When I started watching the show, I thought there was no way someone could overshadow Christopher Eccleston for me but it literally took one episode to make me a Tennant fan for just about the entirety of his whole run (we won’t talk too much about “The End of Time”… in fact, that’s it.) To celebrate ten years of the Tenth Doctor, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Tennant stories. They’re in chronological order and unranked, so don’t yell at me.
Also DISCLAIMER: I’m not going to include “Blink” on this list. Yes, it’s a brilliant episode; yes, it’s one of the best ever. But a) it always gets talked about, and 2) the Tenth Doctor is a supporting character in it so why not focus on ones where he takes center stage?
While I was all about the Tenth Doctor with the first episode, it wasn’t until “School Reunion” when a whole new world of Doctor Who opened up. Elisabeth Sladen returned as Sarah Jane Smith, the most beloved companion of the classic series, for an episode which explored the idea of what happens after companions stop traveling with the Doctor. Would they stop caring about aliens and stuff altogether? In Sarah Jane’s case, no; she continued to search for and report the paranormal. And Tennant–a confirmed old-school fanboy–getting to share scenes with her is truly a joy to watch. This episode went over so well that it led to the spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The Girl in the Fireplace
While I don’t think this episode fits very well within the season, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a bang-up awesome standalone adventure. The first Steven Moffat script in the Tennant era, it mixes everything the future showrunner would covet: history, children waiting for frigging ever to become adults, weird time jumps, fears of monsters, and pretending the Doctor is drunk. Even if it ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Doctor and Madame du Pompadour to have that kind of relationship, the fact that he isn’t there, and she has to take the slow path, is very Doctory.
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
Tennant’s first season was a mostly lighthearted, or at least generally happy, affair — even the Cybermen returning in a parallel dimension didn’t truly frighten. But toward the end of series 2, we got a pair of episodes that might still be among the scariest the show’s ever done. “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” took the Doctor and Rose Tyler to a base at the edge of a black hole, where a crew is slowly overtaken by a demonic presence, possibly even the Devil himself. This story also introduced the Ood, and made them VERY creepy, even if they went on to be weird spiritual beings.
The Shakespeare Code
Some people give this episode shade, but I won’t hear of it. As a big Shakespeare nut myself, the script by Gareth Roberts is full of all sorts of great references to famous plays, and in-jokes about Shakespeare lore. Whatever became of Love’s Labours Won? Maybe some dank alien harpies done stole it. I also love that Shakespeare is too clever to be taken in by the psychic paper, and that they filmed in the actual Globe Theater in London. It’s just a really fun episode. The only thing I don’t like about it is the Martha Jones pining-over-the-Doctor sesh that begins in earnest here.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood
Now, the Tenth Doctor isn’t actually in this one very much, but David Tennant sure is and he’s amazing. Hiding his Time Lordiness in a fob watch, he hides from an evil alien clan and lives as a regular human named John Smith, a school teacher on the brink of WWI. Martha, stuck as a maid, is the only one who knows the truth, the custodian of his true identity. The episode is great for contrasting the kind but pitiless Doctor with the decidedly un-heroic but wholly sympathetic John Smith, who is forced to give up a whole life and love in order to save the world. Stupid responsibility.
Even though the two episodes that conclude this storyline range from “not so great” to “poop on a stick,” this episode is nothing short of brilliant, bringing back Captain Jack Harkness post-immortality-making and forcing the Doctor to deal with essentially abandoning him. We’re also taken to the very edge of the universe and shown a version of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master, who has also hidden from the world in the guise of a kindly old man. It ends on one of the best cliffhangers of all time, and I super wish the following two episodes had lived up to this one. It’s great.
The Fires of Pompeii
I have to admit something: I wasn’t sure I was going to like Donna Noble (as played by Catherine Tate) when she became the full time companion. Just something about the character rubbed me the wrong way. But after “The Fires of Pompeii,” I was sold and she became my favorite. This is another wonderful example of the Doctor having to make tough decisions pertaining to fixed points in time and whether or not to save people. He can’t divert the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, nor all the people that die because of it, but it’s Donna’s sense of right and wrong, and her compassion, that leads him to save one family–who so happens to look like a couple of Doctor faces later.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
This is a story that I liked at the time but it has gone way, way up in my estimation in the years hence. While the second half with Donna “saved” in the matrix with a new set of memories gets a bit tedious, the mixture of creepy shadow aliens, walking skeleton corpses in spacesuits, and the introduction of River Song really make for great entertainment. And Tennant is brilliant in these episodes, his skepticism about River inches steadily into the realization that she really does know a lot about him.
No two ways about it, this is my very favorite Tenth Doctor story of the whole bunch. It’s basically his whole personality in one contained–one room–story. It plays like a stage production, with the small group of characters all dealing with each other and this terrifying unknown and inexplicable alien presence. The Doctor starts out his usual exuberant, chatty self, starts in on his arrogant “because I’m clever” diatribe when things get weird, and get summarily dismissed and even persecuted by the others when the entity decides to make him seem the evil one. It’s a rough 45 minutes, and certainly not uplifting, but it’s so stinking good. And, famously, Russell T. Davies was forced to churn out the script in a weekend, and it was the best thing he ever wrote.
The Waters of Mars
Finally, I’m gonna throw some love to what is, in my humble opinion, the only good episode from the gap year specials. It’s also really damn dark and doesn’t paint the Tenth Doctor in the best light, but it does show a different side to both the character and to Tennant in the role. This is a similar dilemma that he faces in “The Fires of Pompeii,” but without Donna or another companion to keep him honest, he goes way off the rails, calling himself not the survivor of the Time War, but the WINNER of the Time War, which–to him–gives him the right to completely shirk the rules of time. It blows up in his face and leads to his eventual downfall. But despite the sadness, I still love it.
So there we have my ten favorite Doctor Who stories with the Tenth Doctor for his 10th anniversary. Everybody’s got opinions, I’m sure, so be sure to tell me all of your choices in the comments below! And send 10 your birthday wishes, wherever he may be.
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!