You may have noticed it’s been a few weeks since my top 10 classic series Doctor Who stories went up, and I said then that I’d be doing my new series episodes immediately thereafter. But that proved a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. Narrowing my favorites to 20 proved incredibly difficult and trying to rank them was damned impossible.
So, because I can as I am beholden to no one but myself, I’ve decided to simply list my favorite New Who stories chronologically and not attempt to have two- or three-way ties all over the place. The 20 stories (2-parters count as one) are broken down as follows: 4 Ninth Doctor, 8 Tenth Doctor, and 8 Eleventh Doctor. Since I assume most of you have seen these, I won’t reiterate the plot and just get right to why I like ‘em.
THE UNQUIET DEAD (Series 1, Episode 3)
While not particularly enjoying “Rose” and being cautiously positive about “The End of the World,” Mark Gatiss’ first episode went a long way to make me keep watching Series 1, which was uneven, to put it mildly. This episode proved that Doctor Who could still do horror in an interesting, sci-fi way, and the fact that it’s a celebrity historical as well reassured a lot of people. Eccleston and Piper are really fantastic, and we start to get a little bit of information about the elusive and illusive “Time War” and the Doctor’s part in it. Gas aliens and Victorian zombies; what’s not to like?
DALEK (Series 1, Episode 6)
After the farty aliens of episodes 4 and 5, the show needed to go dark in a big, bad way. The answer was Robert Shearman’s “Dalek,” which brought back the Doctor’s oldest foe in still their most effective new series outing. The lone Dalek manages to be both sympathetic and more terrifying than ever before, and Eccleston gives what is arguably his very best performance in his one and only series. It shows us how damaged the Doctor is after the war and to what lengths he was willing (and still is willing) to go to ensure the end of the Daleks’ galactic evil. It managed to make what is a pretty silly-looking monster from the ’60s a real live threat again.
FATHER’S DAY (Series 1, Episode 8)
This episode will always have a very special place in my heart because it was the first Doctor Who I watched since I was maybe 8 years old, and is what made me want to give the series a try. I knew about the reboot of Doctor Who, but I never gave it much thought until the summer of 2009, when, after becoming curious about it at SDCC, “Father’s Day” happened to be on BBC America On-Demand one boring afternoon. It intrigued me enough, with its time-travel paradoxes, chronovore-dinosaurs, and compelling family drama, that I decided to start watching it on Netflix. My initial plan was just to watch the Eccleston series, which became “Let’s see what this Tennant guy is all about,” which became “I guess I can finish what’s on Instant Watch,” which became “I NEED MOAR!!!!” The episode doesn’t quite hold up as a story to me now, but it’ll always be what opened my eyes to this crazy world.
THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES (Series 1, Episodes 9 &10)
What’s really to say about these episodes that haven’t already been said? Moffat, WWII, Captain Jack, barrage balloon, “Are you my mummy?” scary gas-mask people, squareness gun, “Everybody lives,” dancing Doctor. They’re fantastic, and I’ve seen them probably a half-dozen times now. Yay.
THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE (Series 2, Episode 4)
From one Moffat story to another. Now, I’m not as crazy about this episode as a lot of people are, simply because it doesn’t seem to fit in continuity with the two episodes surrounding, but, as we now know the kind of show Moffat is making today and how he uses Amy and Rory, it’s a really good pre-era example of his writing. Reinette was the first “girl who waited.” We also get the problem with time travel and the Doctor’s existence as a whole, which had been explored in the previous episode, “School Reunion,” in that he can’t ever take the slow path, which frustrates and confounds the people he meets. This is a great one to show first-timers, especially if you’re leading them into Series 5 and beyond.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET/THE SATAN PIT (Series 2, Episodes 8 & 9)
You know how you’ve always wanted to see the Doctor versus the Devil? Well, THERE YOU GO! This story has a really cool, apocalyptic vibe throughout, and the notion of the planet hanging near a black hole but never falling in is inspired. It’s also, of course, the first of (too) many appearances by the Ood and the first time the Doctor wears his orange spacesuit, which has a weirdly long lifespan. To date, the only story written by Matt Jones; I’d say it’s about time he gets another crack at it, don’t you?
HUMAN NATURE/THE FAMILY OF BLOOD (Series 3, Episode 8 & 9)
Arguably David Tennant’s best performance in the whole of his tenure, this story, based on a Paul Cornell novel, is an interesting what-if-adjacent exploration of the Doctor if he were just a normal man. It’s a nice contrast to see just how uninterested John Smith is to being a hero and how he actively battles against it, though of course the end is inevitable. Jessica Hynes as Nurse Redfern is truly heartbreaking, and I love the WWI setting. Just a fabulous pair of episodes.
BLINK (Series 3, Episode 10)
Here’s another one that everybody’s talked about forever, and it’s fitting that it’s another Moff. This is the episode that gave us the Weeping Angels and the now-way overused term “timey-wimey,” and is widely considered the best new-Who ep ever. While I agree for the most part, I disagree with people’s assertion that it’s a good one to start new viewers on. This is an incredibly atypical story and is not indicative of the series as a whole. I feel like people need to earn this episode. It’s like a dessert. People need to learn the rules before they can break them, etc etc. Anyway, enough soapbox. This episode is amazing.
UTOPIA (Series 3, Episode 11)
As you maybe have noticed, Series 3, specifically the end of it, is my favorite Tennant series, and this episode might arguably be my favorite of my favorite. I love the return of Captain Jack as well as the interplay between he and Tennant. I love the setting and they way they finally made a quarry useful and creepy. And I’d be a fool not to mention Gallifrey 2013 guest Sir Derek Friggin’ Jacobi. The way he can switch on a dime from the kindly Professor Yana to the Master is like a gut-punch of awesomeness. Furthermore, Graeme Harper’s direction is first-rate and then some. Yes, this episode is technically part one of the three part finale, but since those episodes have a different director and are 66.66% ridiculous garbage, I’m stopping on “Utopia” and going ne’ further.
THE FIRES OF POMPEII (Series 4, Episode 2)
This is the episode where I started liking Donna. I love the story (James Moran, well done, sir), especially because it calls into question the morality of what the Doctor does. If you can prevent something horrible from happening, should you do it? The revelation that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which killed thousands of people, actually saved the rest of the world puts the Doctor in a very tough place and it’s Donna’s humanity that allows him to save someone even if he can’t save everyone. Terrific story throughout.
MIDNIGHT (Series 4, Episode 10)
This might be Russell T. Davies’ best script and I especially love that it was a last-minute replacement. It’s such a simple plot in a very modest location but a whole heap of horror and suspense are stuffed in that tiny transport cabin. The Doctor’s main power is to persuade people that he knows what he’s talking about, but if people doubt him, and moreover if they think he’s the evil one, we see how deadly things can get. All of the guest cast is fantastic, especially Lesley Sharp giving a really creepy performance as the possessed (maybe?) passenger Sky. This is Doctor Who aping The Outer Limits and doing an absolute bang-up job of it.
THE WATERS OF MARS (Gap Year Special)
This is something I am confident in saying: “The Waters of Mars” is the ONLY good special from 2009. It has everything you could want: it’s scary, it’s deep, it’s troubling, it’s fantastic. Here, we see the kind of thing the Doctor is always worried about getting into, and then, quickly, we see what he can do now that he’s the “Time Lord Victorious.” It is not a pleasant thing at all. In my version of things, the Doctor is so distraught and ashamed at the end of this episode that his regeneration is triggered and he changes into Matt Smith. To say nothing of how utterly shit both halves of “The End of Time” are, “The Waters of Mars” is just so good, and Tennant’s so good in it, that he deserved to go out on this note.
THE ELEVENTH HOUR (Series 5, Episode 1)
I have to say, I was a little worried about how this new guy was going to handle playing the Doctor, but (as Steven from Radio Free Skaro likes to say) he had me at “Fish Custard.” This ushered in the Eleventh Doctor and Steven Moffat as head writer in absolute style. I’ve watched this episode so many times and I always seem to catch things I forgot about. Unlike “The Christmas Invasion,” with Tennant in a coma for a good portion of the adventure, this episode let Smith take center stage and immediately set up the strange, complex relationship between himself and Amelia “Amy” Pond. It’s an “RTD-Style” (whatever that actually means) adventure with a literal ticking clock element that works really nicely and ushers in the season arc to come. This is 100% the episode I recommend people show to new viewers; I’ve done it three times and all three people became hooked.
THE TIME OF ANGELS/FLESH AND STONE (Series 5, Episodes 4 & 5)
What’s scarier than a Weeping Angel? SEVERAL Weeping Angels! The very first episodes filmed with the new cast and crew, this two-parter gets all Moffat-y up in this piece. Most of us weren’t expecting the Crack to be addressed so early on, but it works so amazingly well. The first of many appearances of River Song with the Eleventh Doctor and she becomes much cooler than in her first (last) adventure and yet even more mysterious. If one were to remove the cliffhanger and do an “Omnibus” version of these two episodes, I see no reason why it couldn’t be released as a feature film. It’s THAT fantastic.
AMY’S CHOICE (Series 5, Episode 7)
I think this episode is absolutely phenomenal. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s scary, and it’s weird, all of what the new series does best. The Dream Lord, played by Toby Jones, is one of the best antagonists the show’s had and, some octogenarian zombies aside, the cast remains tiny and the focus is on the characters. One reality is clearly Rory’s fantasy, the other the Doctor’s, but which is true? It forces the issue, again earlier than we’d have expected, of whether Amy’s loyalties lie with Rory or the Doctor. Though the answer gets muddled and re-asked more times than it should have, within the context of this episode, it’s definitive.
THE LODGER (Series 5, Episode 11)
I love this episode specifically because it shouldn’t work. It’s a domestic comedy with the Doctor effectively forced to join civilian life to get close to an alien presence and we discover that, unlike his predecessor, this incarnation of the Doctor possesses none of the social skills but all of the quirks. There are so many hilarious Smith-isms and his interplay with Craig (James Corden) is genius, which is probably why the funny-but-less-good sequel, “Closing Time” was done for Series 6. It answers the very valid question, “Can Doctor Who be broadly comedic?” Yes. Yes it can.
THE PANDORICA OPENS/THE BIG BANG (Series 5, Episodes 12 & 13)
You may have noticed there are a lot of Series 5 episodes on this list. This is simply because it’s my very favorite in all of the new series. Its finale, comprised of two diametrically different episodes, is as epic and yet intimate as any could hope to be. From the Indiana Jones-esque first part with the cadre of villains all working together to imprison the Doctor (what a cliffhanger!) to the time-looping romp of the second part, this story goes all over the place and I’m with it 100%. While the actual denouement is schmaltz-over-science, its impact is still very much felt and is the first series finale to end on a fully-happy note. Remember what I said about the Angels two-parter being cinema ready? Double that here.
THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT/THE DAY OF THE MOON (Series 6, Episodes 1 &2)
After that finale (and the perfect “A Christmas Carol”), Doctor Who was riding high and needed to deliver in a big way with its next premiere, and largely it succeeds with flying colors. Opening up the series to the grand expanses of Utah’s Monument Valley, the story becomes instantly more global. The Silence (or Silents… do we know which yet for sure?) are nightmare-inducing and the big shock moment in episode one is a gut punch to the viewer. While the mystery set up in these episodes doesn’t pay off in quite as satisfying a way as I’d have hoped, as a beginning to a series, it could get no better. Much praise to Mark Sheppard and his father William Morgan Sheppard for their performances as the endlessly cool Canton Delaware III. I sure hope he somehow makes a return.
THE DOCTOR’S WIFE (Series 6, Episode 4)
Neil Gaiman’s much anticipated episode is, like “Blink,” afforded almost limitless adulation. And it deserves it. This is such a lovely thank-you note from a fan to a series he clearly adores while still being able to throw a continuity-shifting wrench into the works for good measure. I love any episode willing to explore both the concept and character of the TARDIS and take her beyond being simply the vessel with which to get the ball rolling. Particularly lovely is the idea that, without the “soul,” the TARDIS can become a truly terrifying, malevolent place. The villain’s name is “House,” the implication being that, with TARDIS’ soul gone, it’s no longer a “Home.” Genius.
THE GIRL WHO WAITED (Series 6, Episode 10)
I recently took to Twitter in dogmatic appreciation for this episode, and while I may have overplayed the significance of this episode, I still firmly believe it’s one of the best examples of storytelling in the whole of the reboot. Tom MacRae’s script, while focusing squarely on the three leads, is able to do so with imagination and impact. It shows the danger of time travel and the consequences even something as simple as trying to correct a mistake can have. This episode could have been entitled “Rory’s Choice,” as he has to choose not only between two versions of his wife, but also whether he’s prepared to continue his journey with the Doctor. All of the actors are marvelous, but Karen Gillan in her dual role especially revelatory.
And so, there we have my 20 favorite New Who stories. It was a very tough decision to make and if I didn’t include one of your favorites, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. But maybe it does, I don’t know what you like. Make sure to tune in to BBC One in the UK, BBC America in the US, or SPACE in Canada (depending on where you are) this Saturday for “Asylum of the Daleks,” and a new series of episodes that will make me rethink this list probably instantly.