I’d like to start this off by saying that while Steven Moffat runs the board in this list, it’s an inherently biased article. I’m making this a list of great individual episodes, so gems like “Doomsday”, “Let’s Kill Hitler” and “Journey’s End” don’t make the cut because they’re overarching plot episodes.
(Also, Moffat, while an amazingly talented episode writer, doesn’t, in my opinion, make the best head writer. Moffat is cerebral and insanely clever, but somewhat misogynistic and lacking a bit of heart.)
10. Love and Monsters Season 2, Episode 10
For the most part I’m trying to pick episodes that don’t have stupid, fat, oozing monsters. I’m just so impressed with this episode because of what it had to overcome. It stemmed from a contest where a nine-year-old boy designed the monster and made it look suspiciously like a Slitheen. It also has very little David Tennant, which normally makes me flip tables and tear out my hair.
“Love and Monsters” is the story of people who interacted briefly with the Doctor, and whose lives were never the same. The Doctor made the world a bigger, more interesting place, but it also brought death and destruction into their lives, none more so than Elton Pope, a weird little weaselly dude who just wants to enjoy his life.
What makes this episode great, though, is that it focuses on the damage that is left behind as the Doctor goes flitting off on his next great adventure. Not everyone survives his visits, and those that do are often wounded, confused and lost. It’s like watching Gotham Police clean up after Batman.
Also, Elton is sweet and he tries hard. In the end, it doesn’t save his friends and it doesn’t save his mother, but it keeps him going. He’s not really naive; he can’t be after what he’s been through. But he’s not broken, either. There’s something indomitable about a spirit like that, especially knowing that he created it all by himself, without the Doctor’s help.
Oh, and did I mention the idea for Doctor-Lite episodes was inspired by Buffy’s “The Zeppo”? Win.
Best Moment: Finding out that the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius is Clom.
Best Line: Elton: “Turns out I’ve had the most terrible things happen. And the most brilliant things. And sometimes, well, I can’t tell the difference…You know, Stephen King said once, he said, “salvation and damnation are the same thing.” And I never knew what he meant. But I do now.”
9. The Shakespeare Code Season 3, Episode 2
The Shakespeare code is about the witches from
Macbeth Rexel 4 using Shakespeare’s “new words” to cut open the fabric of whatever so they can go home. It is also about how Martha Jones manages to get jealous of Rose and pissy that the Doctor won’t do her after knowing him exactly one day.
Any Shakespeare Whovians out there? If so, you all know why I adore this episode. It’s one long, running in-joke for those of us who love filthy plays as much as we love family-oriented syfy and David Tennant.
This episode has everything fun about the Doctor that makes the show a blast to watch without getting too heavy. There’s a nice moment of sadness for Rose to remind us that the Doctor carries some serious shit around with him, but for the most part it’s just innuendos about Shakespeare’s sexuality, callbacks to the Sycorax at the beginning of Season 2, references to the mysterious “Dark Lady” and a nice plot point centered around “Love’s Labour’s Won”.
There is nothing about this episode that isn’t heavily researched and joyfully implied. The fact that it’s all about the power of words is great. The addition of Queen Elizabeth trying to kill the Doctor is just an added bonus.
Best Moment: The Doctor creating an ontological paradox by constantly quoting Shakespeare to Shakespeare. But then he quotes Dylan and plagiarism gets involved.
Best Line: Martha Jones: “It’s like in those films: if you step on a butterfly, you change the future of the human race.”
The Doctor: “Then don’t step on any butterflies. What have butterflies ever done to you?”
8. Turn Left Season 4, Episode 11
Turn Left is basically “It’s a Wonderful Life” if it was supposed to end in suicide. An unusual twist, to be sure, but one that I often advocate in the case of Donna Noble.
In “Turn Left,” Donna is sent back in time and chooses not to take a temp job. She never gets engaged, never meets the Doctor and never saves his life. She must then deal with the effects of a world where the Doctor is dead and all the things he fixed never worked out.
Turn Left is great because it shows us the power of one small choice, and the way that everyday decisions shape one’s life. It also reminds us that even though the Doctor rarely succeeds at saving everyone, without him the world would descend into chaos. Mostly Britain, since all paranormal activity apparently happens in England.
I’m surprised at how much I like an episode with no David Tennant and a lot of Donna Noble. I think the best part of it is the idea that the Doctor is not unique, that he creates more of himself in other people. This episode features a brilliant Doctor in the form of Rose Tyler.
Having learned that she has a face under all that makeup, Rose proves herself to be a confident, resourceful and empathetic leader. She is firm and compassionate with Donna and by god, she fixes everything and saves the universe.
This is the epitome of the Doctor and Donna’s dynamic. Together they ask the question of “what if”? The Doctor leaves death wherever he goes and Donna calls him on that. But without her he couldn’t go on, and without him the dead would be even more numerous.
Best Moment: Anything with Wilfred making the best of a bad situation. (Of course, he must be used to that, since he lives with his daughter, Satan.)
Best Line: Rose: “I’m sorry.”
7. The Lodger Season 5, Episode 11
There are people out there, I’m sure, who don’t think this episode is revolutionary, but rather a typical Companion-Lite episode. These people are wrong.
“The Lodger” shows us the Doctor if he had to live like a normal person for any length of time. He gets a roommate named Craig and then takes over Craig’s life and tries (badly) to help Craig win over the heart of his best friend, Sophie.
Aside from the Doctor’s guilt over causing people’s death, one of the main themes of Doctor Who is the driving need for people to escape their lives and have adventures. We as the audience require the escapism, but so do the companions that the Doctor attracts. People who don’t want that are often obstacles (Rory) or whiners (Mickey).
What’s remarkable about Craig Owens is the way that he shows the audience how wonderful it is to be a normal person. It’s an episode about stagnancy and complacency being the worst kind of villains, but it doesn’t hinge on the belief that people have to go do insane adventures. They can be very happy just taking control of the lives they have.
The whole crux of the episode depends on Craig and Sophie’s desire to stay on Earth and live normal lives and be in love with each other. I like that.
Best Moment: The Doctor trying valiantly to save the day with a toothbrush instead of his sonic screwdriver.
Best Line: Craig: “If you ever need me out of your hair, just give me a shout.” [wink]
Doctor: “Oh, I will. I’ll shout… if that happens. Something like… I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!”
6. The Eleventh Hour Season 5, Episode 1
This is as close as I’m going to go to a real “arc” episode. It’s the best damn introduction to a new Doctor incarnation I’ve seen so far. Eccleston’s first appearance was confusing (Had he just gotten done regenerating? How long ago did he kill all of the Time Lords?) and Tennant’s, while wonderful, sadly had him unconscious for most of the episode.
Smith’s entrance made me love him even though I had sworn to never watch the show again following Tennant’s departure. For one thing, the first thing he does is bond with a little girl.
Smith’s Doctor is simultaneously the youngest and oldest Doctor we’ve seen, and his first moments showcase his youth. He’s older and sadder and more weighted down than ever with guilt, but his primary mode of interaction is quirky, child-like and surprisingly innocent. Of course he connects most easily with a kid.
The Doctor and Amy’s first scene is the best they ever have. Instead of wowing her with his knowledge of the universe, she introduces him to new tastes and experiences. It’s a surprising role reversal and it’s lovely to see. They settle together on the unusual combination of fish fingers and custard, defining their relationship as an amalgam of knowledge, experimentation and mutual curiosity.
The rest of the episode is typical Doctor-saves-everyone fare, but I just like that this story line is established with a unique equality and an encouraging lack of sexual tension.
Best Moment: Fish fingers and custard.
Best Line: The Doctor: “Beans are evil. Bad, bad beans.”
5. Vincent and the Doctor Season 5, Episode 10
There are plenty of episodes about how the Doctor can’t save everyone, but those episodes tend to only give agency to the Doctor, the companion, or possibly an evil alien force.
This episode is about how sometimes people aren’t just attacked by outside forces or villainous creatures. Sometimes you can’t save them because they’re unsaveable. Their demons are all interntal. Such is Vincent van Gogh. The episode is ostensibly about keeping van Gogh from being devoured so that he can paint his final masterpieces. Really, though, it’s about trying to keep someone away from the edge and failing. Amy and the Doctor try to make van Gogh happy, they try to prevent him from hurting himself, but are unable to “fix” him.
It’s an episode that surprisingly lacks a moral. Nothing explicit is judged about mental illness, depression or suicide. The world is hard and sometimes genius isn’t enough. Both the Doctor and van Gogh struggle with the desire to give up. The Doctor chooses to soldier on, but somehow that doesn’t make him any less tragic of a figure than van Gogh himself.
Best Moment: Bill Nighy and The Doctor complimenting each others’ bow ties.
Best Line: Doctor: “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
4. The Doctor’s Wife Season 6, Episode 4
God bless Neil Gaiman. How had no one thought of doing this before? It’s easy. Due to the “whatever device” in this episode, the TARDIS’ essence is transferred into a woman’s body. She and the Doctor are finally able to converse and elucidate what they mean to each other.
I have previously made a list of the best companions for The Doctor, and I am pissed with myself for leaving out the TARDIS. She is the only companion that the Doctor never abandons. They don’t just need each other, they are inseparably connected.
More than just a companion, she is the Doctor’s other half. She is part of his identity as a mad man with a box. We think of the Doctor as a time traveler but he needs her. Together they are excited, optimistic, enthusiastic adventurers. Without her he is just smart, scared, tired and stuck in one place and time.
Best Moment: The way the TARDIS defines humans as being bigger on the inside. She brings such innocent wisdom and poignancy to the moment.
Best Line: We’re talking about Neil Gaiman here, so I need at least two.
TARDIS/Idris: “Biting’s exciting. It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner!”
House: “Fear me! I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords!”
Doctor: “Fear me. I’ve killed all of them.”
3. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead Season 4, Episode 8 & 9
We’re down to the last three spots, so I’m going to fill all of them with Moffat’s brilliant stand-alones. I’ve already talked about the Vashta Nerada and how they prey on our fear of the dark, but they are only a fraction of what makes this story line great.
It’s the story of the Doctor and Donna in a giant, empty library. All the people are gone, the places is crawling with carnivorous shadows, and the only other occupants are archaeologists on a tour.
Firstly, even though the episode is filled with redshirts who are begging to be killed off, I was sad when every one of them died. All the characters jumped to life immediately and even Donna found a niche. Although she spends the whole episode in a virtual reality, you get to see a softer, sweeter side of her. You realize if people gave her a chance and loved and needed her, she could be good to them. The fact that she loses out on this opportunity because of a stutter killed me a bit.
Mostly what makes this episode great, though, is the introduction of River Song.
From a plot angle, it’s brilliant to have two characters interact on the very first day he meets her and the very last day she has known him. It’s the perfect time traveler love story. Someone else knows the future for once, not him. Not just any future though; his future.
You will never again see the Doctor off-balanced, awe-struck and heartbroken in this way and it is the most intimate situation you could ever witness.
Best Moment: Heartbroken and weary, the Doctor makes his way back to the TARDIS to fly off. After a moment of skepticism, he snaps his fingers and then watches in wonder as the doors swing open.
Best Line: Doctor: “Don’t play games with me! You just killed someone I like, that is not a safe place to stand! I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the Universe. Look me up.”
2. Blink Season 3, Episode 10
I know you think that “Blink” is the best episode. It certainly is the cleverest by a billion degrees. Moffat sullied it by showing the Angels move and making them homicidal later, but that doesn’t dilute this episode.
“Blink” is about a young woman trying to figure out a bunch of batshit insane clues left specifically for her by the Doctor in the past. She has to piece them together to send the TARDIS back to him, all while avoiding the Angels, which can send people back in time with a single touch, but which can only go when no one is looking at them.
This episode showed us what it’s like to be at the center of a muddled time traveling mess when you’re not the Doctor. It’s a mystery that you get to figure out along with Sally Sparrow. The Doctor isn’t really there to explain away a bunch of pseudo-scienctific nonsense. There’s real fear and confusion in this episode precisely because there is no heroic god to save the day. Sally Sparrow is on her own and we honestly don’t know what is going to happen to her in this horrible game of “Red Light/Green Light.”
Mostly, though, the bad guy is just freaking brilliant. And I would hate to be the 8-year old who had to go to bed right after watching this.
Best Moment: Sally’s interaction with the DVD interview. It works well twice!
Best Line: The Doctor: “Tracked you down with this. This is my timey-wimey detector. It goes ding when there’s stuff. Also, it can boil an egg at 30 paces, whether you want it to or not, actually, so I’ve learned to stay away from hens.”
1. The Girl In the Fireplace Season 2, Episode 4
Sorry if you don’t agree, but this is the best episode of Doctor Who. It is clever, confusing, witty and full of heartbreak.
In “TGIF” (yup), the Doctor lands on a ship in the future that contains numerous time portals into the past. They all converge on Reinette Poisson (Madame de Pompadour) in the 18th century. Turns out a bunch of homicidal robot clocks (why not) are trying to track down Ms. Poisson and cut off her head once she turns 37. The Doctor must save her. But first he’s gotta snog the crap out of her, because hey, she’s French.
There are a lot of take-charge women in Doctor Who, but none with quite so much confidence and verve as Reinette. She controls the conversations, she steps into the Doctor’s mind, she kisses him and she makes him dance. Her sheer audacity makes him fall for her. In turn, she knows him her whole life and loves him for that. It’s the love story of two people who are totally out of sync in each other’s lives, which is a nice juxtaposition against Rose, who has the Doctor every day but lacks the courage to make a move.
The villain is also wonderfully integrated. The clock people represent the real bad guy: time. Time is never on the side of this couple. He darts in and out of her life while she must take the “slower path” and every time he is there, it’s only to fight the monsters. In the end, time is what keeps them from being together. It’s the horrible truth that missed chances and lost years are what keep us from the things we want the most.
Best Line: Reinette: “You and I both know, don’t we Rose? The Doctor is worth the monsters… One may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel.”