It seems like Peter Capaldi just got here. Yet this weekend, the current resident of the TARDIS will begin his third and final season as the star of Doctor Who. This will be a season of massive change for the show. Capaldi has a new companion for the first time; Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts. And following Capaldi out the door will be longtime showrunner Steven Moffat, who will be replaced by Broadchurch creator (and occasional Doctor Who writer) Chris Chibnall.
Following a creative lull at the end of Matt Smith’s tenure, the show slowly righted itself in Capaldi’s first season before delivering a uniformly outstanding second season. Capaldi’s Doctor was more caustic and alien, far less likely to flirt with fish ladies or dance like an idiot at weddings. It was a refreshing new direction for the show, and even when the writing wasn’t up to snuff, Capaldi never failed to deliver. This is Every Peter Capaldi Episode Of Doctor Who, Ranked Worst To Best.
22. In The Forest Of The Night (8X10)
One of the more common complaints about modern Doctor Who is that it’s been largely overseen by only a handful of creative talent. Critics feel this can lead to a feeling of staleness, of repetitive storytelling with diminishing returns. And while it’s true you’re probably never going to get better than about a B+ episode out of old hands like Toby Whithouse or Gareth Roberts at this point, they do understand the basic rhythms and tone of the show. Taking chances on new writers has proven a mixed bag for Doctor Who.
The lowest point of Peter Capaldi’s run came from the pen of newcomer Frank Cottrell-Boyce. “In The Forest Of The Night” is meant to be a relatively low key, poetic tale where there’s really no villain; just a world trying to protect its own inhabitants. But the whole thing just comes off as silly and boring, not only betraying the show’s internal logic, but just basic logic in general. The Doctor is a mad man with a box, not a dumb man in a box.
21. Sleep No More (9X09)
Season 9 of Doctor Who was something of a renaissance for the show. Capaldi’s Doctor had finally found a strong rapport with his companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), and showrunner Steven Moffat’s plotting was the sharpest it had been since the series’ high point in season 5. That said, there’s no season of Doctor Who without a clunker or two, and “Sleep No More” sticks out like a sore thumb in season 9.
Written by longtime Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss, “Sleep No More” contains all the elements of a good Doctor Who episode. It features strong performances, evokes an effective horror aesthetic, and even pulls the old Moffat trick of taking something mundane and turning it into something nightmarish. But the nature of that mundanity (eye crust, basically) as well as a tired found-footage gimmick and a cliffhanger ending that’s almost certainly never going to be resolved make the whole thing seem like a pointless exercise.
20. Robot of Sherwood (8X03)
One of the staples of the era of Doctor Who overseen by Russell T Davies was those stories where the Doctor and his companion travel back in time to meet a historical figure. These have been more of a mixed bag under Steven Moffat’s tenure. The best of these is the series highlight Matt Smith episode “Vincent and the Doctor”, which is a beautiful, heartbreaking meditation on mental illness. The worst of these is likely “Robot of Sherwood,” where the Doctor and Clara meet a man who claims to be the real Robin Hood, much to the Doctor’s wariness.
It’s not a terrible premise, and the story features a tangent about how this Robin Hood and the Doctor share more than a little DNA as real men who seem like legends, but the execution is severely lacking. The actor playing Robin Hood is, frankly, lousy, and the climax of the episode features an action beat that strongly suggests the producers ran out of money at some point during production. The only real saving grace is Capaldi’s caustic performance, including Twelve engaging a swordsman with a spoon.
19. Flatline (8X09)
“Flatline” should have been a classic. One of the more visually audacious episodes the show has ever attempted, the episode finds the TARDIS mysteriously shrinking with the Doctor inside. Clara (holding the TARDIS in her hands like a toy) and a young graffiti artist named Rigsy determine that the TARDIS’ dimensions are being leeched by murderous two-dimensional creatures attempting to infiltrate our three-dimensional universe.
The two-dimensional creatures are some of the coolest and scariest visual effects the show has ever pulled off, and the gimmick of the shrinking TARDIS is amusing, but the story just doesn’t hold up. The supporting characters never feel all that fleshed out, and having the Doctor essentially quarantined for the duration of the episode puts way too much of the story on Clara’s shoulders. As innovative as the visual effects are, the script is pretty unimaginative; the Doctor really just ends up zapping the creatures away with some poorly explained tech. This one feels like a missed opportunity.
18. The Husbands of River Song (Christmas Special 2015)
After the dark, epic close to season 9, it felt appropriate that the Doctor’s first Christmas after Clara’s departure would be a rather light affair, and “The Husbands of River Song” offers up a silly, featherweight romp. Introduced in a memorable David Tennant era episode, River Song will almost certainly be remembered as a companion/love interest of Matt Smith’s Doctor.
This new twist in the pair’s timey-wimey soap opera is a reverse of their initial onscreen media: River does not recognize the Doctor. For a good portion of the episode the Doctor plays this stunning revelation largely for his own amusement, as he assists River in a ridiculous plot that involves royalty and robots and heads in bags.
Eventually, the Doctor reveals who he is to River in rather loving fashion. It’s probably the warmest moment Capaldi has offered us in the role, proving that River owns the Doctor’s hearts, no matter the regeneration. It’s a silly romp of an episode that elevates itself by virtue of its two leads performances, and a sense of finality for one of the series’ most important relationships (though never say never with River Song).
17. Kill The Moon (8X07)
If you’re looking to start a fight among Doctor Who fans, just bring up “Kill The Moon.” A bitterly polarizing episode, there is very little middle ground between “absolute classic” and “series low point” when it’s being discussed. When the Doctor and Clara travel to 2049, they find that an unexplained gravitational shift in the moon is threatening to end all life on Earth, and a space shuttle full of nuclear warheads is headed toward the moon in a last ditch effort to destroy it. The Doctor has been to far-flung futures where he knows the moon still exists, and finds himself in a moral quandary, as he is reluctant to interfere in a fluid moment that could mean so much for humanity’s future.
What follows is a stunning, unbelievable chain of events that not only seem to fly in the face of physics, but also make the Doctor seem inhuman to the point of wondering why the audience would want to root for this guy. The former point is pretty tough to defend; the science of the episode is ridiculous, even for Doctor Who. But the latter offers a glimpse into the darkest corners of the Doctor, and Clara’s episode ending-rampage is perhaps the best acting Jenna Coleman has ever done.
16. The Return Of Doctor Mysterio (Christmas Special 2016)
Doctor Who’s production schedule has become a bigger mystery than the crack in Amy Pond’s bedroom wall ever was. After season 9 ended in late 2015, the show essentially took all of 2016 off, save for the customary Christmas special. Whatever the reason for the production delays, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” felt like a gust of fresh air for Doctor Who fans who’d been holding their breath for a year.
The episode itself is, well, fine. A bald-faced homage to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Steven Moffat has some fun subverting superhero tropes (you also get the feeling Moffat doesn’t care much for superheroes), while weaving in a plot about brain-hopping aliens bent on world domination. The whole thing feels a bit by the numbers. The real reason to tune is the subtle, somber performance from Capaldi, who is quietly dealing with the fact he has likely said farewell to River Song for the last time. It wasn’t the first time Capaldi has elevated mediocre material by sheer talent, and it likely won’t be the last.
15. Into The Dalek (8X02)
Capaldi’s second episode in the TARDIS saw the Doctor openly questioning whether or not he was a good man. It’s a fair question after the events of this episode. After rescuing a soldier from a battle with a Dalek ship, the Doctor is confronted with a malfunctioning Dalek that has essentially turned good. The Doctor, Clara, and a team of the soldiers are miniaturized and enter the Dalek, attempting to understand what’s happened to it.
It’s hard to imagine any of the past few Doctors making many of the choices Capaldi’s Time Lord does here. He coldly and consciously sacrifices soldiers to get to his goal, and when he shares his mind with the Dalek to show it the beauty of the universe, the Dalek sees only hatred and vows to exterminate its own race. It’s dark, dark stuff, even if the ultimate lesson is that the Doctor may not be a good man, but it means something that’s he’s trying.
14. Mummy On The Orient Express (8X08)
After their falling out at the conclusion of “Kill The Moon”, Clara decides that she can’t travel with the Doctor anymore, and they agree to go on one final mission together. They arrive on a train called the Orient Express (an homage to the classic real world vehicle) that travels through space. People begin claiming they can see a horrific mummy, and exactly 66 seconds later they’re dead.
It’s a delicious set-up for a murder mystery, and the episode mostly delivers. Watching the Doctor attempt to work out what’s actually happen is thrilling, as is the ominous countdown clock that accompanies every soon to be victim. It also ends up resolving the tension that had been building between the Doctor and Clara since his regeneration; he might be a colder, more alien Doctor, but Clara has been bouncing around time and space too long to give up on him or their adventures.
13. The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (9X01-02)
Season 9 of Doctor Who couldn’t have opened in more epic fashion. The Doctor has mysteriously disappeared, and Clara, UNIT, and Missy (!) team up to track him down. They eventually find him in Essex in 1138, playing electric guitar on top of tanks in arenas. The Doctor has made a grave mistake and is having a party before he faces what he believes will be his demise.
As a huge story that involves some of the most iconic elements of the show’s history, this two-parter is really a story about the incredibly complicated relationship between the Doctor and Davros, the creator of the Daleks, as well as the complicated moral responsibilities of time travel.
It also serves as something of a soft reboot for Capaldi’s version of the Doctor, who is decidedly looser and funnier than he was in his inaugural season. It’s a story where the Doctor ultimately chooses hope over despair, even if he knows there will be dire consequences– because that’s who he is.
12. The Caretaker (8X06)
In the middle of season 8, Clara was desperately trying to keep the two parts of her life, school teacher and time traveler, as separate as possible in an attempt to maintain some level of normality. This is complicated by the Doctor taking up residence as the school’s caretaker without Clara’s knowledge, as he’s on the trail of a robotic killing machine called a Skovox Blitzer near Clara’s school, Coal Hill.
Despite the threat of horrible death by robots, the episode is largely played for laughs, as the Doctor makes Clara’s everyday routine miserable. He arrogantly assumes Clara’s boyfriend is her fellow teacher Adrian, who bears a striking resemblance to Matt Smith’s Doctor. In reality, Clara’s relationship is with Danny Pink, a former soldier with whom the Doctor almost immediately clashes. It’s be a dynamic that shaped quite a bit of the back half of the season, as Danny was more than happy to call the Doctor out on some of his more mercurial tendencies.
11. Deep Breath (8X01)
Peter Capaldi had awfully big shoes to fill. Though, to be fair, so did Matt Smith. The difference is that Smith’s Doctor was hardly a radical reinvention from his predecessor. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors had so much in common it was hardly a shock when the two became instant pals in the 50th anniversary extravaganza “The Day Of The Doctor,” a far cry from the bickering multi-Doctor episodes of the Patrick Troughton/Jon Pertwee days. But the Twelfth Doctor would prove to be a very different animal right from the start.
Far from the flirtatious young man he’d just been, this Doctor could barely tell Clara from a Sontaran potato man. At a certain point, the audience is left to genuinely wonder if the Doctor had left Clara to die (he hadn’t, of course). And the Doctor’s whiskey sipping lament about the nature of death and existence to the Half-Face Man might as well have been flashing “this is not your father’s Doctor” in big neon lights. It’s an episode that speaks volumes about the new face that would take control of the TARDIS.
10. Under The Lake/Before The Flood (9X03-04)
The Doctor and Clara arrive at an underwater base in the near future of 2119, where the crew has discovered an alien ship. When they open the ship, their commander is killed instantly, and the ghost of their commander and the alien begin hunting down the rest of the crew. “Under The Lake” is a strong entry in what’s referred to as the “base under siege” type Doctor Who stories, where the Doctor and a small group of people are trapped in a relatively cramped location, attempting to avoid some sort of monster.
The neat innovation comes in the “Before The Flood” episode, where the Doctor travels back in time to 1980 to the same location, a town that would eventually be flooded, to understand what is really happening. It’s a smart, uncomplicated use of time travel to move a story forward, with none of the occasionally labyrinthine machinations of the Moffat era.
9. Time Heist (8X05)
After a bit of bantering in Clara’s apartment and a mysterious telephone call to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Clara wake up in a room with two other people they’ve never seen before, and are shown a recording from someone calling themselves the Architect telling them they have been recruited to rob the Bank of Karabraxos. It’s an irresistible setup for a mystery, as well as a genuinely fun caper story. It’s a little bit like an Ocean’s Eleven movie in space.
While the situation is incredibly dangerous, the Doctor’s glee at the entire predicament is infectious. The supporting characters are surprisingly well fleshed out (including a great villain turn by Keeley Hawes), to the point that we find ourselves caring about what happens to them. Best of all, the mystery has a fantastic payoff that makes perfect sense, and the look on Peter Capaldi’s face when he realizes what’s happening is worth the price of admission alone.
8. Last Christmas (Christmas Special 2014)
After the massive, destructive finale of season 8, the Doctor and Clara found themselves apart, emotionally and physically battered by Missy’s onslaught. At a personal nadir, a sorrowful Doctor found himself confronted by an unlikely TARDIS intruder: Santa Claus (played with a kind of blunt charm by the inimitable Nick Frost). The Doctor and Clara eventually find themselves roped into an adventure at the North Pole, where a group of scientists are under siege by crab-like monsters that, when attached to their faces, send them into a dream world. The Doctor and Clara are constantly wary of whether or not their world is real as they attempt to save the scientists and repair their relationship.
Decidedly creepy for a Christmas special, “Last Christmas” owes creative debts to both Alien and Inception, but it never feels like a ripoff. It strikes just the right balance of scary and festive, and serves as an appropriate coda to Capaldi’s first year in the TARDIS.
7. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (9X07-08)
One of the great questions in the history of Doctor Who is why it took the new series seven years to revive the Zygons, one of the most visually distinctive monster races from the original series (where they somehow only ever got one story, a Tom Baker era classic). After a minor appearance in the anniversary special “The Day Of The Doctor”, the Zygons returned in full force in season 9.
A well-constructed thriller plot revolving around the body snatcher element of the Zygons (and featuring the return of fan-favorite, Osgood), the most memorable part of the story is pretty easily the Doctor’s impassioned speech to both the Zygons and UNIT about the horrors of war.
It’s the rawest, most emotional performance Capaldi has given to date, as he lays bare the cost the Time War took on his soul, and how he still carries it with him every day. Despite his caustic nature, the Doctor really just wants to spare people from feeling that kind of unending torment.
6. Face The Raven (9X10)
The Doctor and Clara race to save Rigsy (from way back in “Flatline”). A countdown number has appeared on the back of his neck, which the Doctor identifies as a chronolock; when the number hits zero, Rigsy dies. The trio enter a secret alien community in the heart of London to ascertain who is responsible. There they find Ashildr (who we’ll get to in more detail in a minute), who informs them Rigsy has been accused of murder.
The whole thing turns out to just be a scheme to lure the Doctor to Ashildr, who has conspired with an unknown party to trap him. What Ashildr didn’t count on was Clara’s altruism; she figures out a way to remove the chronolock from Rigsy (who Ashildr never intended to kill), forfeiting her own life in the process.
5. Dark Water/Death In Heaven (8X11-12)
Every modern season of Doctor Who has had some sort of overarching plot or mystery, from Bad Wolf all the way to the crack in the wall. Season 8’s was Missy, the mysterious woman who was seemingly ushering casualties of the Doctor’s adventures into the afterlife. When Danny Pink tragically dies in a car accident, a distraught Clara demands the Doctor bring him back. They stumble upon Missy’s operation, which is uploading the consciousness of the deceased into the bodies of one of the Doctor’s oldest foes: the Cybermen.
If that wasn’t enough, Missy confronts the Doctor and reveals herself to be the newest regeneration of his presumed-dead nemesis, the Master, who somehow escaped the Time War to wreak havoc once again. This is Doctor Who in summer action movie mode; full of thrills, twists, and a truly epic climax which includes a small, emotional cameo from one of the bedrocks of the show’s history. It ended in a very dark place, but it delivered the kind of widescreen theatrics that the show sometimes can’t quite live up to.
4. Hell Bent (9X12)
Framed by a scene in a Nevada diner where the Doctor is served by Clara (neither of whom seem to recognize each other), “Hell Bent” feels like the end of an era. Having escaped his confession dial, the Doctor finds himself on his long lost home planet of Gallifrey. Rather than arriving to somehow rescue his people from the purgatory in which they exist, the Doctor has only one goal in mind: exploit Gallfreyan technology to revive Clara.
The Doctor knows this plan is probably doomed; he’s battling against the very laws of time to bring back his best friend. And yet it doesn’t deter him for a second. His plan is semi-successful; Clara’s life is extended in a rather unusual way, but the Doctor completely loses his memory of her.
He’s able to piece together pretty much everything about her – except what she looked like, resulting in the framing diner scene where Clara (who still remembers the Doctor) essentially says goodbye. It’s a bittersweet end for the pair, and it will be interesting to see how Capaldi’s Doctor bounces off his new companion.
3. The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived (9X05-06)
What is the Doctor’s ultimate purpose? “The Girl Who Died” argues pretty definitively that his purpose is to save people. The Doctor and Clara find themselves captured by vikings, who are soon to be under attack by a warrior race called the Mire. The Doctor and Clara ultimately help the viking villagers defeat the Mire, but at the cost of their new ally, a young girl named Ashildr (played brilliantly by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams). Unable to accept Ashildr’s death, the Doctor ends up manipulating Mire technology to revive her.
However, the Doctor doesn’t realize he’s made her essentially immortal. The Doctor encounters her hundreds of years later, now a decidedly colder, harder person, who has to keep journals of her life experiences because her memory is unable to retain so many years of knowledge. It’s a fascinating meditation on what happens after the Doctor leaves, and how immortality can be a curse.
2. Listen (8X04)
“Listen” is Steven Moffat masterfully utilizing his well-documented bag of storytelling tricks. The Doctor becomes obsessed with the idea of the unseen, that everyone in the universe has a dream where something reaches for them from under the bed, and he decides it must mean something. He posits there could be a creature who is so good at hiding that the rest of the universe is unaware of its existence.
It feels more than a little like a wild goose chase fueled by the Doctor’s paranoia, but it ends up being a powerful meditation on fear, and how we can use it to our advantage. It also happens to be a telling chapter in the Doctor’s origin; through some timey-wimey shenanigans, the monster under the Doctor’s bed when he was a child turns out to be Clara, who delivers the Doctor’s own future message about persevering through fear to the young Time Lord.
1. Heaven Sent (9X12)
Where “Listen” is Steven Moffat honing his usual storytelling tactics, “Heaven Sent” sees him throw all his old tricks out the window. Following Clara’s death in “Face The Raven”, the Doctor finds himself stranded in a strange, puzzle-like castle, hunted by a cloaked creature. It’s an unusually spare premise for a Moffat written episode, yet it is utterly enthralling. For the vast, vast majority of the episode, Peter Capaldi is the only actor onscreen, and he gives a performance so masterful it’s difficult to imagine any other actor in the show’s run pulling it off.
Everyone involved with the episode steps up their game; the direction is unusually good for the show, bordering on the quality of prestige American shows made with much, much bigger budgets. Murray Gold’s score is a triumph. But really, this one is all about Capaldi.
As the Doctor works out what’s really happening to him, there is a moment of gut-wrenching anguish, followed by an ever-escalating montage where the Doctor proves over and over that he’s willing to sacrifice in almost unspeakable ways to do what he knows is right. It’s the defining episode of Capaldi’s run, and one of the very best episodes in the show’s 54 years.
What’s your favorite episode of Doctor Who starring Peter Capaldi? Let us know in the comments!
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