In case you hadn’t already noticed, we adore Doctor Who here at Critical Popcorn. We’ve been waiting impatiently for the official debut of new Doctor Jodie Whittaker for what feels like an age now, with just a couple of short trailers and photos to tide us over until her first episode.
Thankfully, we’ve used the wait wisely and taken the time to revisit the last ten seasons of the show. Since it’s triumphant return to television screens in 2005, Doctor Who has gone from strength to strength, delivering exciting adventures in space and time, massing 144 episodes (and counting), and simultaneously reintroducing science fiction back into the mainstream consciousness.
So, as the return of our favourite TV Time Lord draws closer and closer (this Sunday at 6.45pm, in fact), why not take the time to peruse our pick of the ten best Doctor Who episodes so far. We’ve limited ourselves to post-2005 episodes (picking ten from just 144 episodes was hard enough, great as classic Who is) and we’ve lumped two-parters together as one. Of course, there will be some glaring emissions from the list, so why not let us know your favourites in the comments section?
10. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)
When Doctor Who returned to TV in the spring of 2005, it was an instant hit. But it wasn’t until writer Steven Moffat‘s spooky World War II chiller that the show fully cemented it’s popularity for years to come. In many ways a throwback to the best of the show’s classic-era, the story takes key Doctor Who ingredients like horror and humor, sprinkles in some innuendo, a bit of sci-fi, some amazing WWII imagery and blends them together into a seamless, tightly plotted two-parter.
Forever remembered as the ‘Are You My Mummy?’ story, The Empty Child is incredibly scary from the outset, with it’s eerie gas mask-sporting zombies, haunted typewriters and a truly horrifying transformation scene. But it is to Steven Moffat‘s credit that the story is far more then just the spooky goings-on, thanks to the writer’s trademark wit and clever plotting. The relationship between Christopher Eccleston‘s Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper‘s Rose is given a shake-up by the introduction of fan favourite Captain Jack (John Barrowman), which in turn reveals some fascinating aspects about the Doctor’s past and persona, whilst the identity of the child and the reason behind his existence still ranks as one of the best plot twists in the show’s long history. Chock full of character and boasting one of the best cliffhanger resolutions to date, it’s plain to see how and why The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances set the bar so high so early on.
9. Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
Meeting real-life historical figures is part and parcel of Doctor Who‘s forays into the past. Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill have each been subject to an adventure in time and space over the years, but their respective appearances were never given the level of depth and emotional complexity that is afforded Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent and the Doctor.
A powerful, heartfelt and mature tale that sidelines the monsters and sci-fi elements midway through, Richard Curtis‘ script makes no concessions when it comes to exploring the sadder side of Van Gogh’s life, offering a brave and thoughtful meditation on depression and suicide that is presented in a manner that children can understand without the need for overemphasis or gratuity. An inspired guest performance from Tony Curran, as well as equally powerful performances from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and an uplifting musical score, ensure a proper tearjerker for even the most hardened of Who fans – one that is brave and bold in its approach to adult themes in a family-friendly setting.
8. Midnight (2008)
Series 4 of Doctor Who will forever be one of the show’s absolute best, with big epic stories like The Fires of Pompeii, Silence in the Library or Journey’s End rubbing shoulders with comedy classics like The Unicorn and the Wasp. But whilst each of those stories are big in terms of size and scale, it’s the cheaper, low-key episode of the series that stands out as the best of the bunch.
A last-minute bottle show written in a hurry by head-writer Russell T. Davies to replace another script and save some crucial budget, Midnight is light on special effects or action, with almost the entire episode taking place within the confines of a single set. Trapping the Doctor and a few tourists aboard a shuttle on a planet where life cannot possibly exist on the planet’s surface, Davies then throws in the simplest yet most effective idea – something outside knocks on the door.
What follows from thereon in is a masterpiece of writing, acting and sound design, with each element utilized to ensure chills aplenty. The entire cast is fantastic, as the Doctor slowly loses control of the situation and the friendly passengers begin to turn on each other, whilst Davies uses the simple idea of someone repeating every word you say to create a truly intense psychological horror. The fact that the nameless big bad of the episode is left a total mystery adds further dramatic weight to the tension and scares, whilst guest star Lesley Sharp gives one of the most skillful and disturbing performances the show has ever seen as the possessed and repetitive Sky Silvestry.
Proof that Doctor Who doesn’t need lots of CGI, explosions or monsters to thrill, Midnight is an interesting and engrossing experiment that tests the show’s format, resulting in an episode that, ironically, gets better and better with every repeat.
7. The Waters of Mars (2009)
The culmination of almost four years of storytelling, David Tennant‘s penultimate adventure as the Doctor is not only one of his finest, but also a major turning point for the character, one that deftly utilizes character development to massively up the stakes.
Thrown into the midst of a classic base-under-siege narrative in which (for once) he cannot intervene, the Tenth Doctor’s arrogant streak reaches its apex in The Waters of Mars, an episode that revels in putting the character through the emotional wringer as he tries to avoid saving the lives of a pioneering space expedition from a terrifying alien threat. A grim, unsettling body-horror tale unfolds on the surface of Mars, before neatly dovetailing into a dark and powerful final act which turns the tables to a frightening degree, casting the Doctor himself as the episode’s real villain!
On first watch, it’s barely noticeable. But watch out for Tennant‘s subtle little smiles and mannerisms and listen to his inflections during his self-important grandstanding – this isn’t the man we’ve come to know or love. Chilling doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The Waters of Mars pushes boundaries in terms of both horror and drama, with solid character work for both the Doctor and the guest cast that ensures a well-rounded story, flawlessly directed by one of the show’s best directors, Graeme Harper. Daring enough for the horror alone, it’s the script’s venture into unknown territory in the final act that elevates a brilliant story into a genuine classic!
6. Mummy on the Orient Express (2014)
An episode with a title only Doctor Who can pull off, Mummy on the Orient Express is pure, unadulterated fun from beginning to end. Travelling aboard a space-cruising replica of the famous passenger train, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) uncover a series of deaths wherein the victim has been killed by an invisible mummified creature. As the two investigate, they soon uncover a greater threat to the passengers when they realise they are all actually part of a deadly experiment.
On the surface, there’s nothing revolutionary about Mummy on the Orient Express – no big revelations, no major plot twists for future installments, no game-changing shake-ups. But it matters not. At its best, Mummy is Doctor Who in its purest form – fun, inventive, creepy – a tantalizing mystery with twists and turns aplenty, served up with a plethora of engaging characters, and strong focus on telling a simple, exciting story. Jamie Mathieson‘s script is funny and poignant in equal parts, relishing in the pure ridiculousness of the set-up without venturing into the realms of parody by keeping the characters (both main and guests) front and centre. The Twelfth Doctor, a cold, uncaring figure up till this point, shows signs of his true heroic self in the episode’s crucial climax, whilst the melancholic scenes between Clara and the Doctor throughout confirm the show’s heart is still firmly in the right place.
If ever there was an episode of Doctor Who that sums up the whole shebang in one simple, exciting installment, then look no further then Mummy on the Orient Express.
5. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006)
Some Doctor Who ideas simply shouldn’t work. Some ideas feel like the stuff of bad fan fiction. Pitting the show’s two biggest monsters (Daleks and Cybermen) against each other is one of those big ideas. And yet, in the series two finale, Russell T. Davies not only takes the idea and makes it work in ways unimaginable, but uses it as a catalyst for an even bigger, more important story – the departure of companion Rose Tyler.
As finales go, it’s one of the best. Whilst the individual list of plot threads, characters and events is comprehensive and long, Davies succeeds in shaping each element into a story that never feels overstuffed or bloated. Better yet, the script wisely takes risks and subverts expectations. Who’d have imagined the big Dalek/Cybermen battle would begin with a snarky bitch-fest? No one. And yet it’s there, standing tall as one of the story’s finest moments (of which there are many more).
Of course, amidst all the action and apocalyptic drama, the real crux of why Doomsday is so perfect comes down to that now infamous final scene on the beach of Bad Wolf Bay. Still powerful and utterly heartbreaking over a decade later, it speaks volumes for how brilliant and emotionally resonant modern Doctor Who can be, and just how real and accessible science fiction storytelling can be. At its most simple, it’s a scene of a man trying to say goodbye to the woman he loves. Yet put through the sci-fi filter, its power is made all the greater.
An exciting, fast-paced story that finds emotional truth within the most outlandish of concepts, bolstered with career defining performances from David Tennant and Billie Piper, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday is not only a perfect Doctor Who story, but also a glowing recommendation for the genre of science fiction and the storytelling potential it has to offer.
4. The Doctor’s Wife (2011)
A story almost fifty years in the making, The Doctor’s Wife explores the most important and consistent relationship in the show’s history – the Doctor and the TARDIS. As a concept, it could easily stray dangerously far into the realms of unashamed fan-service in a lesser writer’s hands. In the hands of novelist Neil Gaiman (American Gods) though, it stands tall as one of the most emotionally accessible and endearing Who episodes to date.
The plot is so simple, it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before – the Doctor’s TARDIS is given human form when an incorporeal alien enemy attempts to steal the TARDIS’ physical shell. Gaiman uses this idea to great effect, exploring the connection between the Doctor and his ship in a way that expands on established mythology and strengthens the bond between man and machine (for want of a better word). Matt Smith and guest star Suranne Jones have a great rapport from the off, the latter in particular relishing the character’s eccentricities, which is bolstered by confident direction and a well-paced, engaging script wherein character and emotion is pushed to the forefront. Gaiman’s natural panache for eccentric, whimsical storytelling and fantastical invention shine through in every moment, from the charismatic characterization of his main villain to the sparkling dialogue that peppers every scene.
Heartbreaking yet affirming in equal parts, The Doctor’s Wife is far from simple fan-service. Steeped in established lore, but still incredibly accessible and fun, it’s a masterpiece of an episode that proves Doctor Who can delve into the past without alienating the more casual of viewers.
3. The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)
Doctor Who has delivered its fair share of tearjerkers over the years, but none have been more effective then The Girl in the Fireplace. A tragic love story spanning across thirty-three centuries, its a revelatory episode for the Doctor, as he finds himself falling in love with Madame de Pompadour, the famed mistress of King Louis XV, whilst attempting to save her from time-hopping Clockwork Droids.
Its the first time in the show’s history that we see the Doctor’s hearts truly laid bare, his blossoming relationship with the famous courtier told with such depth and emotional maturity that it’s impossible not to cry by the time the final scene hits. Steven Moffat‘s script doesn’t skimp on the fun or the wit, but the pervading theme of romance (or doomed-romance in this case) drives the story in previously unexplored directions. Taking cues from The Time Traveler’s Wife, the story cleverly weaves the two interlinked settings to great dramatic effect, whilst the rapport between David Tennant and Sophia Myles convinces within an instant. Look no further then the scene in which the two share a telepathic link – a beautiful, understated scene that showcases the superb dialogue and endearing performances best.
A weepy if ever there was one, albeit one which also just happens to feature spaceships, horses and a drunk Doctor, The Girl in the Fireplace is the definition of elegantly told and sweeping romantic drama, one that puts previously untapped themes to good use in a bid to stir the soul and wet the eyes.
2. Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007)
Based on his acclaimed (and similarly titled) 1995 novel, Paul Cornell‘s Human Nature is one of modern Doctor Who‘s crowning achievements, a dramatic tour de force that shakes up the show’s formula and pushes the main characters in wholly different directions. Forced to purge himself of his memories and pass himself off as human to escape mysterious enemies called the Family, the Doctor becomes a schoolteacher in England, 1913. As his new human persona begins to take on a life of his own, it falls to his companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) to protect him from the Family and return the Doctor to normal.
Without doubt, the story stands out as the finest of the entire David Tennant era and it’s easy to see why. The story revels in showing just what happens when the Doctor isn’t around to save the day, putting Martha front and centre and upping the stakes considerably from there on. The story itself is layered but never stuffy – themes of war, racism and the nature of being human are carefully explored throughout, giving proceedings a greater degree of depth and importance, whilst the story’s creepy villains and monsters keep the tension running high.
But for all its killer scarecrows and anti-war sentiment, the true reason for Human Nature‘s success is it’s leading man. It takes an actor of David Tennant‘s caliber to play two distinctly different characters and make us care for both, even when one is clearly doomed to die. As Smith, Tennant is a marvel – his outbursts of indignation at the idea of sacrificing his life to bring back the Doctor are compelling and powerful, whilst his growing romance with school-nurse Joan (Jessica Hynes) is both sweet and sad, eliciting many a tear throughout (helped along by a lovely score from the ever-dependable Murray Gold as well).
Mature drama for the family audience, Paul Cornell‘s two-parter is bold and unrelenting, yet still as entertaining and fun as Doctor Who should be. Thematically complex but elegantly told, Human Nature/The Family of Blood ponders on what happens when the Doctor isn’t around to save the day, and in doing so, serves to remind us just how invaluable a hero he truly is.
1. Heaven Sent (2015)
An audacious experiment in storytelling, Heaven Sent is a perfect example of Doctor Who at its finest. Taking our top spot against stiff competition, it’s a daring, unrelenting rumination on grief, set in an inescapable nightmare world that challenges our hero like no other episode has before or since.
A daring, thought-provoking, intelligent and utterly heart wrenching character study that is equal-parts atmospheric and tense, Heaven Sent is quite unlike any Doctor Who adventure we’ve encountered before. It’s a rare opportunity to peel back the layers of the Doctor to a larger degree than ever previously afforded, the story going in hard on what drives the character and, in particular, how he deals with both loss and inevitable defeat.
Steven Moffat‘s script is the stuff of genius, presenting us the Doctor at his absolute lowest ebb, alone in his own inner-monologue, weary, distraught and unable to find any hope to spurn him on. It’s grim for the most part, but it’s this sombre and unrelenting tone that gives the episode much of its power. The episode goes deep in terms of character study, giving us a side of the Doctor we seldom see – desperate, alone and powerless.
The big draw of the episode is the unconventional one-handed structure – featuring no other speaking characters aside from the Doctor himself, the episode is carried entirely by the presence of Peter Capaldi, who delivers an iconic, mesmerizing performance. It takes a truly engaging, talented and powerhouse actor to carry 55 minutes of television single-handed, but Capaldi makes it look effortless. His performance is beautifully nuanced, his comedic timing spot-on, his emotional moments perfectly pitched. The fact he never won an award for this episode ranks as one of the biggest disgraces in the history of all awards! Period!
As a story, Heaven Sent a perfect timey-wimey puzzle, boasting some of the biggest twists the show has ever dared to attempt. Even now, after multiple repeat viewings, the whole affair remains just as mind-bending and breathtaking as it did on initial airing. The final ten minutes are particularly powerful, whilst the episode as a whole genuinely rates as one of the finest hours of television drama ever made. Every single element fires on all cylinders – the design, the music, the direction, the editing, the cinematography – all coalescing into a confident, emotionally complex and mature character piece.
The untouchable highlight of the Twelfth Doctor era, Heaven Sent is also one of the greatest Doctor Who episodes of all time. it’s bold, daring and ultimately awe-inspiring. If that isn’t the mission statement for Doctor Who as a whole, then we don’t know what is!
Doctor Who returns to BBC One this Sunday at 6.45pm.