If you’d have told me after series 11 of Doctor Who that I’d have a hard time deciding what episode of series 12 was my favorite, I’d have thought you meant “because you probably didn’t like any of them”. Not so, I’m happy to say. In just about every arena, the storytelling in Jodie Whittaker’s sophomore season was tighter, more exciting, and actually tried narratively in a way that felt lacking in her first year.
But series 12 is another story. The ten episodes this year upped the ante considerably and gave us some rousing good adventures and some thoughtful stories to boot. But what good is saying you liked something? Why not immediately put your feelings in a ranked list? Well, that’s what I’ve done, friends and reading public.
Even though there are two 2-parters this series, I’m ranking each episode individually. My ranking is completely subjective based on a) how well I thought the episode worked on its own merits, and b) how I felt about it at the time and how I feel about it now. I should say, I only disliked one episode. I experienced varying degrees of enjoyment for the rest.
So here now is Doctor Who series 12, from worst to best.
10. Orphan 55
As I said above, there’s only one episode of series 12 I full-on dislike, and it was episode three. “Orphan 55” started off okay, with the Doctor and co. heading to a resort planet where things are slightly weird. Perfect set-up to a Doctor Who story. But things quickly get messy with way too many characters who die unceremoniously (Benni!!!) and maybe the most heavy-handed message of all time. Like more heavy-handed than friggin’ Hellboy. Worst of all it felt mean-spirited and that will always turn me off. Fittingly, the dregs of the season.
9. Spyfall Pt. 2
After a solid and rousing first part of the premiere, “Spyfall Pt. 2,” for me, dropped off It got waaaaay too convoluted with its mixture of cyber warfare, multi-dimensional aliens, scientists from the past, Nazi Germany, and oh yeah, the Master being all Mastery. Oh, and then let’s not forget the tease about the Timeless Child at the end. A lot of people have also objected to the Doctor removing the memories of two brilliant historical women without their consent. Something she never did again all season. While I applaud Chris Chibnall’s willingness to do a bunch of things this series, “Spyfall Pt 2” is a good example of how a lot can quickly become too much.
8. Ascension of the Cybermen
Look, none of the showrunners have hit finales out of the park fully, so I do want to applaud Chibnall for doing a damn sight better this year than last. However, while “Ascension of the Cybermen” sets up a lot and brings the mystery to the forefront, it ultimately doesn’t do anything. Nothing actually happens, and the human survivors we meet are all pretty uninteresting, with the exception of Rovio, just because she flirts with Graham. There’s some really great Yaz moments in this, which helps things a lot, and a lovely scene between the Doctor and the Cyber Leader. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hold your breath and wait.
7. The Timeless Children
I’ve really been wrestling with my feelings about “The Timeless Children” since I watched it. There’s a lot of great things about it. Again, Yaz and Graham are excellent. Their big scene on the ship is truly wonderful. Some good action, and the direction is very solid. The scene in the Matrix between Thirteen and Ruth was nice, too. The Master is fine, though his plan and the execution of the Cyber Lords are objectively stupid. And honestly, I have no problems *in theory* with any of the crazy continuity-shifting revelations.
What I do have a problem with is how it’s all tell and no show. The Doctor sits and listens to the Master tell her the revelations, with visuals to back it up via the Matrix. It’s storytime! There’s no discovery on her part, there’s no real clue uncovering. She wasn’t even worrying about that; the Master popped in through a portal and dragged her to Exposition Town. And maybe even worse than that! Once the Doctor comes to grips with the new reality of her exceptionally long life, she’s the same. There’s no difference in the character beyond changing contexts.
So, this is where I sit with “The Timeless Children” now. A lot of unanswered questions and a lot of deus ex machina inside an otherwise good episode.
Amazing how in the same season as “Orphan 55,” series 12 could give us an episode that does every single thing that episode did but better. The side characters work, and the central relationship between Jake (Warren Brown) and Adam (Matthew McNulty) feels real and believable. The environmentalism angle feels so much rounder and more complex without needing the Doctor to just say the message directly to camera. I dug the globetrotting and the pandemic feeling of it and the ending, while full of alien gobbledygook, worked just fine.
5. Spyfall Pt. 1
What a fun way to start the season! We needed a lively romp to get us going after the long hiatus and “Spyfall Pt. 1” delivered in spades. The spy pastiche wasn’t the most original idea for a British TV program but I thought it mostly succeeded. It was great to see Stephen Fry in it, if briefly. The introduction of O (Sacha Dhawan) and the mystery of the Kasaavin came across so well that by time we got to the reveal in the final moments, I was close to breathless. Yes, the second episode fell like a biscuit off a Ferris wheel, but as a first part on New Year’s Day, I wasn’t mad at it at all.
4. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
This was the early contender for episode of the series, and would have been if not for some belters in the second half. But I just dug this throwback to the celebrity historicals in the Tennant era. We meet a couple of real people—in this case Tesla (Goran Višnjić) and Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister)—and add an evil alien plot. Badda bing, badda boom, you have an episode that’s exciting, funny, and got some great era-specific science. Enjoyable to ol’ Kyle Anderson.
3. Can You Hear Me?
This episode is maybe the biggest surprise for me this year. It brings in such enormous sci-fi concepts, like god-like beings using nightmares and fear as a weapon for their own enjoyment. It gave Jodie Whittaker a real baddie (who wasn’t the Master) to play against and was proper scary throughout. But it also dealt with real topics like anxiety and depression in a respectful way. As Riley Silverman wrote, it didn’t make light of these problems nor did it assert the Doctor could whisk them away with the sonic screwdriver. These are things people need to deal with in their own way, and that felt so brilliantly of the moment.
2. Fugitive of the Judoon
This was another jam-packed episode, but one that worked for me almost across the board. It introduced us to Ruth (Jo Martin) who seemed just like a normal person in a horrible situation, with Judoon on her heels. The Doctor doesn’t understand why they’re after her, but when she finally does, when that penny finally drops, it was mind-blowing. Another Doctor we didn’t know about? Time Lords we had never seen? The Doctor fully in the dark? And hey, Captain Jack Harness back to warn the companions about the threats to come? Wow.
But why this episode worked the way the two finale episodes didn’t is that the discovery was all part of the story, it wasn’t a digression from the story. Our Doctor is confused and worried, but she’s active and clever. While “Timeless Children” boasted maybe more show-altering revelations, this was the episode that made the bigger impact.
1. The Haunting of Villa Diodati
Let me make no bones about it; this isn’t just far and away the best episode of Doctor Who series 12. This might be one of my favorite episodes of the show in years. I adore this episode six ways from Sunday. Writer Maxine Alderton was able to weave literary giants, a believable sci-fi spin on the ghost story, true universe-altering implications, and a villain that might be the scariest we’ve seen in forever together into 50 minutes of near-perfection. It was era-specific and twisted Frankenstein in a fabulous way. The Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) sadly never reached the heights of glory in the next two episodes, but here, he’s an absolute legend.
And Jodie Whittaker gets to be the best version we’ve yet seen of her Doctor. I wish she got to be this perfect in the finale. Her speech about the team structure not being flat, but mountainous gave me legitimate chills, and by the time she beseeches “Words MATTER” about saving the life of one man, I was welling up. It’s a fantastic, gorgeous, creepy, and emotional episode and I’ll ride that high until Christmas.
And there we have my ranking of Doctor Who series 12! As always, these are opinions because I’m a human. If you’re a human with opinions, gimme your ranking in the comments below.
Featured Image: BBC America