The 13 Best Episodes of Modern ‘Doctor Who’

best doctor who episodes

As we near the debut of Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor, what better time to rank the 13 best episodes of the Doctor Who revival? It’s been a long road up until the BBC sci-fi series finally cast its first female Doctor, and it’s a journey that has been filled with silly lows and soaring highs (and we have a handy guide just to navigate them). But today we’re only here to list the highs.

Doctor Who is a lot of things: a sci-fi saga, tales from alien crypts, a character drama, a campy children’s show, a fantastical fairy tale. And in its best episodes, it excels at all of them. So, while we count down the days until Whittaker falls from the skies and into our TV sets, let us count down the 13 best Doctor Who episodes of the revival series.

13. The Doctor’s Wife

“Look at you pair. It’s always you and her, isn’t it? Long after the rest of us are gone. A boy and his box off to see the universe.”

Even before “The Doctor’s Wife” aired in 2011, it was the source of much hoopla thanks to its celebrity writer, Neil Gaiman. Doctor Who has had famed sci-fi writers take a stab at the time-traveling alien —The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams famously wrote for Classic Doctor Who. But Neil Gaiman’s macabre stylings and Doctor Who’s madcap stories seemed like a match made in heaven. And thankfully, it was that and more.

The season 6 episode follows Matt Smith’s Doctor and his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) as they end up on an asteroid outside the universe after the Doctor receives a distress call from a fellow Time Lord he thought to be long dead. But when they land, the Doctor’s trusty time and space machine, the TARDIS, suddenly goes dead, its “soul” transplanted into the body of a woman named Idris (Suranne Jones), one of the four inhabitants of the asteroid. However, the Doctor and his friends soon find out that this asteroid is more than just a piece of rock: It’s a living being called “House” who controls these four doddering inhabitants and has lured the Doctor to his bubble universe in order to take his TARDIS.

Grungy, creepy and wildly entertaining, “The Doctor’s Wife” works perfectly as a piece of episodic storytelling while giving us insight into what Doctor Who has been and will be. The Doctor’s flirtatious banter with his TARDIS rendered flesh is classic Gaiman: snappy, weird, weirdly sexy, and ultimately touching.

12. The World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor gets a bad rap. When he was introduced in the season 8 opener “Deep Breath,” he was too cantankerous, too cruel, too…alien. But that unlikable introduction allowed room for some of the best character development we’ve seen in a Doctor since season 1 of the revival. And that character development comes to a head in the two-part season 10 finale and Capaldi’s final episodes, “The World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls.”

“The World Enough and Time” is a riveting adventure that deftly balances two different-paced time streams (one faster due to its proximity to a black hole) while giving Pearl Mackie’s transcendent Bill the spotlight. But the finale turns into something a little more meditative with “The Doctor Falls,” which sees the Doctor preparing a tiny village for invasion in a sci-fi riff off Seven Samurai. The two-parter is much more bleak than past finales, which all have had their share of tragedy. That is, until Capaldi delivers one of the best speeches of his run (seen above), which doubles down on his stunning arc from uncaring alien to benevolent do-gooder.

The episode is a magnificent swan song for both Capaldi and Gomez’s Missy, whose own troubled redemption arc was one of the most compelling parts of season 10. And it quietly cemented Capaldi as one of the greatest Doctors of New Who.

11. Dalek

Anyone who was uncertain about accepting Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor probably stopped in their tracks when “Dalek” aired. The fifth episode of season 1, “Dalek” introduced the darker elements of the Doctor that the season had been teasing up until now. Why was Eccleston’s Doctor so tortured? What was the story of the Time War, which left the Doctor the last surviving member of his race?

We get those answers in a tense, slow-burning episode that follows the Doctor and Rose Tyler (a wonderfully empathetic Billie Piper) following a distress call to an underground bunker in Utah. Surprised to find a collection of alien artifacts, the Doctor and Rose are quickly captured by the bunker’s owner, who ask for their help in identifying the prize of his collection: a mysterious alien that first sent out the distress signal. The Doctor is eager to save the alien until he realizes with horror that it is his sworn enemy, the titular Dalek. The reveal hits like a ton of bricks, despite the episode’s spoilery title and the Dalek’s famously low-budget appearance, thanks to a frenzied performance by Eccleston, who explodes with a righteous fury. To this day, “Dalek” is the only episode in New Who to make the Daleks seem like real threats, not only because of Eccleston’s performance but because of how the Dalek is portrayed as an unavoidable horror, mowing down everyone in its path like a creeping, indestructible Terminator. “Dalek” is a portrayal of the infamous Doctor Who monster that we have yet to see again, and helped the Doctor Who revival finally find its footing in the modern sci-fi era.

10. Turn Left

Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Wish” before it, Doctor Who had to take its turn at an alternate reality. And it excelled. The season 4 episode barely featured David Tennant’s Doctor at all (in a funny twist, this is common with most of his best episodes on this list), instead turning its attention to his companion, office temp Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). Donna and Tennant were hands down the best Doctor-companion pairing of the series, boasting such great comedic chemistry that the two actors went on to collaborate multiple times later on non-Doctor Who projects. But “Turn Left” gave Tate, who until Doctor Who was viewed strictly as a comedian, a chance to stretch her dramatic chops.

“Turn Left” follows Donna in an alternate reality where she never met the Doctor. As a result the Doctor dies, a victim of his own destructive tendencies, leaving the Earth undefended from the alarming number of alien attacks that took place over the past two years. At first unaware of the numerous aliens that have tried to destroy the Earth, Donna’s normal life is shattered when London is destroyed and the entirety of the United Kingdom is forced to go under military rule — all the while various people around her panic at the sight of “something on her back.” “Turn Left” ranks among some of the best alternate reality episodes of genre television, smartly centering the dystopian chaos around a normal family who are ill-suited for this kind of danger. And despite the Doctor’s absence, his presence looms larger than ever before — presenting us with the horrifying question of what would happen if the Doctor were never around to save the day.

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