[Updated with Season 9 episodes]
And here we are at last—the top episodes of modern Doctor Who. If you missed the earlier installments, you can start at the bottom with “I’m Sorry, I’m So Sorry,” then progress up through “Are These Good Episodes?” and “These Episodes Are Cool.” Or, if you want to focus on the positive, see below.
Without further ado, Geronimo!
#28 Amy’s Choice: A dream-based episode where the stakes feel real. The set-up is intriguing with the characters not knowing which of the two realities is the dream, and it’s all grounded by a strong emotional core. I’m not sure how Amy fell in love with Rory back in these pre–Hitler-punching days, and that does mar the episode just a tad, but great stuff otherwise.
#27 Last Christmas: Another dreamy episode, but a totally different one: Doctor Who does Inception, guest starring Santa Claus. It’s one of those ideas that could easily have gone so wrong and yet somehow finds the sweet intersection of Christmas and sci-fi.
#26 Midnight: I wouldn’t want every episode to be like this, but this is a wonderfully tense change of pace, and one of very, very few Doctor Who episodes that could conceivably be staged as a play. All that repetition is unsettling, but it’s a good unsettling.
#25 The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit: Black holes are a great place for mysterious forces, aren’t they? So yes, the Doctor has a chat with the Devil or something resembling the Devil, which really shouldn’t work. But throw in solid guest stars, possessed Ood, and the Doctor’s faith in his companion, and you have a winning two-patter.
#24 The Fires of Pompeii: A compelling time-traveler dilemma, the Doctor brandishing a water gun, and for the first time, Donna isn’t annoying—she’s actually beginning to shape up into a great character as she convinces the Doctor to save whoever he can. And who else from this episode is going to become a regular someday?
#23 Listen: The Doctor gets in touch with his own fears while Clara endures a romantic comedy. Some of the old Moffat tropes are there (Don’t let the thing under the blanket see you! So do the opposite of don’t blink!) and yet it feels so fresh and thoughtful.
#22 The Woman Who Lived: A compelling look at immortality—and, by extension, mortality. Guest star Maisie Williams becomes a viable recurring character as the immortal “Me” as she sells the pain and loneliness of a too-long life. The 17th setting century setting lends additional weight to her melancholy—at this point, the character has only endured through eras of human history when (to borrow from Thomas Hobbes) life was nasty, brutish, and short.
#21 The Army of Ghosts/Doomsday: Rose’s farewell is so melodramatic, but it’s great melodrama. The Daleks vs. Cybermen feud couldn’t possibly live up to the cheesy awesomeness we would hope, and it doesn’t need to. The real fun is watching as the Doctor and Rose send them all flying into hell to save the world together one last time. And then that long good-bye that’s not long enough.
#20 The Girl Who Waited: As if Amy Pond didn’t wait long enough in her youth, here she’s left waiting 36 years in a “nice” place that’s constantly threatening to kill her with kindness. The result is two Amy Ponds and a heartbreaking decision on Rory’s part to save the woman he loves…and not save the woman he loves.
#19 The Christmas Invasion: In which the newly regenerated 10th Doctor saves the world in his pajamas. He’s sleeping on the job for most of the episode, which makes his eventual emergence toward the end all the more grand and thrilling. That delayed gratification pays off.
#18 Flatline: A shrunken TARDIS yields ridiculous fun, the 12th Doctor’s best episode at this point, and the most likeable and promising Clara’s character had yet been. The “Doctor-in-training” role suits her. (But did she really have to answer her phone at that moment? Does she not have voicemail?) The Addams’ Family Thing bit could have turned out so stupid, and maybe it was, but to heck with it—it’s good silly fun.
#17 Utopia: Again, I’m separating this from the rest of the three-parter (“The Sound of Drums”/“The Last of the Time Lords”) because this first part is so good. (For the other two parts, see earlier in this list. Much earlier.) Finding the Master as an old human at the end of time? Solid gold, and even better with Derek Jacobi portraying the Master and rediscovering his villainy. We needed more of Jacobi as the Master.
#16 A Christmas Carol: Moffat’s best Christmas special was his first. This is also the best adaptation/re-imagining of “A Christmas Carol” I’ve seen, though admittedly I’ve never been a big fan of the original. The show relaxes its rules a bit for the sake of holiday cheer, but it’s okay, as the result is the Doctor inserting himself into an old miser’s childhood to soften his heart.
#15 Father’s Day: Paul Cornell should’ve written more Doctor Who. Another “trying to save someone you’re not supposed to save” episode, this time with Rose and the loser father she never knew. This is how time-travel stories should be—not about time-travel, but using time-travel as a tool for a greater story. This is the type of sci-fi you could show to someone normally averse to the genre.
#14 The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: Then again, time-travel shenanigans and blowing up the whole universe can be tremendous fun when it’s done like this. Doctor Who shouldn’t always be this big, but this is a fine exception, and you’ve gotta love the Doctor’s bluff at Stonehenge.
#13 The Girl in the Fireplace: While I’m not exactly clear on why the Doctor is so smitten with Madame De Pompadour, this is such a clever, fun episode with a wonderful aesthetic, the question is easily forgotten.
#12 Dalek: A single Dalek is worth a whole army in this reintroduction to Doctor Who’s most popular and enduring nemesis. This last-of-its-kind Dalek gets to become an actual character rather than cannon fodder, proving that less is more.
#11 Face the Raven: Ironically, the companion with the least consistent characterization gets the strongest character-based exit (well, her true exit is two episodes later, but her natural life ends here). Clara started as a walking plot puzzle in Season 7, but in her final season she settled into a far more compelling role: the Doctor’s best friend who holds him accountable to be the kindest and most compassionate he can be while she grows more Doctor-like herself. But in this heartbreaking episode, we’re shown how no human could ever be the Doctor. Clara thinks she’s being clever to save a friend, and her heart is absolutely in the right place. But her overconfidence leads to her downfall, and the responsibility is all hers. A textbook example of how to kill a character in a meaningful way.
#10 School Reunion: The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith reunite, and it’s great fun that also forces Rose to confront the fact that life with the Doctor has an expiration date. Plus, evil Giles.
#9 Blink: I know, I know. How could I rank this any lower #1? Well, it’s got a few little things that bug me just enough—the sudden forced romance between Sally and that guy at the end, the “no means yes” bit with her friend, and the incredibly unprofessional cop. Otherwise, though, it’s a superb episode that comes together as a fascinating, creepy puzzle, and the Weeping Angels were never a better menace than in this introductory episode. More done-in-one adventures like this would not be a bad thing.
#8 The Day of the Doctor: Yes, that’s how you do a 50th anniversary celebration. Teaming up the 10th and 11th Doctors is great fun, but playing them off John Hurt’s War Doctor takes it to the next level. While it would’ve been enjoyable seeing the 8th Doctor as the one who fought the Time War, introducing this “lost Doctor” makes sense as he can function as a stand-in for the more serious of the classic Doctors—the ones least like 10 and 11.
#7 The Waters of Mars: The best of the 2009 specials by a landslide, it derives excellent tension from that old time-travel conundrum: wanting to save good people who need to die in order for history to take its proper course; the right thing to do is also the wrong thing. When the Doctor finally says to hell with the rules, it’s both heroic and terrifying.
#6 The Eleventh Hour: Moffat’s best 11th Doctor story happens to be his first. It’s also the best introduction of any modern Doctor. The fairy tale touches are a nice change of pace and give us a unique Doctor/companion dynamic, in that he was Amy’s childhood “imaginary” friend who left her waiting for more than a decade.
#5 Heaven Sent: It’s Doctor Who as a one-man show (almost), and it’s phenomenal. Immediately after the death of his closest friend, the Doctor is transported into a strange castle that’s really one massive torture/confession chamber with seemingly no way out. Gradually, he pieces together a solution, the one way to escape and get where he needs to go without revealing a secret he’s unwilling to tell—and the exit is the ultimate torture. He has to punch his way through an incredibly dense, thick wall, and after every few punches, he has to get killed and start the whole thing over, without any memory of his previous attempts, his grief once again fresh, just so just he can achieve a tiny bit more progress chipping away at that mighty wall. But he perseveres nevertheless. The moment when he realizes the hell he has to put himself through might be Peter Capaldi’s finest bit of acting as the Doctor thus far, a bar that was already high.
#4 The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: Moffat sure knows how to make a great first impression, doesn’t he? So he peaked with his first story, but most people would love to have created a peak half as high as this one. The “Just this once, everyone lives!” ending was just what the 9th Doctor needed, and it feels earned, with the resolution established well in advance. This one’s got charm, cleverness, and excitement to spare. And let’s not forget, the Doctor was introduced to Captain Jack as “Mr. Spock.”
#3 Human Nature/The Family of Blood: David Tenant’s finest performance as the Doctor—in which he’s a far cry from the Doctor for most of it. By stripping his identity away and forcing him to confront himself with human eyes, we get a pretty darn effective character study of the Doctor. And juxtaposing the eve of World War I with the Doctor’s decision to return to a more perilous life works rather well indeed.
#2 The Doctor’s Wife: I figured Neil Gaiman would deliver a strong episode, but I underestimated how strong. It’s basically a love story between a man and his “car,” and yet it’s oddly touching—not to mention inventive, exciting, and perfectly paced. The TARDIS has been the show’s one true constant, and this episode pays due respect to that.
#1 Vincent and the Doctor: Sometimes the best stories don’t involve saving the whole universe from obliteration. The best Doctor Who story, in my mind, comes from spending time with a troubled man destined for posthumous greatness. Here, we’ve got the joy of meeting a famous historical figure, shenanigans with a misunderstood monster, wacky gadgets, reflections on seeing the world as no one else does, an opportunity to introduce kids to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, and a whole lot of heart. It feels like everything the original Doctor Who was meant to be, and then some.