The Best Doctor Who Episodes
Reviews and commentary on fan favorites from Doctor Who
By MARK WILSON
Doctor Who Magazine periodically polls its readers on their favorite episodes from the show’s storied and deep history. I discovered the most recent list in early 2022 and, inspired to watch the handful I hadn’t seen before, wrote up review for each listed in the fan poll. Enjoy!
#10 – Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
Tom Baker quite naturally dominates much of this list, with only cameo appearances from other incarnations of The Doctor. So I’m pleased that Sylvester McCoy snuck onto the list with this one, as he and Ace form one of my favorite duos in the show’s history.
The music in this one is anachronistic to a modern viewing, but also amusingly put to use. A Dalek materializing to a synth melody that sounds like an 80s love ballad was a high point, and made me laugh out loud.
The Doctor is a bit uncharacteristically ruthless in this one. I can think of enough exceptions to this general rule throughout the show’s history that I don’t actually think it’s too uncharacteristic. But the fact that it’s the Doctor plotting and scheming in advance to destroy his enemies is, I think, what sets this one apart.
It also bookends a series of episodes about the Daleks that established the civil war between factions. There’s some previous context that it helps to know, and this episode also includes a rushed (re)introduction of the Hand of Omega. So it’s not as friendly to a new viewer who lacks the background knowledge of these things. But it’s a fast-paced delight for those who do, and presents the Doctor in a new, more dangerous light than nearly any story before it.
#9 – Human Nature / The Family of Blood (2007)
Perhaps a bit overrated as a “Doctor goes dark” moment, this is nevertheless a great opportunity to showcase some good performances from numerous actors.
And it puts the companion, Martha, in an interesting, unique position: not just without the Doctor’s help (plenty of companions get stranded and such), but actively having to protect him, from both himself and the world around him. It’s a clever inversion of the show’s usual premise, and deepens Martha’s character considerably in the process.
#8 – Pyramids of Mars (1975)
I have a pet theory that the stories that are best regarded from the older seasons of the show are those where they manage to sneak just enough gravitas into the proceedings to offset how cheesy it all is. This one is complete cheese. But it works.
Elizabeth Sladen (as Sarah Jane) is in fine form, bringing more snark to the role during this period than anyone would approach until Ace with the seventh doctor. Those two (Sarah Jane and Ace) would largely become the template for “New Who” companions, and we see the earliest inklings of that here.
But Sutekh, the otherworldly villain, is the star here. Both his oblique presence in the story, and Tom Baker gamely selling his threat, manage to infuse the story with enough memorable moments to have survived as a favorite, despite the fact that his physical presentation is barely better than many of the worst and most forgettable monsters in the show’s run.
#7 – The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances (2005)
The DW world’s introduction to Stephen Moffat. It’s somewhat ironic that while Russell Davies likely had the most celebrated run in the show’s history as showrunner, the most celebrated individual episodes from the Davies era all belong to Moffat.
Still, Moffat at his best is the best writer Doctor Who has ever had. I feel confident in saying that (and this list, which has two others by Moffat and 2-3 others that easily could have qualified, is evidence toward it as well). Robert Holmes from the Tom Baker years has a strong claim as well, but he was also more limited by the era in which he wrote.
This duo of episodes is another with a strong sense of setting (the German bombings of London during WWII), an appropriate amount of whimsy, strong characters (including the introduction of Captain Jack Harkness), and a clever script where everything fits together just so. The dancing-as-sex analogy is a bit forced, so I’m not universally in favor of the writing here. But the plot works so well that it has warranted numerous in-universe callbacks in subsequent years.
#6 – The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)
Perhaps the most amusing thing this episode gave us is the duo of Jago and Lightfoot, the theater owner and doctor, respectively. The two apparently went on to star in a number of (ostensibly canon) audio dramas and books in later years. They’re both portrayed quite excellently, with Jago making a near-immediate impression with his penchant for alliteration, a quirk that raises the character above what would otherwise be a fairly rote supporting role.
Their presence lightens what is undoubtedly the most problematic entry in this list. Robert Holmes, the scriptwriter responsible for numerous entries on this list, seems to want to show Britain’s historical fascination with the Eastern world, and he uses this as pretense for an adventure.
The results are…well…they’re likely quite racist to most interpretations. Nevermind that, for example, the initial antagonist – the underling of the big bad – turns respectable at the last moment. It’s in an opium den as he waxes philosophical about his ancestors. In other words, even the redeeming parts are steeped in tropes that haven’t aged well, if indeed they were ever acceptable.
As a product of its time, though, I’m not going to level much vitriol at it. I’m content to call it a serviceably exciting romp outside of those problems and move along to the next entry.
#5 – City of Death (1979)
Another story that’s perfectly solid, but I’ll admit to some confusion as to why it’s #5 on an all-time list for the show. So rather than try to place it in history alongside other giants, I’ll just say what I thought of it.
Romana, the fellow Time Lord, provides an interesting twist as a companion for the Doctor. On the one hand, her actor struggles to escape the scripting beats that place her as a companion rather than a full-fledged equal of The Doctor. On the other hand, her status as Time Lord allows the script more freedom to give her side adventures without the Doctor leading things along. Companions are separated from the Doctor constantly, but rarely are they given the same level of agency as him over the plot.
Here, Romana spends a full quarter of the adventure away from The Doctor, and builds a scientific gizmo under coercion of the Big Bad. It feels like the Doctor’s role to play, but he’s able to go off and have an equally engaging side quest without the main plot lagging. An intellectual equal of The Doctor is a novelty, and is partially why Davros and The Master work so well. I’d love to see a modern take on a similar concept.
This episode also seems to want to luxuriate in its Paris setting, a goal which is partially realized in the sweeping travel shots of the city and its landmarks. But this is transitional material; per the show’s limitations for the time, the action takes place in a handful of rooms, only some of them well-lit. It hints at the grandeur the premise is capable of, but also highlights the technical limitations of the time, where more recent depictions of Paris capture the romance and intrigue of the setting more deftly.
#4 – The Caves of Androzani (1984)
This one makes more sense to me on a “best of” list, and is one of my personal favorites from the Classic Who era. The word that went through my mind in the final minutes of the story was “Shakespearean.” And I think that description holds up quite well.
In terms of plot, there’s nothing too exciting here. A Wiki summary will look oddly bland next to even several others from Peter Davison’s era as The Doctor. But of course, it’s the execution that counts.
The secondary roles are all clearly defined, and the motivations and stakes are obvious, clear, and appropriately dire. There is one irredeemable villain (Morgus), but it’s Sharaz Jek who steals the show as the tortured, creepy antagonist who ultimately is at least moderately sympathetic. And the plot lines and characters bounce amiably off each other throughout, creating layered complications for The Doctor and Peri to have to navigate. This is a simple story, but it’s not an explicitly linear one. The various character arcs cross and weave through one another in a web that ultimately collapses on itself, taking The Doctor with it (with his death/regeneration)
Shakespearean often refers to tragedy, and here is no exception. It’s a bit of a bleak story. One aspect I enjoyed – which apparently was due to an on-set miscommunication – is Morgus “whispering” to the camera during dialogue scenes in his office, to tell us his inner monologue. It’s reminiscent of stage plays, where the characters must speak their thoughts aloud, and will voice internal struggles for the audience’s benefit, even if the other actors on the stage don’t “hear” it as well. Marvelously theatrical, and an accident that happily lends to its epic, tragic quality.
But in saving Peri, the audience stand-in (as DW companions so often are), there’s enough light to combat the darkness of the rest of it. The Doctor doesn’t save the planet, or a particular faction, or fully redeem the villain. No, he merely escapes, and at the cost of one of his lives, and only manages to save his friend. It’s sobering, but poignant in its execution.
#3 – Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
There’s some bog-standard DW stuff in this one, and the early Acts in this story are eclipsed by Androzani, among others, for their kinetic energy. But like Pyramids of Mars, the dramatic heft overcomes lulls in the plot or lack of polish in the production. Here, it’s Davros, not Sutekh, who hogs the limelight, but amenably so. He succinctly and forcefully provides the ethos of the Daleks, who would go on to propel so much of the future of the show.
The moment where the Doctor weighs the morality of his actions, which many have seen in “best of” clips of the show, is bizarrely undercut in the final few scenes. Baker grapples meaningfully with whether or not to commit genocide, but then that same action just sort of happens by accident near the story’s finale.
Still, Davros is an excellent foil for the Doctor, providing intellectual banter that the Daleks themselves are incapable of. Focusing as much on the villain as the hero is a trait of many of these stories, and it’s a lesson some DW writers could stand to learn.
#2 – Blink (2007)
I have a theory (well, another one). Doctor Who is at its best when the Doctor is either struggling with profound, philosophical difficulties, or when it’s really, really clever.
But it’s not enough to do something that’s seemingly clever. The audience has to be in on it.
Take a good Sherlock Holmes case, or any good mystery yarn. The ones that capture and hold our interest are those that give us the pieces to the puzzle, but not the solution. We may not solve the puzzle before the solution is given to us, but the attempt is exciting enough.
So when The Doctor does such-and-such to the technological whatever-the-hell to solve a problem, it might be kind of fun, but we can’t relate. But when any of the characters – not just The Doctor – have some insight granted to them by an element of the story we’ve been introduced to, even if we didn’t solve it first, the fact that we could have solved it makes the solution seem clever.
Blink scrambles the puzzle pieces across time and doles them out to us in a seemingly random fashion, but it’s actually very deliberate writing. Our revelations concerning the villains of the piece (the brilliantly conceived Weeping Angels), the protagonists, and the plot happen almost simultaneously with the characters. We’re piecing the puzzle together with them, and sometimes solve it just before them. It’s exhilarating. It’s a mystery, but it’s shot and paced like a horror film, which heightens the drama of it all.
The Weeping Angels have been more middling since this breathtaking introduction to them, but the central conceit of their nature remains strong enough to carry multiple Doctor Who stories.
#1 – The Day of the Doctor (2013)
I’d push back on anyone saying this 50th anniversary show is #1 due to the fan service. It’s unashamedly fan service, yes. But it’s also much more.
I mentioned in my Blink writeup the importance of clever solutions the audience could solve. That’s here too. The macro-level solution is hiding the micro-level interaction. But The Day of the Doctor layers the clever intimacy of Blink with several other things Doctor Who does well.
It’s comedic in ways that don’t seem forced. A few knowing winks to fans might be a touch too far, but the actors all play off of one another well. John Hurt is surprisingly spry in the role as well, and feels like he’s inhabited it for years, even though it’s his first (and only) hurrah. He fills in admirably for what I assume would have been Christopher Eccelston’s part, had he returned.
It’s epic in ways that the grandest DW stories are, with unimaginably high stakes, both in terms of the number of lives at stake, and what it means for the Doctor personally. It moves his character forward just as much as the story (and arguably more so), and reframes the entirety of the “New Who” era (Eccelston, Tennant et al) in a light that feels very true to the show. The story acts as a referendum and bookend on years of turmoil that we’ve seen portrayed by numerous actors. The payoff is appropriately satisfying.
And it’s a celebration of an impossible show, one that’s lasted an impossibly long time, and deserves some victory laps with cameos and knowing references to past eras. Even outside of this special episode, the show is often at its best when it’s embracing and celebrating its goofy past, not hiding from it behind more modern cinematic sensibilities. Even something as seemingly out-of-place as an elderly Tom Baker cameo isn’t just for extra points with the fandom. It’s a poignant scene that mixes the mystery of the unexplained with promise of adventure, and the immeasurable loss experienced by The Doctor with the hope he inspires in others.
And it’s a fitting cap on a list that I think leaves out some excellent stories, but also highlights many great ones as well.
My Personal Top 10 Doctor Who Episode List (“New Who” Era Only):
List created in January, 2022
- Eve of the Daleks (2022) – One of Jodie’s last and best. The Groundhog Day conceit isn’t new, but it’s used in service of multiple excellent character arcs. In wanting to include a Whittaker episode in my personal list, the final episode of Flux could qualify, as could Spyfall (Parts I and II), but Flux is a complete story and impossible to pull individual episodes out, and Spyfall is a tiny bit clunky relative to its ambition.
- The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (2011) – A touch convoluted, but with enough of Moffat’s brilliance to overcome that fact, including another brilliant villain and an epic, clever final act. The Silence never quite lived up to their potential during Moffat’s run, but they arguably peaked here at their introduction.
#10 – Mummy on the Orient Express (2014) – Capaldi taking over every scene is a joy to watch, and it also balances the goofy premise with some legitimate darkness in his character. The ending is also one of the more harrowing, fun “look at how smart I am” moments in recent show history.
#9 – Blink (2007) – Covered earlier, and deserving of its accolades.
#8 – The Doctor’s Wife (2011) – More fairy tale than a proper adventure, the exploration of TARDIS-as-character allows for a lot of good character development. I hope Neil Gaiman is tapped to write more episodes for the show someday. He’s written two iirc, and both have been fun.
#7 – Dalek (2005) – Eccelston at his most intense, even including the season finale. Wonderful reintroduction of the classic villain.
#6 – The End of Time Parts I and II (2009) – Tennant’s swan song, but also manages to avoid the fan service schlock until the very end and delivers a tense masterpiece.
#5 – The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky (2008) – Probably the closest “New Who” has ever come to feeling like the older version of the show. The entire script feels lifted right out of Jon Pertwee’s era, and the fact that it manages to seamlessly combine two excellent companions and reintroduce a classic villain is a bonus. It’s only missing the Brigadier.
#4 – The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (2008) – I’m a sucker for epic, heartfelt melodrama. Davies takes his entire supporting cast for a celebratory victory lap, and the emotional beats land harder than expected.
#3 – The Eleventh Hour (2010) – The best introduction to a new Doctor I’ve ever seen, by a fair margin. The pacing, stakes and delightful moments stamp Matt Smith into the role immediately.
#2 – The Day of the Doctor (2013) – covered above in detail.
#1 – Heaven Sent (2015) – A tour de force of emotionally resonant writing, acting and directing, with Capaldi at his finest. Mixes the tropes of time travel and DW’s universe with a premise that crescendos beautifully to its climax and resolution.