When it comes to “Doctor Who,” there’s, well, a LOT of area to cover. It’s a series that’s been on for 50 years now, making it a mind-boggling thing to attempt to get into. With all the hullabaloo and fanfare that ushers each new Doctor into the TARDIS, it can certainly be an intimidating sphere of entertainment.
But it doesn’t have to be!
Really. The world of “Doctor Who,” though vast and filled with superfans aplenty — knowledge of the universe and canonical things that make Who, well, Who — is, at its heart, a fun and sometimes campy series about an alien and a human, zipping through time and space tackling myriad alien problems throughout history, finding a bit of humanity even amongst the most un-human among us. It’s lovely and silly and funny and action-y and doesn’t have to be that serious if you don’t want it to be. After all, TV first and foremost, is about having fun.
So we’ve decided to create a list of some of the best episodes of the series — ones that will ease you into the madness if you’re curious for a toe-dip. They’re mostly New Who as opposed to the Classic Who of the 60s, 70s, and 80s but we’ve thrown a few bonus episodes of those in if you’re feeling particularly jazzed on Time Lords and ready to commit to becoming a full-fledged Whovian.
If you’re going to start anywhere, this is the place to do it. Arguably one of the most clever episodes of the series, it follows Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan — oh yeah, there are heaps of impressive celebrity cameos on this series, we should mention that) as she helps the Doctor battle the incredibly eerie Weeping Angels and bring him back to the present day. It’s… complicated, but also thrilling and exciting and incredible fun. The Tenth Doctor is at the center of this mystery (the much-beloved David Tennant, who is just a brilliant iteration of the Doctor), and it’s the perfect mix of Whovian goodness.
2. “Vincent and The Doctor”
From the Eleventh Doctor’s time in the big blue box (the Matt Smith iteration) comes a story written by none other than Richard Curtis (you know, the guy who wrote “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” and “Love Actually” just to name a few?), and — hoo boy — is it a bit of a tearjerker in a beautiful way. The episode looks at the madness that plagued Vincent Van Gogh, visiting the iconic painter while he was still alive. It’s a truly beautiful and heartwarming story, with plenty of cheek and a bit of good ol’ fashioned flirtation between Amy Pond (the Doctor’s companion) and Vincent himself. There’s even some bonus Bill Nighy, and who doesn’t love a bit of that, eh?
3. “The Doctor’s Wife”
Written by the incomparable Neil Gaiman (he of “Coraline” and “American Gods” fame), this episode is more of a duet than anything else. Trapped in a pocket universe outside of our own, the Doctor’s TARDIS’ matrix ends up (long story) being inhabited in the body of a woman named Idris, who must help them escape the asteroid on which they’d landed before it consumed all the power of his beloved time and space machine. It’s a delightful bit of interplay as we see the Doctor interact with the human version of his one constant: the TARDIS.
4. “Turn Left”
One of the best pairings in the Whoniverse was definitely that of companion Donna Noble (comedian Catherine Tate, whom you may best know from “The Office”) and the Tenth Doctor. In this particular episode, the oh-I’m-so-unimpressive-and-unimportant Donna lives out the day that changed everything and brought her to the Doctor — only if she’d done the opposite. “Turn Left” shows an alternate reality wherein Donna does not meet the Doctor and, well: a lot of bad, bad things happen. We won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a very exciting return and the beginning of the epic end for David Tennant’s time as the Doctor. It’s 100% one to watch.
5. BONUS CLASSIC WHO: “The Genesis of the Daleks”
Featuring one of the most beloved (and long-running) Doctors of all time, the Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, the 6-part “Genesis of the Daleks” story is a fan-favorite that introduces not only how the Doctor’s greatest enemy in the universe came to be, but also who, in fact, created them: Davros. This series of 70s-era episodes in particular (a serial story if you will!) has been rated amongst Whovians as their all-time favorite “Doctor Who” story, so, y’know: it’s a pretty good one!
6. BONUS CLASSIC WHO: “The Deadly Assassin”
Another Tom Baker story. It’s also, coincidentally, a companion-less story AND one that sets the rules of regeneration (when the Doctor changes faces/becomes a new man). Narratively speaking, this serial story set in stone the rule that Time Lords could only regenerate 12 times, living through 13 iterations of themselves before coming to a final end — a big, big plot point in later seasons (particularly the most recent one). It sees the Doctor return to his home planet of Gallifrey after a mysterious message summons him home. All, as they say, is not as it seems, though.
7. “The Pandorica Opens”
Perhaps one of the most thrilling episodes in the Eleventh Doctor’s arsenal, “The Pandorica Opens” is the first of a two-part season finale. (The next one is, guess what? Right below this!) In it, the Doctor’s past adventures have brought him to this very moment: thousands of alien creatures have assembled high above Stonehenge in an attempt to throw the most dangerous creature in the universe into a prison called the Pandorica. You can probably guess whom that might be, but in a dashing moment of brilliant cleverness (the Doctor’s calling card), the whole thing sets off another adventure through time and space to ensure the Doctor’s safety.
8. “The Big Bang”
Amy Pond is getting married, you guys! But Rory and Amy’s nuptials are more than just that: it’s a conclusion to a story that began at the very beginning of the season: closing all the cracks in time left by the episode’s events: the big bang. We don’t want to give anything away, as the tail rips and roars through its machinations with gleeful abandon, but we will say this: it’s a walloper of a tale and one that brings everything in season five of New Who together in a really, really fun way.
9. “The Empty Child”
When the Doctor returned to television back in 2005, it was the brilliant Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor, who ushered us back into this timey-wimey world. One of his most chilling and simultaneously happy episodes was “The Empty Child,” which made the phrase “Are you my mummy?” infinitely creepy, thanks to the addition of WWII era shenanigans. It also introduced a fan favorite companion, the headstrong Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Rose and the Doctor are at their best in this unsettling tail of half-human, half-gas-masked creatures and what happens when a bit of good-intention goes horribly, catastrophically awry.
10. “The Doctor Dances”
The second part of “The Empty Child” is its conclusion, “The Doctor Dances.” It’s a happy ending for the Doctor after the terrifying events of its first part — something this particular Doctor so desperately needs.
Another Ninth Doctor tale, this one is actually the series premiere of New Who. Though visually a bit dated (weird that 2005 looks dated now, doesn’t it? Ahhhh time moves too quickly!), the introduction of Rose Tyler into the Doctor’s life literally changes everything, and it’s a fun way to be introduced to the Doctor, his world, and why, exactly, he needs to travel with a companion. Also Mickey Smith is in this episode (Rose Tyler’s boyfriend), and it is pretty delightful whenever he’s on screen. Things like The Last Great Time War and the Shadow Proclamation (recurring stories throughout the entirety of the series) are also introduced here, so it’s a handy episode for ground rules setting if nothing else.
12. “The Eleventh Hour”
After David Tennant left the series, fans of “Doctor Who” were terrified to see this very young lad take over for such a beloved Doctor. But “The Eleventh Hour” proved that Matt Smith was a veritable force to be reckoned with — as was his new companion, Amy Pond. The duo’s entire arc of their time together is set off with this single episode, setting the stage for many of the adventures they’d have in the meantime. It’s a very, very fun and exciting introduction to one of the Doctor’s new faces and essentially repilots the series itself (as the show is generally wont to do from Doctor to Doctor).
13. “The Girl in the Fireplace”
Another David Tennant story (and admittedly a bit high on the “lovey-dovey RomCom-y Doctor” scale), this episode is not only fun but complicated: telling the entirety of the lifelong relationship between Madam De Pompadour (a real-life person) and the Doctor, thanks to her fireplace. Really! It’s a fun and frivolous tale made clever by the way the Doctor enters and exits her life — and just how much those brief, unbelievable moments shape a person’s life forever.
14. “Bad Wolf”
Another two-parter finale set, “Bad Wolf” is perhaps one of the most iconic phrases in New Who history and it all starts here. Throughout time and space the phrase “Bad Wolf” has appeared to the Doctor and Rose Tyler, and in this episode we finally learn why. Highlighting the bad that comes with the Doctor’s interference with history, time, and space, “Bad Wolf” sets the stage for the next episode…
15. “The Parting of the Ways”
Ah yes, the end of Eccleston’s single-season run as the Doctor. It showed the return of the Daleks (heartbreakingly so, as the Last Great Time War had allegedly put an end not only to them, but the last of the Time Lords as well) and the first regeneration of the new series: Eccleston becoming David Tennant. It also concluded (for now!) the Bad Wolf story arc, and changed the course of history for Rose Tyler forever.
16. “Amy’s Choice”
A story told in two alternative realities, it features a very pregnant Amy Pond living in a quiet town with her husband Rory after five years of not traveling with the Eleventh Doctor. As the trio soon come to find out, though: not all is as it seems, and Amy’s choice about what reality she really wants for herself drives the forward momentum of the story. Which is real? Which is fake? And will they die if she chooses wrong? It’s a fun little mystery and even features a Toby Jones cameo as the mysterious Dream Lord.
17. BONUS CLASSIC WHO: “The Ark in Space”
Another episode from the Fourth Doctor’s time, “The Ark in Space” is the first real story after the regeneration of the Third Doctor into the Fourth. It’s a lot like “Alien” the movie (but with more cryogenically frozen people), so there’s a bit of action and thrilling mystery to boot.
18. BONUS CLASSIC WHO: “The Massacre”
Now this? This is old-old-old school Who. In fact it’s a story from the First Doctor days in the mid-60s, so be prepared for a much different Whovian vibe. In this 4-episode story, the Doctor is in 1572 Paris where a plan hatched by the Queen Mother has some truly devastating and unintended consequences on earth.
19. “Silence in the Library”
This is another killer New Who episode. Featuring the too-funny-for-words duo of Ten and Donna Noble, their travels take them to a planet called The Library. It is, actually, the universe’s biggest library (it’s an entire planet, actually, that is a library). What once was a bustling epicenter is now completely, mysteriously empty. Between the shadow-y mystery and the introduction of the MOST confounding (and exciting) River Song (who features heavily in the Matt Smith episodes), “Silence in the Library” is a real standout amongst standouts.
20. “Forest of the Dead”
The second-part of “Silence in the Library,” this episode helps set up the River Song mystery in a big way. With Donna gone and the shadow-y Vashta Nerada on the hunt for more, the Tenth Doctor’s only hope is this mysterious River Song who — confoundingly enough — not only knows the Doctor’s real name (something he’s never told ANYONE, ever) and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. So many questions are set up for the whole of River’s arc, which is told out-of-sequence (as you quickly learn from the events of this particular episode).
21. “The Lodger”
James Corden, you guys! The delightful stage actor (and star of the upcoming “Into The Woods” film) has a run-in with the Eleventh Doctor thanks to a curious bit of nonsense going on at his flat. Forced to pretend to be human, Matt Smith is at his goofy best, expertly highlighting why the Doctor, for all his visual similarities to humans, is very far from that. It’s a fun and adorable tale, and one you’d be remiss to miss.
It’s a ghost story — but also a love story! And with time travel to boot (because of course). The Eleventh Doctor and Clara Oswald head to a mansion in the 1970s where a professor and his empath assistant Emma Grayling are on the hunt for a mysterious ghost who has appeared in the house throughout its entire history. The resulting story and creepy-crawlies take a turn for the alien once El Doctor gets involved, natch.
23. “A Good Man Goes to War”
With many episodes including the elusively mysterious River Song during the Eleventh and Tenth Doctor’s time, her reveal was an exciting one. “A Good Man Goes to War” is the first half of that reveal, and follows the Doctor as he prepares to go to war over the imprisoned (and pregnant) Amy Pond.
24. “The God Complex”
Faith and fear are at the heart of this story, proving that good and evil forces are rarely all that far apart. Like, say, the Eleventh Doctor and a faith-eating minotaur floating in space, trapping people in their own personal hell for the sake of feeding off their waning faith. It’s also one of the last episodes with The Ponds so it’s worth it just for that if nothing else.
25. “The Girl Who Waited”
Now this? This is a sad one. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory have been separated on the planet of Apalapucia, a holiday destination planet popular the universe over. Only problem? That wasn’t entirely true. With Amy stuck in one part of the world and the boys in another, time moves differently for them both and Amy spends a whole lifetime trying to get back to Rory and The Doctor, with heartbreaking consequences.
26. BONUS CLASSIC WHO: “Spearhead from Space”
The first story to feature Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, “Spearhead From Space” was a very different take on the world of the Doctor. Instead of flitting about time and space, the Doctor would be forced to stay on planet Earth in exile per the other Time Lords. It was also the first story in the series’ history to be broadcast in color!
27. “The Runaway Bride”
The British do this very adorable thing where they air all-new specials of their top-rated series on Christmas day. (It’s a holly jolly family thing.) “The Runaway Bride” was such an instance and introduced the delightful Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, originally a one-off character that was later brought back to be a companion all her own.
28. “The Unicorn and The Wasp”
Another Doctor/Donna story (we can’t help it — she’s the best companion in our humble opinion). This one tackles the mystery of Agatha Christie, the world famous mystery novelist who also ended up at the center of a inexplicable tale of her very own. Sure, there is a ridiculous, giant wasp in the story but Donna and the Doctor are just gangbusters together, making this a very fun one indeed.
29. “Asylum of the Daleks”
This one is a fun one as it combines many things: the beginning of the end for The Ponds (Amy and Rory), as well as the introduction to the mystery of the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald. Putting the Doctor and his companions smack-dab in the middle of the most terrifying (for him) place in the universe, the planet holding only the craziest and most unhinged of the Daleks, the Doctor must try and save the girl trapped on it while also trying to keep those crazy ones at bay.
30. “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”
A mind-bender of a tale, this story is fun if for nothing else than its exploration of the vast and unending TARDIS. Featuring Clara and Eleven as they try and reset time and stop a major explosion, they’re also running away from some seriously unsettling monsters trailing their every move within the depths. Only it’s not all that simple — and the Doctor is far, far from his nicest self.
So — which is your favorite? Miss any of your top choices? Let’s discuss in the comments.