I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who.
Most adult fans I talk to tell me stories about some nerdy guardian - parent, grandparent, older sibling, whoever – sitting them down in front of PBS to watch Tom Baker and his ridiculously long scarf fight rubber monsters. They were little kids when they saw the blue box for the first time, and this combination of nostalgia and childlike wonder is a powerful formula for forgiveness. And you need forgiveness to enjoy it as an adult because without nostalgia-vision, and now full of sophistication and cynicism, it’s largely impossible to look past the goofier elements of this show.
Even the 2005-present revival of the series, the entirety of my Doctor Who viewing experience, often revels in ridiculousness. There are mannequins come to life and meant to be menacing, rhyming alien rhinos, and flatulent green infant-looking creatures. Even the Doctor’s most deadly adversary, the Daleks, might induce a five-minute giggle fit when you see their weird plunger-adorned robo-shells for the first time. Which is a shame, because if you get past that rush of embarrassment you feel and stick with it, Doctor Who can create more wonder and excitement than any other series put to television.
So with that in mind, I put together this list. If you’re interested in seeing what this new run of the show has to offer, this is it – these eight represent the fewest rubber monsters and some of the strongest writing and performances of the series, with the lowest barrier to entry. All you need to know is that there’s a magic man in a box who goes on adventures through all of time and space with a few human friends in tow.
If you can enjoy that premise, you can enjoy these episodes.
The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)
The Doctor and his companions discover an apparently abandoned space-station. Fairly common as far as Doctor Who goes, what’s unusual is the working fireplace that goes to the bedroom of a small girl in 18 century Paris, France. When the Doctor slips inside and discovers the occupants of the space-ship stalking the little girl, who he rescues with swashbuckling aplomb. But when he to the space-ship and then back a few minutes later, he finds that the little girl is now a grown, beautiful, woman and the aliens are still after her.
Of all the episodes on the list, this one most basks in the adventurous FUN of hopping through time and space. The Doctor dashes about, practically sword-fights, (kind of) gets the girl and has a truly kick-ass last minute save-the-day entrance. It’s just a blast. This episode, along with 6 others on this list, feature the 10 Doctor played by David Tennant. Tennant owns this role completely, going from bossy to brilliant to hilarious to heroic seamlessly, and this episode is the first in the series where he gets to really show off. And his chemistry with Sophia Myles’ Madam De Pompadour makes their short time together on-screen feel significant.
This episode also deftly handles one of my favorite concepts of Doctor Who – the terror and excitement from everyday things. The broken clock in the room, the crack in the wall, the statue you walk past… these things could be just what they are, but what separates The Doctor from us is that he manages to see what these are – his world encroaching on our own. And if you look hard enough, you could see them, too.
While the monsters in this episode look proper creepy in their 18 century French porcelain masks, they still move and talk like little kids in cardboard robot outfits. Also, this is the only episode on the list to feature Rose and Mickey, who I find to be the most irritating companions of the series thus far. Thankfully both of these bits of business are kept at a minimum, and instead The Doctor is put front and center, as it should be.
Human Nature & The Family of Blood (2007)
“Trapped in a dream” episodes are nothing new to science-fiction. Characters get stuck in a dream world where they’re far more mundane than they would be otherwise while the audience waits patiently as they slowly get clued into the fact that there’s more going. This two-parter takes a slightly different approach. As the episode begins, the Doctor and his companion, Martha, are fleeing something when suddenly he wakes up in 1913 England, a teacher at a boarding school with no memory of his time-hoping alien combating self. But it’s abundantly clear that this is no dream – Martha is about behaving like her 21 century self (albeit as a maid) and the things chasing the Doctor from the open is still after them. So what happened to the Doctor to make him human and helpless, and will he snap out of before it’s too late?The cat-and-mouse between the Doctor and his pursuers provides the thrust of the suspense, but there’s a lot going on beyond that. There’s a theme of tragic inevitability running through the episode. The looming threat of World War One means that all these young boys are a short year away from being sent to their deaths. There’s also a beautifully written romance between the Doctor and a matron at the school (played deftly by Spaced’s Jessica Hynes), one of the most convincing relationships in the show, developed quickly and sweetly. The fact that we know what the characters don’t - he’s got to climb into the Tardis and dash off when this is over - makes the whole thing absolutely heartbreaking. None of this would work without David Tennant, who puts in his (if not the) finest performance of the series, making the heartbreak real and his vengeful rage all the more terrifying at the end.
Like the best episodes, the villains are best when they’re in human form or hidden… but then these ones go ruin that by raising an army of living scarecrows. Their goofy lumber across the English country-side with bizarre flute accompaniment is a bit too Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Also, the ray-gun effects makes Buffy’s “dusting vampires” trick look like Avatar. That being said, the emotional core of the episode doesn't suffer any, and these are pretty minor issues.
Sometimes, the show just aims for absolute nail-biting suspense by, like the episodes before, taking The Doctor out of the picture. Instead of focusing on him, we get Sally Sparrow who, while photographing an abandoned home, finds a message addressed to her written under some peeling wallpaper, telling her to “Beware the weeping angels.” The message is, of course, signed “The Doctor.” And that, frankly, is all I am going to tell you about plot of this episode. It’s an unbelievable hour of TV, and if you've ever enjoyed an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, this is for you.
This episode is brutally clever in the way it handles time-travel trickery (seriously, Bogus Journey has nothing on this episode), devious in the ways that it dolls out clues as to what’s going on, and the creatures hunting Sally Sparrow are just plain creepy. That’s what makes it a good piece of fiction, what makes it a great Doctor Who episode is the way Blink incorporates the show’s core philosophy. Doctor Who is about the triumph of cleverness over brute force and the ability of love to overcome, well, anything negative at all. In Blink the Doctor is completely isolated from Sally physically, but through sheer cleverness, he manages a great deal of heroics. And as far as love goes, even the characters which have the grimmest fate in Blink end up kind of happy, largely thanks to love. It’s hard to extol the virtues of this episode without giving too much away, and I really don’t want to spoil this one for you.
This episode is almost entirely free of hokum, right up until the last moments, where the director slipped in what is possibly the most eye-rollingest montage in Who History. But even that bit of can't detract what most Who fans agree is the best episode of the series.
And, that’s it for Part 1! Go watch these, and if you like what you saw (they're all on Netflix Watch Instantly), check back for Part 2 later in the week.