Last month’s ‘The Crimson Horror’ was the 100th episode of ‘Doctor Who’ since the show’s revival in 2005. I’ve been an avid fan of the show, particularly the series-long arc stories (yes, I know some people prefer the standalone episodes) and the way the drama builds to a climax every year or so. Hence, my top ten episodes of the last eight years include a lot of series finales. Another point of note is that I bloody loved the first four seasons of Christopher Ecclestone/David Tennant/Bad Wolf etc with Russell T Daveis at the helm, and never expected the 2010-present era of Matt Smith and Stephen Moffat to match those heights. Yet they exceeded expectations in my opinion and over time have taken the show to yet another level. As a result, little from the 2005-2008 era makes my list – the quality has just been too high since.
10. ‘The Shakespeare Code’, 2007 (Episode 30, Season 3)
Back in the 2005-2008 run, the show followed a standard pattern: a series of standalone episodes dotted through the past and future, with two-parters for episodes 4-5, 8-9 and the always thrilling season finale 12-13 (arguably a three-parter finale in 2007 with ‘Utopia’’s cliffhanger of the Master’s return), followed by a charming Christmas special. Of the standalones, the ones set in the past were the ones I found most pleasing thanks to gorgeous period sets, nods to real history rather than made up sci-fi nonsense and, in this case, the episode was stacked full of hidden Shakespeare quotes. What Dr Who does great when it goes back in the past is to have history’s greats scripted as a match for the Doctor and so a younger generation have a new respect for Shakespeare, Dickens, Van Gogh and co. The Globe theatre allowed Dr Who to film inside when nobody else was given access and the story beautifully plays homage to a man and an era the writers clearly researched thoroughly. I could watch this episode again and again – it is so much more than just another Dr Who episode.
9. ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, 2008 (Episode 44, Season 4)
Another historic episode – this time a masterful depiction of superstition and human tragedy on the day Mount Vesuvius erupted. The riddles and logic banter between David Tennant’s Doctor and the guy who turns out to be the baddie are fantastic and the story has enough plot elements to build nicely to the devastating revelation at the end. The set of Pompeii is beautifully realised but it’s the awesome CGI eruption at the end that steals the show, followed by an emotive penultimate scene where you really feel for the family who have lost their world. “It’ll never be forgotten, y’know, Pompeii,” says the Doctor. And neither will this episode.
8. ‘The Name of the Doctor’, 2013 (Episode 102, Season 7)
It’s only just been broadcast and we’re still reeling from the John Hurt revelation, so it’s hard to fit this one in the right spot. It had to be on this list, though, if only for that game-changing final scene. There was more to it, though. That River kiss really felt like an appropriate end to what has been a sensational era for that character and many a Who fan will have welled up at that moment. The Trenzalore and Clara revelations came thick and fast at the beginning and, unlike some series finales, this was fairly easy to follow. It all occurred in the correct temporal order, for a start, with the minor exception of the last scene taking place at every moment in the Doctor’s life simultaneously.
The best thing was that unlike ‘The Next Doctor’ in 2008, this episode did not mislead viewers with its name. No, of course we didn’t find out the Doctor’s name but we learnt something more important abut his identity. ‘Not in the Name of the Dcotor’ was a stunning line that explained so much and questioned so much more. Matt Smith’s penultimate episode – the 50th anniversary special – is not broadcast until 23rd November, which is good because it’ll take that long to recover from the mindblowing goings-on of this episode.
7. ‘The End of Time, Part Two’ (Episode 60, New Year’s Day 2010 Special)
Interestingly, only once in 102 episodes have two episodes been so intrinsically linked that they needed the same name. This used to happen all the time in Old Who and it goes to show just how momentous these episodes were back in 2009/2010. The first four series were rounded off nicely with ‘Journey’s End’ (more on that later) but for 18 months we waited to find out just how the Tenth Doctor’s time would run out. It was a long, drawn out wait and in the end it was brilliantly done and signalled the oh-so-emotional end of the Davies/Tennant era which many thought could never be matched. The Doctor meeting Rose in 2005 in the snow was hauntingly beautiful and the line ‘I don’t want to go’ echoed the opinions of fans across the globe.
The first part was broadcast on Christmas Day and the second on New Year’s Day a week later – surely the most dramatic Christmas episodes ever. Of the normal cutesy Christmas episodes, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is the best, but with the exception of ‘The End of Time’ parts 1 and 2 festive episodes are usually not so important in the grand story arcs. Except of course this years Christmas special will see Matt Smith regenerate into the Twelfth Doctor..
6. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, 2011 (Episode 81, Season 6)
Throughout the first half of the sixth series, each week seemed to end with an even bigger cliffhanger, taking the story in even more phenomenal directions. After a decent two-parter involving plastic avatars that seemed to bear no relevance to the series’ story arc, we learnt that Amy herself was an avatar (just as we’d suspected Rory might be). Again, in this episode Moffat played with what we thought we knew. The introduction sees Amy talking to her new born child, explaining how ‘a man who is the last of his kind, who looks so young but has lived hundreds and hundreds of years’ will protect her because ‘he is your father’. There had been so many hints that the Doctor may be the father, but of course all of the above applies to Rory, who we later find out is indeed River’s Dad. That is, of course, the revelation of the series – if not decade (before John Hurt showed up, anyway). Even before that, the Doctor, when begged to tell Amy and Rory anything he knows, explains that ‘it’s mine’. Rory and the viewers immediately believe he is talking about the child, but again it’s Moffat messing with us – he is talking about the cot.
The River revelation at the end left us waiting all summer – after all seemed lost and the Doctor was ready to kill River for not showing up earlier, good old Melody Pond fixed everything with a leaf. ‘The only water in the forest is the river’ meant that the Gamma forest residents called Melody Pond ‘River Song’. The game had changed – what appeared to be a case of ‘chase the baby across the universe’ now became something far bigger (in a time sense) and more complex. And Twitter was alive with people excited by how well the beat of the name ‘Melody Pond’ fitted the Dr Who theme tune. Some episode, although it wasn’t even the best of the series.
5. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, 2011 (Episode 82, Season 6)
The final twist the first half of series six had was to reveal the title of the eighth episode as ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. Just like after series 5 and at so many points during the first half of series 6, just when you thought Moffat would have so much wrapping up to do that there couldn’t possibly be any more curveballs, he threw a massive one. In the end, the hilarious role of Hitler in this episode was a minor plot element. The wild Melody Pond had arrived and was far younger than the Doctor had ever seen her before. Their deadly rapid-fire exchange where she kills him with a Judas kiss was brilliantly scripted and the introduction of the unusual Teselectas would later be key to the resolution of the series’ plot. When Melody Pond becomes River Song and gives away all her regenerations for the Doctor, the story starts to make sense…
4. ‘The Big Bang’, 2010 (Episode 73, Season 5)
The only appearance on this list from season 5, which is sad because the series did an incredible job of rebooting the show when there were massive boots to fill. Moffat’s influence was apparent from the start with stories of cracks in walls and fairy tale themes. Murray Gold’s new soundtrack was immense and somehow even better than before. It all built up to ‘The Pandorica Opens’, a sensational episode with more monsters and iconic baddies assembled than ever before in Dr Who history. Many predicted this episode could never match the set up of ‘The Pandorica Opens’, but it did, by taking a different approach. This was all about complicated, very specific time travel being used to get the heroes out of the tricky situation they were in at the centre of an exploding universe. The pre-title sequence intro alone is seven minutes long and baffles an audience expecting the Doctor to pop out of the Pandorica in front of Amelia in the museum by instead having older Amy jump out with the famous line “okay kid, this is where it gets complicated”. In what follows, Moffat cleverly used Smith’s fez as a device to allow viewers to keep up with the complicated plot thread. Some huge questions from this episode are still left unanswered to this day (thanks to season 6 throwing us even more curveballs the following year) but ‘The Big Bang’ remains one of the best season finales to date, purely because of how much is packed into it.
3. ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, 2011 (Episode 78, Season 6)
As you can see from this list, I love the big bold dramatic season finales, but sometimes a standalone episode can be even more important and memorable in the show’s history. None more so than 2011’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ – of course the title was a red herring, like 2008’s ‘The Next Doctor’ (which is why I was delighted that ‘The Name of the Doctor’ was absolutely the right name for that episode but not in the way any of us could have guessed – clever old Moffat).
The TARDIS has had such an important part in the show’s history and for the first time we see it in human form, prompting the immortal line from Amy to the Doctor: ‘did you wish really really hard?’ The conversation that continues between Idris and the Doctor is beautiful and explains so much in such simple ways: ‘You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.’ ‘But I always took you where you needed to go.’ Sublime. Neil Gaiman’s writing is a perfect fit for an episode like this and the whole thing feels like a rare treat to be savoured again and again. There are so many nods to Dr Who’s history so fandom loves it, but any fan of any Dr Who will relish this fresh take on the show’s most iconic theme.
2. ‘Journey’s End’, 2008 (Episode 55, Season 4)
I suppose this episode’s being here makes up for the lack of episodes on this list from the first four seasons. ‘Turn Left’ and ‘The Stolen Earth’ would probably both have made this list had I compiled it in 2008, but ‘Journey’s End’ concludes their stories so well it will have to represent everything the first four seasons gave us. In 2006, we lost Rose Tyler to a parallel universe and it seemed pretty certain that she would never come back, but she did. By the end, we had lost Donna’s memory forever and it seemed she would never come back either, but she did in ‘The End of Time’ 18 months later. And just to prove that nothing in Dr Who is ever really finite, Rose is returning for the 50th anniversary special later this year.
Rose’s return had been building throughout season 4 and it built to a climax at the end of ‘Journey’s End’. There was so much going on in the episode that it pretty much was everything a series finale could be (at least without Stephen Moffat’s timey wimey brain writing the scripts). This episode’s ending seemed to last forever, but every piece of the puzzle closing felt even more powerful than the last. Just when the Donna-Doctor had spectacularly defeated Davros with help form ‘the Children of Time’ and the TARDIS was full and being piloted as it should (a delightful revelation), the Doctor had to say goodbye to everyone. Martha and Micky of course end up together, Jack carries on with Torchwood adventures, and then we get to the beach scene. Two years on from the worst day of her life, Rose Tyler gets to say goodbye again and is left with a human replica of the Doctor – a conclusion which seems sadder the more you think about it (I wonder if human Doctor has died by November 2013?) But just as the show seems to have packed its most emotional punch, WHAM, the metacrisis is revealed to be impossible and Donna’s fate is revealed. Wilf’s speech to the Doctor at the end is fantastic and of course Bernard Cribbins was to rightfully return 18 months later.
1. ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, 2011 (Episode 75, Season 6)
Okay, so most people won’t agree with me here, but ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ tops this list because it did something no other episode has done. It began a series with a series finale. Most people sat down three Easters ago to watch what they thought would be a series much like the last, that would pick up unresolved plot threads. Ahem, not so much. This was the biggest shock Dr Who has thrown up (okay, until John Hurt) and the revelations of the opening ten minutes left audiences with their jaws dropped shouting at the television. To kill the main character, bring him back from the past, introduce a new monster – perhaps the scariest yet, set it all in the grandest location in America and involve Space and 1969 whilst changing the history of the entire 48 year old show in the time it takes most new series just to introduce a new companion was magnificent.
I honestly doubt whether there will ever be another ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. I loved Dr Who before this episode but it felt like Stephen Moffat had finally been let loose with the show’s controls (every series, for example, has been split in half since then). If he had just introduced the Silence or just set it in America or just had a murderous astronaut coming out of Lake Silencio (Lake Powell in real life) then it would still have been the best season opener ever. This was the moment when ‘Dr Who’ became more than just a TV show for me. The entire series that followed was the best ever in my opinion. I know some people don’t like convoluted series-long plot threads but quite frankly if kids can understand it then why not reward audiences who watch closely and soak up every dramatic explanation and clue. So many great episodes and revelations were to follow in 2011, but it all began here when Stephen Moffat had the balls to take the show out of its cosy Welsh comfort zone, turn the normal series format on its head and give Matt Smith a stetson and River a gun in Monument Valley. Later that year I spent two days wearing a stetson and driving a Chevy around Utah and Arizona finding filming locations for this episode and ‘Day of the Moon’. That’s how much I bloody loved ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, and still do.
Here’s the video of my time in America chasing Dr Who filming locations.