Doctor Who‘s TARDIS is a spaceship full of marvels. Not only is it wildly bigger on the inside and basically alive, it can take you pretty much anywhere in space… and time. While it is always thrilling to witness the Doctor and their companion(s) heading to different worlds and days to come, the show often travels back in time to reimagine real-life events and bring historical figures into the fold. That look into the past for both educational and entertainment reasons is a foundational aspect of Doctor Who. It continues into the show’s modern era and, based on what we’ve seen, will keep going with Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor. We think Doctor Who tends to nail it with most of the historical episodes. But a few stand out among the crowd. (If we listed ALL of the good ones, this list would be too long.)

split image of thirteenth doctor and her companions in haunting of villa diodati and karen gillian in fires of pompeii historical episode

Here are some the best Doctor Who historical episodes in the modern era and beyond.

The Unquiet Dead” (Season 1 (2005), Episode 3)

This episode is the first foray into the past for the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler’s short-lived duo as well as fans who were new to the franchise. It encompasses many things fans love about Doctor Who: emotional heft, time-traveling jokes, lots of running, wonky special effects, clever ties to a larger arc, and using the TARDIS’ closet. In Victorian-era Cardiff in 1869, Rose and Nine encounter the gas-driven and body-snatching Gelth alongside Simon Callow’s very delightful Charles Dickens. From the clairvoyant Gwyneth’s utterances of a “bad wolf” to her morally controversial sacrifice, viewers get a taste of history and a larger understanding of how awful it can be traveling with the Doctor. 

The Girl in the Fireplace” (Season 2, Episode 4)

Once again, Doctor Who introduces many fans to a real-life historical figure in their accurate time period with a sci-fi twist. The Tenth Doctor, Rose Tyler, and Mickey Smith find themselves on a 51st-century spaceship. Oddly, the ship has time windows to spy on Madame de Pompadour. Much of this episode’s appeal is the chemistry between David Tennant’s whimsical and flirtatious Doctor alongside Sophia Myles’ curious, brazen, and charming take on the infamous real-life mistress of King Louis XV. It’s a riveting love story and mystery with an effective villain. The ending is one of many examples of how this mostly silly sci-fi series can absolutely destroy you emotionally.

“Human Nature/Family of Blood” (Season 3, Episodes 8 and 9)

This is a problematic fave for many Doctor Who fans. There’s the obvious issues with having a Black companion stuck in this time period (and with Martha Jones’ treatment as a whole). Still, this two-part story as a whole is quite good. Watching the Doctor become as human as he will ever be in 1913 as his frequent alter ego John Smith while Martha works to both protect him and help him remember who he is adds up to a touching, at times frustrating, but consistently entertaining story. The Family of Blood is properly creepy and Martha continues to prove that she’s very capable all on her own. There’s a reason why these episodes often rank among fans as two of the best in Tennant’s era. 

“The Unicorn and the Wasp” (Season 4, Episode 7)

Reader, I have a confession. Season four of Doctor Who is absolutely one of my faves, so I couldn’t choose just one historical episode. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” takes us to 1926 on the eve of mystery author Agatha Christie’s disappearance. The reimagining of her real-life mystery with an ongoing whodunit story that gives serious Clue vibes. There’s a plethora of reference’s to Christie’s most famous works, an ensemble of memorable characters, a shapeshifting giant wasp, and one of the best TARDIS duos in the show’s recent history. You gotta love it. 

“The Fires of Pompeii” (Season 4, Episode 2)

Much like “The Unquiet Dead,” “The Fires of Pompeii” is a historical episode that also serves a few sobering warnings to the companion and, by extension, the viewer. Some terrible things are meant to happen and there’s nothing anyone—not even a godlike time-traveler—can do to fix it. While traveling with the Doctor seems exciting and glamorous on the surface, it will involve death and heartbreak. Ten and Donna end up in Pompeii the exact same day that Mount Vesuvius is set to erupt. Then-future Doctor Peter Capaldi’s turn as real historical figure Lucius Caecilius along with his family gives the viewer a more intimate view of what it meant to live during that time while also staying in line with the show’s fantasy elements. 

Vincent and the Doctor” (Season 5, Episode 10)

You cannot talk about Doctor Who historical episodes without talking about “Vincent and the Doctor.” Despite being a well-known artist, Vincent van Gogh often feels nebulous as a human being. This episode brings him to life (thanks to Tony Curran’s stunning performance) in marvelous fashion. It depicts his mental health and self-image struggles with compassion and heart. It’s a history lesson and winding adventure all wrapped in one. I dare you to watch it and not feel all the feels at the end.

“Let’s Kill Hitler” (Season 6, Episode 8)

This title is certainly one that grabs your attention. The Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory end up in 1938 Berlin where they accidentally save Hitler from torture at the hands of a time-traveling justice organization. (To be fair, it makes sense for that type of org to go after him.) It is quite the gamble to include such an awful person in a rather comedic story. But, thanks to great performances by Albert Welling and Alex Kingston as Hitler and River Song, respectively, it becomes a high-energy dive into the past. 

“The Doctor, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – (Christmas Special 2011)

Okay so maybe this one is not as directly “historical” as some of the other episodes on this list. But, the Doctor’s encounter with a family with World War II as the backdrop is a delightful Christmas romp, so it is all good. The episode’s obvious ode to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and getting to see a more domestic side of the Doctor are a special treat. 

“The Day of the Doctor” – (50th Anniversary Special)

Two Doctors in 1562 England? Sign me up. This anniversary special is a bombastic adventure that features none other than Queen Elizabeth I, the Tenth Doctor on horseback (again) and kissing the Queen, and moments that feel like a big hug for Who fans.

“Robot of Sherwood” – (Season 8, Episode 3)

It’s almost a given that a legendary figure like Robin Hood would appear in Doctor Who. The infamous outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor certainly exhibits the kind of rogue behavior that the Doctor appreciates. “Robot of Sherwood” pits the Twelfth Doctor against Robin Hood for a fun battle before fighting against the gold-digging Sheriff Nottingham and his band of robot knights. A spaceship masquerading as a castle, Twelve’s doubts about whether Robin Hood is real, and some sweet costume designs bring this legendary story to life in a way that only Doctor Who can.

“Thin Ice” – (Season 10, Episode 3)

One of the best parts of watching a Doctor Who historical episode is diving into Britain’s past. “Thin Ice” takes us to a frost fair at the river Thames. These were real life events that started as early as the 7th century. People would enjoy food, music, ice skating on the frozen river, and much more. In the episode, Bill couldn’t wait to experience this with Twelve in 1814. Of course, their fun day is interrupted by the very plausible existence of a racist alongside the less plausible sea creature lurking beneath the ice. (Well, less plausible for the average person.) This is a very character driven and fun story that forces Bill to see and embrace the totality of the Doctor. 

“Rosa” – (Season 11, Episode 3)

When it comes to modern-era Doctors, Thirteen has some of the best historical episodes. One of them is “Rosa,” which brings the crew to America in 1955. It provides a serious examination of racism and sexism via Ryan and Yaz. The duo’s conversation about their shared and unique experiences is a shining gem in an overall great episode. Ryan specifically meets great Black figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and, of course, Rosa Parks. The latter is on the cusp of her historic moment where she refuses to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking the Montgomery bus boycotts. There’s a time-traveling (and deeply racist) criminal set on preventing this fixed event from happening and the TARDIS team figures out a way to thwart him.

“Demons of the Punjab” – (Season 11, Episode 6)

Yaz’s family history is perfectly woven into events surrounding the partition of India, giving us a specific family to focus this historic moment around. “Demons of the Punjab” truly takes the series back to its original educational premise. It introduces many viewers to a pivotal event that they may not have learned about or fully explored in school. The episode also resonates with many of us who wish we could go back in time and meet our elders and ancestors to peel back the layers on their lives. Also, Thirteen’s speech about love is one of the best Doctor monologues.

“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” – (Season 12, Episode 4)

Another season of Thirteen and the fam, another great historical episode. As the title indicates, we meet the now-famous inventor back in 1903 when he’s trying to get a break. Cloaked figures, demanding aliens, and Tesla’s infamous real-live rivalry with Thomas Edison ( who was always causing mess) bring together this enjoyable episode that deserves more praise. 

“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” – (Season 12, Episode 8)

As a fan of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, haunted house stories, and the Doctor putting rogue companions in their rightful place, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is my favorite Thirteenth Doctor story. I’d dare say it is one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes ever. It’s a good ole ghost story packed full of literary references and sharp dialogue. The story that depicts the weekend that Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and other real-life figures spent three days together at the Villa Diodati mansion telling each other stories. This is when Frankenstein was born! Doctor Who puts a spin on it by using a lone, half-converted Cyberman to spark inspiration for the author. Written by Maxine Alderton and directed by Emma Sullivan, it is an absolutely stunning episode. 

Tai Gooden is a horror and sci-fi fan with a serious love for Doctor Who and Martha Jones. She’s been a fan of the show for over 10 years, often writing about it for several outlets and attending Gallifrey One with her Who crew.