Since we’re all excited about the Aug. 23 premiere of Doctor Who series 8 starring Peter Capaldi, here’s a list of my favorite Doctor Who episodes from the new series. The list is confined to the new series because I don’t know the old series aside from a few vague memories of Tom Baker and K-9 from public television in the 80s.
***Big-Time SPOILER Alert – There’s no way to write something like this without spoilers.***
1. “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” by Paul Cornell (series 3, episodes 8/9).
This is without a doubt my favorite. The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is pursued across time by a family of beings with exceptionally short lifespans for time travelers because they want to capture him and use his Time Lord regeneration energy as a longevity elixir. His solution is to hide his Time Lord consciousness in a pocketwatch, take up a life as a human boarding school teacher in the 1910-era, and trust Martha Jones to watch over him. I like it for a lot of reasons, but especially for the retribution he visits on The Family. I think 10’s actions at the end of this episode, even though they are motivated by righteous anger, are an early sign of things to come.
2. “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” by Steven Moffatt (series 1, episodes 9/10).
I’d love it if we could get Moffatt back to writing episodes like this and let that be his contribution. He’s so good at it. This is a pleasing story with just the right mixture of creepy, funny, and poignant. It’s also the first appearance of Captain Jack Harkness. The new series just wouldn’t be what it is without Jack, and we have Moffatt to thank for that. This is the best of the all-too-brief adventures of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), if you ask me.
3. “The Waters of Mars” by Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford (2009 autumn special).
I have a hard time placing this one in third place. I consider it Davies’ masterpiece. A tension between the idea that every event is contingent, and the idea that there are fixed moments in time that even the Doctor can’t alter, is woven into the stories of the Davies era almost from the beginning. This is the episode that settles the argument. The Doctor exceeds his bounds in this episode and tries to change a fixed moment in time. Though his motives are good ones, he takes a sort of Luciferian pride in his actions that leaves no question as to just how small humans are compared to a Time Lord. This is one of the few times a normal human gets the better of the Doctor. He has a moment of tragic realization once it’s all said and done, and the next time we see 10 is the last time we see him.
4. “The Doctor’s Wife” by Neil Gaiman (series 6, episode 3).
This is my favorite regular-length, stand-alone episode, and my favorite story of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith). I’ve read all of Gaiman’s short fiction. This script is as good as anything he’s published in prose. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory answer a distress call from another Time Lord. This turns out to be a trick played by a sentient asteroid to entrap the Doctor and steal the TARDIS. The three land on the asteroid and find it populated by four beings, three of which turn out to be organic automatons made from pieces of other beings and animated by the asteroid, which has the ability to possess technology. The fourth being, a strange and beautiful woman named Idris, is neither an automaton nor a cobbled-together monster. In fact, when the asteroid possesses and steals the TARDIS, the three automatons die, but Idris does not.
Given Gaiman’s penchant for anthropomorphic personifications, you can imagine who (or perhaps I should say WHAT) Idris turns out to be. It’s a beautiful story. It won a Bradbury and a Hugo.
5. “Blink” by Steven Moffatt (series 3,episode 10).
This one is just so clever. It’s the first appearance of the Weeping Angels, and notable because the protagonist is an earthling name Sally Sparrow who stumbles into an adventure and follows a string of clues the Doctor sends through time for her to find. He’s been separated from the TARDIS and she’s the one to help him retrieve it. Sally and the Doctor only interact once in person in a scene so brief, it’s just a cameo for the Doctor. She encounters him a year after the conflict is resolved and gives him the information he needs to later (in his timeline) send her the messages through time. Confused? That’s because it’s hard to explain in words without giving too much away, and it’s the best use of a time paradox ever.
6. “Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” by Russell T. Davies (series 1, episodes 12/13).
This is the swan song of the Ninth Doctor. The story involves both Captain Jack and a Dalek fleet. We also get a nicely-crafted time paradox as a plot point. It’s one of my favorites because it’s the first conclusion of a long story arc, and Davies really delivered with this one. The finale of this first season left me wanting more, despite the fact that I loved Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and had hoped he’d get at least a second season.
7. “The Girl in the Fireplace” by Steven Moffatt (series 2, episode 4).
The Tenth Doctor lands on a derelict spaceship with Rose and Mickey. They explore the ship, and find an Eighteeth Century fireplace which is in fact a time window — a fixed time portal which connects the ship with a specific time and place. The portal leads to Madame de Pompadour’s bedroom, first when she’s a girl, later when she is the mistress of the king (by the time she’s an adult, she realizes this is where the Doctor comes from and she has the fireplace moved to Versailles). The ship itself turns out to have a crew of self-winding Steampunk androids who need Madame de Pompadour’s brain to repair their ship. Of course madness ensues, and it has one of those bittersweet endings Moffatt is so good at when he’s writing single episodes instead of trying to plot entire seasons.
8.” Turn Left” by Russell T. Davies (series 4, episode 11).
Like series 5’s “Blink,” this is a low-budget, “Doctor-lite” episode. It’s interesting to me that two of my 10 favorite episodes are adventures in which the Doctor is barely present on the screen. The Doctor is still very much present in both of the stories, but he’s in the background or lurking around the edges. “Turn Left” focuses on the Tenth Doctor’s companion Donna Noble. It’s a “what if” story that explores an alternate timeline in which Donna and the Doctor never met. As a result, the Doctor was killed off for real because Donna wasn’t there to help him.
Long story short: A lot of subsequent events unfold in which the Doctor isn’t there to save the earth. The civilian authorities, UNIT, and Torchwood are overwhelmed to the point that things go all dystopian. Londoners are forced into interment camps and eventually, we see the stars going out. Rose Tyler returns from the alternate universe she’s living in and convinces Donna to save the world. It’s fantastic.
9. “Nightmare in Silver” by Neil Gaiman (series 7, episode 12).
Another gem from Gaiman, and my favorite Cyberman episode. The Eleventh Doctor and Clara take the children she looks after — Angie and Artie — to an amusement-park planet. The planet turns out to be mostly shut-down, and the Doctor learns early on that the galactic emperor is missing. The planet is occupied by a punishment platoon of imperial soldiers who aren’t fit for real duty, an old impresario who is hiding from the troops and has a collection of curiosities which include several deactivated Cybermen, and a dwarf. The Cybermen come to life, abduct the children, and partially upgrade them. The soldiers threaten to implode the planet to prevent the Cybermen from spreading, but the Doctor saves the day by tricking the Cybermen into stopping what they’re doing and combining their computing power to solve a chess problem. The galactic emperor is revealed at the end and proposes to Clara, but she turns him down. I haven’t done this one justice, and the fact that it’s ninth on the list is a testament to just how good the writing has been on this show since it started back up.
10. “The Christmas Invasion” by Russell T. Davies (2005 Christmas special).
This was the first full episode starring David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. As the title indicates, earth is invaded by aliens (known as the Sycorax) on Christmas. There are awesome scenes in the beginning of Santa robots attacking shoppers, lots of Rose-getting-to-know-the-Doctor-all-over-again, and a sword fight in which the Doctor loses a hand. Because he’s only a few hours post-regeneration, he grows a new one, and the severed hand later becomes a Torchwood plot device. Finally, the Doctor tells the Sycorax to leave and never return. The Sycorax comply, and the Doctor considers the matter closed, but Prime Minister Harriet Jones orders the fleeing spaceship shot down. The Doctor is so outdone with Harriet, he brings her administration down with six words (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”).
Really, if you look back to where this list started, you must conclude the Tenth Doctor had a hard streak from the beginning. This episode stands out for me because Tennant was so spazzy compared to Eccleston, but he won me over in one hour in a way that Matt Smith did not. For the record, I think Matt Smith did a good job with the role and consider him a fine actor. He simply didn’t have the quality of writing to work with, nor the strong companions, that Tennant had.
So there you have it! My top ten episodes so far, with a new season almost ready to kick off 🙂