I can’t play favorites with “classic” Doctor Who episodes, for reasons I’ve previously explained, but I certainly can with “new” Who, and I’m about to do just that. If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, these may be good ones to sample for a sense of the show as it is today. If you’re a Whovian of any era, I’m happy to discuss, defend, or debate my picks with you, and I’d love to have you share some of yours in the comments! But first, let me answer some non-episode-specific “What’s your favorite…?” questions–
|Playing favorites with Captain Jack and the Tenth Doctor at WonderCon 2013|
- Doctor: Ten (I may have mentioned that already, too)
- Companion: Donna Noble. Her character arc allows her a lot of growth as it moves toward a heartbreaking end, and I love the bantering, bickering interplay between her and Ten.
- Companion, Runner-up: Rory “Centurion” Williams. Who can resist a guy who waits two thousand years for the girl he loves?
- Companion, Special Mention: Captain Jack Harkness, immortal action hero (and you can define “action” any way you like). Who can resist this guy, period?
- Monsters: The Weeping Angels
- Episode to watch over and over if I could only watch one: “Doomsday”
Who’s Who and What’s What: A Selective and Highly Biased Episode Guide
The “new” Doctor took some time to find the tone of both the show and its title character. The ninth incarnation of the character invites 19-year-old London shopgirl Rose Tyler along as a traveling companion–the Doctor has “companions” now, not “assistants”–but seems to blow hot and cold about humans as a species. That may be because he’s coming to terms with being the last survivor of his own species, the Time Lords of the planet Gallifrey, after the devastating Time War with the Daleks.
To Be Watched
“The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” (Ep. 1-9/1-10), written by Steven Moffat: The Doctor and Rose are confronted by frightening blank-faced mutants in 1941 London. Future showrunner Steven Moffat introduces two of his trademarks in this two-parter: silently terrifying monsters, and the dashing, rarely-silent Time Agent Captain Jack Harkness.
“Dalek” (Ep. 1-6), written by Robert Shearman: This is the first episode to bring classic Who foils into the new series. It goes for the Doctor’s greatest enemies of all, the murderous robotic Daleks, and I think that looking to its history gives the show a sense of itself that its new episodes really haven’t displayed before this.
The Tenth Doctor still carries the burden of being the last Time Lord, but it doesn’t seem to weigh quite as heavily. He also has a much higher opinion of humans than the Ninth did, and perhaps that’s why he seems to have more emotional range and depth. He also has a lot of company during his time in the TARDIS–first Rose, then medical student Martha Jones, and finally “just a temp” Donna Noble–but he ends his travels alone. Ten may be the most romantic incarnation of the Doctor to date–not all fans have loved that about him, but I certainly have.
To Be Watched
“Blink” (Ep. 3-10), written by Steven Moffat: This is frequently cited as the Doctor Who episode for people who have never watched Doctor Who before, and although it’s actually relatively short on the Doctor himself, I’m not going to disagree. It’s an excellent stand-alone story with plenty of the show’s hallmarks–a suspenseful story told well, emotional weight, and a truly scary monster (the Weeping Angels)–but very little overt “mythology.” I don’t think it’s possible to watch just one episode of Doctor Who and be done with it, but if that’s what you have to do, you cannot go wrong with this one.
“Army of Ghosts“/”Doomsday” (Ep. 2-12/2-13), written by Russell T. Davies: This two-parter brings back another classic-Who enemy, the Cybermen, and allies them with the Daleks. If that sounds like bad news, it is–and it ends up tearing the Doctor and Rose apart. “Doomsday” is the episode that made me go “all in” with Doctor Who, and if you can watch the last five minutes of it without getting choked up, I will wonder if you are less human than the Doctor himself.
“Human Nature“/”The Family of Blood” (Ep. 3-8/3-9), written by Paul Cornell: The Doctor entrusts Martha with the fob-watch containing his Time Lord memories, and becomes human. Using his standard alias, John Smith, he takes a teaching job at a boarding school and falls in love with the school’s nurse, while mysterious aliens begin preying on the students. This two-parter was recently chosen as the second-best Doctor Who story in a BBC America “superfan” top-10 poll, and I’m inordinately fond of it.
“Silence in the Library“/”Forest of the Dead” (Ep. 4-8/4-9), written by Steven Moffat: This two-parter takes place in the biggest library in the universe, but there’s more than books in its collections. The Doctor almost loses Donna to the monsters that inhabit it, but he finds River Song. The adventurous, gun-slinging archaeologist–Indiana Jones with lots of curly blonde hair, or “hell in high heels”–will become a big part of the Eleventh Doctor’s story, but by saving her life here, the Tenth makes that possible.
“The End of Time,” Parts One and Two, written by Russell T. Davies: The “specials” that conclude the era of the Tenth Doctor are full of references and characters from the show’s previous three seasons, in a story where the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. The whole thing does feel a bit overstuffed and indulgent at times, but I appreciate every last minute with my Doctor, and I find this a satisfying farewell.
The Eleventh Doctor brings back a stronger sense of the Time Lord’s alien nature, and that seems to amplify both his aura of power and sense of fun. There’s a trio in the TARDIS for most of his cycle, as he is joined by the (eventually) married Amy and Rory–this makes for some interesting interpersonal dynamics as we see how his presence affects their relationship. After Amy and Rory leave, Eleven is joined by the mysterious, memorable Clara Oswald, who is expected to stick around for the imminent arrival of the Twelfth Doctor.
To Be Watched
“The Pandorica Opens“/“The Big Bang” (Ep. 5-12/5-13), written by Steven Moffat: This two-part finale to the fifth series features the return of River, the reunion of Amy and Rory, a prison, a wedding (one of my top-five moments of the entire run of Doctor Who), and the rebooting of the universe. Also, “fezzes are cool.” I just love these episodes, but they aren’t ones you can go into unprepared; at least half of this season leads to this.
“The Impossible Astronaut“/”Day of the Moon” (Ep. 6-1 /6-2), written by Steven Moffat: The Doctor, Amy, Rory, and River go to America in two different times. In 1969, they meet President Nixon and help ensure that Apollo 11 happens as planned while trying to learn the identity of a mystery girl in a space suit. In 2011, they will see the Doctor die. This two-parter opener sets out the primary story arc for the sixth series, which carries through the four consecutive episodes “The Rebel Flesh,” “The Almost People,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” and “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and concludes with “The Wedding of River Song.”
“The Name of the Doctor” (Ep. 7-14), written by Steven Moffat: The Doctor’s newest companion, Clara, has been a mystery to him all along. This episode solves that mystery–and opens plenty of other questions, as it sets the stage for the 50th-anniversary special.
|“Exploding TARDIS” print skirt|
“Vincent and The Doctor” (ep. 5-10), written by Richard Curtis: This episode does not directly lead to anything else in the show’s narrative arc. It’s mostly a stand-alone, but this moving story of the Doctor and Amy’s meeting with Vincent Van Gogh does introduce one of the iconic images of “new” Who, the exploding TARDIS. I own two different items of clothing that feature it.
“The Doctor’s Wife” (Ep. 6-4), written by Neil Gaiman: I submit this stand-alone episode exploring the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS as Exhibit A of Doctor Who as a writer’s show–Gaiman is a lifelong fan, and he so enjoyed writing for it that he did it again a year later.
(NOTE: It was brought to my attention that the last couple of pieces I did for my writing workshop referenced Doctor Who rather heavily, but didn’t make allowances for readers who might have no idea what those references meant. As the portion of the world that does get those references gears up to celebrate the Doctor’s 50th anniversary this week–as if a half-century means anything to a thousand-year-old Time Lord!–it seems like an appropriate occasion to address that. These posts are not sponsored by anything other than my own excessive enthusiasm for Doctor Who. Some photos via BBC America: Doctor Who at 50 and BBC One.)