9. Dalek (Christopher Eccleston, 2005)
I’m part of the New Who generation. This was my introduction to the daleks – I was aware of them, naturally, but I’d never seen more than brief clips (actually, until the title card came up, I thought they were the darlecks). And I was hooked. Dalek both confirmed my belief that the titular cyborgs are fearsome monsters… and challenged all my expectations.
I didn’t listen to Jubilee, the Colin Baker audio play that Dalek was adapted from for another decade, and I’m glad I experienced them this way around. Dalek is Jubilee boiled down to a skeleton, forty-five minutes of more or less condensed action, and if I was familiar with the source material I’d probably have hated it. As it was, I was thrilled and moved and loved every minute of it.
Looking back, there’s some shaky awkwardness characteristic of season one, but also some touches I missed first time around – the 70s cyberman in the case! The lines taken straight from Jubilee! – and I still love it. One of my most re-watched episodes.
Runners up: The End of the World, Boom Town
10. Human Nature/Family of Blood (David Tennant, 2007)
Some Doctor Who stories are just instant classics, and Human Nature is one. I remember one reviewer at the time going so far as to call it the first true classic of the new series. From start to finish, it’s a compelling and beautifully constructed two-parter. The in media res opening was an unusual decision for Russell T Davies Who, and a really welcome one, allowing the episode to skip over the set-up and exposition and dive straight in.
David Tennant is brilliant as Mr John Smith, treading the fine line between ‘entirely new person’ and ‘the Doctor, but a human’, and Freema Agyeman does a wonderful job of carrying the story in the Doctor’s absence.
For me, the highlight is this sequence in which the Family of Blood and their scarecrow minions mount an attack on the school. Harry Lloyd’s chilling performance as Baines, the conversation about WWI, Sister-of-Mine’s laughter, the hymn that plays as the boys start firing – this really is RTD Who at its best.
The aesthetic is gorgeous and the doomed love story is sincerely touching. As I said: an instant classic.
Runners up: Midnight, The Waters of Mars
11. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Matt Smith, 2010)
The Pandorica Opens is my favourite New Who episode, and a good contender for my all-time favourite Doctor Who story. If Human Nature is RTD Who at its best, this is Moffat Who at its strangest, funniest and weirdest.
There’s just so much packed in here, and yet somehow it all works and all comes together for a ride that’s pure fun while also being touching and genuinely epic.
The best thing about Moffat Who, in my opinion, is its unpredictability. When Rory was killed and erased from time part way through the season, most viewers probably expected him to come back – but for him to suddenly show up, in an apparent period piece, as a Roman centurion? What. The Romans are actually Autons? What. The episode ends with Amy dead, the Doctor imprisoned, and the universe ending… and the next episode picks up with the opening scene of The Eleventh Hour, but without the Doctor? What?
It really is a delightful two-parter. My only issue with it is that the following seasons totally failed to satisfactorily resolve the loose threads – but that doesn’t hurt my enjoyment on re-watches.
Runners up: Cold War, Vincent and the Doctor
12. Season Ten (Peter Capaldi, 2017)
I thought long and hard about which Peter Capaldi episode to put here. The trouble is, I really didn’t enjoy his first two seasons – my favourite episodes, Flatline and Time Heist were, if I’m going to be honest, the ones I disliked least. The best episode, in my opinion, was Heaven Sent which unfortunately I found disturbing in an unpleasant way.
But so far season ten has been absolutely stellar! Trouble is, the episodes are all so new that I haven’t had time to properly digest them. So, I’m going to cheat, and talk about the whole season.
The highlights: Smile was firstly aesthically absolutely beautiful, and secondly one of the scariest episodes of Who I’ve seen in a long time. It had that constant feeling of danger that I haven’t experienced since the last time they did a Weeping Angels story.
Thin Ice, while average in times of sci-fi, did a great job of recreating a historical period that’s quite rare in Doctor Who, and of properly tackling period-appropriate racism (I could watch the punch all day) while also talking about some political and ethical issues which are, sadly, eternally relevant.
Extremis was one of those episodes I’d put with Heaven Sent and Midnight – super weird and profoundly unsettling, and in their own way instant classics. I won’t talk in detail because, frankly, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it is terrifying and it will punch you in the gut.
For the first time in a couple of years, I’m really excited to see where this season is going. It’s a pity Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat are leaving so soon, because I’d love to see more of this.
And that’s my list! It can change from week to week, but most of my number one picks are set in stone at present. I love all of these stories and if you’re a Who fan, I’d recommend you check each of them out, if you haven’t already.