Happy Birthday, 'Doctor Who': Nine Must-Watch Episodes for Its 50th Birthday

Here's to many more Doctors (Photo: BBC)
Here's to many more Doctors (Photo: BBC)
It’s a big weekend for Anglophiles everywhere. Doctor Who, the iconic British science fiction series that follows the adventures of a time-traveling alien, his wide variety of ever-changing companions and a blue police box celebrates its fiftieth anniversary on November 23.  Fans the world over are beside themselves with excitement, eager to see the new broadcast special The Day of the Doctor and share their love for the show with the world. Yours truly is no different, so forgive this bit of egregious sentiment on this significant occasion in the life of my personal favorite show.

There are, at the moment, 738 episodes of Doctor Who in existence. That’s a total of 239 different stories, if we count the way that classic Who used to break its episodes into several parts during a singular adventure.  I haven’t even seen all those episodes, so please be aware that it’s highly likely this is the most biased post ever written. I make no claim that this list comprises the best episodes of Who all-time, merely my personal favorites. Argue with me! Tell me what I should pick instead! Recommend me episodes of older Doctor’s I’ve not yet seen! That’s what birthdays are for, after all: remembering.

Oh, and if you haven’t guessed this yet: There are nine episodes in this list, because Nine is my Doctor, and, well, if you’re going to be sentimental, that’s what birthdays and anniversaries are ostensibly for, right? (Thanks for changing my life, Christopher Eccleston, just by the way.) Because Doctor Who is the best show in the world, to me, and I’m so proud of this bit of history that it’s making this weekend.

Happy birthday, Doctor. Here’s to 50 more fantastic years.  

Here goes nothing. (I’m already thinking of what I should have put on this list instead while I hit publish, just so you guys know.)

The Doctor’s Wife. Bestselling fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman penned this amazing Series 6 episode, which is possibly the single best standalone installment of the show ever precisely because it gives us a real – and more importantly reciprocal - look at the show’s most important relationship. Which, by the way, isn’t between the Doctor and any of the assorted humans or aliens he travels with over the course of the show’s run. No, this episode delves into the relationship between the Doctor and his TARDIS, the sentient spaceship who is his best friend, coolest toy, forever home and constant companion, by making the latter human for a brief interlude. And it’s magical.  Scott & Bailey’s Suranne Jones is a wonder as Idris, the human embodiment of the TARDIS, and her sparkly chemistry with Matt Smith is both fun and fantastic. It’s very possible you’ll never look at the show the same way again after watching this episode, in the very best of ways. 

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This is the first two-parter of the post-2005 “new” Who era – and it’s pretty much perfect. (It’s possible that this is actually my favorite two-parter in the history of the show, to be honest, and there have been some corkers.) The “Are you my Mummy??” gas mask zombies are genuinely frightening; the story itself is wonderfully twisty; the dialogue is sharp and clever; and the whole episode just brims over with joy and hope at the end. The Ninth Doctor’s heartfelt, beaming declaration that just this once, everybody gets to live is an emotional punch in the gut that actually becomes more moving as the season/entire series goes on and you find out just how infrequently the Doctor can ever say that. Plus, this episode also marks the introduction of John Barrowman as companion Captain Jack Harkness, and aren’t we all glad that happened. 

Blink. This is the episode you should show people who don’t like Doctor Who. Or who say they don’t like Doctor Who. Or whinge that they could never enjoy such a weird little sci-fi show, so they’ve never bothered trying it in the first place. Seriously, this episode will change their mind. Yes, it could be seen as a bit weird to pick an episode that barely even features the Doctor as one of the series’ best ever, but nevertheless here we are. Because it is.  Blink is a perfect, forty-five minute encapsulation of everything that makes this show great. 

The basic premise is fairly simple: We follow the story of a young woman named Sally Sparrow (played by eventual Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) and her friend Larry as they try to solve the mystery behind a series of disappearances in an old house. The episode is smart, well-written, self-aware, surprising, and genuinely terrifying – you will never look at statues the same way again after meeting the Weeping Angels.  It’s simply awesome.  

The Tomb of the Cybermen. This isn’t Patrick Troughton’s first episode as the Doctor, but it is the first of his stories that we have in its entirety. Yes, the effects are a bit cheesy by our modern standards, but it was the sixties! But even now in 2013, the story – and Troughton’s performance particularly – still resonates with modern audiences. And the Cybermen are creepy as heck and the concept of them in this episode is properly scary.  It’s a shame that so much of Troughton’s early run as the Doctor has been lost, because he’s really rather fantastic in the role. This scene where Two explains a bit about his past and his family, and what loss still feels like to a being that’s as old as the Doctor is by this point, is pretty incredible. 

Turn Left. Another episode in which the Doctor barely appears, Turn Left explores the consequences of one seemingly innocuous choice, and the ramifications that come about when that choice isn’t made. A mystical fortune teller forces Donna to literally take a different turn on the day she met the Doctor, and the entire world changes around her as a result.  This episode is just an amazing showcase for Catherine Tate and offers a really moving look at the impact the Doctor has on people’s lives. It’s also  full of treats for long-time fans who want to play spot-the-differences in its alternate reality.  (Bonus: We get to see Billie Piper’s Rose again!) 

The Genesis of the Daleks. A Fourth Doctor story from the 1970s, Genesis  gives us Tom Baker being awesome and tells us where Daleks come from. Original Dalek creator Terry Nation decided to do a origin story for the mechanical monsters and in the process invented the villain Davros (who has been seen in episodes as recently as the David Tennant era). There are a lot of parallels drawn here between Daleks and Nazis, and this story does what Who does best, which is explore complex moral issues (are horrible actions justifiable if they’re for the greater good?) by way of talking about marauding space aliens. This set of stories also features the incomparable Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, who is probably the best companion the show’s ever had (my own personal fondness for Rose aside.) And Baker’s not my Doctor, but he’s one of the most beloved actors to ever pick up a sonic screwdriver, so you owe it to yourself to check out his performance at least once.. And who doesn’t want that scarf. Really. 

Doomsday. Otherwise known as the “Get the Kleenex Ready” episode, Doomsday marked the exit of Billie Piper as a full-time Who companion. The plot isn’t that important, but it’s a pretty epic story – the Cybermen and Daleks are basically waging a global war with humanity caught in the crossfire. Oh, and surprise, there are parallel universes! (There’s a lot more to this of course – if you’re curious watch the episode or wait till we get there in the recap series.) The Doctor and friends are successful in saving the day, but at great personal cost when Rose is trapped in a parallel universe and separated from the Doctor forever. (Or so we think – Piper does return for several one-off episodes later on, so it’s not completely the end for her.) The Doctor and Rose’s goodbye scene is heartbreaking , Tennant and Piper are wonderful together, and it’s just an all around exceptionally emotional moment for the audience who has been deeply attached to Rose since the show returned.  (SNIFFLE.)

The Eleventh Hour.  It’s hard enough ushering in a new Doctor, particularly one that had to follow the massively popular David Tennant, but this first episode featuring Matt Smith’s Eleven also brought along a new companion in Karen Gillan and a new showrunner in Steven Moffat. Luckily, Doctor Who is a show that thrives on change – because that’s a lot to handle at once. In some ways, this episode feels like a mini-reboot, offering a fresh perspective on the show we’d gotten used to.  This episode doesn’t try to upstage or copy anything that’s come before it, it just calmly takes the show off in a new direction.

Eleven is not my Doctor, but this is a charming introduction to the Smith era, and this episode does a great job of setting up the fairy-tale themes that run through much of Moffat’s work . This episode is also a great place to jump in if you’ve never seen Doctor Who before, because it feels like a brand new start for all of us.  And it’s a lot of fun.

Rose. Doctor Who was off the air for a long stretch of time beginning in the last 1980s – saving only the feature-length TV movie featuring Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor that aired in 1996. The show returned to live in 2005, led by then-showrunner Russell T. Davies and starring Eccleston and Piper in the lead roles. As a stand-alone story the plot of “Rose” is pretty standard sort of Doctor Who fare, but it’s a also a pretty perfect re-introduction to the Doctor and his world for fans who might have wandered away from the franchise, as well as an easy entry point for new viewers to jump into the show. Which, considering the fact that Who is ostensibly more popular now than it has ever been, seemed to work out okay in the end. Eccleston and Piper are wonderful together, but the best part about this episode is that it makes you feel like you’re about to go off on a stupendous, time-traveling adventure too. Which in a way, you are. 

All right, let’s hear it: What are your favorite Doctor Who episodes? What would your “best-of” list be? 


Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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