Ahead of the new series of Doctor Who (its tenth since its return in 2005), which starts on Saturday, I look at the ten best episodes of the rebooted show to date.
Doctor Who has had some very memorable episodes since it came back onto our screens in 2005 with Russell T Davies at the helm, and a leather-jacketed Christopher Eccleston as the man in the blue box. The show has also undergone a fair bit of change since then, with Doctors and companions coming and going and with the style of the show itself shooting off in a different direction. With that in mind, it has been difficult choosing the ten best episodes, but I have given it a go.
This adventure sees Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Christopher Eccleston’s war-scarred Doctor come up against his oldest enemy, only to find it slightly changed. Featuring impassioned performances from Eccleston and Piper, this one puts you through the wringer, and boasts an unexpected but powerful ending alongside the trademark zippy dialogue. It is easy to forget how good Eccleston’s run in the TARDIS was, and it would certainly have been interesting to see the direction the show had gone in if he had stayed longer in the TARDIS.
9. The Eleventh Hour
One of the greatest strengths of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor was its championing of the everyday and the ordinary. Him taking up lodgings with a plucky James Corden, or sitting around bored in the Ponds’ suburban home were both highlights. But arguably Smith’s debut, in which he zooms around a sleepy English town trying to stop an alien, was one of his best episodes. It foreshadowed the zany, Devil-may-care attitude of his Doctor perfectly, whilst introducing us to his catchphrase and his style – and the pathos which came with his companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.
8. The Doctor’s Daughter
A later David Tennant story, this gave the Doctor a welcome human side as he travelled to another planet and came face to face with his own flesh and blood. Thanks to a nifty machine, a daughter is created right before his eyes, and the relationship between her and The Doctor unfurls in heartfelt style. The story itself, about two warring sides struggling for control, is less of a concern, but it is the real emotions at the heart of the episode which make it stand out.
7. The Lazarus Experiment
A classy character piece building in old horror tropes with one of Tennant’s Doctor’s favourite things – brooding on mortality – this is a cracker. Set in modern London, it tells of Professor Richard Lazarus (Mark Gatiss), whose attempts to reverse the ageing process create something terrible. Cue plenty of dashing about, some terrific Doctor-Martha Jones banter, and a darker message about the value of life and scientific progress. A conversation between the Doctor and Lazarus near the end of the episode is positively theatrical in tone. But for the most part this is old-fashioned Who at its best.
6. The Stolen Earth/ Journey’s End
This series finale remains one of the rebooted show’s high points, and not only because of that cliffhanger. Reuniting the whole supporting cast of Russell T Davies’ tenure as showrunner (the Tylers, Martha, Captain Jack and Sarah-Jane Smith) against the backdrop of old villain Davros’ plot to destroy reality, all the stops are pulled out for this epic, high-stakes space drama. Letting the underrated Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) really stand out is one of the many high points of this finale. But with all the emotion, we were perhaps ready for a change of tone by the end.
This episode is one of the few since the show restarted in 2005 to boast very little of the Doctor himself. But, strangely enough, this story, which introduces the now-infamous Weeping Angels to the world, makes a virtue of it. Featuring a young Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, Blink chronicles her and a friend’s desperate attempts to stay alive, and stop the Angels from wreaking havoc, aided only occasionally by the Doctor (via video). The story is truly terrifying but very neatly done.
4. Utopia/ The Sound of Drums/ The Last of the Time Lords
This series finale acted as both an emotionally stirring tale and a clever conclusion to the story arc of the third series – the reintroduction of the Doctor’s old Time Lord nemesis, the Master. In the first episode, Utopia, we are shown ‘the end of the universe’. Famed thespian Derek Jacobi, as the aged Professor Yana, puts in a very memorable turn indeed, playing a big part in one of the cleverest and most inspired twists since the show’s return. The two episodes which follow do not quite match it, but still give full weight to the relationship between Doctor and Master (a demented John Simm), and boast a clever plot which builds up very well.
3. School Reunion
An emotional unifying of past with present, the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith meet again at a school and must defeat a (to them) timely, very relevant enemy in the Krillitanes, led by a menacing Anthony Head. Meanwhile Rose and Sarah Jane share some great moments as they realise both what a charmed and cursed life it is with the Doctor. The measured, reflective tone, the welcome return of old friends (K9 included) and the emotionally-led storytelling make this one an absolute winner.
2. The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang
A bonkers but brilliant conclusion to Matt Smith’s first full series as the Time Lord, this two-parter has heart, quirkiness and more zigzagging than a zebra on a slalom course. The Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song traipse from Roman Britain to modern Stonehenge, en route to confronting (reputedly) the most dangerous being in the universe. And that’s just the beginning. So twisty that it makes your head hurt, this finale is nevertheless always fun, and leaves you with a gigantic smile on your face.
1. The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit
Simply put, for my money this is one of the best episodes in the show’s history. The Doctor and Rose land on a godforsaken spit of rock which is orbiting a black hole. If this wasn’t strange enough, the crew of the base they land in are being menaced by an unknown ‘beast’. Blending a complex plot, strong characterisation, an interesting new world and one of the oldest conundrums in the universe, this is a smart and emotional story which leaves the greatest mystery – perhaps wisely – unsolved.
So there you have it. You will notice that Peter Capaldi is notable by his absence from this list, which is not to say that he is a bad Doctor, but that his run of stories has been at a time when the show is on the wane. It admittedly does not help that I remain to be truly convinced of his take on the Doctor. Capaldi seesaws between sarcastic curmudgeon and funnyman with very little warning. He has had some interesting moments, though. Many have cited his barnstorming anti-war speech in last series’ Zygon two-parter as his ‘Doctor moment’, whilst his interplay with an immortal Maisie Williams made for absorbing stuff. Fans and critics alike have adored his time in the TARDIS, but I have not. But with the return of the Mondasian Cybermen, the Ice Warriors and the Master, it’s unlikely we’ll be bored this coming series (Capaldi’s last). And let’s not forget, it’s Doctor Who. If Capaldi is to change my mind, he still has time yet.
Series 10 of Doctor Who begins with ‘The Pilot’ at 7:20pm on Saturday 15th April on BBC One.