[Updated with Season 9 episodes]
The Internet likes a good list, doesn’t it? A nice comprehensive, frivolous ranking of a beloved something or other?
All right then. Let’s do this. Let’s rank every episode of modern Doctor Who from worst to best in four weekly installments: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” “Are these good episodes?”, “These episodes are cool,” and “Fantastic!”
I tried not to agonize over the exact rankings, because I wanted to be done this century, so assume a margin of error of plus or minus a few. If I did this a year later, the order would likely turn out differently. It’s all just my opinion, and I respect that you’ll likely disagree. (I know—how dare I rank that episode that low and that episode that high?) This is just for fun, a way to reflect on what’s been a great science fiction series overall.
I love Doctor Who even though not every episode is a winner, and I appreciate how hard it is to write for television. Both showrunners, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, have given us brilliant episodes, and both have been guilty of failing to rein in their excesses. Nevertheless, the show remains great on the whole, and I’m thankful for the many wonderfully entertaining hours both writers and their teams have given us.
But none of us are perfect. So in this first part, let’s get the misfires out of the way:
“I’m Sorry. I’m So Sorry.”
#107 The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords: It would’ve been much higher if I hadn’t separated “Utopia” from this three-parter. But no. That wonderful first part doesn’t deserve to be saddled with this train wreck. Both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have been guilty of mythologizing the Doctor, which is the wrong approach, but RTD gives us the most egregious example here. Martha travels the world convincing people to Tinkerbell the Doctor back to health, which results in a Jesus-like resurrection. No, people. He’s a runaway from a race of haughty time-travelers, not a Christ figure. And the Master’s insanity could be subtler.
#106 Love & Monsters: It benefits from an ELO soundtrack. And pretty much nothing else as our guest protagonist stalks Rose’s mother and a needlessly icky alien kills some nice people. And that girl’s really okay living as a cement face?
#105 The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe: Moffat has given us both the strongest and weakest of the Christmas specials. Here, he truly drops the ball, beginning with a credulity-straining stunt in which the Doctor dons a spacesuit while falling through space, and continuing on through…that thing with the trees and love saving everything yet again. Great final scene with the Ponds, though, but too late to save the holiday.
#104 The Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks: Before Andrew Garfield was Spider-Man or Mark Zuckerburg’s buddy, he was in this episode full of cheesy 1930s New York accents, pig men, and a human Dalek. You’ll believe a singer and a pig man can fall in love. Or not, more likely.
#103 The Wedding of River Song: Finishing up River Song’s character assassination is an episode in which all logic is thrown out the window. All of time is happening at once and not moving forward? How do people perceive that? It results in cool anachronistic visuals, but it makes no sense for the whole world to think it’s perpetually 5:02. What would 5:02 even mean without any other point of comparison? I’m also not clear on what the wedding actually means to River and the Doctor—if there’s any love there, when did we see it develop organically?
#102 Let’s Kill Hitler: Actually, they killed River’s character, as we receive confirmation that her whole life, including her interest in archaeology, has revolved around the Doctor. Seeing Mel regenerate into River would’ve been a great reveal if we had met Mel before this episode. That kind of forethought and set-up would’ve been brilliant, but this all feels like they’re making it up as they’re going along. On the plus side, Rory punches Hitler.
#101 The Curse of the Black Spot: It would be interesting to see Doctor Who attempt a historically accurate portrayal of pirates (sci-fi elements aside). But here we basically get a poor man’s Pirates of the Caribbean without a sufficient level of swashbuckling.
#100 Planet of the Dead: This one might work better with younger viewers, but between that goofy fanboy scientist, those aliens, a jewel thief flying a bus, it’s all leans a bit too far on the silly side, but not the right kind of silly.
#99 Fear Her: Putting the Doctor out of commission and forcing Rose into the role of substitute Doctor is a great idea. Trapping the Doctor and others in a little girl’s drawings is not such a great idea, nor is having him save the Olympics.
#98 The Runaway Bride: Before Donna became cool, she was as we see here, and it’s not pleasant. The TARDIS being involved in a car chase is kind of cool, though.
#97 In the Forest of the Night: A faulty premise—tress just aren’t that scary. A dark forest at night could be, but not a London that suddenly resembles Jumanji. And that sudden family reunion at the end makes no sense.
#96 Journey to the Center of the TARDIS: If writing had its own Seven Deadly Sins, using the reset button would be among them. Exploring the TARDIS is a concept with plenty of potential, but so little of it is realized here, and it’s all pretty inconsequential by the end.
#94 The End of Time parts I & II: I like the idea of the Doctor sacrificing this regeneration cycle to save an old man who wasn’t expecting to be saved at his advanced age, but the rest is a mess. The Master turning everyone into himself is just too much, and the extended regeneration tour would’ve been more effective if we hadn’t just see all those companions in the Series 4 finale.
#93 The Unicorn and the Wasp: An episode with Agatha Christie should’ve been so much more fun. But even with giant wasps, it’s just kind of boring.
#92 The Sontaran Strategem/Poison in the Sky: It’s nice to see Martha return for a visit as part of UNIT, and it’s also nice to see Donna check in with her family. Now if only that was all part of a better story that didn’t involve Sontarans or any obnoxious young geniuses or evil GPS.
#91 The Idiot’s Lantern: Some charming interaction between the Doctor and Rose in an episode that’s otherwise just kind of meh. Television will eat your face, you see.
#90 The Caretaker: This new Doctor really doesn’t like people, does he? And that makes him especially unlikeable in this episode set in Clara’s school—and even more so when he can’t accept that Danny could be anything other than a physical education teacher. Peter Capaldi is excellent as always, but I prefer a less misanthropic Doctor.
#89 The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: Decent sci-fi ideas about artificial life, but this story wasn’t enough for two episodes. Aside from the finely handled ending reveal about Amy, the story doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
#88 The Crimson Horror: An episode in which the Paternoster Gang takes center stage, and I’m sorry, but they’re just not my cup of tea. Diana Rigg is fun as the villain, though.
#87 New Earth: Rose’s first trip with the recently regenerated Doctor becomes a body-swapping farce, which is one of those tropes that walks the fine line between goofy fun and stupidity. Here, it almost tips over into the latter.
#86 Victory of the Daleks: The low point of the otherwise wonderful Series 5 gives us a botched Dalek redesign that, as others have said, looks a little too Power Rangers. The episode isn’t a disaster, though. Winston Churchill is great, and the idea of the Daleks creating a robot who thinks he’s their inventor is a pretty good one. But it never quite comes together in any satisfactory way.
Next Week: “Are These Good Episodes?”