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With soon-to-be 12 Doctors and over 240 stories to choose from, no Doctor Who top ten list will satisfy every fan. Why? Because there are so many stories that deserve to be in the top ten. Despite starting over fifty years ago, Doctor Who has maintained a high quality almost throughout its entire run, a feat unparalleled by virtually any other TV show. Although the show is often separated into ‘classic’ and ‘new’ series, they actually constitute one continuous narrative, so they are all judged together for these lists. Enjoy. And be warned. Spoilers ahead.
10. The Myth Makers (1965)
A tale from the very early days of Doctor Who (which now only exists in audio form because of the BBC’s early policy of wiping tapes), ‘The Myth Makers’ sees the first Doctor (William Hartnell) and friends land in the middle of the Trojan War where he is mistaken for the God Zeus and ends up giving the Trojans the idea for their eponymous horse. The first three episodes are some of the funniest Doctor Who has ever done (even by today’s standards), but it’s all flipped on its head in the final episode, where the dramatic takes centre stage as the massacre begins and the Doctor is trapped in the middle of it all. The contrast in tone works beautifully and this, alongside boasting the best cast of 1960s Doctor Who, warrants its inclusion as one of the very best.
9. Turn Left (2008)
“Am I a good man?” is a phrase cropping up in a lot of promotional material at the moment for the upcoming series, a question the twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi asks his companion, Clara. ‘Turn Left’ directly addresses the question of whether the Doctor is a force for good or not and throws us into a parallel universe in which our hero has died and the nefarious plans of the enemies we’ve seen him defeat over the past few years are allowed to play out. And it all goes hideously wrong. Because that’s what happens when the Doctor isn’t there to save the day. Britain becomes a place of evacuations and labour camps; a place where there is no hope. ‘Turn Left’ is successful not only because of the incredibly bleak dystopia it portrays, but also because it is home to one of the finest performances of an actor in the role of the companion; Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, to whom the success of the episode can be easily attributed.
8. The Seeds of Doom (1976)
‘The Seeds of Doom’ sees the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) in Antarctica where an ancient seedpod has been found buried deep in the ice. It’s wanted by a crazy plant enthusiast who sends his two thugs to steal it. But it all goes wrong (of course). The plant begins to take over someone’s body and before the Doctor can destroy it, it’s stolen and flown back to England where he and Sarah must track it down before it’s too late. ‘The Seeds of Doom’ is an incredibly action-packed story that, despite being six episodes long, manages to keep a fresh plot throughout. A change of location halfway through helps move things along as does the excellent direction by Douglas Camfield and sublime performances from both Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase, the madman with an odd fetish for plants, and Tom Baker, who is rarely better as the Doctor than he is here.
7. Inferno (1970)
‘Inferno’ was the series finale of the first colour season of Doctor Who; one which had found the Doctor stranded on Earth and working for the alien investigation operation UNIT. It is an interesting change from the alien invasion story that was commonplace in the third Doctor’s era, instead dealing with a drilling operation which is aiming to drill right down to the core of the Earth. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and many others think it’s a bad idea, and at the end of the second episode, the Doctor is unexpectedly thrust across the dimensions and finds himself in a parallel world where Britain is under fascist regime and his friends become his enemies. The drilling operation is still ongoing in this world, but slightly ahead in time, and as the Earth begins to tear apart, the Doctor realises he must make it back to his own reality alive to stop what could be the end for everyone. ‘Inferno’ takes an interesting premise and makes something magnificent of it; the regulars all shine as both their original and alternative selves, and the impressive direction and fast-paced writing more than makes up for the slightly poorer production values.
6. The Caves of Androzani (1984)
Serving as the final story for the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), ‘The Caves of Androzani’ is one of the most aethestically pleasing classic Doctor Who stories there is, thanks in no small part to the glorious direction by director Graeme Harper and the defining performance of Peter Davison’s run. Written by one of the series’ most celebrated writers, ‘Caves’ takes a very grim stance on politics and drugs. Unlike most stories, the Doctor and his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) don’t make any new friends on Androzani; no-one can be trusted, and it’s refreshingly difficult to work out just which character is the villain of the piece. As the tale progresses, so too does the poisoning which has infected the Doctor and his companion, and the final episode of the serial is a race against time as the Doctor must find a cure and save Peri before it’s too late. Doctor Who is rarely this dramatic or violent, and nor should it be; but it is these things that makes ‘The Caves of Androzani’ stand out, and it is all the better for it.
5. Midnight (2008)
‘Midnight’ sees the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) taking a solo ride across a planet made of diamonds where nothing can survive on the surface. When the shuttle breaks down and something unknown possesses one of the passengers, everyone begins to turn on one another, and then, on the Doctor. Interesting psychological observations about human beings are made, and for the first time, we see the Doctor alone and surrounded by people who do not trust him. Midnight is the most tense and claustrophobic episode Who has ever seen, and contains the longest scene in Doctor Who history. It is unique in that we never see any monster to speak of; the monster is portrayed through the repetition of people’s words, and Lesley Sharp’s guest performance as the possessed Sky Silvestry really helps to up the fear factor in something that could so easily have been a filler episode.
4. The War Games (1969)
‘The War Games’ finds the Second Doctor and his companions right in the middle of the First World War. As the tale unfolds, however, we learn that this is not the only war happening; the Doctor stumbles upon the Romans, the American Civil War and numerous others, all in close proximity to one another, and he must find out what is happening and stop whoever it is taking these people out of time before it’s too late. ‘The War Games’ is notable as it is the final black and white serial of Doctor Who; the final regular appearance of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor and of his companions Jamie and Zoe; and, perhaps most importantly, it was the first story to reveal the Doctor’s origins. Not only do we here first learn that he is a Time Lord, but we also see him go to them for help and reveal the reason he started travelling all those years ago. Aside from these firsts, ‘The War Games’ is an excellent story which is brilliantly told and, despite its length of ten episodes, never seems dragged out or dull – well worth the time spent watching.
3. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)
‘The Empty Child’ sees the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) land in the middle of the Blitz, where a child with a gas mask is stalking the streets of London, desperately searching for his “mummy”. Terrifying in itself, we soon learn that any contact with the child causes someone to become exactly like him. ‘The Empty Child’ is one of the wittiest, quickest and cleverest Doctor Who scripts around, and is one that people still talk about a decade later. World War Two London is beautifully recreated on-screen, and Christopher Eccleston gives his most sparkling performance as the Doctor, both sympathising and fearing the titular ‘Empty Child’. Add to this the introduction of Captain Jack Harkness, and you’ve got a sure-fire classic which has only improved over time.
2. City of Death (1979)
The Fourth Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) are on holiday in Paris, but relaxation is soon far from their minds as they become embroiled in a plot to steal the Mona Lisa and wipe humanity from existence. Boasting the very first location filming outside of the United Kingdom and one of the series’ best scripts (mainly due to numerous rewrites from script editor Douglas Adams), ‘City of Death’ is just lush. It’s fun and silly and everything Doctor Who should be. Julian Glover (Pycelle in Game of Thrones) appears as Count Scarlioni, an alien who has been scattered throughout time after his ship exploded 400 million years ago, and has been working with his various selves to accelerate the progression of the human race, so that he has the materials to travel back in time and stop himself from ever taking off. Complicated? You bet. But it’s all done in such a simple manner that it never becomes confusing, and with a cameo from John Cleese in episode 4, ‘City of Death’ deserves a place in the top ten list of any fan.
1. Blink (2007)
‘Blink’ sees the Tenth Doctor and Martha (Freema Agyeman) trapped in 1969 and relying on a girl named Sally Sparrow to unravel a series of clues in the present and return the TARDIS to them before the deadly Weeping Angels get access to it. One of the best scripts ever written for television, there’s little to say about Blink that hasn’t been said before without over-analysing it. The music, the acting, the direction; everything comes together in a truly masterful way to give an episode that one can just lap up over and over again. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it now. You won’t be disappointed.
There we are. Ten of the best Doctor Who stories available. If you disagree (which I’m sure many inevitably will) or if you want another ten, my honorable mentions are: ‘The Web of Fear’ (1968); ‘The Silurians’ (1970); ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975); ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (1977); ‘Earthshock’ (1983); ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (1988); ‘Bad Wolf’ (2005); ‘Human Nature’ (2007); ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (2010); ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ (2011).