Doctor Who returns to television this weekend with all new episodes. It’s a lot to live up to. The modern incarnation of Doctor Who has been going strong for seven years now, and in the process they’ve created not just great science fiction, but some of the best television ever. Whenever any new Doctor Who episode airs, this is what we’ll be measuring it against: The five best Doctor Who episodes of the modern era.
Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead | Written by Steven Moffat
Often the best Doctor Who stories are the simplest ones, but it’s the way in which this two-parter weaves together so many different elements that ultimately creates something so terrifying and emotionally gut-wrenching. It takes place in an abandoned, planet-size library where the tenth Doctor and his companion Donna Noble encounter a group of would-be explorers. They’re lead by a woman who seems to be from the Doctor’s not yet future… and they’re all doomed. The library may seem abandoned but the shadows hold secret terror which possesses the bodies of anyone who ventures into them, and kills them. Count the shadows, if you want to live.
But death isn’t the end for their victims. Thanks to a transponder built into the explorer’s suits their consciousness lives on a few moments after their body is already gone, and as their dead, possessed bodies lurch through the hallways on the attack the voices of the already gone cry out in confusion and darkness from them. Each complication adds a new layer of horror to the story as the Doctor loses his friends and races to stay in the light. The library is alive. Donna Noble has been saved.
Blink | Written by Steven Moffat
The Weeping Angels stand shoulder to shoulder with iconic Who menaces such as the Cybermen and the Daleks. Unlike those two, however, the Angels are genuinely terrifying. Stone angels that can only move when they’re not being observed, they’re the flicker of movement out of the corner of your eye, the shape you’d swear was on the other side of the room a moment before. The fact that we never actually see them in motion makes them far more frightening, and that’s strengthened by the fact that they prey upon something we do constantly and without thinking about it: blinking.
Even better, “Blink” surrounds the menace of the Angels with a twisty-turn-y storyline that has the tenth Doctor stranded in the past and having to send a message forward through the decades via an Easter Egg hidden on thousands of DVDs. This idea reaches its brilliant apex in a scene where The Doctor — in 1969 – uses the DVD video to carry out a conversation with a woman in 2007 who is writing the conversation down so The Doctor will eventually know what to say when he first records it in 1969. It makes your head spin, but it’s the sort of non-linear thinking that makes Doctor Who so much fun. It’s no accident that “Blink” introduced us to The Doctor’s description of time as “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, time-y wimey stuff.”
The Girl in the Fireplace | Written by Steven Moffat
While exploring a derelict 51st century starship, the tenth Doctor and Rose discover “time windows” linked to 18th century France. One leads to a fireplace in the room of Reinette, a young girl who will grow up to be Madame de Pompadour, and who is currently being menaced by clockwork robots. After saving the day, The Doctor learns that the windows are not anchored on both ends…back on the ship time is passing normally, but each time he passes through the window years will have passed for the girl in the fireplace. As The Doctor races back and forth to discover what the robots want, young Reinette grows into an adult…and beyond.
Working from a simple conceit, “The Girl in the Fireplace” becomes one of Doctor Who‘s most emotionally powerful episodes. In the relationship between The Doctor and Reinette, writer Steven Moffat shows us the tragedy of a time lord’s immortality: that every friend he makes, every relationship he forges, will pass away, over and over, while he simply…continues. While The Doctor’s relationship with Reinette occupies only a tiny sliver of his lifetime, their relationship is nevertheless powerful, and emblematic of the one enemy The Doctor can never defeat: loneliness.
The Doctor’s Wife | Written by Neil Gaiman
In “The Doctor’s Wife”, the eleventh Doctor and his companions answer what seems to be a distress call from another Time Lord and immediately race off to the rescue. They arrive on an asteroid in a pocket universe and come across its 4 bizarre inhabitants, one of which turns out to be the living embodiment of the Doctor’s very own TARDIS. It turns out that the distress signal was a trap set by the sentient asteroid called House in order for it to feast on its favorite food, TARDIS matrixes. The Doctor and the new TARDIS-lady team up to save Rory and Amy after House possesses the TARDIS’ old form and attempts to escape to the real universe. After a heartbreaking sacrifice, House is ousted and the TARDIS is restored to its rightful form.
A character in its own right throughout the entire series, this was the one episode that finally gave the TARDIS a real voice. It showed the true depth of the Doctor’s relationship with the old Police Box and revealed that the TARDIS picked him as much as he picked it. Neil Gaiman wrote the episode, and that had us expecting big things out of his episode of his Who. He didn’t disappoint.
Midnight | Written by Russell T. Davies
In “Midnight” the tenth Doctor sets off sightseeing without his companion and ends up stranded in a broken-down shuttle bus with a group of tourists. The driver claims it’s an engine problem and radios for help, but as they wait something starts pounding on the hull. Then it gets inside. It’s not just inside the ship, but in one of the passengers and when The Doctor tries to talk to her, she appears only to be able to repeat the words the other passengers are saying. Except maybe she’s doing more than repeating. Maybe she’s stealing, stealing their voices away. The passengers begin to turn on each other, suspecting the Doctor and struggling to hang on until help arrives. It’s not until it’s over that we’re ever entirely certain whether the real danger to these people is from the creature, or each other.
Putting the Doctor out there without a companion and in an environment where he’s surrounded by people who fear and mistrust him, creates a situation the Time Lord rarely encounters. Tennant is, of course, brilliant and the script goes places you’ve rarely seen in any other trapped in small spaces scenario. In the end though, it’s not even the Doctor who plays the hero, but a hostess without a name.