What are the best Doctor Who episodes? Specifically, from the show's modern era, it's a very hard question.
For anyone outside of the UK, Doctor Who might just seem like a wacky sci-fi television series about an eccentric man (or woman, now) traveling around space and time in a box. And it is! But it's also so much more.
Doctor Who is a show all about discovery, adventure, emotion, cliffhangers, monsters, doing the right thing, and occasionally scaring its audience so much that they've hidden behind the sofa. Quintessentially British through and through, the series has delivered some of the best sci-fi on TV across its incredible 57-year history.
Rebooted in 2005 by Russell T Davies, Doctor Who has kept itself relevant for 12 seasons and counting, establishing itself for modern audiences. Since then, there have been some truly magnificent stories that feature some of the best talent both behind and in front of the camera, all leaving their mark on this iconic series in one way or another.
The show is all set for another reboot, with Ncuti Gatwa, best known for an often scene-stealing role as Eric in Netflix’s beloved comedy Sex Education, revealed that he will be stepping into the Tardis to become the 14th Doctor, with his debut in the role set to come in 2023.
But, before that, we've got the oldest question in the universe (other than who the best Doctor is, or course) to answer: what is the best episode of Doctor Who? In this list, we'll focus specifically on modern episodes – so you won't find anything from before 2005 below.
Spoilers for Doctor Who follow.
20. The Runaway Bride
Original air date: December 25, 2006
The best Christmas special to date, this episode features the first appearance of Catherine Tate's boisterous future companion, Donna Noble. 'The Runaway Bride' sees Donna zapped into the TARDIS, with shenanigans ensuing as the 10th Doctor has to figure out how she got there. It's fun, bold, and includes one of the most impressive monsters of the modern series in the Racnoss.
Tennant and Tate's chemistry is palpable, providing some big laughs that mask a somber tale of two lost souls, setting up the latter's return in season 4. The special's exhilarating chase scene, with the Doctor trying to save Donna from being kidnapped while piloting the TARDIS down the A4232, is also a highlight. Moments like this are what make the Christmas specials so magical.
Original air date: October 21, 2018
Jodie Whittaker has endured a rough tenure as the first female Time Lord (through no fault of her own), due to shaky scripts and a number of questionable creative decisions behind-the-scenes. However, the 13th Doctor gets a stellar outing in 'Rosa', which sees the TARDIS crew meet civil rights activist Rosa Parks right around the time she refuses to give up her bus seat for white passengers in Montgomery, Alabama.
It's a refreshing stance for the sci-fi series, addressing one of the most important moments of defiance against racism in human history, and being unafraid to educate viewers on the realities of the time in doing so. Quite fittingly, the episode credits roll with 'Rise Up' by Andra Day played over them – one of only a few times this has ever happened.
18. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords
Original air date: June 16, 2007 ('Utopia')
If we look at 'Utopia' on its own, this entry would be much closer to the top. Sadly, this story arc diminishes the longer it goes on. It's still an incredible watch, and it sees the Doctor travelling to the end of the universe only to discover The Master, his long-lost arch-nemesis.
This season finale had everything: high stakes, espionage, action, emotional investment, and a terrific character arc for Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). It also features an unforgettable performance by Sir Derek Jacobi, as well as a respectable interpretation of The Master by John Simm.
17. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People
Original air date: May 21, 2011 ('The Rebel Flesh')
Doppelgangers, solar storms, a remote monastery and acid pools galore comprise this tense two-parter from Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham. Not only are the "Gangers" freaky – props to the makeup department – but most impressive is the way in which the story makes all those involved question who is actually real, who is actually a clone, and whether a notion of a clone actually exists.
Matt Smith does a fine job trying to broker peace, while testing his companion's emotions to prove a point about our own prejudices. That final kicker leading into the cliffhanger is a whopper, too.
16. Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Original air date: October 3, 2015
This aquatic adventure is set in an underwater mining facility in 2119, which sees the 12th Doctor utilize a "bootstrap paradox" to cleverly prevent an alien invasion. Smartly written by Toby Whitehouse, this two-parter rockets with excellent pacing, genuine horror – and, arguably, the best Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have ever played off one another. The moment when Clara hands over a set of cue cards so the Doctor can relate to a death nails Capaldi's out-of-touch demeanor with human beings. We wish we got more.
15. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon
Original air date: April 23, 2011 ('The Impossible Astronaut')
Matt Smith's season 2 opener is gorgeous. Subbing Lone Rock Beach for Lake Silencio as the backdrop for the Doctor's apparent demise is as picture perfect as you can imagine. Add the return of River Song (Alex Kingston), a mystery surrounding an astronaut in the desert, Richard Nixon, the terrifying silence, and this story makes the Doctor's rare visit to the US a blockbuster.
14. The Day of the Doctor
Original air date: November 23, 2013
Speaking of blockbusters, the 50th-anniversary celebration is a milestone befitting of the time traveller. The Day of the Doctor encapsulates the reasons the show has amassed a legion of fans from generation to generation, bringing back multiple Doctors for a rousing celebration like no other.
If that wasn't enough, we were also treated to the late John Hurt as the War Doctor, a man forced to make the darkest of decisions to save the universe. All too brief, the performance is one that will live on in Whovians' minds for decades to come.
13. Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent
Original air date: November 21, 2015
Similar to the 'Utopia' conundrum of having one clear standout episode in a three-part story, a big part of the reason this trilogy makes the cut has to do with the tour-de-force showing from Peter Capaldi in 'Heaven Sent'. It's undeniably a masterclass, hooking the audience's attention for its 54-minute runtime.
The opening episode of 'Face the Raven' does enough to lure in the viewers, and the trilogy's end of 'Hell Bent' displays plenty of heart. Still, nothing can top the gruelling journey the 12th Doctor undertakes in his imprisonment. Sublime.
12. The Eleventh Hour
Original air date: April 3, 2010
Following the blistering success of the Davies era, Steven Moffat took over the reins from April 2010 with a completely new cast and lead – the relatively unknown Matt Smith. As the youngest actor to take up the mantle, Smith melts into the role within minutes, giving one of his best performances, and one of the best introductions to a new Doctor ever.
There's also the instantly likable Amelia 'Amy' Pond (Karen Gillan) as the girl who waited, relating to anyone who grew up with an imaginary friend. The fast pace and inventive camera work all complement what is Smith's show from the second the TARDIS crash-lands in Amelia's garden. Stepping into Tennant's shoes was a mighty task; no one expected it would be done in such fashion (yes, bow ties are cool).
11. Tooth and Claw
Original air date: April 22, 2006
While the Time Lord was recuperating in 'The Christmas Invasion' and ended up being possessed by "the last human" in 'New Earth' (don't ask), 'Tooth and Claw' is the first real episode where David Tennant gets to sink his teeth into the role. Set in 1879 Scotland, the Doctor and Rose are captured by a group of warrior monks who are looking to take over the British Empire by setting an alien werewolf on Queen Victoria.
The episode has comedic charm, but also a tense, dark storyline as many soldiers are butchered by the half-man, half-wolf. It's also Tennant's commanding prowess and acknowledgment of the beauty of the animal that show there's more to this Doctor than meets the eye.
10. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
Original air date: June 3, 2006 ('The Impossible Planet')
Can you imagine pitching Doctor Who meets the Devil? And yet, somehow it works. Rose and the 10th Doctor arrive on Krop Tor, an unknown planet orbiting a black hole on which there’s a stranded group of explorers drilling down to its core in search of a source beaming out across the stars. But something is lurking underneath, something from eons ago.
While this two-parter is fantastic for introducing one of the best new monster designs in the Ood, it's also the stunning visuals, all-around great cast, and the ideology surrounding "The Beast" that challenge the Doctor's beliefs of how the universe works that make it stand out.
Original air date: March 26, 2005
Sixteen years after the classic series ended, Doctor Who returned in fine form with a higher budget, a more serious tone, and a new Doctor in Christopher Eccleston. It also introduced us to Rose, played with gusto by former pop star Billie Piper. This duo would set the modern foundations for Who that still underpin it today.
Eccleston delivers a powerful monologue fifteen-and-a-half minutes in about the turn of the Earth and how the two of them are falling through space, clinging to the planet. This is the precise moment that viewers across Britain realized that Doctor Who was back – and that it was here to stay.
8. Father's Day
Original air date: May 14, 2005
Big bad aliens are all well and good, but Rose Tyler's trip back in time to see the day her father dies is an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. If given the opportunity, who wouldn't take the chance to see a lost loved one?
Exploring this, and the consequences of changing time, are fascinating premises on their own. However, it's how Rose comes to terms with the fact that some things are simply fixed, and how the Doctor goes from deep regret for letting this happen to a compassionate shoulder for understanding his companion's motives, that make it moving. It helps that the episode also has demon dragons.
7. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End
Original air date: June 28, 2008 ('The Stolen Earth')
Many say that Avengers: Endgame was the most ambitious crossover event in history, but we'd argue that 'The Stolen Earth'/'Journey's End' did it first, integrating Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures for one ginormous, fan-pleasing escapade that pitted all of the above up against the Daleks.
It also saw the highly anticipated return of Rose following a two-year absence, as well as a cliffhanger that sent all British news publications into overdrive, once the 10th Doctor announces that he's regenerating before bursting into flames. Cue to one of the longest weeks in TV history to discover the outcome. Moreover, it's impossible not to grin from ear-to-ear as the TARDIS finally gets piloted by a full crew of the Doctor's closest friends.
6. Vincent and the Doctor
Original air date: June 5, 2010
Find us someone who can watch the last sequence of 'Vincent and the Doctor' without tearing up – and we'll show you a liar. Once the Doctor and Amy discover an ominous figure in the backdrop of a Vincent van Gogh painting, they travel back in time to meet the man himself and learn about his life.
It's here we get to see the brilliant Tony Curran portray the tormented painter, showing both the ups and downs to his personality, and the bittersweet feeling that follows with his demise. Written by Richard Curtis, the aim of the episode was to be truthful to the suffering of Van Gogh, how he dealt with his demons on a daily basis, yet still managed to create some of the best art mankind has ever seen. It's fair to say that was achieved.
5. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Original air date: May 21, 2005 ('The Empty Child')
The beauty of Doctor Who is how it turns normal into abnormal. Gas-mask zombies are one in particular that struck a nerve with the nation, as the 9th Doctor and Rose land in 1941 during the London Blitz. Children are afraid to go out, but not because of the bombs, but because of a little boy in a gas mask constantly calling for his "mummy".
The first story to be written by Moffat is an eerie, unnerving tale that gives Eccleston plenty to play with in the lead role. On top of that, this two-parter gave us the charming, enigmatic Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who went on to star in the spinoff series, Torchwood.
Original air date: June 9, 2007
An episode so iconic we devoted an entire retrospective to it, Blink is arguably the most popular (and downright terrifying) monsters since the show rebooted, the Weeping Angels are an ingenious premise: a statue that only moves once you close your eyes. Future Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan takes the limelight as Sally Sparrow in this experimental episode, that sees the Doctor and Martha trapped in 1969, only able to communicate through old recorded footage.
The 45-minute episode plays out more like a horror film, with barely any Doctor in sight for the duration. It's a testament to the writing that Blink is constantly voted number one by legions of fans as the best ever episode… not here, though.
3. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
Original air date: July 1, 2006
Forget Batman v Superman – Daleks vs Cybermen is where it was at in July 2006. Considering these monsters had been on screen for 40 years by this point, it's quite astounding that this was the first time these two iconic titans of sci-fi ever clashed – and what a clash it was!
The battle of Canary Wharf has everything going for it, from Daleks blanketing the skies of London, to Cybermen invading homes around the globe, to an emotional ending for Rose and the Doctor that pulls at the heartstrings like very few scenes in the show ever have. No wonder it's Davies' favorite episode he's ever produced.
2. Human Nature/The Family of Blood
Original air date: May 26, 2007 ('Human Nature')
Based on the 1995 book by Paul Cornell, everything about this story is what makes Doctor Who incredible. It's also unlike anything the show had attempted prior. To escape The Family of Blood, the Doctor rewrites his entire molecular structure to become a human under the name "John Smith", hiding out as a teacher in 1913, England.. Martha, meanwhile, accompanies him until the pursuers die out.
It's hard to understate the masterclass in villainy that Harry Lloyd (who you may recognize as Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones) gives as the dead-eyed Baines, accompanied by an army of scarecrows. The episode closes with John Smith forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to give up his life, with Tennant rising to the occasion gloriously as a broken man and vengeful Time Lord in his return.
Original air date: June 14, 2008
As with 'Blink', the best Doctor Who episodes are often those great sci-fi ideas that could work as entire films. 'Midnight' is exactly that, trapping the Time Lord with an ever-increasing, distressed group of holiday makers, as something lurks outside of their touring vehicle. Companionless, and more desperate than ever, David Tennant's Doctor grapples with the passengers as he tries to convince them that he’s the only one who can save them… to no avail.
What's so fascinating about Midnight is the psychological nature surrounding each passenger: from the know-it-all Professor Hobbes and his assistant Dee Dee, to the overbearing parents, Biff and Val, with their inquisitive son, Jethro, to the petrified Sky Silvestry and the selfless hostess.
Each has a vital part to play, proving that the scariest things in the galaxy aren’t the Daleks, gas mask zombies or statues that move when you turn away; they're people. Ordinary, good people who are pushed to the brink of insanity, resulting in the Doctor coming up against an enemy that he simply couldn't overcome. And this is the reason 'Midnight' tops our list as the greatest episode of Doctor Who in the modern era.
Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and older episodes are streaming on Britbox.