It turns out you can go home again, after all. At least in the Whoniverse, anyway.
David Tennant originally took over as the Doctor beginning with the 2005 Doctor Who Christmas special, "The Christmas Invasion." He remained in the role for the next four years, helping the series rocket to new heights of global popularity and becoming the most beloved modern-era Doctor in the process. His fast-talking, tight suit wearing Ten became synonymous with the very idea of what kind of character the infamous Time Lord was supposed to be, and while his departure was expected—change is built into the very DNA of the franchise, after all—it was still heartbreaking when it finally occurred. (And, in truth, felt like as much a goodbye to Tennant himself as it was to Ten, though the actor wasn't regenerating so much as checking out other employment opportunities.)
Unlike many former Doctors, Tennant never seems to stay away from the TARDIS for very long. Having reprised his role as Ten for the series' 50th anniversary special in 2013, he broke new ground with his 2023 return by becoming the first former Doctor to play a different incarnation of the character. His Fourteen boasts subtle emotional differences from Ten and his manic glee is tempered by sharper edges than it had before. But it's nothing so much as a testament to Tennant's love of the character and his underrated abilities as an actor.
It's easy to forget that, underneath the flash coat and the high top converse, the quippy one-liners, and the puppy faced "I don't want to go" GIFs, Ten is a remarkably complicated character, who wrestles with guilt, regret, and no small amount of loss during his era. And the reason we care so much about him is because of the humor and heart that Tennant infuses into literally every line of his performance. It was a gift to have him back as the Doctor even for a little while, and we should celebrate that. So, here are our picks for his best episodes in the TARDIS. (To date, at least.)
“Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” (Season 3, Episodes 8 and 9)
Tennant's era of Doctor Who features some of the franchise's best two-part stories, and Season 3's "Human Nature/The Family of Blood" is perhaps the absolute best.
To escape a deadly enemy, the Doctor must become human, disguising himself as a schoolteacher named John Smith in pre-World War I England. Left without his memories, only companion Martha Jones is aware of his true identity and the danger he's facing, and she's forced to exist on the fringes of his life for his own protection. It's one of Doctor Who's most affecting stories, as we watch the Doctor get the chance to form genuine relationships and have distinctly human experiences, living as a normal man in a world that exists in the quiet breath before a war comes along to change it forever. He even falls in love, something that's made all more emotionally impactful as a smitten Martha has to watch him do so from afar.
Tennant's acting chops are on full display throughout, as he's asked to play the Doctor, a human, and then the Doctor who remembers being human, and who responds to his enemies with a cold fury we've never seen before simply because he now understands human fear in a way he hadn't before. It's heartbreaking in so many ways, not the least of which being that John Smith has to die in order for the Doctor to live.
“Midnight” (Season 4, Episode 10)
Season 2 episode "Midnight" features what is probably Tenannt's best performance during his time on Doctor Who (though I'd argue the above "Family of Blood" two-parter is likely a better and more interesting overall story). An hour that Tennant is forced to carry almost entirely on his own, the story sees the Doctor trapped onboard a futuristic shuttle during a tourist trip around a planet made of diamonds. When a malignant invisible entity makes its presence known, Ten will have to convince the other passengers to stick together, even as they ultimately turn against him under the influence of the being's literally possessive presence.
With its creepy imagery — the repeated references to Christina Rosetti's "Goblin Market" are a personal favorite— and claustrophobic feel, this is one of the franchise's most suffocating episodes and one that is almost entirely dialogue-driven. As the unidentified being jumps between the Doctor and passenger Sky Silvestry (a fabulous guest turn from Before We Die's Lesley Sharp), communicating by way of repeating the phrases of others, the dramatic tension skyrockets to almost unbearable levels. Tennant gets to do a lot of very different things, performance-wise, in this episode, and seeing his Doctor scrambling to understand what's happening in ways he normally doesn't makes for great TV.
“The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” (Season 2, Episodes 8 and 9)
A tense base under siege-style two-parter that sees the Doctor face off with the Devil (yes, really!) and the threat of being crushed to death in a black hole, "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit" are some of Doctor Who's most thematically rich episodes, wrestling with questions of belief and giving Tennant some of his most emotionally complex material to date. (Not to mention a banger of a patented Russell T. Davies Doctor speech.)
Though much of the story hinges upon the strength of Rose and Ten's relationship, Tennant and Piper spend most of the episode(s) apart, and it's their characters' burning determination to save one another that gives the two-parter its heart. That it also serves as a painful preview of their eventual separation in "Doomsday" is the sort of emotional gut punch you won't realize until later in the season, but that sure does hurt a lot more on second viewing.
"Army of Ghosts" and "Doomsday" (Season 2, Episodes 12 and 13)
The Season 2 finale is peak Russell T. Davies, a two-parter that has Cybermen, Daleks, alternate universes, and epic visual spectacle. Its plot doesn't make a ton of sense if you look at it too closely, but you won't care because it gets every emotional beat exactly right, building up to the devastating moment in which Ten and Rose are ripped away from each other forever. (Or, at least until Season 4.)
Look, maybe you are a person who is not emotionally destroyed by that scene of Tennant and Piper crying on opposite sides of a wall that spans universes, and if that is true I envy you deeply. But Tennant's devastated face contains multitudes, and the pair's "burning up a sun to say goodbye" farewell on the shores of Bad Wolf Bay is heartbreakingly perfect.
“The Waters of Mars” (2009 Autumn Special)
The best of the four special episodes released in the year before Tennant's (first) exit from the TARDIS, "The Waters of Mars" is the Tenth Doctor at his most dark and unhinged. (Yes, this is the episode with the Time Lord Victorious speech. It's still as awesome as you remember.)
Featuring a powerhouse guest turn from Lindsay Duncan (The Wheel of Time), "The Waters of Mars" is genuinely frightening on multiple levels, featuring both disturbing body horror and uncomfortable moral quandaries. The Doctor's decision to save Adelaide Brooks, whose death is a fixed point in time and must occur if humanity's future among the stars is to happen, goes against all the ethics of time travel the show has taught us to this point. (And that showrunner Steven Moffat will subsequently throw out the window in seasons to come.) As Ten stares down the barrel of his upcoming regeneration and wrestles with his eternal guilt over the fact that he is the last of his kind, Tennant gets to play wild extremes of reckless hubris and crushing despair. It's wonderful.
"The Day of the Doctor" (50th Anniversary Special)
Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor" saw Tennant return for an adventure with Matt Smith's Eleventh incarnation of the Time Lord and John Hurt's previously unknown War Doctor. Though your mileage will likely vary about its timey-wimey decision to rewrite the Time War that had provided so much emotional angst for the Doctor in previous seasons, the episode is a positive delight from start to finish.
The version of the Tenth Doctor who returns for this outing is one that's a bit lighter, funnier, and sports fewer hard edges than when last we saw him, allowing Tennant's charming humor obvious glee to shine in a more supporting role. (After all, it's Eleven's show at this point.) Yet, Tennant and Smith are dynamite together, finding common edges between their two Doctors and reminding us all of the heroism and heart at the center of every version of this character.
"School Reunion" (Season 2, Episode 3)
Tennant himself was a massive Doctor Who fanboy long before he ever played the Doctor, so there's a special loveliness to the fact that it's his Ten who gets to reunite with Elizabeth Sladen's iconic classic companion Sarah Jane Smith in Season 2 episode "School Reunion".
The episode itself is entertaining enough --- the initial cattiness and ultimate emotional connection between Sarah Jane and current companion Rose Tyler is particularly well done --- but "School Reunion" is the first moment where Tennant is asked to really carry the history of what playing the Doctor means and he does so brilliantly. Sarah Jane was a companion to not one but two different classic era Doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker), meaning that Tennant has to find his way through a complicated relationship built decades. One of the most remarkable things about Ten is how old he feels despite Tennant's youth, and the weight of everything the Doctor leaves behind when he says goodbye to the people he travels with has perhaps never been more striking than it is here.
"The Christmas Invasion" (2005 Christmas Special)
Okay, yes, it's perhaps a little odd to include an episode on this list in which Tennant's Doctor barely appears, but it also feels inappropriate not to include his debut installment, in which he so firmly establishes himself as the beloved Time Lord from his first moments onscreen.
"The Christmas Invasion" is Tennant's first episode as the Tenth Doctor, not to mention the first Christmas special of the modern day Doctor Who era. And it is a festive delight from start to finish, concluding with Ten's first big moment as the Doctor, facing off against a warrior race known as the Sycorax, sacrificing a hand that will absolutely come back into play in a big way later on in the series, and giving the first of many tour de force monologues that underline his dedication to protecting the universe --- and the Earth especially --- from anything that might threaten it. That he does most of it wearing pajamas is just the icing on the cake.
"The End of Time Parts One and Two" (2009 Christmas Special/2010 New Year’s Special)
There are a fair amount of complaints one could level about Tennant's final episodes as the Doctor. Two-parter "The End of Time" capped off a year-long farewell tour of specials --- one of which appears elsewhere on this list --- and often feels like nothing so much as an obituary for the actor himself himself as much as the Time Lord he was playing. (Don't worry, though ,Tennant subsequently went off to make things like Broadchurch, Jessica Jones, and Good Omens, so the story has a happy ending despite all the tears.)
"The End of Time" is a ridiculously over-the-top spectacle that's essentially held together by Tennant's emotional performance, as the show sees the Doctor address his own mortality in ways he never has before (or, really, since). From his crackling chemistry with John Simm's Master to his heartfelt scenes with Bernard Cribbin's Wilf, everything about this episode is much more concerned with emotional than narrative beats and we're all better off for it. (Though getting to see Timothy Dalton as Rassalion is certainly a nice bonus.)
"The Star Beast" (60th Anniversary Special)
While many viewers may have been skeptical or anxious about Tennant's return as a brand new Fourteenth incarnation of the Doctor fifteen years after he originally departed the show, the 60th anniversary special "The Star Beast" proves that there's nothing this series --- or this actor --- can't do. Sporting hot nerd glasses and a differently colored skinny suit, Tennant's boundless energy and overflowing heart are on full display in an hour that proves he's still the franchise's strongest and most effective ambassador.
Granted, his Fourteen isn't all that different from Ten (at least not yet), but it's hard to deny the weight of emotional history he brings to bear in every scene he's in, whether he's enthusiastically racing around the shiny new TARDIS interior, raging at the unfairness of being asked to potentially sacrifice Donna Noble all over again, or bittersweetly remembering his heartfelt bond with Wilf. I've rarely been so happy to be wrong about anything as I am about Tennant's return, which is perhaps the most perfect mix of nostalgia and forward-looking optimism Whovians could have ever asked for.