[Updated with Season 9 episodes]
Now we’re getting into the good stuff, and we still have the best stuff to look forward to. How lovely. For anyone just tuning in, I started this worst-to-best ranking of modern Doctor Who two weeks ago with the weakest episodes in “I’m Sorry. I’m So Sorry,” continued with the middling ones in “Are These Good Episodes?” and here we are now in the penultimate entry:
“These Episodes Are Cool”
#55 Tooth and Claw: A decent romp with a werewolf, ninja monks, and Queen Elizabeth. Not an all-time classic, but kind of fun.
#54 The Vampires of Venice: One that falls squarely in the “good dumb fun” category. The plot about fish aliens wanting to repopulate their species (while coincidentally resembling vampires) is kind of so-so, but the episode’s high on adventure and the Doctor makes a memorable entrance at Rory’s bachelor party.
#53 Deep Breath: Victorian society is awfully nonchalant about the sudden appearance of a dinosaur, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m getting tired of the Paternoster Gang by this point. The Sontaran is just too dense. But Peter Capaldi has some great scenes that save what’s otherwise the weakest introduction of a modern Doctor to date. And Clara starts to evolve into an actual character, thank goodness.
#51 The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: What happens when irresistible fun meets unforgiveable plot contrivances? Basically, this. This two-parter offers geeky thrills aplenty as all of 10’s companions come together. Really, how can the sight of them all flying the TARDIS together not bring a smile to your face? But the regeneration cop-out? The metacrisis Doctor? The Doctor Donna? How many deus ex machinas can a story have? And yet, still fun.
#50 The God Complex: A 1980s hotel has a room with your worst fear lurking inside. Pretty solid premise, pretty solid execution, and a pretty solid almost-companion guest star.
#49 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: Another entry for the “good dumb fun” category. However, this kid-friendly episode does lose points for how the Doctor deals with the villain in the end. And it gains a few back with Mr. Weasley himself as Rory’s dad.
#48 Dark Water/Death in Heaven: A strange mix of great and “Huh?” Clara almost ruins everything for the Doctor, and as thanks, the he’s willing to track down Danny wherever he is in the afterlife? And why are only Danny and the Brigadier able to override their Cyber-programming? Were all those other Cyber-people totally loveless? But the storyline’s saving grace is the new, female incarnation of the Master, Missy, and her test to see how good a man the Doctor is.
#47 The Doctor’s Daughter: Kind of a stretch calling her his “daughter.” But if you can get past that, the real meat of the episode is the Doctor getting used to the idea of having a “relative” for the first time in a long time. Donna is also well utilized as the mediator between the two, but Martha’s adventure with a fish person is…awkward.
#46 The Lodger: What if the Doctor was your weird roommate? This is a goofy comedy episode that’s sufficiently amusing, and one that could only work with the 11th Doctor.
#45 The Unquiet Dead: Another of those episodes that’s not a standout, but there’s not much wrong with it. Dickens and ghostly spirits of some sort in Rose’s first trip to the past. Good times.
#44 Under the Lake/Before the Flood: If there’s such a thing as a “typical” Doctor Who story, it’s this two-parter, which features the familiar tropes of a base under siege, an apparently supernatural menace that turns out to have technological origins, and the Doctor facing his own mortality. It doesn’t break the mold, but it fits it very well.
#43 Rose: A fine introduction to modern Who. Sure, a lot of cheese to be had here (looking at you, Plastic Mickey). The show hadn’t found its feet yet. But the Doctor and Rose sell it. A much more sensible pilot than the ‘90s TV movie. We don’t get into all the details yet—no regeneration, no “last of the Time Lords,” no Gallifrey, period. Russell T Davies patiently starts rolling it out. Lots of running around, “bigger on the inside,” a classic but not too classic alien menace, and, Oh, yeah, by the way, it’s also a time machine. Patience is a virtue.
#42 Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: A library planet? I’m there. Intriguing introduction to River Song that makes you wish we never learned the truth about her in later episodes. But how the heck does the Doctor think he saved her by uploading her memories into a computer? How is that living? She’s still dead, right?
#41 The Power of Three: The ending’s slapped together haphazardly, but the “slow invasion” premise is great, as it gets the Doctor to experience what his companions’ lives are like when he’s not around. The Ponds figuring out how to balance their real lives and TARDIS lives is the real hook of the episode.
#40 The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: The point where Steven Moffat started playing a little too fast and loose with the rules. The Series 6 overarching storyline ended up a huge disappointment, but this setup, taken by itself, is a thrilling, intriguing roller coaster, and the Silence were never better than in their introduction here.
#39 Into the Dalek: Doctor Who does Fantastic Voyage, with a Dalek. Great idea, actually, and an interesting look inside the Dalek’s armor, even if the episode does feel like an inferior retread of “Dalek.”
#38 Hell Bent: A different kind of season finale for Doctor Who, in that no external threat is imperiling any world. Instead, the Doctor goes too far in trying to save his companion, thereby jeopardizing the universe in the process. It’s a bit of a cheat that gives us an alternative ending for Clara, one less effective than her death in “Face the Raven” but a happier one that could lead to fun possibilities in either future episodes or viewers’ imaginations.
#37 The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: The Weeping Angels are better off not talking, not even through a dead guy. But some wonderful set pieces here, especially Amy being forced to walk past the Angels with her eyes closed while acting like she can see them so they don’t kill her.
#36 Smith and Jones: A solid introduction to new companion Martha Jones as her hospital is abducted to the moon so alien rhino cops can catch a fugitive. It’s just fun, okay? (In hindsight, it’s a shame Martha’s character got saddled with unrequited love for the Doctor. As a future medical doctor, she started off with more credentials and useful skills than any other modern companion.)
#35 Mummy on the Orient Express: In the distant future, you’ll be able to hear Queen covers while riding a train through space. A fun episode with the Doctor trying to figure out what’s killing people in precisely 66 seconds every time—and failing several times along the way. Sure, “66 seconds” is an arbitrary countdown, but I love when the Doctor basically goes, Screw it, I’ll let it target me this time and I’ll somehow figure it all out before I die—pretty quintessential Doctor right there.
#34 The Shakespeare Code: A fun romp with Will Shakespeare and “witches.” Featuring one of the best Harry Potter references committed to film. It doesn’t break the mold, but it’s a good time.
#33 Hide: Strong guest stars anchor this clever ghost story, which of course is not actually a ghost story…and yet kind of is? I really liked the idea of traveling on the same spot through world history.
#32 Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways: The first modern regeneration story holds up as the best, even despite the Weakest Link and Big Brother parodies that don’t hold up so well. Yes, 9th Doctor, Big Brother was the beginning of the end for you. But once we get past that, we get Daleks, an almost-companion, Captain Jack’s first death, the Doctor choosing not to kill despite the potential ramifications, and Super-Rose. So that last one is a deus ex machina, but at least it results from Rose’s choices and actions.
#31 The Angels Take Manhattan: Okay, so the Weeping Angel Statue of Liberty does not work. Not even a little. It’s too, too much. And why can’t Amy and Rory simply travel far enough away from New York for the TARDIS to reach them? Nevertheless, it’s a great, heartfelt farewell to the Ponds. I’m not sure why Amy fell for Rory in their earliest appearances, but they’re a great couple by this point, and Amy being forced to make one last, definitive choice between her best friend and husband is fitting.
#30 The Girl Who Died: A bunch of inept Vikings need to defeat powerful alien warriors. What begins as a fun romp takes a serious turn at the end as the Doctor decides to break the rules to save an innocent life…and the question of whether that was the right call remains ambiguous.
#29 Turn Left: A big What If? story about being more important than you realize, in typical over-the-top Russell T Davies fashion. The old annoying Donna is humanized, and we see how much Rose has grown after her time with the Doctor (oh, she’s just trying to save the world these days, that’s all).
Next week: “Fantastic!”
[Update: Click for Part 4 #28-#1]