Readers of Doctor Who TV have, over the past several weeks, engaged in a torturous exercise in determining the best stories of the Doctor Who revival to mark the revival’s 10-year anniversary. The results, aggregated from tens of thousands of votes, can be found here, with The Day of the Doctor claiming first place. The thing is, they’re wrong. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling the correct top 20 stories of the last ten years for the fandom’s benefit, since Doctor Who TV readers obviously can’t be trusted to get it right.
20. The Girl in the Fireplace — A commentary on the nature of time travel, this historical about the Madame de Pompadour with a creepy sci-fi twist is an emotional roller coaster, to be sure. 18th Century France is magnificently brought to life, while the repair droids were genuinely frightening. It is a perfectly-constructed story with one of the most poignant, heartstring-tugging endings Doctor Who has ever done. I’m disappointed I can’t rank it higher, but Doctor Who has me spoilt for choice!
19. Dalek — A brilliant introduction to the Daleks for a whole new audience. The complex and highly-charged relationship between the Doctor and the Daleks is explored in a compelling way, as is the effect on the Doctor of the mysterious Time War.
18. Planet of the Ood — Disturbing at times, but with a great, uplifting ending. The Ood are a really well-conceived alien species, and this episode is just a genuinely good story. This is one of my personal favourites from the revival, a dark and poetic exposition on weighty themes.
17. The Day of the Doctor — The 50th Anniversary special was a great, enjoyable romp saturated with fanservice (which is all much appreciated), but in many ways doesn’t make it to the status of a genuinely great story. There were certain problems with plotting and continuity issues, which can be overlooked in taking DOTD for what it was (a celebratory anniversary special), but which ultimately prevent it from rising to the level of the out-and-out greats, in my estimation. Which, of course, do not detract from the fact that DOTD is immensely enjoyable in its own right.
16. The Doctor’s Wife — I’ve always thought this was an excellent episode, but yet somewhat overrated, as I don’t gush over this one the way others do. The concept of the Doctor meeting the TARDIS in human form is nothing short of inspired, but I think the episode was perhaps a bit light on the actual interaction between the Doctor and the TARDIS/Sexy. The conflict with House was interesting, but I think it detracted from the screentime which ought to have been given to the Doctor and TARDIS. Nevertheless, a greatly enjoyable, top quality episode.
15. The Eleventh Hour — This is probably the best introductory episode the show has done in its 50-year history. This is an episode focussed on introducing the new leads, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, Rory, with the alien threat playing something a subordinate role. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan cemented themselves in their new roles exceptionally; they certainly won me over completely. The story itself is gripping and brilliantly-paced, with the Doctor luminous in his new body.
14. The God Complex — One of the best stories from Series 6, and unjustifiably underrated. It’s creepy, claustrophobic, and has suspense in buckets. In addition, it boasts a cast of wonderful characters, including one of the notable could-have-been companions, Rita. I just love this episode for the way has me on the edge of my seat, wanting to look away but unable to tear my eyes away from the screen. It’s one of the best times Doctor Who has delved into the horror genre.
13. Midnight — For such a simple premise, this episode works exceptionally well. Actually, it works so well because of its simplicity. The episode consists of a group of people talking to each other inside a room for 40 minutes, a setting that facilitates focussing intensely upon those people and their psychology. What happens when you lock a group of people in a room with a monster they can’t see? That is the positively inspired premise of this episode, an idea that is explored mercilessly as a discussion of human psychology and behaviour. Who was the real monster in this story? This episode improves every time I watch it, and I can’t rate it high enough.
12. The Waters of Mars — This thrilling episode from the specials year starts off as a creepy but otherwise undistinguished monster story, but soon becomes something much more exciting as it is revealed that the Doctor has come to a group of people he knows to be doomed, and whom he knows he cannot save. The commentary on the nature of time, the burden of the time traveller, and of the Time Lord, is intelligent and wonderfully played out onscreen, especially due to the superlative acting on the part of David Tennant. Tennant’s “Time Lord Victorious” moment is one of the most arresting moments in Doctor Who history, perhaps the single moment in 51 years’ of Who (and counting…) in which we truly question the Doctor. We have always known there is more to this man than it seems, and here he is, in all his glory, Time Lord Victorious. It is an absolute triumph of writing.
11. The End of Time — David Tennant’s two-part swan song has its faults, but it is nonetheless a hugely enjoyable epic. It is full to the brim with great, memorable scenes (I love “I don’t want to go”, by the way), with great acting from all involved. John Simm as the Master is as much the star of this feature as David Tennant is. I love John Simm’s incarnation of the Master, and he is at his manic, deranged best in The End of Time. David Tennant truly digs deep to give his all here, one last hurrah before he departs the role for good, and, indeed, The End of Time is a fitting superb farewell to the Tenth Doctor (the beautiful Vale Decem sequence always gets me).
10. Vincent and the Doctor — Vincent has grown on me enormously since I first saw it. I was 15 or 16 when I first saw this episode and didn’t pick up on the underlying theme of depression, and “Vincent van Gogh versus the Giant Invisible Chicken” seemed like a bit of a lame story. I see now the genius behind Vincent, a bold discussion of the topic of mental illness. Vincent truly is perhaps the most beautiful story Doctor Who has ever done, although I agree with those who say that it might have worked better as a pure historical, without the big alien chicken.
9. Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead — This is another one that has grown on me after repeated rewatches. Another Moffat triumph, I think this two-parter is a masterpiece entirely deserving of the praise it gets. Beautifully composed, superbly acted from a cast of memorable, endearing characters, it’s another contribution of Moffat to the legacy of Who classics. The only thing wrong with this story were the props of the corpses in the space suits, which, rather than looking menacing, actually looked slightly comical. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mar the fact that this is an outstanding, highly-rewatchable story, especially given that much worse crimes were committed in Classic Who.
8. The Girl Who Waited — For a long time I wasn’t sure if I liked this one or not. There are others where have I come away with the same impression, like Vincent. I’ve come to realise that, whenever this happens, it’s usually a good indication that I’ve just witnessed a genuinely great story. Stories that are an emotional rollercoaster, like this one and Vincent, are difficult to digest, and hard to rewatch without having put plenty of space between the last watch. The Girl Who Waited, for someone really emotionally invested in the characters of Amy and Rory, like I had become by then, is an emotional rollercoaster, difficult to rewatch. It’s a really beautiful, tragic story that pushes all the right emotional buttons. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
7. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang — Through much of the nonsense in the Series 5 finale, we have a series finale remarkably different, and in many ways much more ambitious, than anything Russell T. Davies had done before in his finales. Although I rate the Series 1 finale higher, Pandorica is my favourite finale of the revival. It employs the utterly ludicrous (yet utterly awesome) timey-wimey plot devices that Steven Moffat revels in to create an amazing, gripping finale that clearly distinguishes the Moffat style from Russell T. Davies’ more predictable formula. I loved the way the Doctor brought about his own salvation through Amy; that scene in which the Doctor sits by sleeping little Amy’s bedside is beautiful, and the scene in which Amy brings back the Doctor at her wedding wonderfully ebullient. Very Moffat.
6. The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon — This one is, I think, my favourite Doctor Who story of the revival, if not of all. The setting is wonderful, the cinematography is outstanding, the plot is captivating, the villains (the Silence) are terrifying, the cliffhanger was torturous (in a good way), the genre aspects were well-executed and effective. Matt Smith continues in top form as the Doctor. I particularly love the scene in which the Doctor and River Song confront the Silence in their hideout thingy — another one of those fist-pumping “Doctor moments” that make the spine shiver. Just awesome in every way, this story is an ambitious, wonderfully enjoyable epic opener to Series 6 which set up the rest of that excellent series perfectly.
5. Mummy on the Orient Express — Easily the best story from Series 8, it is, unfortunately, the only Capaldi story to make it into my top 20 (although Flatline came close). You’ll notice the top end of this list disproportionately features two-part stories; that’s because I generally think the two-part format works much better than 45 minute single episodes, with a few exceptions. However, Mummy is a superb self-contained episode that works perfectly in the 45 minute time frame. It bears many similarities to The Chimes of Midnight — both involve the Doctor having to solve a deadly mystery in a race against the clock, where there is clearly some supernatural force at work. Both are amazingly effective in executing their concepts, and the production brings Mummy to life spectacularly. Needless to say, Jamie Mathieson is shaping up to be Moffat’s Moffat with gems like Mummy and Flatline.
4. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways — Although Pandorica is my favourite finale of the revival, I rate Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways highest. Bad Wolf is so well composed; it does something no finale since has arguably been able to do, which is to execute a plot of epic magnitude (as suitable for a series finale) without losing something along the way — the Series 1 finale is basically flawless without being formulaic and predictable. It’s a perfect finale. It pulls the trick favoured in a lot of the early Classic serials in Hartnell’s, Troughton’s and, to an extent, Pertwee’s eras of putting the characters in a seemingly unremarkable setting before gradually revealing more and more, until all becomes clear, and the stakes are truly revealed. Eccleston’s regeneration was brilliant, if a bit awkwardly shoehorned on.
3. Human Nature/The Family of Blood — This two-parter is a masterpiece of storytelling and production. The best Doctor Who stories are the ones that can be appreciated as spectacular drama in their own right and beyond the confines of the Doctor Who franchise. This story is certainly one such story, as are the other two stories in my top 3. Human Nature is not just magnificent Doctor Who, it’s magnificent drama, and magnificent television, even. Apart from being a great piece of drama, it’s also a great work of art, one of the few times New Who has been as experimental and creative as the Hartnell and McCoy eras — and did so excellently.
2. Blink — Could anyone who doesn’t think Blink is amazing please stand up? No? No one? Okay, Blink has an exalted reputation, something that generally tends to lead to the subject of said reputation becoming overrated (see The Caves of Androzani) — but not in this case. Blink really is an outstanding, perfectly-crafted piece of television. I’ll admit it isn’t as good after several dozen rewatches, but, even then, it’s far and away better than the vast majority of the entire run of Doctor Who, from An Unearthly Child to Last Christmas. The secret of its success is its brilliantly-conceived monsters, the Weeping Angels, but the story and the characters that are built around the Angels are what raise it above the common run of Doctor Who stories and into the ether of classicdom.
1. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances — Perhaps a controversial choice, but I know I’m right. My earliest memory of Doctor Who, at age 10, was of shaking in terror at those frightening gasmask-wearing zombies, but yet unable to tear my eyes away from the screen. I didn’t sleep that night, and I contracted a lifelong fear of gas masks. That was exactly the effect the producers were going for in creating this terrifying two-parter, and I’m living proof that they succeeded with billowing colours (as were a generation of similarly scarred pre-adolescents). Everything about this story is perfectly carried out, from the cinematography, to the plot, to the pacing, to the villain, to the characterisation (this story also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, after all). It was New Who’s first and finest contribution to the halls of Doctor Who classics, proof to the sceptical devotees of the original series that these new kids with their new-fangled CGI and their proper budget could create genuinely good Doctor Who on par with Genesis of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani, City of Death, or anything from the plinths of the Classic Who pantheon. Justly revered.