Contains spoilers for the ten Doctor Who episodes listed here.
Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’ve a particular fondness for Doctor Who. Like many who watch it, it’s been part of my life for, well, a very long time. And like any other viewer, I have my favourite episodes. I’ve never actually thought through which were my very favourite, so this has been an interesting exercise.
10. The War Machines. My very first episode of Who was the last installment of “War Machines” starring the first Doctor. It took me a long time to figure this out. After picking up the “War Machines” DVD, I thought recognized the machines, but definitely remembered the last episode. This is why “The War Machines” is in the list. For purely personal, nostalgic reasons. Mind you, it’s interesting to see that it hasn’t aged all that badly, and that the methods the Doctor employs for defeating the machines aren’t dissimilar to what we see today. It’s also interesting to see that the Doctor is quite caring of the people around him, a trait I don’t recall from the early days of the show.
9. Rosa. In this episode, humans, with their hatred of “coloureds”, are the monsters, and that makes this story all the scarier. Set in Montgomery Alabama in 1955, “Rosa” tells the story of Rosa Parks, a key figure in the American civil rights movement, who famously refused to give up her seat on a bus. There’s also a more traditional villain in the form of Krasko, an escapee from a future prison. Stormcage, no less, the very prison that held River Song after her conviction for killing the Doctor. In dealing with Krasko and his attempts to change history, this is where the thirteenth Doctor came into her own. A very powerful story, this is one of the finest in the show’s history.
8. The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End. Really, what’s not to love about this episode. Daleks? Check. Every post-2005 companion (plus Sarah Jane Smith)? Check. Universe-ending stakes? Check. Plus one of my favourite Who scenes, one I keep watching over and over. When it appears that all is lost, the TARDIS, thought destroyed, materializes, and out pops the Meta-Crisis Doctor. As Captain Jack says, “Brilliant!”
7. Twice Upon a Time. This episode is not only my favourite (by far) twelfth Doctor adventure, it’s my favourite Christmas special. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it.
The twelfth Doctor meets his first incarnation at a time when both are reluctant to regenerate. The resulting potential temporal paradox causes a WWI captain to mysteriously appear in front of them in the Antarctic wasteland.
With this episode the twelfth Doctor has completed his character arc. At the beginning of this regeneration, coming as it did after hundreds of years of war on Trenzalore, he was so alien, so lacking in empathy, that Clara had to create cue cards so he could at least sound like he’s capable of feeling empathy. From that starting point, he developed into someone who implores people to be kind.
Was the first Doctor out of character? Of course he was. That was just Stephen Moffat having a bit of fun, in the same way that the twelfth Doctor had fun putting sunglasses on his predecessor and telling him, “Never take them off.” We also saw the first Doctor used as a way of highlighting how attitudes towards women have changed since the 60’s.
My favourite moment in the episode? The Testimony tells the twelfth Doctor that escape is not possible. “It is possible,” he retorts, “and it’s happening.” After some Doctor-to-Doctor exchanges, the Testimony reiterates, “Escape is not possible.” Then, as we hear the soaring twelfth Doctor theme, he says, “I’m going to do way more than escape,” and promises to find out what the Testimony is up to, and if he doesn’t like it, to stop them. “Who the hell do you think you are?” the first Doctor asks in disbelief. Placing his arms in a theatrical pose, twelve answers, “The Doctor.” Love that scene. Just love it.
6. An Unearthly Child. This is the one that started it all, and introduces us to the show’s big concepts. A police box, the TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the outside. It can transport you anywhere in space and time. The Doctor, a wandering, cantankerous alien who travels with his granddaughter Susan and the inadvertent stow-aways, Ian and Barbara. It’s aged surprisingly well and is always a pleasure to watch.
5. Blink. This episode is at the top of a lot of people’s lists, including @FilmCritHulk. It’s also the first episode that I’m aware of in which the Doctor, having instigated the action, steps into the background for much of the episode. Penned by Stephen Moffat and starring Carey Mulligan, this is the one that introduced us to the Weeping Angels, and they were scary as hell. A wonderful episode with chills, action, humour, and character development.
4. Utopia. If you’d been watching season 1 of Torchwood that year, you knew that Captain Jack Harkness couldn’t die. But no one, including him, knew why. This episode is where we find out. It features some fascinating dialog between Captain Jack and the Doctor, and we find the Doctor contemplating the fact that, without realizing it, he was feeling a kind of prejudice towards Jack. Of course, this sparkling episode is also notable for re-introducing the Master to modern Who. The War Master, no less, played by the brilliant Derek Jacobi. The first part of a season-ending trilogy, this is the episode that left me breathless.
3. The Day of the Doctor. The pressure on Stephen Moffat to come up with a 50th anniversary special must have been extraordinary. But he succeeded with flying colours, bringing the 10th and 11th Doctors together with the War Doctor, a regeneration that the Doctor had kept secret, even from himself. We got a complex but coherent story, our first glimpse of the Time War, and were introduced to fan-favourite character, Osgood. Let’s also add humour, ethical choices, adventure, conflict, all woven together into a seamless whole. Oh yes, and it brought back Gallifrey.
2. The Night of the Doctor. If there was an award for the most genius per minute, this short episode would win, hands down. “The Night of the Doctor” caused the Internet to virtually melt down, giving us that Holy **** moment when we realized that it featured the eighth Doctor, not seen on-screen since the TV movie in the 90’s. Every line of dialog is sheer genius (“Will it HURT?”), Paul McGann’s acting is brilliant, and, to the delight of many, it “legitimized” the Big Finish adventures because it named the companions that Eight had travelled with. At least, those he’d travelled with up until then.
1. The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon. These are the episodes that, for me, changed Doctor Who forever, taking it to a whole new level. Never before (to my recollection) had we seen episodes of this complexity and mystery. Meeting the still-living Doctor in the diner was an unforgettable moment. The Silence scared the hell out me. Then there were the head-scratching scenes, like Amy discovering a photo of herself with a baby. In the end, when the Astronaut girl starts to regenerate, I was completely gobsmacked. Throw in a brilliantly written script, with the actors pushed to out-perform anything we’d yet seen in the Matt Smith era, and you get a shining example of everything Doctor Who could be and should be. If you’re inclined to say, “But what about the children?” my answer would be that you’re likely underestimating children.