Dr Who is the longest running science fiction TV show in history. It was almost twenty years ago when I first watched the Doctor in action, and now my kids are growing up loving it.
The Doctor is a Time Lord, a humanoid alien with almost a thousand years under his belt, two hearts, and the ability to regenerate into a new body. His space-time ship is the TARDIS, an acronym for, Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It’s a police box, a relic from a bygone era when police in London would walk a beat, stopping off in small police boxes for a cup of tea or to call in to police HQ to report a crime or an arrest. Both Dr Who and the TARDIS are an example of low-tech science fiction at its best, using elements (that used to be common), and incorporating them into a fantastic escape from reality. Dr Who uses the concept of a hidden world that exists parallel to our own, running in harmony to the every day world, with great effect.
In this post, we’ll explore the Top Ten Dr Who Episodes since the rejuvenated series began in 2005, as voted for by my family. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on what makes these episodes great.
10 Impossible Planet & Satan’s Pit
Like so many Dr Who episodes, it’s the actors surrounding the Doctor that make the story, and in this story the audience seems to take on the role of one more crew member struggling to survive on the impossible planet. The writers of Dr Who have an audacity all of their own, not afraid to experiment and explore ideas, here invoking images of Dante’s inferno and the devil, while somehow avoiding any religious overtones.
09 Impossible Astronaut & Day of the Moon
Dr Who episodes are generally built upon a simple premise, in this case, having an enemy that wipes your mind any time you’re not looking at them, and this sets up a series of dilemmas for the Doctor and his companions. The slow reveal, with the protagonists writing on their arms to capture their fleeting thoughts, is simply brilliant and sets up some spine-tingling scenes. In a moment of dark humour, River Song asks Rory if their adversaries, the Silence, have arrived for battle. Rory, seeing the horde descending upon him, turns back to River, and, loosing sight of the aliens for a second, says, “Nope. Nothing here.“
08 Lodger & Closing Time
Although these two episodes occur a year apart and with entirely different story lines, we grouped them together as they’re characteristic of the writers avoiding clichés in their scripts, giving someone other than the Doctor and his companions centre-stage. Granted, there is a tendency to dumb down these characters to almost a caricature of a simpleton, which I think is a little insulting to the audience, but somehow they pull it off and you still end up rooting for them. And any child that calls himself “Stormaggedon, Dark Lord of All,” can’t be all that bad.
07 Beast Below
In classic Doctor Who fashion, Beast Below fails to deliver a credible, believable concept while still having a touch of absolute brilliance. In this case, the last remnants of the English are aboard a spaceship travelling on a star whale, but, look past that, and there’s an intriguing sub-plot, with a glimpse of the dark side of a Time Lord. The Doctor commands, “Nobody talk to me. Nobody HUMAN has anything to say to me today.” And in that anger, he loses himself, only to have Amy Pond show him how human he really is, and stop him from making a grave mistake.
Vincent is one of the rare tragedies in Dr Who. From the start, knowing this story is based on the historical character Vincent Van Gogh, you already sense the impending doom. What follows is a warm, light-hearted, engaging interpretation of Van Gogh’s genius, with the Doctor trying to change history, but even the Doctor has his limits. The sense of sympathy and emotion this episode stirs for Van Gogh’s tortured genius is quite something. It’s one of those episodes that has a surprising amount of depth for 45 minutes of footage.
05 Turn Left
Turn Left is brilliant for what is missing from the episode, the Doctor. Instead, we get to explore the character of Donna Noble and other companions, like Rose Tyler, as the writers explore a what-if scenario reminiscent of the Butterfly Effect. The Doctor, it seems, is a bit of a plot device in his own stories, a form of Deus Ex Machina, an easy escape from the most torturous of prisons. It’s all too easy for the writers to lean upon that crutch when crafting their scripts. Take the Doctor largely out of the picture, though, and some of the best writing emerges, with stories beautifully composed and full of depth. To me, it is no surprise the number one episode in this list is an extension of the same concept, but lets not get too far ahead of ourselves.
04 God Complex
With their usual outlandish penchant for staging the extraordinary in a dull, boring, below-par environment, The God Complex explores complex social themes within a science fiction story (honestly, how scary is that hallway?). Rather than fears, an alien predator feeds on beliefs, in a metaphor for society, which is so largely dominated by unthinking and irrational beliefs. In the midst of this, the Doctor is confronted over his “God complex,” stripping his persona naked before the audience. I would have rated this episode higher, but my kids voted me down.
03 Silence in the Library & Forest of the Dead (Vashna Nerada)
And I can understand why they voted me down, as these last three episodes are sublime. There’s no great social questions, no depth of character being exposed in Silence in the Library, just a heart-pounding story-line that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and a cliff hanger that has you begging for more in The Forest of the Dead. In classic Dr Who fashion, “Stay away from the shadows,” hails back to the low-tech origins of the story fifty years ago, with the alien baddies being nothing more than a shadow on the floor. Not scary enough for you? You haven’t seen the Vashna Nerada in action.
02 Girl in the Fireplace
What’s not to love about a story line that transports 18th century France into the 24th century? How can you not love a story that has a beautiful white horse wandering lost through the decks of a spaceship? The Girl in the Fireplace has it all, a tragedy with so much hope. The concept of stepping from a spaceship into various points in the life of Madame de Pompadore captures the essence of time travel like no other episode of Doctor Who. The characterisation is rich, with unique insights into the Doctor’s background when he reads the young woman’s mind, not realising “A door once opened, can be walked through both ways.” Yes, there’s plot holes in that the Doctor could have intervened later with the TARDIS to see Madame before her death, but this is one of those plot holes your suspension of disbelief is happy to overlook. And all through the episode you’re wondering why? Why her? It’s only in the final seconds of the show that you learn something the Doctor never does…
“Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. They’re fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck.” Blink is outrageous, audacious. The story line is entirely improbable, and yet it is woven together with sheer brilliance. Like Turn Left, the Doctor is largely absent from this unlikely contender for first place in Doctor Who episodes, but that seemed to have given the writers some latitude to construct a story that suspends disbelief like no other. It’s a shopkeeper that saves the day. There are messages from the past, woven together so they arrive in the present precisely when needed. It’s the Doctor battling evil over a distance of decades.
The Weeping Angels are yet another low-tech common accessory to English life carefully woven into a clever and engaging story that is more about the concept of Doctor Who than his persona. For years after seeing this, my youngest daughter would stare carefully at any statues of women in long flowing robes, wondering what would happen if she blinked…
In reality, there are two kinds of Doctor Who episodes, those that get just a wee bit silly, and those that faithfully hark back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, where sci-fi stories had an unseen twist and accentuated our understanding of humanity. In reality, these ten stories are peers, each as brilliant as the next, each as thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining as the other, with so very little between them.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this reminiscent review of classic Doctor Who episodes. If you have any others you’d like to suggest, please feel free to add a comment.
You can find a full list of Dr Who episodes on Wikipedia.