If you clicked on this article, chances are that you already know Doctor Who is a very special show. As one of the longest running television programs in history, the idea of pinning down a definitive list of, well, anything about the show is nearly impossible. But die-hard fans will tell you that beyond the sci-fi aspects, the sometimes oddball humor, and all the instances of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff is a show that, at its heart (or hearts), isn’t afraid of some real emotion. Much like The Doctor’s many companions, we’re along for the ride and really get to know these characters.
While the beginnings of the show back in the ’60s may have initially been aimed at children, the newer incarnation often deals with some rather adult things like love, relationships, and loss. Some of these moments can really tug at our heartstrings and even punch us in the gut. And it’s in these heartbreaking moments where we love the show even more.
The show is good when it’s an adventure and even better when it’s funny, but it’s the emotional moments that make the show truly wonderful.
Here’s our list of the 15 Most Heartbreaking Moments In Doctor Who History.
15. The life John Smith never had
Part of the appeal of a show like Doctor Who is that we know The Doctor has lived so long, seen so much, and still cares enough about everyone to continue being the hero. The 2007 episodes “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” gave us a glimpse of what would happen if he didn’t have the weight of the world (or Universe) on his shoulders and he still came out a hero.
The Doctor and Martha Jones go into hiding in 1913 from some alien baddies and, for lack of a better term, stash his Time Lord essence in a Chameleon Arch. The Doctor, now a human named “John Smith”, is able to live his own life without the burden of knowing about Daleks, Cybermen, or the life he’s lived fighting the evils of the Universe.
Heartbreak comes when “Smith” finds love and happiness with a woman named Joan and is forced to give it all up for the sake of everyone else. The tearful goodbye he shares with her is accompanied by a montage of moments that could have been. Starting a family, growing old, and being happy together was in a future neither of them can have.
14. A very important phone call
While his real goodbye may or may not be a few entries down (spoilers!), we witnessed a beautifully heartbreaking exchange between old friends and new in a way that only time travel could accomplish. After the Eleventh Doctor turned into the Twelfth, it was all too much for Clara to handle. She understood that regeneration happens to Time Lords but refused to see that her old friend was still standing in front of her and needed her help. Who could blame her? Capaldi’s first moments as The Doctor were frighteningly angry and a such departure from we were used to with Matt Smith.
Feeling the drastic change ahead and knowing his future self would need Clara, the 11th Doctor made a special call to her in an earlier episode. Past, present, and future collide in a beautifully bittersweet moment where Clara comes to grips with what’s happened. She’s talking to her old friend while standing in front of a stranger who actually is the same man; a man who only wants his friend to look past the new face and beyond all the pain she’s feeling to truly see him and how much he needs her by his side.
13. Clara says goodbye to The Doctor
Parting ways with companions is never easy because we get so attached to them. In recent years, we’ve been given the added gut punch of saying goodbye to some on multiple occasions and the most recent companion, Clara, has this distinction like no other. Her first sacrifice (which we’ll get to in a bit) was tough to deal with, but her final goodbye had us tearing up all over again.
Due to the usual timey-wimey-ness of the show, we were able to see Clara again when she was pulled outside of time before the final beat of her heart.
The episode plays out as a story told by The Doctor to a waitress who looks an awful lot like Clara but doesn’t seem to recognize her friend. This, with our previous knowledge of Doctor Donna (which we’ll also get to in a bit), is a level of anguish we’ve not experienced in a while. We assume The Doctor was forced to wipe Clara’s mind to save her but we realize that it’s his memory that was altered when he comments to Clara that he’s sure he’ll remember his friend if he ever sees her again.
12. River is saved in The Library
Entire books could be written on The Doctor and River Song and how their relationship is a mess of mixed up timelines. The Doctor’s first moment with her is River’s last with him and wrapping your head around that is a sadder thing than most. As the audience, our relationship with their story begins from The Doctor’s perspective and it’s not until later seasons do we realize just how lovely it really is.
River’s first appearance coincides with her death and it’s tough for us to watch, let alone for The Doctor to experience. She knows his true name, has his screwdriver, and is aware of every moment of their future together but–for the sake of spoilers–knows she can’t divulge too much.
In her dying moments, she talks about her last night with him and how beautiful it was before saying goodbye to the man she’s loved for years, knowing that he’s only just met her.
In a final and also first act of love–The Doctor realizes his future self had a plan and is able to restore River’s mind (saved in the sonic screwdriver) to a computer where she can, in a way, live on for eternity.
11. The Tenth becomes the Eleventh
Not all the heartbreak in Doctor Who comes from death but, rather, from regeneration. One could argue that we’re still actually losing a character we love, but there’s a certain bittersweet element to the ongoing evolution of a character like The Doctor.
However, that doesn’t make it any easier when a Doctor moves on to greener Gallifreyan pastures, and there was something especially sad about David Tennant’s departure as the 10th.
Although the new incarnation of the show began with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, we really dug ourselves into getting to know the Tenth. It was Tennant’s Doctor who really hooked fans, new and old, for his five years on the show.
In a way, audiences were able to befriend Tennant’s Doctor and be with him through multiple companions, love, loss, and a huge range of emotions. Saying goodbye to him was like saying goodbye to an actual friend and, in the moment before his regeneration, both the character and David Tennant acted as one in his final sad statement of “I don’t want to go.”
10. Clara Faces The Raven
It’s sad when a companion chooses to leave, but it’s so much worse when they give their life to save others. With Clara Oswald, her untimely demise came about after she became a bit reckless in her adventures. Clara’s actions grew increasingly cavalier as she sought to find solace in adventuring with The Doctor instead of facing the pain of the loss of Danny Pink.
In a rash decision to save her friend Rigsy from a death sentence via Chronolock and Quantum Shade, she jumped at the chance to take on the burden, thinking she and The Doctor would get out of it like always. Unfortunately, there are things even The Doctor can’t fix.
It turns out that the Chronolock could have been lifted from Rigsy with no loss of life, but Clara signed her death warrant with her impulsive actions and the Quantum Shade could not be called off. In her tearful goodbye to her friend, she made The Doctor promise to “always be a Doctor, never a warrior” before bravely facing her death. Despite it being a lesson in looking before you leap, Clara owned up to her fate, held her head high, and died a hero.
9. The Eleventh becomes the Twelfth
The Tenth Doctor’s last five words may have ruined us, but the Eleventh’s final speech shattered our two hearts and left the pieces scattered across the TARDIS. Matt Smith packed a lot into the three years he played a young, energetic, and cocky Time Lord with an underlying darkness. Smith humanized the character by playing him a little damaged and was able to give us a glimpse of how hard life must be for The Doctor.
Still, when the Eleventh said goodbye, he did so in an honest and real way. Equating his life (and in turn, ours) to be as fleeting as breath on a mirror but assuring us that change is an inevitable part of life: “We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s okay. That’s good. You’ve got to keeping moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”
8. River Song and The Doctor’s last night together
Imagine living your life hearing stories about your future and knowing that things often cannot be changed. For the majority of the series, we know River Song to be a pillar of fearless confidence, equipped occasional knowledge of her future. Her devil-may-care attitude toward things in the series is a refreshing change from the worry we see from The Doctor’s other companions. This is probably why seeing her and The Doctor come to grips with their penultimate time together is so damn heartbreaking. Her knowledge of future events come to a head when The Doctor brings her to the place of their final date, the Singing Towers of Darillium.
River has heard stories of this night and dreads what it all means. Meanwhile, The Doctor chokes back tears as he’s aware of what comes next for the woman he loves and gives her his old screwdriver (that will ultimately save her consciousness in the Library). Heartbroken in the knowledge they only have one more evening together, River asks how long a night on Darillium lasts. The Doctor happily replies “24 years.”
7. The Life and Death of Danny Pink
Oh man, Danny Pink is a tough one. As a former soldier and Clara’s love interest, we were just starting to see Danny on more adventures when he was abruptly killed. Not by some alien threat but by an ordinary earthly fluke. This strong, brave, and devoted soldier was taken from Clara by an everyday car accident, reminding us that life isn’t always fair and that bad things can often just… happen.
Danny then came back as a Cyberman and proved his love by saving Clara (and the world) from a similar fate but that’s not even what gets us all teary eyed.
The heartbreak came later when the ever-heroic soldier, as part of a deadly dream, convinced Clara to wake up. Before they said goodbye, Danny gave Clara specific instructions on how she could mourn his death saying “You can miss me for five minutes a day…“
And tugging our heartstrings even more, Danny sacrificed himself yet again when given the opportunity to come back to life. Instead, he chose to bring back a young boy whose life he had taken during his time at war.
6. The Boy Who Waited
Doctor Who has a heroic character who’s sacrificed his life, not only over years, but through a span of centuries. That hero’s name? Rory Williams. As with most things in Doctor Who stories, things get a bit confusing so keeping it as simple as possible, here goes.
Rory, the devoted husband of Amy Pond, sacrifices his life for his friends on multiple occasions, and that’s not even the most heroic thing he’s done. During the Pandorica saga (does “saga” work here? Sure, let’s go with it.) Rory is brought back to life in living plastic as a Roman Centurion. Having just learned that he’s not real, he sets that identity crisis aside in order to protect the woman he loves who’s trapped in the Pandorica. Although he has an extended lifespan, he’s not invulnerable and still chooses to stand by Amy for as long as it takes. Which, as we find out, is in the ballpark of 2000 years. Now that’s devotion.
5. Rose and The Tenth Doctor say goodbye
No list of heartbreaking moments would be complete without at least a mention of the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler’s relationship; specifically, their final goodbyes. Due to some unfortunate events involving an alternate dimension, the two star-crossed lovers were forever separated.
And don’t think for a second the show would just give us one layer of sadness with ending a relationship. Their cross-dimensional separation came immediately after Rose “Bad Wolf if you’re nasty” Tyler chose to stay with The Doctor over the chance to be with her family.
The layered sadness doesn’t end there. After Rose makes her choice she’s unfortunately pulled through a void and cannot return.
The two eventually find a weak spot between worlds where Rose confesses she loves The Doctor. He begins to reply in kind but is only able to say her name before connection is lost. There’s never been a better lesson on the importance of telling the ones you love how you feel before it’s too late.
4. DoctorDonna’s Farewell
Donna Noble’s time in the TARDIS was an emotional roller coaster. Having just ripped our hearts out by separating The Doctor and Rose in different dimensions, the show literally drops Donna unexpectedly into the TARDIS. Her time with The Doctor seems short-lived when Martha Jones is brought on as a companion but Donna comes back into our lives later on. Over time, we get to know her and eventually enjoy Donna’s adventures with The Doctor through some of the best DW story lines.
And just when we really like Donna, she goes and makes us absolutely love her by becoming The DoctorDonna and saving all of reality.
We’re immediately jazzed to see what adventures await, but our hopes are dashed when Donna’s mind begins to fail. No human mind can handle the power a Time Lord wields and The Doctor is forced to wipe her mind so she can never know of her adventures. With her memory wiped, it’s brutal to see her “meet” The Doctor again and not give it a second thought.
3. Amy and Rory are taken by Weeping Angels
We could talk about the dozens of times Amy and Rory each endured pain and hardship for the other, having to battle foes or wait years to see each other again. We could even talk about the torment the two must have felt in having their baby taken away from them. But, as with most things in Doctor Who, heartbreak comes in the goodbyes.
Thinking they had won another battle against the Weeping Angels, the rug is pulled out from under us when Rory spots a gravestone with his name on it and, in a blink of an eye, is sent back in time by an angel.
Unsure of the consequence, Amy asks if there’s a chance she’ll be sent back to him if she looks away. The Doctor begs her to reconsider knowing he won’t ever be able to see Amy again. With her mind made up, she turns to say goodbye and is sent back in time to be with Rory.
2. Vincent van Gogh visits his art in the future
This one might be a point of contention with some fans since it was a one-off episode and we didn’t have much time to bond with Tony Curran’s Vincent van Gogh. However, it’s important precisely because of this short and seemingly inconsequential blip of time we get in the episode. Historical figures popping in and out of Doctor Who is usually a fun time but the heart of this episode had little to do with fun. In the end, The Doctor takes Vincent to the future in order to show him how he and his art is eventually beloved.
Throughout the episode, we see a fictionalized version of what the artist’s real inner torment may have looked like. Vincent was unsure of his mind, unsure of his talent, and unsure of reality. The pain we know he endured in real life is made all that more heartbreaking watching this fictional version realize his worth in the future.
Knowing the real Vincent van Gogh never knew what his art means to the world is both heartbreaking and beautiful when we realize we’re in the same boat. We’ll never really know what our contributions to the world will be after we’re gone.
1. Wilfred Mott knocks four times
Of all the heartbreaking moments in Doctor Who, this one takes the cake. We’re told of a prophecy that the 10th Doctor will die when “he knocks four times” and we’re misdirected for so many episodes. Through the defeat of aliens, The Master, and even Galifrey itself– The Doctor always seems to prevail.
When all is said and done toward the end of the season, and we’re actually able to take a breath, it ruined us to hear that The Doctor’s death would come at the hand of his friend Wilfred Mott.
Stuck in a chamber that will surely kill him, Wilfred begs The Doctor to let him make the sacrifice. Of course The Doctor won’t let him do that and takes his friend’s place but not before tearfully lamenting about all the good his current self could have still accomplished. It’s a moment of furious anger rarely seen with David Tennant’s Doctor that makes us feel he wasn’t entirely acting about his character’s time coming to a close.
The Doctor– a man capable of saving countless lives throughout all of time– gives his life to save just one.
What Doctor Who moment tugged on your heartstrings the most? Let us know in the comments.