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Doctor Who: The 60 Best Episodes


As well as emanating a McCoy era comic-book energy, ‘Gridlock’ reflects the lead’s strained relationship at this point. The Doctor, pining for the absent Rose, isn’t very open, and Martha, pining for the absent-but-frustratingly-also-right-bloody-there Doctor, is getting fed up over his emotional distance. There’s an ongoing theme about faith in this series, here it’s about the support it can give you in hard times, reflected in the Doctor’s descriptions of Gallifrey and the Time Lords to Martha, and whether or not that faith is ultimately restricting.

42 & 43. Human Nature and The Family of Blood

(Series Three, 2007, written by Paul Cornell and directed by Charles Palmer)

Based on Paul Cornell’s Nineties novel ‘Human Nature’, this sees the Doctor and Martha on the run from the Family of Blood, and the Doctor taking on human form to try to evade them. He becomes John Smith, a teacher at a boarding school in 1913, with Martha working as a maid. Unfortunately the Family find them, possess human bodies, and attempt to make a bewildered Smith turn back into the Doctor.

In the book, the Seventh Doctor becomes human to better understand his companion’s grief. Here, fittingly for his character, the Tenth Doctor becomes human as part of a rushed plan that puts Martha into a terrible position and endangers the lives of everyone around him. There’s this mercurial rush of energy and charisma that takes people along with him before the bodies start cooling. This story is the best depiction of this.

44. Midnight

(Series Four, 2008, written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Alice Troughton)

The Doctor decides to go on a little tourist shuttle trip around an ice planet, getting to natter away to some strangers and see some shiny things. As long as an ineffable entity doesn’t trap them all and possess one of the passengers, it’ll be absolutely lovely.

It’s not an especially original observation to make, but Russell T. Davies is very good at writing TV characters. We’re introduced to an ensemble cast and know the basics of their relationships and personalities extremely quickly. The possession also cleverly weoponises characterisation: An entity that steals voices, mimics and learns is one that the Doctor – especially this Doctor – is going to struggle against. And so it proves. A riveting and haunting episode, for what is essentially half a dozen people arguing in a space bus.

45. The Eleventh Hour

(Series Five, 2010, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Adam Smith)

The newly regenerated Doctor (Matt Smith) crash lands in Amelia Pond’s back garden. Returning years later than he intended, he discovers no one living in the house, a suspicious police woman, and the precursor to an alien invasion.

Under immense pressure following the incredibly popular combination of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and showrunner Russell T. Davies, new showrunner Steven Moffat and then relative unknown Smith perform a soft reboot of the show that’s a perfect start for the new and continuation of the old. From the second Smith sticks his head out of the TARDIS door and chirps “Can I have an apple?” we knew everything was going to be alright.

46. Vincent and the Doctor

(Series Five, 2010, written by Richard Curtis and directed by Jonny Campbell)

The Doctor and Amy, whose husband recently ceased to exist so she can’t remember him, visit and befriend Vincent van Gogh. Meanwhile, a heavily metaphorical monster is hiding out in a nearby church.

A surprisingly sensitive script from Richard Curtis, where you can feel his passion for the subject shining through. The scene where van Gogh is shown his future reputation as one of the great painters is celebrated, as is the moment where Amy realises that this doesn’t alter the fact that he will still take his own life, but there are also moments of great visual splendour here: the scene where van Gogh describes how he sees the night sky, and the accompanying visuals, are an unabashed celebration of creativity and a vibrant high point.

47. & 48. The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang

(Series 5, 2010, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Toby Haynes)

The Doctor and Amy find River with a Roman legion while investigating Stonehenge. There, they find the Pandorica, a legendary prison, and the Doctor’s enemies in wait.

Series Five kept the rough structure of the previous four series, and so here we get to see Moffat writing a Russell T. Davies-style finale. Or at least, half of one. While ‘The Pandorica Opens’ escalates the stakes towards the cliffhanger, ending on the Doctor being trapped, River exploding, Amy being shot, and the entire universe exploding (essentially going nuclear on the Series Finale cliffhanger concept by destroying absolutely everything all at once) we then head into ‘The Big Bang’, and see a Steven Moffat finale in action. Like ‘Forest of the Dead’ this is very different to its first episode, going smaller and more intimate (as if there were an option after the last episode) before a melancholy and then joyous ending.

49. A Christmas Carol

(Christmas Special, 2010, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Toby Haynes)

The Doctor attempts to reason with Ebenezer Scrooge surrogate Kazran Sardick (Michael Actual Gambon) in order to stop the spaceship where Amy and Rory are roleplaying from crashing. The more successful Doctor Who version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Season 23 is also loosely based on it) featuring the inevitability of death, singing and flying sharks.

50. The Night of the Doctor

(Mini-episode, 2013 written by Steven Moffat and directed by John Hayes)

A mini episode in which we were promised one of either David Tennant, Matt Smith or John Hurt would appear: a spaceship is crashing and its occupant is trying to get the computer to send a distress call, while it asks her if she needs a Doctor. At which point, lo and behold! The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) appears with the line “I’m a Doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting”.

McGann’s Doctor appeared once on screen in the 1996 TV Movie, which didn’t result in an ongoing series. Bringing him back specifically to regenerate into John Hurt’s War Doctor scratched the itch many fans had to see McGann play the role again. A short episode, sure, but one that succeeds as a strong, tragic regeneration story for McGann’s take on the role.

51. The Day of the Doctor

(50th Anniversary Special, 2013, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Nick Hurran)

The 50th Anniversary Special. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors meet the War Doctor – a previously unknown incarnation between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors – at the point just before he destroys Gallifrey in the Time War. 

Considering there was a point where only Jenna Coleman was contracted to appear in this episode, it turned out rather well, being both celebratory and a great yarn in its own right. David Tennant and Matt Smith have great fun together, Billie Piper doesn’t have to remember how to play Rose again after being cast as a sentient superweapon instead, and gets to cut loose a bit too, and John Hurt is inspired casting as someone representing all the previous Doctors and the weight of centuries of war.

52. Mummy on the Orient Express

(Series Eight, 2014, written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst)

This is the moment the Capaldi era sparks into life. After falling out in the previous story, the Doctor takes Clara on one last adventure to the Orient Express (in space). Coincidentally people onboard are dying in strange ways, which turn out to be caused by a Mummy that only the victim can see. The Doctor proceeds to both save the day and alienate nearly everyone on the train.

A great monster, and a great story hook, but what really stands out here is the characterisation. The scene where the Doctor gets Clara to bring a potential victim to him, asking her to lie for him, is brutal, and the fallout on the beach afterwards is key to letting the Twelfth Doctor seem something other than cold and indifferent. Pivotal to the following series is the understanding that, while the Doctor might be off-putting and clearly unhinged, the reason that Clara wants to travel with him in the end is simple: she is too.

53. Flatline

(Series Eight, 2014, written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Douglas Mackinnon)

The Doctor is trapped in a shrunken TARDIS, so Clara has to investigate the mystery of killer graffiti in Bristol largely by herself. ‘Flatline’ is a consistently inventive horror story that takes something everyday and weaponises it. In this case: two dimensional patterns. Drawings. Even the ground you’re walking on. The second half of Series Eight remains a really strong run of stories.

54. Last Christmas

(Christmas Special, 2014, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmshurst)

In which the Doctor and Clara work through their emotional baggage with the help of killer crabs, the 2010 Christopher Nolan movie Inception, and Santa.

Not many showscould make a story where Facehugger-like crabs that make you dream are a key part of a Christmas special, but here we are. 

55. & 56. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent

(Series 9, 2015, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay)

In which the Doctor finds himself trapped in a castle where the rooms move, and a Death-like figure stalks him, all the while trying to grieve the death of Clara. ‘Hell Bent’, the follow up episode that only cowards pretend is separate from ‘Heaven Sent’, deals with the repercussions of this.

In some respects it’s a textbook Moffat season finale: the second episode is a complete rug-pull from the first, finding a more thoughtful and interesting story to tell. In this case though, ‘Hell Bent’ really pushes against the idea of the Doctor’s heroism and delves into the uglier facets of the character. It can take a few views to settle, but it grows on each viewing and also enhances the more straightforwardly popular ‘Heaven Sent’ in the process.

57. The Husbands of River Song

(Christmas Special, 2015, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon)

In which the Doctor arrives in the middle of one of River Song’s adventures, and due to his regeneration she doesn’t recognise him, so he ends up being her companion on a crime escapade featuring the removal of several popular comedians’ heads. After forty-minutes or so firmly in romp mode, the story focuses purely on the Doctor and River, bringing their story full circle. It’s a really sweet, tender ending and shows signs of the Doctor maturing: the idea of him actually settling down with one person in one place had previously been treated as a joke, now it’s something he does willingly.

Hopefully Yaz never watches this episode. That’d be awkward.

58. Thin Ice

(Series 10, 2017, written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Bill Anderson)

The Doctor takes Bill to a fair on the frozen Thames in 1814, and discovers something alien beneath the ice.

Remembered more for the Doctor punching a racist than anything else, ‘Thin Ice’ is one of the great depictions of the Twelfth Doctor: there’s an appropriate coldness to him here as he sees a child die and doesn’t flinch, attempts to wriggle out of questions about whether he’s killed anyone, and brings Bill with him on this journey. There’s that permanently unsettling quality about Capaldi’s Doctor, a sense that he likes getting into the abyss just to see if he can get out again. You get this easy-to-follow, engaging procedural with excellent characterisation that leans in towards the more anarchic side of the Doctor over the liberal one (as exemplified by, yes, the scene where he talks to Bill of reason over passion, and then lamps Racist Nathan Barley).

59. The Doctor Falls

(Series 10, 2017, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay)

The Doctor, hoping that Missy really is capable of changing her ways, lets her ‘do’ an adventure herself with Bill and Nardole as her unwilling companions exploring a spaceship. Despite, or possibly because of, his desperate intervention, Bill is critically wounded and rushed to the other end of the ship to be operated on. Due to the effects of a nearby black hole, time dilation means time passes differently at one end of the ship to the other. Can the Doctor get to the other end of the ship in time to save his friend?

This is the closest the show has got to another ‘Caves of Androzani’, with the Doctor sacrificing himself to buy his friends time after getting them into the mess in the first place. On top of that, it’s also an incredible Cyberman story. And Master story. And another Master story.

60. Demons of the Punjab

(Series 11, 2018, written by Vinay Patel and directed by Jamie Childs)

A highlight of the Chris Chibnall era, this story starts with Yaz asking the Doctor to go back in time to learn more about her family. They find Yaz’s grandmother as a young woman, but she’s engaged to someone Yaz has never heard of. As they try to work out why, the looming Partition of India threatens to tear the family apart.

During Chibnall’s time as showrunner, Doctor Who looked for areas of history the show hadn’t covered before. As Doctor Who doesn’t seek to change historical events when it depicts them, due to its origins as an education programme, there’s a question of sensitivity when it comes to depicting historical tragedy. What ‘Demons of the Punjab’ does so well is make the fate of one family a microcosm of a greater historical event, an example of Partition’s repercussions, while forcing the Doctor to observe rather than interfere. That sense of conflict feels appropriate here, at least, the Doctor’s powerlessness clearly rankling.

Doctor Who returns on November 25 with ‘The Star Beast’, airing on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ around the world.



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