The top 3rd feels like two groups. About half would fit comfortably with the last section, while the best of the best here really soar. Maybe I should have split this into 5 or 6 posts.
Ten dominates the list, but that is partly due to him being in more episodes than any other Doctor (though it is close with Eleven, and Eleven doesn’t do nearly as well). Nine had only one season and yet has a very good showing in the top, particularly when you look at that soaring section. Evaluating by season, I think season 1 would win, though it’s a tough call, as seasons 2 and 4 both have more episodes in the top 3rd. But then, season 2 also has more in the bottom 3rd.
#46 The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky (S4-E4/E5)
Ten, Donna, Martha
The return of the classic villain, the Sontarans—another SF warrior & honor race that is horrible at war. A solid episode, but while the previous one, Planet of the Ood, felt like it was a two-parter, this one felt like a single-part ep when seen from a distance. Not enough happens. The genius kid was unnecessary, as was Donna remembering her previous episodes.
Funny that Martha didn’t come into her own until after she was done with the TARDIS.
Doctor: Shrill. Companions: Good. Villains: Good. Plot: Good.
#45 Twice Upon a Time (S10-E13)
Twelve, One, Bill
It leans more on nostalgia than I’d like, but new Who has rarely done it so well, and if that’s the plan, going back to the first Doctor is nice. There really isn’t a plot, although for a while the two Doctors think there is one. This is about two dying Doctors thinking about their past and if they want to go forward. The play between the two of them is good, and the nods toward your racist uncle are funny and relevant. It’s very sentimental, but then the Xmas eps usually are, and this one isn’t cloying. I wouldn’t have tossed Bill in (her ending has been mangled enough), but this is her best appearance since her first, so it worked out.
This ep is usually placed in season 11, but I’m putting it in season 10 as it has the season 10 Doctor, companion, writer, and showrunner, all of which would be changed with season 11.
Doctors: Very Good. Companion: Good. Villain: none. Plot: none.
#44 Partners in Crime (S4-E1)
This is a lightweight ep. A good re-introduction to Donna. She is 50% less annoying than as a bride, which still leaves a good deal. Some humor and a desire for adventure counter the annoyance. It leans a bit too far on the juvenile, however, the first meeting between The Doctor and Donna in this ep makes me give a pass to everything else.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Good. Villain: OK. Plot: Weak.
#43 Hell Bent (S9-E12)
Twelve goes crazy in an attempt to save Clara. I rather like that he flipped out. I wasn’t so fond of Gallifrey. The great civilization of the Time Lords has never been smaller. They could, and should, have done this ep without the Time Lord politics. It made them tiny and unimportant (well, not the first time that’s happened). Clara, however, got a good sendoff.
Doctor: Very Good. Companion: Very Good. Villain: Weak. Plot: Very Good.
#42 School Reunion (S2-E3)
Ten, Rose, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K9
This one is all about bringing back Sarah Jane Smith, and to a lesser extent (much, much lesser), K9. The story isn’t much, but the character interaction is first-rate. Acted as a pilot for the young kid’s show, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Doctor: Excellent. Companions: Excellent. Villains: OK. Plot: OK.
#41 The Doctor’s Daughter (S4-E6)
Ten, Donna, Martha
It gets a couple of points for its meta nature (David Tennant married the actress who played his daughter, who is in real life the daughter of Peter Davison, the 5th Doctor). The fish people are not the greatest creation, but more than made up for by Jenny as well as for the point about what it is to be a soldier. Budget limitations show up. This was an odd ep to bring back Martha as she’s stuck in a side plot that could have been cut.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Good. Villains: OK. Plot: Good.
#40 Gridlock (S3-E3)
A surreal episode that works amazingly well for its unreal premise. The people of New New York get on a freeway and just stay on it, forever, moving only yards each day in the dense traffic. It’s also a “save the companion” episode. The many secondary characters are well-drawn and we get the return of a few old ones, giving Whoviens something to dwell on.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: fair to good. Villain: None. Plot: Good, if slight.
#39 Let’s Kill Hitler (S6-E8)
Eleven, Amy, Rory, River
A combination of a lot of fun and a lot of stupid. So, we have time travelers who just go around and torture people for “justice.” Hmmm. Shouldn’t another group of time travelers be The Doctor’s greatest concern? Ah well, why worry about the problems when you’ve got Rory punching Hitler, River’s numerous assassination attempts, River vs Nazis, and everything with Amy. This may not be the smartest Doctor Who episode, but it is one of the most fun.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Excellent. Villains: Hard to say. Plot: Best not think about it.
#38 The End of the World (S1-E2)
After a first episode that said this show was not going to be like the past, the second episode of modern Who said the opposite. It felt like a kid’s show, a pretty good kid’s show, but a kid’s show. And Rose, who came off as strong and resourceful in the first seems weak, bitchy, and useless here. What’s her problem with aliens? She is the portal character, so who is her attitude supposed to appeal to? However, she does learn, and The Doctor is engaging, the tree woman is a nice addition, there’s a nice mix of humor and tension, there’s plenty of character development, and The Doctor and Rose’s relationship grows.
Doctor: Very Good. Companion: Disappointing. Villain: Comical. Plot: Fair.
#37 Human Nature / The Family of Blood (S3-E8/E9)
This two-parter, with The Doctor giving up his personality to avoid a family of hunters, is a favorite among many Who fans, but it doesn’t make my top quarter. Since Headmaster Smith must live an ordinary life, most of Human Nature is very ordinary. His developing relationship is a story, but not an exciting one. Well-acted and believable? Yes. Just not interesting. All of it drags on far too long—they had a 60-minute story and two 42 minute slots to fill. Perhaps if the focus had been the young boy who found the watch—instead of uncomfortably inserting him in so that something happens—the episode would have worked better. This was a chance for Martha to shine, but she doesn’t. She could have been a strong character. She wasn’t.
The Family of Blood improves greatly over Human Nature, and gives us a real sense that The Doctor can be scary.
Doctor: Mixed. Companion: Disappointing. Villain: Good. Plot: Good but slow.
#36 The Doctor’s Wife (S6-E4)
Eleven, Amy, Rory
A much-heralded episode that is fantastic when it is following the TARDIS-made-flesh, and weaker the rest of the time, though Amy and Rory running about is always entertaining. It’s the dialog between the Mad Man in a Box and the Crazy Lady that makes this one. It forever defines biting.
Doctor: OK. Companions: Good. Villain: Undefined. Plot: Good.
#35 The Next Doctor (Christmas special)
Ten, Jackson Lake
A real shame that David Morrissey wasn’t the next Doctor. He would have been excellent. He’s very good in his very brief run. If there is a failing, it is that it didn’t keep the ruse going longer. Miss Hartigan is a sympathetic villain. And it is one of the best-looking episodes. The use of color is stunning. How much you like this episode seems to be based on how you feel about a daikaiju cyberman.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Good.
#34 Father’s Day (S1-E8)
Rose saves her father against the orders of The Doctor and things go very wrong, pretty much as has happened in every other time travel story ever. This is a high-emotion and mostly serious episode, but it earns those emotions.
“I did it again. I picked another stupid ape.”
Doctor: Very good. Companion: Good. Villain: Vague. Plot: Passable.
#33 Amy’s Choice (S5-E7)
Eleven, Amy, Rory
For a dream episode, it is surprisingly good. The dangers are rather uninteresting, but the relationship stuff is top-notch and there’s a good bit of wit. If you didn’t love Amy before this episode, you will now.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Very Good. Villain: Good. Plot: Dream, so…
#32 Smith and Jones (S3-E1)
Martha’s first adventure is simple and fun and presents Martha as a worthy successor to Rose. Things don’t work out quite so well for her by season’s end, but she starts well in an episode that should have been silly, but wasn’t. Why not rhinoceros police? Why not a transference beam that makes it rain up? The Doctor shines, in full joyful detective/savior mode.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: Good. Villain: Good enough. Plot: Fun.
#31 The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (S6-E1/E2)
Eleven, Amy, Rory, River
It’s exciting, fun, a little spooky, and fast, which is vital since thinking about this ep will kill it. So many things in it do not make sense but as long as they keep throwing more things at you, and they’ve got amnesia as an out, it is hard to notice while watching. The Silence, yet another of the monsters you can’t sense, are at their best here. Too bad their eventual explanation isn’t better.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Excellent. Villain: Good. Plot: Good, when it makes sense.
#30 Aliens of London / World War Three (S1-E4/E5)
Nine, Rose, Mickey
Yes, this is the one with aliens with gas problems. If you can get past that and some dodgy CGI for the Slitheens, it is a pretty good episode, filled with action, jokes, and loads of good banter. The Doctor and Rose work great together and even Mickey nails it. It took me a while to realize the whole thing was a pun: politicians are just farting around.
Aliens of London introduces Harriet Jones, one of the best non-traveling companions. That almost makes up for the flatulence jokes.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Well…memorable. Plot: Middling.
#29 Voyage of the Damned (S4-E0)
It’s The Poseidon Adventure in space. How much you like it will depend on how much you liked that film. I liked it a lot. It is tense disaster-adventure.
I’ve never understood the Astrid hate. She makes a good, if very traditional, companion.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Good. Villain: He’ll do. Plot: Fun.
#28 Utopia (S3-E11)
Ten, Martha, Captain Jack
While this is part 1 of a three-part story, I rank it separately, partly because it is so different than the other two parts (more part of the same arc than part of the same close story) and partly because this episode is so much better than the others. The Doctor reunites with Captain Jack at the end of time, where a professor is attempting to send the last humans to Utopia. Martha is given nothing to do, but Jack more than makes up for her with personality to burn—plus he has a purpose in the plot, even if it isn’t much purpose. Lots of fan service for the Whovians. Also, Derek Jacobi as the Master, which is brilliant.
Doctor: Excellent. Companions: Mixed. Villain: Good. Plot: Good.
#27 The Fires of Pompeii (S4-E2)
We get The Doctor’s ethics, Time Lord rules, aliens, history mixed with mythology, hard choices, and a bit of comedy. It would be easy for new viewers to get an understanding of the show from this episode, which I suspect was the idea. Also introduces Peter Capaldi, who unfortunately was better here than as The Doctor. We also get Karen Gillan in her pre-Amy days as a less noticeable priestess.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Good. Villains: Good. Plot: Good.
#26 The Long Game (S1-E7)
For the most part, this is the iconic Doctor Who story. The Doctor and companion land in a new place that is overly close to our current society, but something is wrong. The Doctor does some detective work by immediately being accepted by people with power. The “wrong” is an alien monster and The Doctor is captured, allowing him to talk to it, and then to defeats the monster with a simple trick. The one difference this time is a failed potential companion. It’s fun to see a companion that doesn’t make the grade.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Passable. Plot: Good.
#25 The Angels Take Manhattan (S7-E5)
Eleven, Amy, Rory, River
The setup is fantastic. Minus the Statue of Liberty, this is actually a good use of the angels. The Doctor being a dip brings it down a bit, but Amy, Rory, and River are fantastic. This is the perfect ending for two of the best-ever companions.
Doctor: Poor. Companions: Excellent. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Excellent.
#24 New Earth (S2-E1)
A strange mix of two plots, one comical, one serious. Of the previous villains, Cassandra was not one I was looking to see again, but she surprised me. As for the body swap plot, well, if Captain Kirk could do it, why not The Doctor? It fits together better than it has any right to.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Better than expected. Plot: Good.
#23 The Shakespeare Code (S3-E2)
Doctor Who likes its historical celebrity episodes and does them surprisingly well. This one presents a cheeky Shakespeare and ancient witches that use words as weapons. The Martha-out-of-water bits work reasonably well, as does the action/horror and the banter between Doctor, companion, and Shakespeare.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Good. Villains: Excellent. Plot: Solid.
#22 A Good Man Goes to War (S6-E7)
Eleven, Amy, Rory, Paternoster Gang, River
We have to assume that The Doctor is insanely dangerous, which is reasonable from past episodes, not so reasonable from Matt Smith’s performance. Naturally, the setup far oversells the conclusion. Far. Let’s say “far” again. But that setup is so good that nothing could have lived up to it. The Paternoster Gang immediately show themselves to be the best short-term companions. The River and Amy stuff hits hard, mostly due to Murry Gold’s emotive score.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Mixed. Villains: Mixed. Plot: Falls apart.
#21 Rose (S1-E1)
The new Doctor Who starts by making it clear the show is going to be different. This is going to be Rose’s show as much as The Doctor’s, and The Doctor himself is going to be a whole different kind of animal. Luckily, Rose is someone I want to follow and the new Doctor is exciting and funny and complex. Using an opponent from the old show was probably a good idea, though I might have gone for one known a bit better.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Good enough. Plot: Workable.
#20 The Waters of Mars (Autumn special)
If we had to lose David Tennant, it was brilliant to give a reason. This ep is exciting, but it really wins in character arc. Ten finally gives in, becoming the god he has always avoided being, and it makes for great drama.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: He’s alone. Villain: Good. Plot: Excellent.
#19 Planet of the Ood (S4-E3)
The return of the Ood, and they’re the main metaphor now. This is a strong science fiction story, and one of the tightest. From memory, I thought this was a two-parter since so much happens. Plus, the reference to the Who down in Whoville.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Good. Villains: Good. Plot: Good.
#18 Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel (S2-E5/6)
Ten, Rose, Mickey
The cybermen make their first modern appearance, seeming more like Daleks than their previous versions, even down to the insane, wheelchair-bound creator. This is big, grand adventure, with a touch of body horror. Rose gets a solid storyline and Mickey manages to be much more than he ever has before.
Doctor: Excellent. Companions: Excellent. Villain: Good. Plot: Good.
#17 The Christmas Invasion (S2-E0)
The Doctor sleeps through two-thirds of the episode, leaving us with a struggling Rose, Mickey, and Jackie. It also gives us the welcome return of Harriet Jones. Once Ten wakes, it sails with David Tennant showing off some impressive acting chops (and the ability to clearly speak twice as fast as any normal human). An extra point for Santas with weapons and a buzzsaw tree.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: Weak. Villain: OK. Plot: Good.
#16 Bad Wolf /The Parting of the Ways (S1-E12/E13)
Nine, Rose, Captain Jack
The Weakest Link and Big Brother “parodies” weren’t funny at the time and have not gotten better. And the faux death of Rose is weak tea. Actually, nothing in this episode should be looked at too closely, but the feel of it all is very strong. We get a real sense of danger. There is some great emotional stuff with Rose and The Doctor, and Captain Jack makes a great action hero.
“I just wanna tell you, you were fantastic… absolutely fantastic… and d’you know what? So was I.” Yes he was.
Doctor: Excellent. Companions: Excellent. Villain: Fair. Plot: Weak.
#15 The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (S2-E8/E9)
Doctor Who does love its sci-fi horror bottle stories. This is a good one. The Doctor, Rose, and an exploratory crew that’s given a surprising amount of personality, are trapped while an unknown terrifying force attempts to destroy them. This works as horror, as adventure, and as a character piece for The Doctor and Rose.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Good. Plot: Strong.
#14 The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (S5-E12/E13)
Eleven, Amy, Rory, River
An epic made for Matt Smith, with comedy and silliness outweighing action. The emotion is left for Amy and Rory (who finally comes into his own), and the fierceness is left for River. The ending drags, but the rest works.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Excellent. Villains: Hard to say. Plot: Good.
#13 Turn Left (S4-E11)
Ten, Donna, Rose
A prep episode for the big season finale. It’s a Wonderful Life, but better. Rose makes a great angel for Donna. Catherine Tate gets to shine in a moving ep that completely sucked me in. This is great science fiction, showing the sad downward spiral of civilization through the eyes of one, average person. Good thing she doesn’t turn out to be so average.
Doctor: Missing. Companions: Excellent. Villains: Good. Plot: Excellent.
#12 Army of Ghosts / Doomsday (S2-E12/E13)
Ten, Rose, Mickey, Jackie
The vague season 2 arc of Torchwood, cybermen, and Rose’s and The Doctor’s relationship comes to an end. The conflict is very fan-servicey, but it’s fan service done right, and Mickey actually is good. Big, epic, and emotional at the end. This is Doctor Who done with heartbreak.
Doctor: Superb. Companions: Excellent. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Fan service.
#11 A Christmas Carol (S6-E0)
Eleven, Amy, Rory
It violates one of the fundamental rules of time travel set up early on in the show’s history, and it is a version of A Christmas Carol, which is the most overused Christmas story in existence, but somehow it still works. Part of that is the music. Casting mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins was genius.
Doctor: Good. Companions: Good. Villain: Good. Plot: Good.
#10 Heaven Sent (S9-E11)
I have often pointed out episodes that should have been better. Here’s one that should have been worse. It is forty minutes of Twelve, alone, trying to solve a mystery and talking to himself. It shows how much they’ve improved Twelve that this actually works. And the solution works too—and even better, it plays with time.
Doctor: Excellent. Villain: Unseen. Plot: Slight, but solid.
#9 The Girl in the Fireplace (S2-E4)
The second historical celebrity episode of the season, and also the best episode of the season. The Doctor meets Madame de Pompadour at different times in her life and both fall in love. It is a little rushed, but otherwise brilliant and one of the more emotional eps without becoming saccharine.
Doctor: Superb. Companions: Good. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Excellent.
#8 Dalek (S1-E6)
The titular monsters had become a joke. Not any more. Daleks had never been better, and would never be as good again. Who’d have thought I’d care about a Dalek. A serious episode that doesn’t need any humor.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Excellent.
#7 The Eleventh Hour (S5-E1)
Eleven, Amy, Rory
The new Doctor appears doing a slapstick routine hanging out of the TARDIS. That pretty much sets the tone. Matt Smith’s Doctor is silly but still works extremely well in his introductory episode. Amy Pond works even better. She’s strong, sexy, and neurotic, which can be a wonderful combination, and is here. Don’t watch this too closely to The Girl in the Fire Place since this swipes much from that ep.
Doctor: Quite Good. Companions: Excellent. Villain: So-so. Plot: Fair.
#6 The Unquiet Dead (S1-E3)
My favorite of the historical celebrity episodes. Everything is done right. It’s a spooky ghost story with well-developed secondary characters, plenty of emotion, lots of humor, and a bit of meaning. It is pretty much the perfect Doctor Who episode. To beat this, they had to do something unusual. Of course, since this isn’t my number one, sometimes, they did something unusual.
Doctor: Excellent. Companion: Excellent. Villain: Excellent. Plot: Excellent.
#5 The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (S4-E12/E13)
Ten, Donna, Captain Jack, Martha, Rose, Mickey, Jackie, Sarah Jane
The most epic of Doctor Who epics. The world is at stake, the Dalek’s are back with Davros, and most every companion has come to help. There’s a lot of fan service here, but that’s the thing about fan service—if you are a fan, you like it. This is Doctor Who written big, in action and character. And hurrah for giving Harriet Jones a proper sendoff.
Doctor: Superb. Companions: Superb. Villain: Superb. Plot: Excellent.
#4 The Husbands of River Song (S9-E13)
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor had been improving over the year but this Christmas special is where he nails it and becomes one of the best Doctors. Everything around him is as good. The script is the best the show has seen in years. There is wit, fun, and the right amount of emotion at the end. The story works, but it doesn’t matter if it did or not. This is about two characters, The Doctor and River Song, interacting, and it shines. I rank it 4th, but it is my favorite.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: Superb. Villain: Fun. Plot: Does its job.
#3 Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead (S4-E8/E9)
Ten, Donna, River
A new nightmare is born. So much good: scary, heartbreaking, clever. It’s River’s first appearance and she’s as wonderful as she always is—better actually, since some future facts don’t live up to expectations. Ten’s threat works; later Eleven would use the same threat all the time and it never worked.
Not everyone returns from the shadows.
Doctor: Superb. Companion: Superb. Villain: Superb. Plot: Superb.
#2 Blink (S3-E10)
Ten, Martha, Sally Sparrow
If you’re reading a ranking of Doctor Who episodes, you know this one. It is as good as everyone says. Blink introduces the best new monster of New Who (who is never as good again), presents an engaging story, and gives us frights and emotion. This is first-rate horror that focuses on character.
Doctor: Excellent. Sally Sparrow: Perfect. Villain: The Best. Plot: Ah, so good!
#1 The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances (S1-E9/E10)
Nine, Rose, Captain Jack
A fantastic horror story, combined with pitch-perfect character development and just the right amount of humor. TV really doesn’t get any better. The scares are real. I’m hard-pressed to name more than one or two horror films that reach this level of fright. Yet it is filled with jokes about bananas and wonderful sexual banter. The Doctor and Rose are both emotional, complex, dramatic, and fun, and Captain Jack wins as the best of the secondary companions.
“Are you my mummy?” has entered the pop lexicon, as well it should.
Doctor: Superb. Companions: Superb. Villain: Superb. Plot: Superb.