10 best Doctor Who episodes of all time

Tom Percival
David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who.

The Doctor’s been on nearly 900 adventures during his exceptionally long life, but what are the best Doctor Who episodes?

A British icon, Doctor Who is one of the longest-running sci-fi shows of all time and undeniably one of the best. If you’ve never heard the TARDIS go “Vworp!!!” before (what rock have you been living under?), Doctor Who follows an enigmatic time traveler known as the Doctor as they go anywhere and everywhere in space and time, saving the day from monsters.

It’s a wonderful core concept that allows the show to explore a myriad of settings, tell weird and wonderful stories, and introduce new and cool characters in each and every episode. However, not all Doctor Who episodes are created equal, and some are certainly better than others.

So, what are the best Doctor Who episodes of all time? Well, we think we’ve got a pretty good handle on the show’s modern canon, so we’ve gone through all the episodes since the show returned to our screens in 2005 to bring you a list of the best Doctor Who episodes — or at least the best episodes released so far because we’ve got a feeling that the 15th Doctor will make an appearance on this list when Doctor Who Season 14 airs later this year.

10. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

The Empty Chilld from Doctor Who.

A two-parter from Steven Moffat, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances were the first episodes of the revived series that reminded us how terrifying Doctor Who could be. The story sees the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) tracking an alien device down to London during The Blitz, where a mysterious and horrifying lost child has the city gripped with terror.

Genuinely quite disturbing and creepier than a room full of dead-eyed dolls, these episodes are well remembered for how scary they are — I remember being terrified even as a teenager when a room of gas mask-wearing zombies cried out in unison, “Are you my mummy?” Still, it’s worth remembering they also gave us one of the most optimistic and happiest endings in the Ninth Doctor’s run, where just for once, “everybody lives!”

9. The Waters of Mars

An infected zombie from the Waters of Mars stares at the camera.

The second scariest episode of modern Who, The Waters of Mars, sees the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) travel to Mars and the doomed Bowie Base One, where he becomes embroiled in a pivotal moment in human history. Torn between saving the day or leaving history intact, the Doctor must decide what’s more important: humanity’s future or the lives of his new friends.

While the episode’s new enemy, The Flood — basically water zombies — are remembered for being downright horrifying, they’re not what makes this episode truly terrifying. No, what makes The Waters of Mars so scary is its conclusion, which sees the Doctor throw away the rulebook and demonstrate just how frighteningly powerful he could be if he gave in to his darkest impulses. While Tennant never gave Who anything less than 100%, this is the episode that allows him to showcase his incredible talent; he’s menacing, imperious, and charming all at once. It’s breathtaking and a must-watch for Tennant fans.

8. Midnight

David Tennant in the Doctor Who episode Midnight.

An underappreciated gem (or should that be sapphire) from Tennant’s fourth season, Midnight is a brilliantly tense and paranoid thriller, which isn’t bad for an episode set on the science fiction equivalent of a bus tour. The action begins with the Doctor heading off alone on a day trip — after failing to convince Donna to join him –— and befriending his fellow tourists.

Things take a dark turn, however, when an impossible entity attacks the space bus. The creature possesses one of the passengers and slowly turns the tourists on each other and the Doctor. Midnight is essentially Doctor Who’s version of The Thing that puts the Doctor in a situation where his greatest weapon, his charm and intellect, prove useless against the most dangerous thing in the universe: a group of frightened and angry humans.

7. The Eleventh Hour

The 11th Doctor meets his new companions Rory and Amy in the Eleventh Hour.

Some people will claim that Blink is the best gateway episode to get people into Doctor Who, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The Eleventh Hour introduces us to the 11th Doctor and sees him desperately trying to capture an escaped alien prisoner before Earth is destroyed. 

The Eleventh Hour had a lot on its plate. It needed to introduce a new Doctor, a new companion, and set the tone for new showrunner Steven Moffat’s run on the series. If it had pulled off just one of those objectives, it would have been a success, but The Eleventh Hour manages to do all that and more. It’s confident, fun, and frantic while setting the tone for all the 11th Doctor’s adventures to come in a breezy 60-minute run. 

I don’t think any introductory episode comes close to achieving what The Eleventh Hour does, and for that reason, it’s earned a spot on this list. Seriously, if you want to get someone into the show this is the episode to put on.

6. Dalek

Rose rides in an elevator with a Dalek.

During the Wilderness Years (when the show was on a 16-year hiatus), the Doctor’s most iconic enemies, the Daleks, went from being one of the scariest TV villains of all time to a punchline. It was a sad state of affairs for an icon of British TV and a wrong that showrunner Russell T Davies knew he’d have to right. Enter Dalek, the first story of the revival era to bring the Doctor face-to-face (or face-to-eye-stalk) with the most evil aliens in the galaxy.

While its story is simple — there’s a Dalek in an underground base, and if it escapes, the world is doomed — the episode had one mission. It had to make the Daleks scary again, and let’s just say it more than understood the assignment. The Dalek in Dalek is an engine of destruction that tears through soldiers like hot plasma through Kevlar. Nothing can stand in its way, and the whole episode feels incredibly hopeless, with even the Doctor rendered helpless. Still, Daleek’s brilliance isn’t in its bloodshed, but in the way, it reinforces one of Doctor Who’s core themes of empathy and compassion in the face of violence and cruelty.  

5. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls

The 12th Doctor in The Doctor Falls with the Master and Missy in the background.

Arguably the greatest modern Cyberman story (sorry to the one Nightmare in Silver fan), this two-parter brought Season 10 to a close, and it’s the best story in Capaldi’s best season. We open with the Doctor, Missy, and Bill answering a distress call, and what should be a simple rescue mission turns into a desperate attempt to escape the Cybermen and not one but two incarnations of the Master trying to kill the Doctor. 

There’s a lot to love in this episode — be it the Master and Missy’s banter, the 12th Doctor’s valiant last stand, or Missy’s final realization — yet the reason this two-parter stole our hearts is the tragedy and triumph of Bill Potts. Bill dared to travel the universe, but what did she get for it? The Masters fed her into a blender and turned her into a Cyberman, yet she maintained her humanity and, in the end, helped save the Doctor from his self-destructive mindset. 

4. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End

Rose and the Tenth Doctor in Journey's End

Basically, an Avengers movie for the 10th Doctor’s era, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End was a two-part special that had it all. A full-scale Dalek invasion of Earth, Davros, and companions, new and old, reuniting to help the Doctor save the day. 

While it’s probably best remembered for its fake-out regeneration (a concept that Steven Moffat would come back to twice) and grand scale, what separates it from other episodes in Ten’s tenure is Donna’s heartbreaking departure from the TARDIS. The removal of her memories of the Doctor was such a cruel and agonizing way for Donna’s story to conclude, and Catherine Tate did an incredible job with the material.

Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode episode Blink.

Widely considered the best Doctor Who episode ever, Blink is a wonderfully clever story that introduced the most terrifying monster of the revival era, the Weeping Angels. A Doctor-lite episode (a fancy way of saying the Doctor’s not really in it), Blink follows Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan), a young woman being stalked by living statues attempting to get their claws on the Doctor’s TARDIS. 

A borderline masterpiece, Blink boasts one of the most impressively efficient scripts in the history of Who, delivering incredible scares, brilliant character work, and delightful thrills. While the episode is arguably best remembered for introducing the Weeping Angels, it’s Mulligan’s consummate performance that earned Blink a spot on this list.

2. The Day of the Doctor

The Tenth, Eleventh and War Doctors in The Day of the Doctor.

If The Stolen Earth and Journeys End is the Avengers, then The Day of the Doctor is Endgame. This epic story, written to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, was the first full-length multi-Doctor story of the new era and saw the 11th, 10th, and War Doctors come together to rewrite history and save Gallifrey from being destroyed in the Time War. 

Grand and action-packed, The Day of the Doctor boasts some of the most impressive visual effects in Doctor Who’s history. It was a delight to see the three Doctors bounce off each other. It also gave us some of the greatest fan service in television history when all 12 (No, sir, all 13!) appeared at once to save the day.

Yet, all that aside, what makes this episode so brilliant is its storytelling. The Time War had hung over the Doctor since the series revival and was weighing the showdown. The Day of the Doctor dealt with the Doctor’s actions during the Time War in a satisfyingly while also allowing the character to move forward in new and interesting ways.

1. Heaven Sent

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor in Heaven Sent.

A lot of the stories on this list are bombastic and grand, yet it’s Heaven Sent, a small-scale bottle episode, that proves how truly wonderful Doctor Who can be. A simple episode, Heaven Sent has the 12th Doctor wake up in a mysterious castle following the death of his companion, Clara, and he has one escape — that’s it. This simple premise, though, belies the bold brilliance of its weird core concept. 

It’s essentially a one-man show about grief with sci-fi bells and whistles glued on for good measure that touches on the self-destructive nature of mourning and the power of love while also being weird as all hell. Peter Capaldi gives arguably his greatest-ever performance as the Doctor, and it’s possibly the best performance anyone playing the Doctor has ever given. There’s no question about it: this is the ultimate Doctor Who episode. 

Hungry for more hot Who takes? Well, we’ve got a feature explaining why Doctor Who fans shouldn’t freak out that Millie Gibson is leaving. That’s not all, though, as we’ve for a guide on the full Doctor Who Season 14 release schedule and how to watch Doctor Who Season 14.

To find out how the new season holds up, check out our ‘Space Babies’ review and ‘The Devil’s Chord’ review. If you’re not into time travel, though, check out our list of the best TV shows to stream this month.