The 13 Best Episodes Of Modern 'Doctor Who'

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.

9. Human Nature/Family of Blood

Another Tennant episode in which his Doctor barely appears, this season 3 two-parter nevertheless features one of Tennant's best performances. How could that be? Well, in "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood," we're introduced to not the Doctor but John Smith, a mild-mannered English professor at a boy's school on the eve of World War I. Sometimes he has odd dreams about a mad man who travels the universe in a blue box, but his maid Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is quick to dismiss them as nothing more than dreams. It's soon revealed that the Doctor was forced to turn himself into a human to hide himself from an alien family that fed on the life force of Time Lords. Martha has been tasked to look after him, but after three months her patience begins to wear thin, especially when John Smith begins to fall in love with the school nurse Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes). But soon their hiding spot is discovered by the aliens, who descend upon the school and its nearby village, possessing a few humans that they encounter along the way.

The monsters are kind of secondary to the fascinating ethical dilemma "Human Nature/Family of Blood" presents Doctor Who fans with: is a human being real if he's just a collection of false memories? To John Smith, he is a human with real emotions and real loss, which makes his inevitable sacrifice to save the day all the more tragic. "He was a braver man than you," the nurse tells the Doctor once he has returned to his Time Lord self. And those small feats of human bravery are what make this episode, and the best episodes of Doctor Who, so strong.

8. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

Never has "Are you my Mummy?" sounded so creepy. "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" is a season 1 two-parter that introduces us to one of the Doctor Who revival's scariest monsters and yet gives us the most hopeful ending of a Doctor Who episode yet. Set in the middle of the London blitz in World War II, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" finds the Doctor and Rose stumbling into a group of war orphans who are terrorized by a small boy in a gas mask. Able to manipulate phone lines and chase our heroes with a zombie-like tenacity, the boy in the gas mask asks everyone he encounters if they're his "Mummy." But when faced with no answers, he turns them into gas mask-wearing zombies like him with a simple touch.

Despite its scary premise, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" is a raucously good time, fleshing out the Doctor and Rose's deepening relationship and introducing us to the fan-favorite character Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), whose smooth-talking Time Agent delightfully expands the world of Doctor Who. Though it did bode ominously of writer Steven Moffat's frequent overuse of ending episodes with a magical reset button, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" is still a heartwarming episode that rewards Earth's long-suffering savior with one small victory.

7. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

Like if Alien met The Omen, "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit" is a blend of religious horror and sci-fi horror that shouldn't work. Yet somehow, it does. The season 2 two-parter follows the Doctor and Rose as they land upon a space station where they find scrawled on the walls, "Welcome to Hell." Mystified by the ancient symbols also graffiti'd on the walls, the Doctor and Rose venture further to investigate, where they're greeted by a suspicious skeleton crew confused as to how they arrived on the station. The Doctor is shocked to learn that the crew had built a space station on a faraway planet revolving a black hole — which should be virtually impossible — to investigate this very phenomenon. But their research soon unearths something that was better left buried: the Devil himself.

Even stretching across two episodes, "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit" is a taut, suspenseful horror story that grows more exciting with each new twist thrown into the narrative. And surprisingly, it takes a turn for the pensive in the last third of "The Satan Pit," with the Doctor musing over his own religious beliefs in a scene featuring one of the most striking imagery of the series: the Doctor in an orange spacesuit, dangling on a rope and surrounded by the pitch-black darkness. The entire episode is full of indelible images and stunning set designs — lending to an eerie atmosphere that feels worthy of a feature film.

6. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead

Part Black Mirror thriller, part time-travel tragedy, "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead" is another Moffat-penned masterpiece. This season 4 two-part episode of Doctor Who follows the Doctor and Donna as they follow a mysterious message to visit the biggest library in the universe — built over an entire planet and becoming so renowned that it is simply called "The Library." But the Doctor is confused to find that the Library is completely devoid of life signs and filled only with sinister shadows. Upon the arrival of an archaeology expedition investigating the sudden closure of the Library 100 years ago, the Doctor realizes that the shadows are the reason for the empty planet, warning the expedition that the shadows are flesh-eating creatures known as the Vashta Nerada. But to add to the mystery, the leader of the expedition, a woman named Professor River Song (Alex Kingston), seems to intimately know the Doctor despite them never meeting before.

"Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead" is an ambitious episode that manages to juggle alternate realities and technology cautionary tales, while introducing a tragic time-travel romance that will play out over the course of the next four seasons. And yet it is a completely gripping two-parter that supports its ambitious premise with terrific character work and heart-breaking performances from Tennant, Tate, and Kingston.

5. The Eleventh Hour

Introductory episodes to new Doctors are more often miss than hit, but "The Eleventh Hour" managed to give Matt Smith's Doctor an explosive introduction while whisking us away on a whirlwind adventure. And to this day it remains not only one of the best Doctor introductions but one of the best episodes of the Doctor Who revival.

"The Eleventh Hour" introduces us to an 7-year-old Amelia Pond praying by her bedside to Santa Claus about the ominous crack in her wall, when suddenly she hears a crash in her backyard. Outside she finds a blue police box smoking from the inside, from which a disheveled Doctor emerges. Intrigued by this strange man who demands that she give him food and ask no questions, she inquires if he's there about her wall. The Doctor immediately jumps to investigate and discovers that the crack in her wall is actually a crack in time and space, but must rush out to fix his damaged TARDIS before he can solve the mystery. Promising to return in 5 minutes, the Doctor accidentally comes back 12 years later and must convince a disbelieving grown-up Amelia (Karen Gillan), now calling herself Amy, that the world will be destroyed without his intervention.

Briskly paced and thoroughly enchanting, "The Eleventh Hour" fizzles with energy and humor, switching from sitcom-style comedy to creature-feature horror at the drop of a hat. But Smith's buoyant Doctor and the endearing supporting cast lends this episode a starry-eyed feeling that makes it feel like something out of a fairy tale.

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.