As HBO Max launches this week, it becomes the exclusive streaming home of the Doctor Who revival in the US. While HBO Max will receive future seasons after they debut on BBC America, all of the previously-aired episodes of the modern version of the show are now available for viewers to marathon.
Since the series returned in 2005, Doctor Who has racked up more than 150 episodes and specials, plus an anniversary event and a host of shorts. That’s a lot of Who to binge-watch – so for anyone new to the unlikely hero or his travels through space and time, or those looking to again revisit some greatest hits, we’re highlighting three key episodes for each Doctor of the modern era. These are the quintessential tales to watch to get an understanding of the Doctor, their companions, and the strange and wonderful world he inhabits. And yes, we’re arguably cheating a bit by including a few two-parters, but it just so happens that many great Who stories have used that format…
THE NINTH DOCTOR
The first Doctor of the modern era — through the ninth in the overall lineage — may have had the shortest tenure, but certainly left an impact in his single season. Cheery but with a dark edge, the Ninth Doctor set the standard for the new series.
“Rose” – Faced with the daunting task of relaunching the entire franchise, the first episode of Doctor Who since the 1996 TV movie had to deliver. Thankfully, Rose did exactly that. Showrunner and writer Russell T. Davies wisely chose to focus on the eponymous Rose Tyler, introducing the Doctor and his mad world through outsider’s eyes – while also proving Billie Piper’s acting chops in the role, silencing early critics. The episode was also something of an olive branch to worried fans of the original show, bringing back classic villains the Autons for the first time since 1971’s “Terror of the Autons,” showing that the past wasn’t entirely forgotten. Eccleston himself rightly stole the show though, presenting a more rounded and emotionally complex take on the Time Lord than had been seen before. By the time the credits rolled on “Rose,” there was no denying it – The Doctor was back.
“Dalek” – It was inevitable that the Doctor’s greatest enemies would return, but “Dalek” also proved to be one of the most important episodes of the rejuvenated series. The Doctor had been largely evading questions about the “Last Great Time War” until now, but it was only upon his coming face to face – or face to eye-stalk – with a surviving Dalek that viewers started to get any hints as to what had happened. Eccleston became a man possessed, showing the Doctor’s trauma from the losses he’d suffered, proving to viewers that this Doctor was far more emotionally complex than those who had come before. It was also an important episode for Rose, showing her empathy by almost helping the Dalek in question evolve into something more than a relentless killing machine. A powerful and pivotal episode.
“Father’s Day” – Companions rarely got much in the way of personal development in the classic Who era – one of the biggest distinctions for the reborn show. In Father’s Day, we learn about Rose’s background, of her doomed father, senselessly killed in a hit and run – and of what happens when you meddle with the past. The brilliance of the episode is in taking what could be a cold and mechanical episode serving only to establish for viewers the rules of time travel, and giving it a heart-wrenching emotional twist as Rose learns the impact even one ordinary life can have.
THE TENTH DOCTOR
Younger, more charming, and a much snappier dresser, the appropriately named Tennant brought a lighter touch to the role. His balance of a generally outgoing and inquisitive demeanor with flashes of intensity and rage helped make the Tenth Doctor a huge fan favorite of the modern era.
“Army of Ghosts” / “Doomsday” – The two-part finale to Tennant’s first year in the TARDIS goes out with a bang. While “Army of Ghosts” is largely set-up, with the Doctor investigating the strange appearance of spectral shadows around the world, “Doomsday” kicks things into high gear with an interdimensional war between Cybermen from another world and the Cult of Skaro, a sect of Daleks that escaped the Time War. It also served as pay off for the year-long thread of Torchwood, seeded through past episodes and ultimately leading to the spinoff series of the same name. Most impressively, it made all that seem like second fiddle to the heartbreaking departure of Rose, a parting of the ways that still stings to watch.
“Blink” – Tennant’s second year as The Doctor was an exceptionally strong one, but it was perhaps “Blink” – in which both The Doctor and companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), barely appear – that stood out most. The episode focussed instead on photographer Sally Sparrow, whose investigation into a series of hidden messages seeded through time by The Doctor led her into a confrontation with the Weeping Angels. The terrifying new enemies – statues when directly observed, hunting their victims between blinks – immediately became iconic, while the sharp script from future showrunner Steven Moffatt cleverly made use of time travel to present an asynchronous conversation between the Doctor and Sparrow, separated by decades. Sharp and scary, “Blink” became an instant classic.
“The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” – Tennant’s years were marked by brilliant season finales, but the end of Series 4 was one of the most ambitious storylines the show had ever attempted. It was effectively the Avengers: Endgame of the Whoniverse, bringing together characters from spinoffs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, plus companions past and present, in order to face the biggest threat yet conceived: entire worlds being stolen, plucked from their rightful places in space and time. Behind it all, a New Dalek Empire, while the Doctor remained the last of the Time Lords. The thrilling saga also saw the return of Davros, creator of the Daleks, for the first time since 1988. But it was the ultimate fate of the Doctor’s newest companion, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) that gave the episode a sting in its tail, losing everything she had gained during her travels – a departure that proved the show could still deliver an emotional gut-punch even during its most action-packed episodes.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR
Tennant left big shoes to fill when he finally chose to leave the show, and the casting of Matt Smith – the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor – had some doubting his successor. Yet the Eleventh Doctor showed himself to be a perfect follow up; playful and prone to bursts of excitement, but highly intelligent, calculating, and able to strategize across the centuries. Oh, and he made bow ties cool again.
“The Eleventh Hour” – Smith’s first outing stands as one of the best post-regeneration episodes the show has created, as well as laying the groundwork for a grand and sweeping multi-season story arc. “The Eleventh Hour” contrasts Smith’s friendliness, particularly with the young Amelia Pond – who grows up to be his new companion Amy (Karen Gillan) – against his power and presence. Facing off against the amorphous, extra-dimensional Prisoner Zero, and the oppressive Atraxi prison guards hunting it, Eleven saves the Earth with the power of his reputation alone. This incarnation of the Doctor may have a young body, but Smith effortlessly conveyed that it housed an ancient soul.
“Vincent and the Doctor” – Sometimes, it’s the quieter episodes of Doctor Who that leave the biggest impact, and that’s definitely the case here. When something seems amiss in one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, the Doctor and Amy travel back to 1890 to confront the artist himself. While typical thrills involving an alien monster proceed, the real meat of the episode is in Vincent (Tony Curran) and Amy’s instant friendship. Vincent and the Doctor doesn’t shy away from van Gogh’s mental health issues – even acknowledging that a year later, the painter commits suicide – making it a weighty episode to watch. Yet that sadness is balanced by fudging the rules of time travel and giving van Gogh a beautiful look at his own legacy – a poignant moment where this silly, brilliant sci-fi show makes clear the power and importance of art.
“The Doctor’s Wife” – The only character that has been a fixture of Doctor Who as much as the Doctor is the TARDIS, his timeship and home. Yet while plenty of stories have hinted at the TARDIS having a will of its own, it wasn’t until this Neil Gaiman-penned episode that audiences got to see just how much personality the iconic blue Police Box really had. With a typically high concept yet whimsical threat concocted by Gaiman – an extra-dimensional entity known only as House, that feasted on TARDISes and lured their pilots to their deaths – keen character work made the closeness between Doctor and TARDIS more apparent than ever. Bonus points for the episode making clear that Time Lords could change their biological sex upon regeneration – a throwaway line here, but important for the show moving forwards.
THE TWELFTH DOCTOR
Capaldi’s run was meant to echo William Hartnell’s tenure as the First Doctor, with a no-nonsense take on the Time Lord. However, seeming indecision over the direction of the character saw a quiet revamp from “stern patrician” to “cool grandpa” for the Twelfth Doctor. Still, Capaldi turned in strong performances regardless of any behind-the-scenes drama, and his time in the TARDIS had some real high-points.
“Dark Water” / “Death in Heaven” – All season long, a curious woman dressed in Victorian attire had been snatching essences of the recently deceased, gathering them in a place she called Heaven. This two-part season finale saw those plot threads tied together, with the reveal that the woman calling herself Missy (Michelle Gomez) was in fact the latest incarnation of the Master, and that the captured souls were fodder for a new army of Cybermen. It was one of the rare points when Doctor Who dabbled with the theological, exploring matters beyond life and death. Meanwhile, the new, female regeneration of the Master was far more than just the latest twist – Gomez’s take on the character was revelatory. She was simultaneously charming yet sinister, and her relationship with the Twelfth Doctor became one of the most intriguing and complex arcs of Capaldi’s run – and it all started here.
“The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion” – Zygons: shape-shifting aliens, 20 million of which are now living peacefully amongst humans on Earth. Not everyone is pleased with this state of affairs though – a splinter group of Zygons seek to reignite conflict. With the fragile accord under threat and two species set to go to war, the Doctor struggles to restore the ceasefire. The task is complicated by military organization UNIT seeking extreme sanctions against the Zygons, and mounting paranoia over who might be a Zygon in disguise. One of the tensest storylines of the modern era, the two-parter is a consideration on the complexity and futility of war, while giving the Twelfth Doctor – the first to know the full truth of the Time War – chance to reflect on his own actions.
“Heaven Sent” – Effectively a bottle episode, albeit with far greater goals, “Heaven Sent” found the Doctor on his own, following the loss of his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) in the previous episode, and trapped in the halls of a maddening, labyrinthine castle. Pursued by a tormenting, veiled creature, the Doctor finds the only way to escape is to reveal his darkest and most personal secrets. A crucible of the mind, the experience tests the Doctor’s fortitude, while presenting viewers with an unexpected – and almost unprecedentedly grim – twist on the time loop format. A tour de force of a performance from Capaldi makes this a contender for his finest episode as the Doctor.
THE THIRTEENTH DOCTOR
The first female Doctor – although arguably overdue – had a lot to prove. Thankfully, Whittaker proved a brilliant bit of casting, revitalizing the show while still undeniably the same character fans had followed for more than half a century. Frenetic, dynamic, and full of energy, the Thirteenth Doctor is a Doctor with a new lease on life.
“Rosa” – When Doctor Who debuted in 1963 with An Unearthly Child, the series was meant to be more historical than sci-fi. The revived series had certainly investigated the past, but actual historical events usually served as set dressing to whatever the alien threat of the week was. In “Rosa,” the series re-established that connection to real-world history, with the TARDIS materializing in Montgomery, Alabama, the day before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a crowded bus. The threat wasn’t alien, but depressingly human – a white supremacist from the future, trying to prevent the Civil Rights Movement. “Rosa” may be an uncomfortable episode to watch, especially when new companions Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Sofia Afzal) – a black man and an Asian woman – discuss their own experiences of racism, but it established the show as unafraid to tackle darker points of history, and proved an important exploration how even time travel would provide obstacles to people of color.
“Fugitive of the Judoon” – A mid-season belter of an episode so shocking that even the surprise appearance of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) – returning to the show after a decade’s absence – wasn’t the biggest development. It starts quietly enough, with a slice-of-life opening following an unassuming Gloucester tour guide named Ruth (Jo Martin). Matters soon become more serious when the Judoon, an alien mercenary police force, arrive and place the city under lockdown while they seek their target. Although all fingers point to Ruth’s husband, Lee, as the one having something to hide, buried memories soon reveal Ruth as their quarry – a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor. Jaws are still on the floor from the reveal, and the questions the episode raises about the Doctor’s past and future are out there, begging to be answered.
“The Timeless Children” – Potentially the biggest episode in the series’ 57 year history, The Timeless Children changed everything audiences thought they knew about the Doctor. Masterfully, it did so by addressing a decades-old plot hole, and even though the resulting shift in the status quo was dramatic, it left the Doctor’s previous history intact – her history and connections to the Time Lord homeworld of Gallifrey remain, but now there are a host of new mysteries to uncover. Whatever the Doctor faces going forward, the show has a renewed energy and sense of purpose as a result of this crucial episode.
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