It took months of convincing on the part of my friends and several more weeks for me to actually do the deed, but I’m finally (finally!) up to date with Doctor Who. Though I started out skeptical, somewhere along the middle of season 2 saw me become a bona fide, fanatical Whovian– and lo, here I am today. In celebration of my completion of seasons 1 through 7 and in anticipation of the upcoming premiere of season 8, I’d like to look back on the selection of episodes that impacted me the most.
But first, a caveat: I’m always wary of wading into the ever-contentious territory of Top [Insert Arbitrary Number Between 1 and Infinity] Rankings, because the act of ranking is itself a highly subjective enterprise, both within the realm of television and within the territory of one television show in particular. Doctor Who is unendingly popular because it appeals to so many different people in so many different ways; therefore, naturally, everyone and their K-9 companion will have a divergent opinion on the scale of “best” to “worst.” My own particular list is a the result of a combination of factors, including but not limited to: thematic impact, amount of dramatic monologues/quotable quotes, emotional resonance aka the amount of times I laughed and/or cried (…at the same time #Moffat), and the Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Factor, aka the mind-bending ingenuity of the setting and/or plot. Now, picture each of these categories on a spectrum of Awful to Awesome and toss in a whole bunch of intangibles that characterize my own personal preferences for entertainment. Any episode that scored high in the Awesome zone of each of these categories made it onto my list, with some episodes making the cut purely due to an off-the-charts rating in even one or two of these categories.
This may seem like an unnecessarily technical way to compile a list of my favorite episodes, but, on a personal note, pinpointing exactly what I loved so much about each episode actually heightened my ex post facto enjoyment of those episodes and strengthened my overall obsession with this glorious show—and I hope it does a little bit of the same for you.
As long as you’ve already watched every episode, of course. Otherwise, stay away.
And now, without further ado…in no particular order…
Blink (Season 3: Episode 3)
Objectively the best episode in the entire series. Right then, allons-y!
…Ah, yes. I did just undermine my entire convoluted introduction. Score one for the away team. But this episode is, in simple terms, a truly phenomenal feat of storytelling; it ranks high on every single one of my scales and then goes on to decimate pretty much everyone else’s personal ranking systems as well.
Quotable Quotes: For starters, this episode is the source of the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” quote, which is almost definitely the most oft-quoted quotable quote of them all. The Tenth Doctor’s quirky description of time travel functions as more than a mere plot reveal; it also perfectly encapsulates the whimsical nature of the entire show.
Emotional Resonance: The cast of this episode—beginning and ending with the up-and-coming young actress named Carey Mulligan—was fantastic, making us care deeply about their characters over a mere 44-minute timespan. Plus, I have this odd sensitivity for the particular dramatic category entitled “Letters From Dead People,” and “Blink” uses this trope highly effectively.
Wibbly-Wobbly: For a show ostensibly about a Time Lord who travels through space and time, the art and science of time travel is rarely the central element of a Doctor Who episode. In “Blink,” time travel drives the plot, provides a platform for emotional resonance, and takes a weaponous turn as the coup de grace for the show’s most terrifying villains to date—the Weeping Angels. Just remember, don’t watch this episode right before bed. And, whatever you do: Don’t. Blink.
Steven Moffat’s spooky story whetted the imaginative appetites (and tweaked the heartstrings) of Whovians in preparation for his upcoming position of showrunner. And the most impressive part about this episode? The Doctor himself is barely in it. Doctor Who? You can say that again.
Gridlock (Season 3: Episode 10)
From an episode that appears on every “best” list to an episode that appears on none, I give you: my favorite underrated episode of Doctor Who. Much like “Blink,” “Gridlock” rates very high—albeit in a more subtle way—in every one of my categories.
Thematic Impact: To start by skipping to the end, we finally get a stirring glimpse at the Doctor’s mysterious home planet of Gallifrey.
Emotional Resonance: Back in season 2, we were told that the sagacious Face of Boe would reveal his dying message to a wanderer without a home. Though mysteries are often far more compelling than their resolutions, this is one case in which the revelation of the message itself blew me away. Here’s an example of why my episode ranking is so personal, since my mentality at that particular time in my life was such that I felt as if the FoB’s final four words were directed as much to me as to the Doctor. And while the double-meaning of “You are not alone” becomes clear only later on in the Tenth Doctor’s saga, the thematic implications of this message as it relates to Ten’s existential angst and longing for companionship will always be the primary meaning in my view. (And, of course, it takes on an even larger significance when the real identity of the Face of Boe is finally revealed.)
Wibbly-Wobbly: The odd villain-of-the-week creation– soul-crushing traffic that is also, quite literally, bone-crushing—probably left a sour taste in the mouths of many viewers, but for someone who has spent agonizing hours inching forward in New York City traffic jams, the notion of a future NYC in which traffic jams last decades instead of mere hours certainly strikes a chord—and serves as Exhibit A of the way this show takes mundane elements of everyday, Earthbound life and turns it up to eleventy. Even more memorable than the episode’s set-up are its colorful supporting characters—as the Doctor drops into an assortment of vehicles in his search for his missing companion, Martha, he encounters interspecies newlyweds, a “Bertie Wooster-like business man,” nudists, and an old lesbian couple. The diversity of characters in this episode sets yet another precedent for the Russel T. Davies era of Doctor Who—and for a show that purports to span across all of time and space, a diverse array of beings from all walks of life is nothing if not expected.
Midnight (Season 4: Episode 10) and The Beast Below (Season 5: Episode 2)
These two episodes may seem unrelated at first glance, but I’m cheating the Listing system by pairing the two together for Thematic Impact reasons. Namely:
Thematic Impact: Both episodes force the Doctor to confront his glaring blind spot: humanity’s potential for horrifying evil. In “Midnight,” a group of shuttle passengers opt to sacrifice the Doctor to save themselves when it appears that he’s being possessed by a faceless alien, and in “The Beast Below,” the futuristic British populace tacitly allows an innocent Star Whale to be tortured in order to preserve the lives on board their ship. Given the Doctor’s traditionally unshakable affection for humankind and his implicit belief in the spark of goodness in everyone, these two episodes pit the Doctor against an enemy more bone-chilling than any extraterrestrial he could possibly encounter.
Emotional Resonance: And yet…hope is never lost. Because the Doctor is saved from being killed (“Midnight”) or having to kill (“The Beast Below”) by a laudable act of self-sacrifice on the part of someone else. The mob mentality can be a dangerous and venomous beast, but sometimes, all it takes is one act of heroism to make all the difference.
Wibbly-Wobbly: As far as set pieces go, “The Beast Below” is as elaborately ostentatious as “Midnight” is sparse and minimalist. But while the former is undoubtedly visually arresting, the latter earns filmographic points for telling a gripping, fast-paced story inside the bland cabin of a (space) shuttle, with an invisible, unnamed villain-of-the-week and “action” that is 95% dialogue.
The End of Time (Two-Part Season 4 Finale)
“Favorite” episode? “Best” episode? Hardly. Merely the one that shattered all emotional scales ever and ripped up every fiber of feeling in my body beyond possible repair. They say you never forget your first Doctor, and for all intents and purposes, that’s what David Tennant was for me. Saying goodbye to him was nothing short of traumatic—especially considering his gut-wrenching, all-cards-on-the-table final performance.
Thematic Impact: Each Doctor presents his own unique persona. Ten typified polarizing extremes; he was a swashbuckling r/Romantic who experienced ecstatic highs, yet was also existentially shackled by the weight of his past actions. As Ten’s hubris reached its zenith, his inevitable fall proved to be fatally humbling, and his final speech hit upon every point of this character arc with staggering poignancy. His final sacrifice to save the life of one measly human marks epitome of his chastening, while at the same time restoring faith in what the Doctor is all about.
…and for EVEN MORE FEELS
Emotional Resonance: The fact that a significant fraction of my soul shrivels up and dies at even the briefest consideration of this episode.
Wibbly-Wobbly: I’m sorry, are you talking? I can’t hear you through the wracking sound of my #FEELS.
Amy’s Choice (Season 5: Episode 7)
Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy? Think: The Matrix, but with Dobby (aka actor Toby Jones) in the position of a taunting Mephistopheles, as the Doctor and the Ponds seek to differentiate between dream and reality.
Wibbly-Wobbly: Though the dream-versus-reality plot is well-established, the characters navigate it with sincerity and humor that makes the trope feel refreshing. The Ponds’ domestic life in sleepy Leadworth is as heartwarming as it is dull, and the whole aliens-spewing-from-the-mouths-of-the-elderly thing is both disgusting and amusing.
Thematic Impact: The episode’s Big Reveal took a fun yet familiar fantasy trope, switched things up a bit by bringing in a less-familiar resolution (they’re both dreams!) and then adding an extra gut-punch of a plot twist—the Dream Lord was an element of the Doctor all along, revealing that under the Eleventh Doctor’s meticulously constructed gregariousness flows a darkness that was all-too-prevalent in Ten.
Emotional Resonance: The episode is colored with even greater significance when reconsidering the Doctor’s earlier line to the Dream Lord, “only one person in the universe hates me as much as you do,” in light of the revelation about the Dream Lord’s true identity. The heartstrings…they burn!
The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (Season 5: Episode 12, Season 5: Episode 13)
In typical Steven Moffat fashion, this two-part finale opens up at 75 mph without passing Go. Unlike many other Moffat creations, however, the story does not drop down to 60 by the end, scrambling to claw its way back up to its impossibly high starting point, but ties itself up in a neat little bow while getting in quite a few emotional punches along the way.
Thematic Impact: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory finally become a true team, setting the stage for the rollicking adventures that are to follow featuring the show’s (arguably) best Doctor-companion(s) dynamic yet.
Emotional Resonance: The relationships between characters provide the meat of the emotional resonance in these episodes, as each one is tested and, ultimately, strengthened.
Wibbly-Wobbly: The Pandorica itself was an implausible plot device and the gathering of all the Doctor’s enemies served no discernible purpose other than Moffat’s Ego. But everything else in the episode worked—from the Doctor “dying” in his own arms to “the boy who waited” to everything that River Song ever does to the return of the Raggedy Doctor at the Ponds’ wedding, these episodes delivered compelling plots and performances alike.
I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s okay: we’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you I stole it? Well, I borrowed it; I was always going to take it back. Oh, that box, Amy, you’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big and little at the same time, brand-new and ancient, and the bluest blue, ever. And the times we had, eh? Would’ve had. Never had. In your dreams, they’ll still be there. The Doctor and Amy Pond… and the days that never came.
A Christmas Carol (Season 6: Episode 0)
This was the episode that convinced me to snap out of my period of mourning for the Tenth Doctor and fully embrace the lovable idiosyncrasies of Eleven. Every line of dialogue sparkles with wisdom and/or humor; in fact, it took me about double the actual running time of the episode to finish watching it because I continuously had to pause it in order to get my laughter under control.
Thematic Impact: This episode propagates the endless debate over whether the Doctor is an old man in a kid’s body…or the other way around. The answer is, of course: both.
Emotional Resonance: As the cherry on top, the take on Dickens’ seminal classic provided for a convincing and cathartic character redemption tale, despite the unavoidably predictable ending.
Wibbly-Wobbly: Steven Moffat & co. came up with the idea of flying sharks well before Sharknado. But whereas the latter is all camp, Moffat’s version is whimsical. While Ian Ziering reacts with a chainsaw, the Doctor, characteristically, reacts with gentleness and wonder.
Extra points for A+ cameos:
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (Season 6: Episode 1, Season 6: Episode 2)
This season-opening two-parter caps off quite a run of consecutive episodes of pure awesomeness. Think “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” in terms of adrenaline-pumping action, plot-twists, and character arcs. Plus—’MURRICA!
Thematic Impact: The main conflict and the Big Bad of the upcoming season is established right at the get-go. Brain-bending awaits!
Wibbly-Wobbly: The Shininess factor of these episodes provides for the bulk of the excitement. The action picks up in media res and gallops on indefinitely, unraveling a whole host of mysteries along the way. And the Silence—gooey-faced, suit-wearing aliens whose presence you forget the moment you look away—dredge up delightfully creepy memories of the Weeping Angels.
The Doctor’s Wife (Season 6: Episode 4)
When one of your favorite authors pens the script for one of your favorite television shows, your expectations are bound to be through the roof. I had been looking forward to this Neil Gaiman-scripted episode since I first began watching the show, and, incredibly, my expectations were met. In “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Doctor’s longest-running companion—his trustworthy TARDIS—finally (albeit briefly) gets a human form, as all measures of hilarity and poignancy ensue.
Thematic Impact: It’s almost as if the entire series was leading up to a single line from the TARDIS. She takes the Doctor’s classic jab about the police box-shaped TARDIS being “bigger on the inside” and infuses it with elegant significance by wonderingly applying it to humans.
Emotional Resonance: A better love story than Her, tbh.
Wibbly-Wobbly: Gaiman is at his best when he combines carnivalesque whimsy with Deep Metaphysical Truths, and this episode accomplished that tricky feat flawlessly.
Let’s Kill Hitler (Season 6: Episode 8)
I was wary of this episode because I felt that Hitler was the one subject this show should never attempt to tackle. Yet my fears proved baseless, as Hitler is unceremoniously locked in a cupboard within the opening minutes of the episode. What happens next is history—so to speak—as River Song gets her long-awaited origin story, Amy and Rory chase down their wayward daughter, and the Doctor delivers yet another epic faux-death scene. Plus, uproarious one-liners for everyone!
Thematic Impact: River Song, a Brief Biography: Child of the TARDIS, guardian of Spoilers, BAMF with a heart of gold, sassy archaeologist, protector of the Doctor, vulnerable but steel-willed, terrifying and terrified, loving, caring, ass-kicking, curly-haired hero of yours truly.
Emotional Resonance: Imma let you finish but have I mentioned how much I love River Song? Her regenerative kiss not only functions as a gleefully gender-bent take on the trope of “true love’s kiss,” but also sets the stage for just how far she will go to rescue the Doctor.
Wibbly-Wobbly: The notion of a robot powered by a miniaturized crew that seeks to deliver justice to history’s worst war criminals may be overly simplistic, but the contrast to River Song’s morally colorful personality makes its presence in this episode highly effective, and, in its own way, genuinely interesting.
The God Complex (Season 6: Episode 11)
Like “Amy’s Choice,” “The God Complex” sets up a familiar fantasy trope: in this case, the haunted hotel containing rooms with every guest’s biggest fear. But also like “Amy’s Choice,” this episode has the Doctor confront his greatest enemy—himself. “The God Complex” takes on additionally compelling theme by speculating on the helpful/harmful power of belief, as it relates to secular and religious matters alike.
Thematic Impact: Again hearkening back to the hamartia of Ten, “The God Complex” not-so-subtly alludes to the Doctor’s tendency to “play god” when it comes to the affairs of other beings.
Emotional Resonance: The Doctor’s attempt to break Amy’s faith in him rings hollow only because we know it can never last. All the more reason that his real goodbye to her at the end of the episode hurts so much.
Wibbly-Wobbly: Creepy clowns! Euphorically possessed humans! Hairy minotaurs! “Dwalls”! Aka all of the special ingredients for a memorable, metaphysical horror-show.
And the touching…
The Rings of Akhaten (Season 7: Episode 7)
I’m not a typical music junkie—I don’t even own a (functional) (post-neolithic) iPod. But the soundtrack of a television show can often make or break my experience of that show—it adds layers of emotional depth that can heighten a scene’s excitement or plunge it into a dark melancholy. The music from Lost, for example, has the incredible power to make absolutely anything depressing. The Eleventh Doctor’s theme music makes me want to jump up and run a marathon. And so on. So, it’s no surprise that the prayer/anthem sung by the angelic Merry Galel in “The Rings of Akhaten”’s climax affected me so deeply—especially as its sung in the background of the Eleventh Doctor’s most dramatic monologue. (And if you listen closely during Eleven’s regeneration speech—as he utters his very last words—the “Long Song” from “Rings of Akhaten” swells majestically in the background.) Which brings us to…
Dramatic Monologue: …the performance of Matt Smith’s entire career. This speech would be a superb feat of acting even without the euphoric music accompanying it. Add that to the layers of anguish that are etched onto Eleven’s face and the stunning cinematography of the Doctor’s hunched silhouette against the raging ball of fire, and you get something truly, truly special.
But let’s talk about that tear…
# A. C. T. I. N. G.
Thematic Impact: There are many parallels between the Doctor and the Old God, but I prefer to focus on their major differences: the Old God represents a passive yet vengeful god, while the Doctor personifies an actively engaged, merciful deity. He tells Clara that the one thing she ought to know about traveling with him is that “we never walk away.” I don’t know about you, but that’s the type of god I want to believe in.
Emotional Resonance: Not to be discounted is what immediately follows the Doctor’s speech: Clara’s presentation of “the most important leaf in human history”—the leaf that, in true Butterfly Effect fashion, drove her parents together. In a rare moment of sincerity, Clara offers the leaf as the infinity of “unlived days” that her late mother never got to experience. Pass over the tissue box, Souffle Girl.
Wibbly-Wobbly: The cantina-esque setting allowed for (Luther creator) Neil Cross’s imagination to run wild while constructing alien life forms of all shapes and sizes. The detail that stood out the most, however, was the transference of goods not via monetary exchange, but by an exchange of objects of personal value—a literal interpretation of the term “value” that toys a fascinating metaphysical line.
Hono(u)rary mentions: “The Lodger” (season 5: episode 11), for the pure, belly-laugh comedy of having the Doctor attempt to impersonate a socially competent human as well as the totally credible revelation that the Doctor “speaks Baby,” and “The Shakespeare Code” (series 3: episode 2) because Shakespeare, and Harry Potter, and oh good lord, Britain, you are just so wonderful.
And a couple of A+ scenes couched in otherwise underwhelming episodes:
* In “The Last of the Time Lords” (season 3: episode 13) Martha extols the power of a story: “I told a story, that’s all. No weapons, just words. I did just what The Doctor said. I went across the continents, all on my own. And everywhere I went I found the people and I told them my story. I told them about the Doctor.” And then it gets all kooky with the metaphysical stuff, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but totally worked for me because, like another wise Doctor once said, “We’re all stories in the end.”
* “The Next Doctor” is the beginning of the end for Ten, and his conversation with David Morrissey’s “Doctor” in the episode’s closing scene never fails to get the tears flowing. Why is the Doctor traveling alone, sans his traditional companions? “I suppose, in the end,” the Doctor says matter-of-factly, “they break my heart.”
* “Vincent and the Doctor” got a lot of hype, but I wasn’t thrilled with the overall episode. However, guest actor Tony Curran shines as the tortured and (during his time) underappreciated Vincent Van Gogh. When the Doctor breaks every sacred rule of time travel by taking Van Gogh to a modern-day museum to see how beloved his paintings become, there’s not a dry eye in the art house.
But it gets even better: The Doctor and Amy travel back to the future without Van Gogh in order to see if they altered the famous artist’s suicidal fate—but to no avail. Amy, heartbroken, laments their ability to “make a difference” in Van Gogh’s life, to which the Doctor responds: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
Here’s to many more good times– and bad– thanks to the madman with the blue box.