The 13 Best Episodes of Modern ‘Doctor Who’

4. Midnight

Doctor Who is no stranger to bottle episodes, with its Classic era working with such low budgets that it often had to resort to one-set serials. That’s a tradition that the modern revival kept up, though increasingly more for creative flair than out of budgetary restrictions. And while bottle episodes can be a tired trope for the sci-fi genre, the season 4 episode “Midnight” is a bracing apex of the narrative device.

Leaving Donna to sun-tan at an intergalactic hotel, “Midnight” follows the Doctor as he departs on a bus across an inhabitable planet named Midnight to witness the famed Crystal Falls. But the Doctor and his fellow passengers discover that something may inhabit Midnight after all, and it’s eager to escape. The unknown creature attacks the vehicle and possesses one of the passengers, who begins to repeat every single word that everyone says in the most chilling game of imitation ever. The possessed passenger unnerves the bus, sowing dissent and paranoia as the Doctor fruitlessly tries to gain control over the situation.

Because of its claustrophobic setting and blowhard stock characters, “Midnight” sometimes comes across more like a play than an episode of television, but it remains riveting the entire time thanks to the stellar performances from Tennant and the supporting cast which include respected British stage actors like David Troughton and Lesley Sharp. 

3. Vincent and the Doctor

This quietly devastating episode barely features a monster — at least in the Doctor Who sense of the word. Instead, it focuses on the internal demons that Vincent van Gogh battles from day-to-day, in one of the most touching on-screen depictions of the famed painter yet.

“Vincent and the Doctor” follows the Doctor and Amy as they visit a Van Gogh exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, where the Doctor spots something unnatural about one of the paintings. Traveling to Van Gogh’s time on a hunch that the painter may have painted an alien creature, the Doctor and Amy meet the troubled painter who confirms that there is an invisible beast terrorizing the village. Played by Tony Curran, Vincent is a tortured, melancholic figure who at first bristles at the two strangers interrogating him, but soon happily invites them into his home. Curran is obviously the standout in this episode, delivering an unpretentious, emotionally naked performance as the manic-depressive painter. But it’s not all tears and cut-off ears — “Vincent and the Doctor” is a positively lovely episode that features some beautiful homilies from Smith’s Doctor and charming banter between Vincent and Amy. Written by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), it could verge on schmaltzy for some, but “Vincent and the Doctor” paints a delicate, tender picture of a great man. Plus, who can hate an episode where Bill Nighy wears a giant bow-tie?

2. Heaven Sent

If you eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans noticed that I didn’t include the second part of “Heaven Sent,” the season finale “Hell Bent,” in this entry, I have good reason. Not only does “Heaven Sent” function perfectly as a standalone episode, it has a powerful impact that gets kind of neutered by the conclusion of “Hell Bent.” So I will look at “Heaven Sent” on its own, which is stunning enough to stand for two episodes.

The penultimate episode of season 9, “Heaven Sent” is an unusual episode of Doctor Who in that Capaldi is the only person to appear in it (other than a few appearances of Jenna Coleman‘s back). But oh boy, does he act the hell out of it. “Heaven Sent” is a dazzling vehicle for Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, who had just been zapped to a strange waterlocked castle following the death of Coleman’s Clara Oswald. At this castle, the Doctor finds himself pursued by a shrouded creature that can kill him by touch and will stop only until he confesses “the truth.” Trapped in this labyrinthine prison, the Doctor flees through the castle where he finds ominous clues and hints that he may have been here longer than he expected.

On top of being a surreal, mind-bending piece of television that boldly features only the Doctor talking to himself for 45 minutes, “Heaven Sent” is a profound exploration of grief anchored by an incomparable Capaldi. This is Doctor Who at its finest and most Doctor-y.

1. Blink

You knew this was coming. “Blink” graces the top of every Doctor Who ranking, and as much as I debated whether it deserved that top spot all those years, I can’t deny that it’s a damn good episode. But the interesting thing about the best episode of Doctor Who is that it’s not really a Doctor Who episode. It’s a Twilight Zone episode set in the Doctor Who universe.

A pre-Oscar nod Carey Mulligan leads “Blink” as Sally Sparrow, a plucky photographer who, while exploring an abandoned mansion, finds something inexplicable. Beneath the peeling wallpaper, she finds a message addressed to her warning her about the “Weeping Angels.” Suddenly, she finds herself pursued by stone angels that seem like they move when she’s not looking. That’s the brilliance of “Blink”: it turns its monster of the week into a sort of urban myth, a boogeyman that could exist in reality. And in turn, Tennant’s Doctor becomes a near-mythical figure, only appearing in video “Easter eggs” uncovered by internet forums and message boards trying to piece together the case of a strange, unaging man. It’s almost a meta-textual take on the place that Doctor Who holds in pop culture, as a legendary figure who saves the world unbeknownst to us. Because otherwise, what would you do when you think you see something move out of the corner of your eye? It’s this brilliant and truly scary approach that keeps “Blink” at the top spot of every Doctor Who ranking.

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