What are the greatest episodes of the modern era of Doctor Who? Sab Astley picks the 10 greatest stories in the latest TDF Top 10
Over the next two week’s The Digital Fix will focus on the greatest stories of Doctor Who, starting with the 10 greatest episodes of the modern era…
Doctor Who is a show that has constantly sought to reinvent itself every three to four years, keeping the creative life force of the show in flux much like the time continuum itself. We’ve seen a myriad of Doctors, companions, writers and show runners during the modern revival already, each with their own distinctive style and flair – which makes narrowing down the best of the best that much harder.
While some episodes on this list will come as a surprise to no-one, others will be quite the shock – particularly an omission or two. Of course, your episode choices are perfectly valid! That’s the beauty of Doctor Who; in spite of it all, one episode loathed by all can be the treasured favourite of a small cluster of viewers. I’ve selected the episodes that stuck out to me the most when considering my memories of growing up as a Whovian, trying to curate a list that accurately reflects my ideal aspects of The Doctor whilst also showcasing that very innovation and creativity the show is known for.
Allow me then, to present The TDF Top 10: Modern Doctor Who
10. The Doctor’s Wife (6.04)
Penned by Neil Gaiman, this has always been my favourite Doctor Who romance – The Doctor and his TARDIS. The concept is one only Gaiman could have pulled off so flawlessly, as we explore the complex emotions that The Doctor feels towards his TARDIS, momentarily personified within Idris. The two have been with one another so long that to depict their bond is immensely tricky, and thus their entanglement is constantly in flux, but the sweet moments that Eleven has with Idris when they’re alone are enough to melt your heart.
The personification of the TARDIS contrasted against the empty promise of a potential trapped Time Lord perfectly symbolizes the nature of The Doctor – while in a sense he is alone, he has never been alone; he’s always had Idris and always is. Does it top River and The Doctor’s love? Tough to say, but it’s certainly a rival.
9. The Day of the Doctor (50th anniversary special)
This was always going to be on here – how could you not? Tennant, Smith, Capaldi, TOM BAKER AND JOHN HURT? It’s a triple threat that no fan could ignore, let alone the expansive story that effectively changed the canon for the next few years. The reintroduction of the Zygons is a clever play from Moffatt, thankfully letting the Daleks take a backseat to Time War history (they’re still there, don’t worry!)
The tri-doctor decision scene with The Moment deserves commemoration alone for its depiction of the Doctor’s soul – constantly torn between doing the right thing and doing what’s needed, to the point where they’re one step away from too-far-gone, only to be pulled back by the humanity of the companion. It’s quintessential.
8. The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion (9.07 / 9.08)
This two-parter was the beginning of cementing Capaldi’s brilliance and mastery as The Doctor – that speech on the miniaturized scale of war was the defining scene for Twelve, in my eyes. Capaldi’s acting is so raw and unstable, bringing out the true guilt and regret the Doctor has harboured for millennia. Some criticized Capaldi’s run for its darkness and misery, but that’s always been present in Doctor Who – I think Capaldi understood that essence of The Doctor, and chose to reflect not the heroic, bombastic exterior, but more of a musing on the damaged and tired self that lies deep within. In three minutes, Capaldi solidifies and elevates himself in his Doctor, just as Tennant and Smith did.
The threads that Moffatt picks up from the 50th Anniversary feel organic and naturally weave back into the over-arching narrative of Series nine. Top that with a worldwide coup, entrenched within some classic spy tropes (the double-agent, the grand explosive getaways) and you have a brilliant and thrilling piece of Doctor Who.
7. World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls (10.11 / 10.12)
This mind-bending two-parter is brilliant for a few reasons – firstly, who doesn’t a love a multi-Master story? John Simm and Michelle Gomez playing off one another is so disturbingly enthralling, watching the Master engage in possibly the purest form of narcissism is wonderful. While Moffatt was never an exceptional showrunner, he’s always been a fantastical writer – the time-distortion via the black hole is brilliant because we finally see some realistic stakes – The Doctor simply cannot fix this problem, making Bill’s fate legitimately uncertain to the ultimate threat of all – time itself.
Part of why I love Capaldi as The Doctor so much is that he is able to tap into a part of The Doctor’s psyche we don’t often see in the other modern Doctors – the inevitability of his failure, admitting why he continues in spite of his infinite grief he harbours. It’s a scene that emphasizes when The Doctor and The Master do have their final confrontation, it will be without violence, without weapons, or world-ending threats: The Doctor’s greatest weapon has and always will be his words.
6. Dalek (1.06)
This is one of the most terrifying episodes of Doctor Who. Up there with Blink and The Empty Child, this Ecceleston adventure is only two steps away from being a full-on horror. There are moments in this where you truly fear the Doctor, because it’s such a switch in Nine’s character, with this amalgamation of rage and terror that’s unleashed upon seeing Van Statten’s Dalek that you are forced to question if the Doctor we see with Rose is merely a guise. Shearman takes the opportunity to purposefully include multiple critiques of the Daleks’ abilities over the years, such as stairs and impairing the eye stalk, in order to shock viewers old and new.
This is a perfect episode for highlighting why the Daleks have been so feared for generations – we don’t need thousands, hundreds, even five. We only need one to encapsulate how terrifyingly unstoppable they are. The cold, chilling score combined with the Dalek’s massacre through Statten’s labyrinth, viewed only through glimpses of cameras, fills you with a sense of immense dread even 15 years on.
5. Heaven Sent (9.11)
This is Doctor Who broken down to its complete and utter basics. The Doctor, trapped in a mysterious location, with a monster ever-chasing him, forced to elude while analysing not only the pursuer but his surroundings. Rachel Talalay is an utter powerhouse of a director, leaving little visual clues for the audience to decipher alongside The Doctor, making the episode feel monolithic in scope to accurately reflect the magnitude of its concept – this episode was entirely the first of its kind, to have The Doctor and ONLY The Doctor for its entire runtime.
By this point in the list, you know I love Peter Capaldi, but how anyone can say he wasn’t a good Doctor after this is ludicrous; he takes this and sprints with it, taking everything we’ve seen from him over the past two series and creating such a powerful emotional conclusion. Never giving up, never giving in in spite of the millennia of torture he is forced to endure, The Doctor’s struggle perfectly symbolized through the Azbantium wall – he is constantly fighting against the impossible, the unstoppable, and the inevitable, and yet he will continue to fight until he has ran time out to the final second. And then he’ll do it again
4. The Girl in the Fireplace (2.04)
You didn’t think I’d talk about love stories in Doctor Who without mentioning Madame de Pompadour, did you? This episode is as delightful as it is heart-breaking, god I wish those clockwork robots would make a re-appearance, don’t you? Obviously the show is stolen by the chemistry between Reinette and Ten, as the two are once again battling against The Doctor’s greatest villain, Time. The fleeting moments that he’s able to connect with her are so touching, evolving from her imaginary friend to watchful protector, which makes their eventual farewell all the more tragic; it’s done without Ten realising it would be his final interaction with her.
One of the biggest differences I always considered between the romance with Rose, and with Reinette, is that Ten and Rose fell in love with one another. With Reinette, it always felt much more as though Ten fell in love with her. Their mind-melding scene highlights the complexity of understanding she had for him, and Moffatt for once flips the script on The Doctor – much as the companions chase after him, The Doctor ends up chasing after Reinette. The final moments of this episode are gut-wrenching; Tennant’s ability to emit such sadness with the smallest of looks always gets me.
3. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2.12 / 2.13)
Of course the tragic end for Rose and Ten was always going to make it here. There’s so much happening in this two-parter, it’s difficult to put into words – from the gradual reveal of both Dalek and Cyberman, expertly wrapping a bow on multiple threads sewn into the narrative quilt of Series two to the ground-breaking Daleks vs. Cybermen war. It’s an idea almost fifty years in the making, finally unfolding on screen to the delight of millions of fans whilst the two species fire snarks and lasers off against one another.
There’s also the Tyler Family’s teary-eyed reunion amidst a Earth-1 Jackie and Earth-2 Pete, alongside new beefed-up Mickey, fresh from a parallel-universe of kicking ass, proving himself more than a worthy companion for The Doctor once and for all. But we all know the piece de la resistance – Ten and Rose’s goodbye. The heartstrings of millions of viewers were ripped clean from their chests, as we watched Rose almost fall to the clutches of that infinite void, thankfully saved by Pete, but forever lost to Ten. If that wasn’t enough, Russell T Davies pouring salt into the wound and squeezing lemon juice through their final goodbye, cut short by the burnt-up sun snuffed out – much like Rose and Ten’s love.
2. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of The Time Lords (3.11 / 3.12 / 3.13)
The Master conquering of Earth, as The Doctor, Martha and Jack skulk through parts of the United Kingdom whilst being hunted as national fugitives is like watching a modern thriller unfold; it’s so unprecedented in Modern Doctor Who that you truly have no idea how The Doctor is going to win. Couple that with the spats between Ten and The Master, from their arguments to their fleeting moments of connection, as well as unveiling the horrifying true nature of the Toclofane – making The Doctor, Martha and Jack complicit in the mass genocide and experimentation of the final remains of the human race is such a gleefully sick joke from The Master – it solidifies his absolute, maniacal evil.
What I love about this three-parter most is that ultimately, it isn’t The Doctor who saves the day. It’s Martha Jones. I’ve always been a subscriber to the belief that The Doctor himself is not a hero, but that he creates heroes. Martha is truly exceptional as a companion, in effect becoming something greater than The Doctor herself, using the guidance she’s learned from him. She travels the world, spreading the legend of The Doctor to those who will listen, creating this false grand plan fully aware The Master will discover her actions, and ultimately takes down a global tyrant with a lack of violence, weapons or machinery. Martha Jones transcended The Doctor.
1. The End of Time (2009 / 2010 Festive Special)
This is my favourite Doctor Who story ever. This is such a beautiful swan song to David Tennant, and it never fails to make me cry. Russell T Davies is and will always be a master Doctor Who storyteller to me, to the point where I can still watch this episode to this day and it will still shock and surprise me. Having Ten’s final encounter be against The Master and the Time Lords themselves is such an incredibly ambitious and overwhelming concept that it could have easily flopped hard, but RTD balances the elements exceptionally. This is a masterclass in tying loose threads, from the four knocks, to the drumming in The Master’s head, the re-emergence of seemingly normal side characters – I could gush over this all day.
RTD takes The Sound of Drums and amplifies it, this time shedding away any consistent companions, but adopting momentary allies such as Addams and Rossiter, and of course Wilfred. The stakes are raised to impossible heights when The Master finally accomplishes his plans, with the inclusion of Donna’s safety now in threat due to the re-emergence of dormant memories with Ten. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, BOOM – The Time Lords are back, RASSILON is back.
The bond between the Master and the Doctor has never been one of complete hatred, but more a misaligned kinship – it’s a poetic moment to end Tennant’s era, with his greatest enemy providing an act of kindness as to not corrupt Ten like the Time Lords have The Master. In spite of all of this, that isn’t the Doctor’s darkest consideration – that is distilled to its purest form. Sacrifice Wilf and continue on or sacrifice himself so that Wilf can live. The woeful Shakespearian soliloquy Tennant gives is so raw and torn, I’ve never forgotten how it goes or how it feels to this day, and just like how I didn’t forget, neither does Ten, as he states, “I’ve been going on too long.” In his final moments, we remember Ten’s words: “I don’t want to go.” We didn’t want him to either, but what a beautiful piece of tragedy to bow out on.
What are your favourite episodes of the modern Doctor Who? Let us know in the comments below and come back next week as we look back at the 10 greatest episodes of the classic era…
Guessed the spoiler? Are modern audiences too savvy for TV show twists?
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum