Doctor Who returns to our screens this week for its tenth season since the 2005 show reboot while 500+ episodes of the classic Doctor Who library also come to BritBox, a new SVOD service from the BBC and ITV. Over the past fifty four years, fans have been enthralled and terrified by many incarnations of the Doctor as he travels all of time and space alongside faithful yet often expendable companions.
Peter Capaldi has revealed that this season of Doctor Who will be his last, and that he’ll step down at the end of this year’s Christmas special. Capaldi is widely known as the twelfth Doctor, but this isn’t strictly true – in addition to John Hurt’s War Doctor, the role was also briefly played by Peter Cushing right back in the early days of the show.
With such a rich history and lore to this iconic show, it’s worth taking some time to revisit past adventures, as we look at the best episode that each previous Doctor appears in. Bear in mind that this list is purely subjective, and feel free to disagree loudly in the comments if your favorite episode didn’t make the cut. What’s more, where necessary, we’re focusing on story arcs rather than individual episodes, so be prepared for some lengthy viewing sessions if you’re delving into the Doctor Who archives.
Here, then is each Doctor’s best episode over the course of Doctor Who:
17 William Hartnell: The Dalek Invasion of Earth
While a strong case can be made for An Unearthly Child being the best episode of this era (starting the series off with a bang by introducing an otherworldly puzzle for a pair of teachers to try and solve), and while Aztec is a close third as it was among the first proper time travel episodes, it’s hard to ignore the impact that The Dalek Invasion of Earth has had on Doctor Who lore.
The Daleks are the Doctor’s most iconic enemies (we’ll be seeing them appear on this list multiple times), and their first appearance lit the spark of alien monster horror that would be the backbone of the show for generations to come.
While the Daleks first appeared in one of the earliest Doctor Who serials, The Dalek Invasion of Earth brought this menace home, captivating audiences with the idea that these extra-terrestrial beasts could invade a familiar landscape, and serving as the template for many of their adventures in the future.
16 Peter Cushing: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
Following The Dalek Invasion of Earth, it was clear that audiences still had more desire to see humans facing off against these villains, and the result was a series of movies which didn’t take place in the continuity of the main Doctor Who series, but which has affected the show in plenty of ways over the years.
These movies came out during the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras of the show, but featured a different actor in the lead role. Peter Cushing was a very respected actor at the time, in large part thanks to his performance in Hammer Horror movies about vampires, Frankenstein, and other monsters. Today he’s best known for playing Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars, but his turn as Doctor Who (his character’s surname is actually “Who” in these stories) is also well remembered by fans of the show.
Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. is also interesting as it introduced Bernard Cribbins to the franchise. This actor would later play Donna Noble’s grandfather in the main continuity of the show, and would be The Doctor’s companion for David Tennant’s final pair of episodes.
15 Patrick Troughton: Tomb of the Cybermen
Old black and white episodes of Doctor Who don’t get rewatched by fans as often as they deserve, as there are some absolutely fantastic classic episodes from this era which are deserving of more attention. Tomb of the Cybermen is one such episode, which is lent an oldschool cinematic quality thanks to its use of dark shadows to make the titular tomb feel all the more terrifying.
Patrick Troughton had the unenviable job of taking on the lead role in Doctor Who from the actor who made the show work initially, and his contributions really paved the way for the formula that would allow the show to continue to evolve over time. Witty and silly, this Doctor is less stern than his first incarnation most of the time, which is why his panic and fear throughout Tomb of the Cybermen is particularly nerve-wracking.
14 Jon Pertwee: Spearhead from Space
Doctor Who changed a lot when Jon Pertwee took on the role. The Doctor became more of a suave secret agent than an interstellar explorer, as, trapped on Earth, the Time Lord worked missions for UNIT that involved protecting the planet from alien invaders, rather than traveling the cosmos.
Spearhead from Space shows just how terrifying Doctor Who can be – although the Autons have shown up plenty of times across the show’s history, the plastic invaders have never been more terrifying than in their first appearance. There’s something about the dead eyes of this incarnation of shop floor manakins come to life that make them particularly creepy, and that really taps into the subconscious fear that the Uncanny Valley inspires in all of us.
This terror also makes use of the fact that Spearhead from Space is also the first episode of the series to be produced in color, as the plastic Autons really glimmer with a disturbing shiny glow as their skin color makes them stand out from regular humans around them.
13 Tom Baker: Genesis of the Daleks
Ultimately, The Doctor is always at his best when he’s fighting the Daleks. When this fight takes the form of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey paradoxical nonsense, then all the better!
Genesis of the Daleks poses an interesting moral question, as The Doctor finds himself, thanks to the power of time travel, in a position to destroy the Daleks before they’re even created. But does The Doctor have the right to sentence enemies to death before they’ve even been born? Or do the Daleks deserve a right to make their own choices, even if that means allowing them to murder countless life forms across the galaxy?
This is a question that has returned during Peter Capaldi’s time as The Doctor, and the moral conundrum hasn’t lost any of its significance with time. What’s particularly interesting is that, over time, different Doctors have taken varied stances on whether pre-emptive destruction is a good idea, showing that there really is no clear cut answer to what can be justified in the time of war.
12 Peter Davison: Earthshock
The problem with a long-running television series is that, eventually, audiences can get complacent. It’s easy to see a formula at work once you watch enough Doctor Who, and viewers were beginning to believe that nothing could ever seriously harm The Doctor or his companions – after all, they’d need to appear again in a future series, and any time The Doctor gets in trouble he can regenerate, so after a while all the show’s stakes feel fake.
Then, there was Earthshock, a story that sees The Doctor fighting off the Cybermen for the first time in several years. The big shock comes at the end, when The Doctor’s faithful companion Aldric is murdered, leaving audiences stunned as silent credits play out, proving that there can definitely be significant tragedies among The Doctor’s adventures.
Throughout the long history of Doctor Who, companions are killed off only very occasionally – and a lot of the time (especially in modern Doctor Who) these deaths don’t seem to stick for very long. Aldric, though, is a rare example of the show’s writers taking a big risk and ending on a sad note, and it really pays off.
11 Colin Baker: The Two Doctors
Not all Doctors have been equally appreciated. A lot of the problems faced by Colin Baker’s Doctor are not the actor’s fault, as BBC executive meddling led to a notable dip in the show’s quality during Baker’s time in the role.
One of the best episodes from this time period is The Two Doctors, which sees the Sixth Doctor teaming up with the Second Doctor, with Patrick Troughton reprising his role as the earlier version of the character. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this episode, as the personality clash between these incarnations of The Doctor means that the pair spend their time at each other’s throats, attempting to belittle or insult each other and their varying approaches to solving puzzles.
Considering that Colin Baker’s Doctor is a lot more abrasive than some versions of the character, Troughton’s inclusion in this story is a wonderful opportunity to see that snark funneled inwards, as The Doctors mock each other and compete to prove their respective worth.
10 Sylvester McCoy: Remembrance of the Daleks
There are some very powerful stories throughout Sylvester McCoy’s turn as The Doctor. Following the character’s grumpy period, this new Doctor is playful and fun, while taking on a fatherly role for a younger companion, Ace, as he endeavors to teach her about the universe.
While there are plenty of highlights here – as well as episodes which suggest that The Doctor might not be as altruistic towards Ace as he appears at first – the highlight of McCoy’s time in the role comes in Remembrance of the Daleks, when the aliens make the mistake of crossing Ace, and suffer for it.
Not many companions in the history of the show would be willing to take a baseball bat to a Dalek, and far fewer would survive such a fight. But with the help of homemade explosives and guerilla warfare, Ace puts one Dalek in its place, and it’s a joy to behold.
8 Paul McGann: Doctor Who the Movie
While a case can be made for Night of the Doctor being a better use of Paul McGann’s character, that short, five minute promo video simply doesn’t have enough meat on it to take the top spot from Doctor Who the Movie.
Paul McGann is a great Doctor, and it’s a shame that the actor didn’t get more time to play the iconic role. A different production team and story design wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it’s important to view Doctor Who the Movie in its proper context as a low budget film from the nineties. The impact of movies like Terminator 2 and even Ninja Turtles can be seen here, with scrappy teen sidekicks, leather jackets, and cheesy special effects galore.
While this movie doesn’t fit perfectly inside canon (there’s a lot of talk about The Doctor being half human which has never been brought up again), it’s still worth watching to see how the gap is bridged between old and new Who.
7 John Hurt: Day of the Doctor
Squeezed into canon in order to make the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who all the more memorable, John Hurt’s War Doctor is a mysterious regeneration that we don’t know an awful lot about. Built up as a terrible secret that newer Doctors are afraid of, the War Doctor seemed for a time to be some form of deadly, evil incarnation of the hero – until, that is, he appears in Day of the Doctor, and is revealed as a battle weary Time Lord who has lost faith in his people, and who will reluctantly take an ultimate step to end the Time War in order to spare the lives of countless souls throughout the universe.
Getting John Hurt to play this role is a stroke of genius, as the renowned actor brings a level of quiet sadness to The Doctor that we don’t often get to see. It’s a real shame that we won’t get more of this particular Doctor, but a single powerful performance and hints at the War Doctor’s adventures are certainly enough to add new richness and flavor to the Doctor Who canon.
6 Christopher Eccleston: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
The second attempt at a soft reboot for the Doctor Who franchise since its cancellation following the Sylvester McCoy era, Christopher Eccleston’s brief time as The Doctor was vitally important to renewing the popularity of the classic science fiction show.
Thankfully, Eccleston was up to the task of carrying such a series, and this is apparent throughout the two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. Here, we get one of the most disturbing monsters of the series in the form of characters that are mutated by World War II gas masks as they roam the land in a zombie-like state.
But for a show which has taken a darker turn with a battleworn Doctor, who is desperately trying to reconcile his past and become a kinder, less violent man, the twist ending of these two episodes really show what Doctor Who is capable of in terms of making us see villains through a sympathetic light.
Plus, in case we needed any other reason to love this era of Doctor Who, these two episodes first introduced the world to John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. The world owes Russel T Davies a debt of thanks.
5 David Tennant: Midnight
There’s a lot of fantastic stories throughout David Tennant’s run as The Doctor, as the evolution of the character from warmonger to peacekeeper continues. Making things more poignant and dramatic, Tennant’s Doctor finds himself increasingly suffering from loneliness and isolation, as he discovers the damage that his adventuring causes to those around him. This Doctor may be charming and friendly, but there’s a reason he has to apologize repeatedly to pretty much everybody he meets.
With Midnight, this isolation is at its most palpable, as The Doctor faces a very cebrebral threat. Cut off from the Tardis and Donna, his companion of the time, in the midst of a hostile alien terrain, The Doctor is almost entirely defeated by a mind parasite.
This is Doctor Who horror at its best, without any flashy costumes or special effects, as the performance from David Tennant shines, making for a truly nerve-wracking episode that proves that sometimes in science fiction, less is more.
4 Matt Smith: Vincent and the Doctor
Following David Tennant’s heartwrenching performance as an increasingly lonely Time Lord who’s suffering hugely from the pain of loss, Matt Smith barrels into Who canon as a bright, wacky, energetic Doctor who’s more about quick laughs and fast fun than long periods of introspective sadness.
It’s interesting, then, that the most powerful episode of Matt Smith’s tenure as the character is one which is far more subdued, quiet, and thoughtful, as The Doctor and Amy attempt to bring joy and meaning into the life of Vincent Van Gogh. There are plenty of laughs throughout the episode, but what really stands out is the heartfelt portrayal of depression, and the way that the show proves that there can be moments of light even amongst the most painful emotional darkness.
There’s nothing in all of Doctor Who canon quite like watching Vincent, totally convinced of his own eternal failure, discover that one day, long in the future, he’ll gain the lasting recognition that he’s been striving for.
3 Peter Capaldi: Heaven Sent
It’s safe to say that Peter Capaldi hasn’t always had scripts during his time as The Doctor which complement his talent as an actor. While there have been several fun episodes, the show has suffered a little from the inevitable challenge of a showrunner who, distracted by his work on Sherlock, is beginning to run low on ideas.
This being the case, Heaven Sent is a spectacularly complex episode that really shows what Capaldi is capable of. The Doctor is the only character on screen for the majority of the episode, but despite having nobody to talk to, and no one to interact with, Capaldi carries the episode masterfully.
This is a deep, complex episode that has a fantastic twist, and takes advantage of the show’s science fiction setting to create something that makes audiences think. It’s worth rewatching, if only to pay attention to how Capaldi moves through scenes, and what an excellent job he does of talking to himself for an entire episode.
But no matter what can be achieved by a talented actor in the role of The Doctor, sometimes the greatest achievement can come from the iconic lead character’s absence in a story…
2 No Doctor: Blink
Throughout Doctor Who, every now and then there have been episodes in which The Doctor is notably missing. In stories like Turn Left and Love and Monsters, the famous Time Lord takes a back seat as we instead get to see the impact that The Doctor’s actions have on the lives of others.
No Doctor-less episode is more well renowned than Blink, the single story which introduces the Weeping Angels, and which has proven the perfect jumping-on point for many new fans of the series. There’s no heady continuity to worry about here, nor does a viewer have to come with any previous knowledge of what Doctor Who is about. In a short, self-contained story, we’re introduced to our hero, Sally Sparrow, as she skirts around the world of The Doctor without ever actually getting to meet the character – at least, until the end of the episode, in an incredibly brief scene that ties everything together.
Blink shows just what can be accomplished within the Doctor Who universe when a story is well written and carefully built. As fun as it is to see The Doctor in his adventures, here’s hoping we can have more episodes like this in future.
Across more than fifty years of adventures and stories, Doctor Who has endured as a popular culture icon. This is in no small part thanks to the excellent work provided by its lead actors, who all bring something special to the role of The Doctor, and reinvent the character for a new audience.
Among the show’s long run, many episodes stand out as shining examples of what science fiction can achieve, whether it be providing social commentary, philosophical debates, or simple, fun entertainment.
That said, the choice over which episodes of Doctor Who are best is completely subjective. Nobody can definitively state which episode is the best for a certain Doctor, as tastes vary wildly. If you’ve been enraged to see your personal favorite episode left off this list, feel free to head down into the comments and set us straight! By sharing our own favorite episodes, we can hopefully all better appreciate Doctor Who, and prepare ourselves for the coming new season.