There has been no better decade to be a fan of “Doctor Who” than the ‘00s. The show, once considered a punchline for jokes made by Trekkies, has risen from the ashes of the ‘80s and been reborn as a serious sci-fi/fantasy force with which to be reckoned. It’s managed to generate two spinoffs in the form of “Torchwood” and “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” as well as open up the entire 26 previous seasons to a whole new generation of fans. Yeah, it’s a good time to be a “Doctor Who” fan, because more than ever, people are less than likely to look at you “that” way when you tell them it’s your favorite series. With that in mind, here’s an entirely subjective list of its crowning achievements since the new series started in 2005; it’s just a shame I’ve not yet seen David Tennant’s two-part finale, “The End of Time,” so it could warrant possible inclusion. In any case, here’s to, at the very least, another full decade of time and space travels inside the TARDIS.
10. “School Reunion” – There are other stories that from a plot standpoint are much better written than this one, and thus more deserving of being in this Top 10, but I’ve an enormous fondness for this outing simply because it not only brought Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith back into my life, but it did it in such a way that left me a sobbing mess. If, like me, you grew up watching Doctor #4 (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane battle the evil Morbius on Karn, defeat the diabolical Sutekh on Mars, and kill the giant Krynoid at the estate of Harrison Chase, then seeing her character – as well as her relationship with the Doctor – hit a poignant and dramatic high note of finality was most definitely a strong cup of tea. It’s a bit of a shame Sarah Jane has her own series now, because everything about her that’s come since has somewhat eroded what was beautiful about this story in the first place.
9. “The Waters of Mars” – It’s entirely possible I’m riding a “Who” high at the moment, and that in time “Mars” won’t seem quite as perfect as it does at present. Further, since it won’t play on BBC America until Dec. 19th, it would be wrong to discuss it in any great detail. Nevertheless, it’s got an intricate premise from Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford, deft direction from Graeme Harper, creepy monsters, outstanding set design, and one helluva complex performance from David Tennant, that’s clearly aimed at setting up “The End of Time.” The last 20 minutes are frenzied and game-changing; this is Davies pulling the rug out from under the Time Lord and redefining everything we thought we learned about him over the past four seasons. It’s fucking glorious, and even if the big finish doesn’t quite live up to the buildup, I’ll know they made a damn good go of it.
8. “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” – Here’s another story that might leave a reader or two scratching their heads, but it’s a tale that holds an immense amount of nostalgia for me. See, my kid was 13 at the time it premiered, as were his friends. For the second season of new “Who,” the fates conspired so that he and his buds gathered at the house nearly every weekend to watch the latest episode with me, and the otherworldly goings-on at Sanctuary Base in particular had all of us riveted. “Don’t Turn Around!” became the catchphrase for a good long while around my casa, and further, this was the story where Tennant “became” the Doctor for me. The scene where he was being lowered into the Satan Pit, talking of how the specifics of the creature didn’t fit his “rules” was the defining moment. If I’d had even a vague vibe that he might not be precisely the right actor for the role before this, any such thoughts were dashed immediately after viewing that scene. Beside, the Doctor meets Satan? Hot diggity damn! This two-parter also unleashed the Ood, who have clearly become one of the defining alien races of the new series; they returned for the aptly named “Planet of the Ood” in Season Four, and will be returning again for Tennant’s finale.
7. “The Parting of the Ways” – “Who” season finales are hyper-dramatic and a lot of fun, but typically they don’t stand out as being the cream of any given block. That wasn’t the case, however, with Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston’s swan song from Season One, which was in fact so perfect in its seasonal finality that Davies hasn’t topped it since. The thing is, when it was being written, he had no idea whether or not the show was even going to get a second season, and therefore it fell upon him to craft a story that put a fine point on everything he felt he needed to say about the concept. Eccleston is quite literally fantastic here, but perhaps even more so is Billie Piper, who just shines with one of her most painful performances in the series. I still get shivers when I watch the hologram scene, punctuated by her cries of “Take me back!,” as well as the moment between her and Jackie, when she explains how the Doctor took her to meet her deceased father: “That’s how good the Doctor is!” I’m man enough to admit I’m tearing up a bit just writing these words. Oh, and “Parting” also unveiled an army of friggin’ flying Daleks. There was a time when such a sight was indeed something to behold; now it’s somewhat unfortunately become the norm.
6. “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” – As good as “The Parting of the Ways” was, Steven Moffat managed to unleash a Season One tale that was just a tad better, and he brought the unforgettable phrase “Are you my mummy?” to the table, for which we are eternally grateful. Everything about this two-parter is just bloody brilliant: WW II, the London Blitz, a blond girl dangling from a barrage balloon, the introduction of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, and gratuitously lush use of Glenn Miller. Who can forget the Doctor’s moves at the end, followed by his joyous cry of “Just this once – everybody lives!”? It was obvious the Moff was a force with which to be reckoned coming out of the gate, and in just a few months he’s going to literally be running the show (actually, he already is – we just haven’t gotten to sample the wares).
5. “The Girl in the Fireplace” – And so how does Grand Moff Steven top an epic like “The Empty Child”? By doing an intimate episode in which the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, falls in lust for the first time, although it’s a strange, neutered lust to be sure. This was another game-changer as far as the character of the Doctor goes, and thematically reflected what much of Season Two was about: The Doctor’s inability to see the effect he has on the people with whom he comes into contact. In this case the person is Madame de Pompadour, also known as Reinette (Sophia Myles), who encounters the Doctor periodically throughout her entire life, from childhood until death, even though the same events only occupy a few hours of time from his standpoint. It’s got a heartbreaking ending, gorgeous set design and costumes, and a truly inspired group of villains in the form of the Clockwork Androids, who very likely kept children of all ages awake at night ages after having viewed it.
4. “Midnight” – What happens when the Doctor loses his voice, which is perhaps his most valuable asset? The events that occur onboard the shuttle bus en route to the planet Midnight are some of the most unsettling the new series presented. Over the course of this hour we viewed the very worst aspects of humanity, which is a marked change from Russell T. Davies generally more positive outlook. Well, OK, Davies writes some pretty nasty material – what would a series like this be without villains? – but the folks onboard the shuttle bus with the Doctor might as well be you and me, and it’s in his presentation of these “normal” folk that the ugly beauty of this episode lies. Well, that and the fact that it’s utterly horrific in its depiction of an unseen creature that at first tries to break into the bus, and then later settles on taking over the mind and voice of passenger Sky Silvestry (Lesley Sharp, giving an atypically chilling performance). Towards the end, the mysterious force moves on to the Doctor, and he just seems so bloody helpless.
3. “Blink” – For many, “Blink” remains the crowning achievement of new “Who,” and with good reason – it’s an outstanding hour of TV that not only works as a great example of what this show can do when it stretches itself, but it also works in a vacuum; you could watch this episode without knowing anything about the series at all and still come away endlessly entertained and spooked. Funny that the Doctor is barely even in it, but therein lays a great deal of its perfection. Instead, he’s trapped in 1969, as well as on a series of 17 DVDs as an Easter Egg, and as a result our central figure is Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan of “An Education”). It’s up to her to stop the Weeping Angels (creatures from beyond so perfectly constructed, that a reappearance could only be a letdown) and get the TARDIS back to ’69 so the Doctor can resume his travels. Once again written by Steven Moffat, this hour is his strongest offering to the series, and more than anything else proves that he knows his way around wibbly-wobbley time-wimey balls of, um, time. Mulligan comes out of the gate, owning the series as if she’d been there since day one, and it’s no surprise that she’s moving up in the world of film and TV. Good thing, too, as people who’ve never even watched “Who” will likely soon start discovering this gem simply because they’re looking for older work from this up and coming talent, and really, what better episode to use to get someone into the show? An angel has the key to the phone box indeed.
2. “Love & Monsters” – There probably isn’t a more controversial episode that I could’ve chosen for this list than “Love & Monsters,” let alone the fact that I’m putting it at #2. I’m sure I’ve seen this one labeled more than any other as the worst episode of the new series – a sentiment with which I take obvious issue. A “Who” buddy of mine assures me this feeling only comes from stodgy, vocal old school fans who don’t like having their “Who” tampered with in this particular manner, and that the reality is that it’s actually a very well-liked episode. I’d like to think so, because the tragicomical story of Elton Pope (Marc Warren) and the other members of L.I.N.D.A., a group dedicated to collecting information on the mysterious Doctor, is one of the finest odes to the art of fandom ever written (thank you again, Russell Davies). This piece sings, makes my heart swell and manages to say everything and nothing about “Who” simultaneously – and it’s crammed full of ELO tunes! What more could a “Doctor Who” fan possibly want?
1. “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” – While Davies and Moffat wrote some of the best episodes of the decade, the #1 spot is reserved for a story from Paul Cornell. His previous outing, “Father’s Day,” was also very good, and came close to making this Top 10. But close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and body odor, so if by any chance Paul reads these words, hopefully he’ll forgive me leaving “Father’s Day” off the list in lieu of placing him at the very top. Mind you, that’s not really a strategical maneuver, as this two-parter, which features the Doctor becoming human and falling in love, is actually the greatest 90 minutes of ‘00s “Who.” Unfortunately, it would pack very little resonance for anyone unfamiliar with the series – you’ve got to be invested and well-versed in the new series up to this point in Season Three to get the most out of it, but that can hardly be counted against it. It’s a thing of beauty, the bee’s knees, the best of the best, the crème de la crème of all things new “Who.” Tennant is a marvel here, proving to viewers just how damn good an actor he is, in the calculated performance as John Smith, the schoolteacher living in a pre-WWI England. But Smith has strange dreams at night – dreams of a blue box and of being another man altogether. So do we, John, so do we – and Paul, we’ll never look into a mirror quite the same way again.