Doctor Who returns to the small screen this weekend with Peter Capaldi taking over the role of the ever-regenerating Time Lord. The introduction of a new Doctor is always an exciting time, fraught with possibility. Routinely, fans are excited but also a little nervous. We can’t wait to see this Doctor, and yet we also bite our nails and wonder if we will like him. Advance word is that Capaldi is great in the role. I’m eager to see for myself, but I’ll be in Boston this weekend and will miss the season 8 premiere Saturday night. Which means I’m going to have to pretty much avoid all social media until I get a chance to see it unsullied by spoilers and other people’s opinions.
In honor of the 12th Doctor’s imminent arrival, I’ve decided to rank all the “new Doctor” episodes of the show, from both the classic and the modern eras. I won’t be counting “The Day of the Doctor” among them, by the way. Though it is technically a new Doctor episode with the introduction of the War Doctor, it’s neither treated nor structured as a new Doctor episode, and so, in my opinion, cannot be judged in the same way. Got it? Okay, now on to the list, from best to…um, worst seems like an understatement — the new Doctor episodes!
1. The Ninth Doctor — “Rose” Not just an excellent episode in its own right, but a spectacular introduction to the Doctor himself. With Christopher Eccleston’s masterfully delivered line, “I’m the Doctor. Run for your life,” we knew we were in for something special, and you didn’t have to be a lifelong Whovian to feel it. The first season of the modern Who does a great job of taking its time doling out information about who and what the Doctor is, but that first episode is breathlessly paced. It’s not perfect — there’s no such thing as perfect — but even Mickey’s ridiculous, cartoonish battle with the Auton trash bin can’t ruin it. Remarkably, this isn’t the first new Doctor episode to feature the Autons, either, as you’ll see.
2. The Eleventh Doctor — “The Eleventh Hour” You might be surprised to see me putting this one in second place, since longtime readers know I was not a fan of the Eleventh Doctor era. I felt the program really went downhill during those three seasons, but I also happen to think “The Eleventh Hour” is a great episode. It’s a very good introduction to the show for new viewers while still retaining the feel of the previous seasons despite the lack of any recurring characters. Matt Smith hasn’t started spinning in circles and flapping his arms yet, or mooning over his companion’s short skirts. There’s a lot of proto-Moffat stupidity to be seen in hindsight — the whole stupid, sexist Kissogram thing; characters who are set up as important but never appear again (that other young man in Amy’s life, for example); the whole “Silence will fall” plot line that still doesn’t make any sense even though we’ve now seen it through to its conclusion — but for roughly an hour, the episode kept me glued to the screen. That scene at the climax where the Doctor reprimands the Atraxi and tells them this planet is protected (“Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically…run.”) is one of the best Doctor Who scenes of all time. This episode is filled with so much potential, none of which, in my opinion, came to fruition.
3. The Fourth Doctor — “Robot” The first Doctor Who serial I ever saw, and I was hooked from the start. The plot is okay. It’s basically a leftover Third Doctor and U.N.I.T. story about a killer robot and a secret society bent on world domination. The robot itself is pretty stupid, especially when it talks, reciting incredibly hammy lines in an inappropriately Shakespearean-trained-actor voice. But as the new Doctor, Tom Baker owns the screen from minute one. From the moment he tells Harry Sullivan, U.N.I.T. physician and soon-to-be companion, “Well, of course I’m being childish! There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes,” I never looked back.
4. The Third Doctor — “Spearhead from Space” A crackling adventure with tons of action, humor, and alien-invasion goodness, featuring the very first appearance of both the Autons and Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. Nearly flawless. I would rank it higher up if it weren’t for some downright terrible dialogue between U.N.I.T. scientist Liz Shaw and the Brigadier, scratchy film quality, and the awful electronic farting music that would plague most of the serials during the Third Doctor era. But the story is a lot of fun, the Autons are a great new enemy, and Jon Pertwee is no less than a revelation in the role — the Doctor remade as a man of action. Venusian aikido, indeed!
5. The Eighth Doctor — The TV Movie In 1996, the world met the Eighth Doctor, played marvelously by Paul McGann, in a TV movie that ran on the Fox network. It also has the distinction of being the only Doctor Who episode to feature the regeneration of the previous Doctor and the complete introductory adventure of the next one. The plot is a little silly, and the reason for the Doctor’s regeneration — he gets shot by gang members right as he steps out of the TARDIS, then “dies” on the operating table because his internal organs are different from a human’s — really needed to be more science-fictional and less disturbingly realistic. There are also some newly introduced plot developments that left fans scratching their heads: The Eye of Harmony is inside the TARDIS instead of on Gallifrey, where we last saw it in 1976′s “The Deadly Assassin”? The Doctor is half-human on his mother’s side, like Spock? What the…? But it’s a romp from start to finish, and is our first introduction to the idea of a romantic Doctor. When he kisses Grace at the end, fandom went insane. Most of the reaction was negative — the Doctor had never done anything like that before, and some felt it reduced Grace from equal companion to love interest — but the kissing never stopped after that. In fact, incidents only increased!
6. The First Doctor — “An Unearthly Child” The very first episode of Doctor Who, and for fans one of the most important twenty-five minutes in television history. So you might wonder why I didn’t rank it higher. Well, to be honest, I find it rather dull. As the Doctor, William Hartnell only appears in the last ten minutes of the episode, and all the Doctor does is mock and dismiss school teachers Ian and Barbara, who have come to a junkyard looking for their unusual student Susan, who happens to be the Doctor’s granddaughter. The Doctor is a straight-up asshole to them, and when they force their way into the TARDIS, he essentially kidnaps them against their will. The episode is hard to watch — literally at times, as the camera operator often doesn’t seem to know where to point it – but it’s hardly the worst of the bunch.
7. The Fifth Doctor — “Castrovalva” Before the new Who began, Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor was my second favorite after Tom Baker’s Fourth. However, he wasn’t off to a great start. “Castrovalva” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s hamstrung by its reliance on the audience having seen the last two serials of the previous season: “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis.” First-time viewers choosing to start with this new Doctor would likely have no idea what is happening for the majority of “Castrovalva’s” first episode. Add on top of that a ludicrously complicated plot by the Master, and companion Tegan Jovanka acting especially shrewish, and you have a story that’s not all that enjoyable. The best part is when the Doctor, still confused from his regeneration, gets lost in the corridors of the TARDIS and cycles through the personalities of all the Doctors who came before him. He also symbolically unravels the Fourth Doctor’s famous scarf along the corridors the way Theseus used a string so he wouldn’t get lost in the labyrinth, which is both sad and perfect.
8. The Tenth Doctor — “The Christmas Invasion” David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor is my new second favorite after Tom Baker, but the problem with his first full episode is that he’s barely in it. He only shows up at the very end, and while his scenes are great — like Tom Baker, he owned the role instantly — there isn’t nearly enough screen time involved. Instead, we have to suffer through forty minutes of Rose and Mickey dodging ridiculous robot Santas while the Doctor lies comatose in bed. The whole thing about being able to regrow his severed hand because he’s still technically regenerating is pretty out there, too. An inauspicious debut for one of the best Doctors ever.
9. The Second Doctor — “The Power of the Daleks” The very first “new Doctor” serial ever, and thus one of the most important moments in the program’s history. Unfortunately, very few people have seen it because it no longer exists. In the 1960s and ’70s, the BBC destroyed a bunch of their old tapes to make room for new ones in their limited storage facilities, and among those destroyed tapes were many, many episodes of Doctor Who from the First and Second Doctor era. So I’ve never seen “The Power of the Daleks.” I have seen some of the animated reconstructions online, though, which use the surviving audio from the episodes, but from what I saw it’s not actually very good. Companions Ben and Polly are uninteresting, the Doctor refers to his old self in the third person (“The Doctor was a great collector, wasn’t he?”), he decides to read his diary to get himself up to speed (I can think of nothing more narratively boring than that), and spends most of the time wearing an even stupider hat than the Eleventh Doctor’s fez. No thanks.
10. The Sixth Doctor — “The Twin Dilemma” Utterly unwatchable. Not only is the script terrible, it turns Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor into a paranoid schizophrenic who tries to strangle his companion Peri to death. His personality stabilizes as the story goes on, but I don’t recall him ever actually apologizing to Peri for trying to kill her (and there’s no way I’m watching this garbage again to refresh my memory). Now, it would be one thing if there were repercussions for what the Doctor did that played out over the following stories, but there aren’t any. The whole thing is dropped immediately at the end of “The Twin Dilemma.” The story isn’t just nonsense, it’s unintentionally horrifying. A terrible first impression that the Sixth Doctor never fully recovered from in fans’ eyes.
11. The Seventh Doctor — “Time and the Rani” Even worse than “The Twin Dilemma,” if you can believe it. The script is beyond terrible, the villain’s plan makes no sense (steal the brains of geniuses from throughout space and time and turn them all into one giant brain!), and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor doesn’t see a piece of scenery he doesn’t try to eat. Let’s not even talk about his companion Mel, who is nothing but a screechy parody of a 1980s exercise bunny. McCoy recovered from his terrible debut in a way that Colin Baker never really did, and indeed the Seventh Doctor went on to have some excellent stories, especially in his final two seasons. But as an introduction, “Time and the Rani” is a disaster.
And there you have it, my ranking of the “new Doctor” episodes! What do you think? Would you rank them differently? Did I malign one of your favorite episodes, or rank one higher than you think it deserves? Sound off in the comments and let me know!