I have seen every serial from the new era Doctor Who, and it remains one of my favourite television shows ever. The combination of excellent writing, deep world-building, fantastic actors, and a real authentic emotional core make the show so good. In this post, I'm going to list the 10 best episodes from the Russel T. Davies era of the show, spanning the Ninth and Tenth Doctor.
10 Turn Left
This is a Doctor-lite episode that features Donna Noble mostly. When she visits a fortune teller, a creature seems to attach itself to her, and makes her go back in time, to an important decision. However, she takes the opposite path, and changes history, one where the Doctor is dead.
This episode is hard to look at on its own, because it's so enmeshed in the build-up to the finale, but it's still an amazing highlight of the show. Catherine Tate, who had started as a shrill annoying companion developed into a strong moral centre, a worthy companion of the Doctor in the truest sense of the word. This episode fulfills that promise by taking the Doctor out of the equation. Very strong stuff.
9 The Girl in the Fireplace
This is a beautiful episode that displays clever use of time travel, a show that features it, but never uses it to maximum efficiency. In this episode, a strange satellite has time doors which step into the bedroom of Madame De Pompadour. The Tenth Doctor keeps stepping into moments of her life, minutes apart for him, years for her. While all this time, a weird clockwork figure keeps trying to kidnap her.
Exciting, fast-paced, an ingenious enigma at its core, this is a great one. This story was a step towards me liking the new Tenth Doctor.
8 Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways
I had never been so excited to see the Daleks. This was worlds better than the first appearance of the Daleks in the new era. This is also the first finale to the first series, and it ties all the narrative strings together, culminating in the reveal of who the Bad Wolf is. It's exciting and captivating stuff.
7 The Last of the Time Lords
The three-parter that ends the third series isn't the series' best. It's good, but it's not great. but it's the last moment of the series that absolutely nails this. The entire episode gets on this list for the moment that Captain Jack Harkness alludes to a future history that throws all sorts of previous stuff into another light. I cannot spoil this surprise, but my girlfriend and I were blown away by this moment.
6 The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
When Captain Jack Harkness was introduced, I wasn't immediately impressed, but as this fantastic mystery episode unfolded, I fell slowly and surely in love with Jack, making him one of my favourite characters ever. This is also the story that made me love the Ninth Doctor.
5 Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
The build-up to this episode, that pulls all the narrative strings together from the whole second series, that reveals the villain for this, manages to be the most exciting couple minutes of television ever. Of course, this famous story features the fist on-screen battle between the Daleks and the Cybermen, two of the most notorious villains. This story also features the last of the original companion, Rose Tyler, in a beautiful and emotional goodbye scene. Very strong stuff.
4 Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble come to the ultimate library, a whole planet, but some mysterious incident has made it deserted. An expedition of scientists manage to happen upon them, and are picked off one by one by something hidden in the shadows. This only scratches the surface of this dense story. This is the story that completely sold me on Donna Noble. I had enjoyed her as the Doctor's moral voice in The Fires of Pompeii, but with this episode, Catherine Tate managed to win the spot as favourite companion with this two-parter.
Often considered one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, this is one of the best uses of time travel in fiction ever. Sally Sparrow keeps finding messages from the past that seem to hint at some bizarre danger, telling her to beware the Weeping Angels, while the Tenth Doctor and Martha are stuck in the Sixties, working day jobs to pass the time.
Blink manipulates the show's meager budget for maximum excitement, by using a villain that doesn't move, a veritable statue. It's also tremendously exciting, and unbearably clever. It's the kind of story you wish you wrote.
2 The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
At this point, I had been unsure of the Tenth Doctor. But this two-parter absolutely blew me away. The unoriginal plot is lifted from numerous sources, but it's the style and delivery that make this so amazing. The Doctor and Rose stumble upon a planetoid orbiting a black hole, which is physically impossible. It turns out that there is something in the middle of this planetoid, something very ancient and very evil.
This is a very full episode. So much happens so quickly, but it never seems rushed or breathless. This is also the first Doctor Who that my girlfriend started liking.
1 Human Nature/Family of Blood
In this episode, the Tenth Doctor has erased his memories to avoid capture by a violent enemy, The Family, and has hidden himself as a schoolteacher in Edwardian England, on the eve of World War 1. However, John Smith, as he is known, is plagued by dreams of a mysterious man with a big blue box. Only Martha knows the truth, and watches helplessly as John Smith slowly falls in love with the school nurse.
This two-parter represents the absolute best the show has to offer. There is more action, mystery, humour and heartbreak here than in most movies. If this had been the Doctor Who movie, I would have been happy. David Tennant's performance as John Smith, coming to realize he's not real, is unbelievably heartbreaking, and I almost choked up a little.
An observant reader of this list will notice that it is very Steven Moffat-heavy. to be fair, he seems like the only writer on the list who understands how time travel should be used in fiction. He also writes the most densely plotted stories, and the ones that stand out so much in the mind. The Davies episodes on the list are notable for their spot in the overall arc, rather than as standalone episodes. Paul Cornell is the writer with the top-spot, which was a serial adapted from his own novel, adjusted slightly because the original novel featured the Seventh Doctor.
I'm sure my girlfriend would supply a different list, but it wouldn't be too dissimilar. For sure, Blink would capture the top spot for me.
The g/f and I have just finished watching Lost, which we crammed the entire series into three months, so the next time I do a top ten, it will be for that show. Stay tuned.