chances”). Add in a throwaway Hitchhiker’s Guide reference and the darkest joke about snow ever broadcast on Christmas Day, and it all adds up to a sparkling episode with an edge of steel.
16. “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon” (season 6, episode 1/2)
A bravura series opener, delivering a jaw-dropping shock from the start, and then twisting and feinting and generally having a ball from that point onwards. The Silence make unforgettably creepy villains, and Canton Everett Delaware III an appealing almost-companion who deserves a return some day. Plus points for coming up with the only plausible explanation ever given for why Richard Nixon recorded himself saying all those things.
15. “The Girl Who Waited” (season 6, episode 10)
A beautifully judged episode with a stellar performance from Karen Gillan as both young, hopeful and old, embittered versions of Amy. The Amy-Rory relationship has been tested before (to the point where it was getting a little tedious), but never with quite such emotional rawness as here. That the final moments are genuinely moving, even though you knew exactly what had to happen, is no mean feat.
14. “The End of Time”, Parts I and II (2009/10 Christmas & New Year specials)
Tennant departs in an epic battle with a curiously resurrected Master and the returned Time Lords. Making the war-crazed Time Lords the bad guys was an effective touch, and the Master’s redemption was nice. But it’s really all about counting down to those four knocks. Like a lot of RTD’s season closers, the final minutes are on another level to the rest of the episode (an inverse Moffat, his set-ups were often underwhelming but his pay-offs spectacular). Ten’s final sacrifice – which he rails against, then accepts – was perfectly judged, and his extended farewell tour may have been self indulgent, but it played your emotions like a fiddle. By the time he says “I don’t want to go”, then goes, there’s not a dry eye to be found.
13. “Turn Left” (season 4, episode 11)
The episode where Donna Noble truly became more than a caricature, this alternate timeline tale where one small decision by Donna leads to a world without The Doctor is a bit Sliding Doors, a bit It’s A Wonderful Life, but mostly a whole lot bleaker than either of those suggests. The framing device is hastily sketched, but the way Davies doesn’t shy away from a grimly realistic portrayal of how disasters can lead to despair, anger and a slide into fascism is powerful – and Tate sells it wonderfully.
12. “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” (season 5, episodes 12/13)
Moffat’s turn-it-up-to-Eleven storytelling close to its best, the first episode was a masterclass in ramping up the stakes, at which point he decided to top all previous Doctor Who writers by actually destroying the universe as a cliffhanger. Then it went completely mad, with a fez on. Along the way, Rory gets revealed as the true hero of the series, and the running theme of myth-making and the power of stories gets a full work out, as the Doctor must trust his life to becoming a really memorable bedtime story. Wonderfully, in the end, the day is basically saved by wordplay. In your stupid face, Power Of Love.
11. “Army of Ghosts” / “Doomsday” (season 2, episodes 12/13)
The best Cybermen episodes in the New Who canon - although frankly they’re still one of the weaker elements in the story. For all its fanboy fun, the much-hyped Cybermen vs Daleks showdown is a bit of a letdown, in truth, but that’s not really the focus here – this story’s all about Rose’s departure into an alternative reality with her family. For all the budget-blowing bombast, it’s the quiet emotional gut-punch of that final farewell in Bad Wolf Bay that stays with you. “I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye.” EMOTIONS.
10. “Dalek” (season 1, episode 6)
The return of the world’s grumpiest salt-shakers was also the episode when the New Who showed what it was really capable of. Eccleston’s mesmerising first confrontation with the temporarily helpless Dalek was the moment the series kicked into a higher gear, as he went from blind terror to glee to murderous rage. The subsequent carnage, as the Dalek coldly slaughters its way through a crowd of extras, is chilling in its efficiency; the conclusion, as Rose’s compassion and the Doctor’s war veteran survivor guilt bring depth to their characters, is low-key but hits hard.
9. “The Time of Angels” / “Flesh and Stone” (season 5, episodes 4/5)
Aliens to “Blink“‘s Alien, this is a brilliant two-parter that’s just a notch off perfection. The opening episode is a textbook case study of slowly-ratcheting tension: River’s reintroduction is a joy, the reveal that they’re surrounded by Weeping Angels is a masterpiece of slowly-dawning horror, and the Doctor’s final speech (“there’s one thing you never put in a trap”) is rousing. Even a few re-used Moffat tropes, like radio conversations with dead people, still seem fresh. Why doesn’t it quite achieve greatness? Well, half of the reason that the Angels were such a compelling villain in the first place – that they “kill you with kindness” – is forgotten in favour of them killing you with breaking your neck. And in the second episode, the plot threads don’t tie up as elegantly as you’d hope, as the threat of the Angels takes a back seat to the threat of the glowy time-crack thing.
8. “Vincent and the Doctor” (season 5, episode 10)
Rom-com king Richard Curtis delivers an unexpected – and unexpectedly moving – Who story. There’s no meet cutes or last-minute dashes to the airport here; just an unsettling, subtle and very human portrayal of genius and depression. (The monster is an afterthought.) The conclusion – Tony Curran’s wonderful Vincent being confronted with his own legacy in the modern world – may seem to be laying it on too thick, with its very un-Whoish Athlete soundtrack. But dammit, it works brilliantly, even as you feel your tears being very deliberately jerked. And then there was the real ending, when we learn that not everybody can be saved. Anything else would have been cheap.
7. “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways” (season 1, episodes 12/13)
You never forget the trauma of your first regeneration, do you? For a whole new generation of fans, this was their first goodbye to a Doctor – and the two-parter hits all the right emotional notes on the way there, with the Doctor’s two farewell speeches – one via hologram, the other moments before he gets glowy – being the tear-inducing high points. And it gleefully anticipates a whole new generation of angry rage-fans misusing the phrase “deus ex machina”, as Rose is quite literally turned into a god from the machine.
6. “The Doctor’s Wife” (season 6, episode 4)
A simply beautiful episode, taking the central but almost unspoken relationship of the show – between The Doctor and the TARDIS – and making it flesh. It’s an idea that could have gone horribly wrong, but in Neil Gaiman’s hands it’s funny, scary, poignant and poetic all at once. Idris’s final line, coming to understand that people are “so much bigger on the inside,” is such a gloriously precise encapsulation of the show’s ethos that it’s hard to believe the previous 50 years weren’t all building specifically towards it.
5. “Midnight” (season 4, episode 10)
Russell T Davies’s least Russell T Daviesy episode is also his best – a minimalist, disturbing and tightly-executed horror story about group dynamics and mob mentality. Almost entirely set in one cramped cabin, and with virtually no special effects, all of the creeping terror comes purely from the dialogue – and it shows that when Doctor Who breaks out of its own formula, it can still deliver incredible television.
4. “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2, episode 4)
“The days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book, so that he may step from one to the other… while I must always take the slower path.” The tale of an impossible romance unfolding at different speeds for the time-crossed lovers, closer in tone to magical realism that science fiction, “The Girl In The Fireplace” introduced many themes that Moffat would return to – love tangled in the timelines, worlds bleeding into each other, The Doctor as a fairy tale, the power of names and stories – but they were never as simple, as daring, as fresh or as heartbreaking as they were here. A story unlike any Doctor Who had told before, but that only Doctor Who could tell. Plus it has beautiful clockwork robots, and a horse.
3. “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1, episodes 9/10)
Remember back when people were furious about the idea of a writer best known for bawdy sitcom farces writing for Doctor Who? The permanently angry section of Who fandom was left looking a bit silly, as Steven Moffat’s debut Who script was simply fantastic. The gas mask child was a terrifying not-really-a-monster, the introduction of omnisexual time-travelling conman Captain Jack made for some of the funniest dialogue in the series’ history, and the “just this once, everybody lives” finale – long before it became a cliché – was joyous. There’s very little about this that isn’t perfect.
2. “Blink” (season 3, episode 10)
There’s not much to say about the genius of “Blink” that hasn’t already been said. Moffat’s masterpiece (intended as no more than a filler episode) introduced the new series’ signature villains, the terrifying Weeping Angels, and in doing so made statues the stars of a whole new generation of nightmares. Its wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey plot played out the paradoxes with furious precision. And Hollywood-bound Carey Mulligan’s guest turn as Sally Sparrow was so immediately likable that she has to rank as the great companion-who-never was of the show’s history. All this, and the Doctor’s hardly even in it. It’s just spectacularly good.
Which brings us to the number one…
1. “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” (season 3, episodes 8/9)
Aaaand… it’s not Moffat. For all the puzzle-box perfection of the current showrunner’s best scripts, Paul Cornell’s unimpeachable two-parter – based on his own 1995 novel – hits more highs and explores more depths than even Moff’s finest work.
It’s a story about the horrors of war, the oppressive weight of duty, and, yes, the nature of being human. Tennant gives his finest performance as the all-too-human John Smith, quietly falling in love but haunted by fantastical dreams of another life. The supporting performances are flawless, from the always wonderful Jessica Hynes and an increasingly panicked Freema Agyeman, to creepily arrogant Harry Lloyd and the wise-beyond-his-years Thomas Sangster. The parallels between the schoolchildren on the brink of WWI and John Smith/The Doctor himself – forcibly stripped of innocence and thrown into a world of violence – are subtly but powerfully drawn, and resonate with a classic Doctor Who theme: the terror of growing up. It’s one of the first times that the series fully confronted the notion that The Doctor is a truly frightening character, both to encounter and to be, and it’s never been more potently realised.
The multiple endings – Joan’s rejection of The Doctor, Tim’s survival in the trenches, and the final Remembrance Day scene – pile emotion upon emotion; none of it forced, all of it earned. Touching, thrilling, horrifying and wise, it’s the best thing Doctor Who has ever done.