“Do I have to watch them all,” I hear you asking. The answer is a resounding, “No, actually. That’s what I’m here for.” From the outside, Doctor Who looks completely ridiculous. It has dodgy special effects, kid-based jokes, and an inherently absurd premise of an impossibly old alien traveling through time and space in an inter-dimensional ship that looks like a British phone booth.
Trust me, I get where you’re coming from. I’ve tried to turn friends onto shows by showing them my favorite episodes, forced to talk through the exposition I skipped over to bring them this particular masterpiece. Yet, as I talk about vampires with souls, sisters kidnapped by aliens, sun and moon curses, how anyone can be a Cylon, and the space-time continuum, I can feel my face turning red and my voice fading out as the person I’ve spent months trying to convince something is brilliant stares at me as though I’ve just sprouted an extra head (an event that wouldn’t be too out of place on several of the shows I watch). The plot points I’ve accepted over the course of several episodes/ seasons sound unwatchable when blurted out in one long summary.
However, Doctor Who is really something special for me. I can understand why some people don’t like it, but I don’t necessarily want to know them. I can also understand why the show can feel overwhelming and inaccessible. With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a “good parts” guide to the series. I’m starting with the 2005 revival (there are good episodes of the classic series, but I think starting in 2005 is best for a novice), walking you through the episodes you should watch, either because they are great or because they introduce essential parts of the show’s mythology (and hopefully both). This is my way to help you skip over those episode that can be put aside, or thrown down a dark, dark well with Samara and forgotten about.
Just a quick note: This guide only features the seasons currently available on Netflix (1-8). As a result, the current season is not included. I’ll update as Netflix does. So, without further ado, I present my Doctor Who essentials guide:
It’s not a great episode, but it introduces the basic premise of the show and the main characters, so you may as well start from the beginning. You see the titular character through the eyes of his companion, and it’s amazing how much the series is really about her experiences. The episode is named after her for a reason. She’s our “in,” so to speak. There are issues with the narrative and some humor that is squarely aimed at kids, but it gives you an idea as to what the show is all about. The basic premise is never so well explained again.
An iconic villain is reintroduced and it’s an effective cat and mouse episode (mind the spotty American accents, though. I’ve never heard the name “Goddard” pronounced in quite that way). We are also introduced more directly to something that has been hinted at: The Doctor can be dangerous, threatening, and he’s carrying some major emotional burdens. In this episode, you find out why.
3. “Father’s Day”
There’s great character development in this episode, with strong acting from both the guest stars and the regulars. The plot doesn’t entirely hang together, but I think the emotional through line keeps that from being a major problem.
4. “Empty Child”/”Doctor Dances”
These episodes are so far above the rest of the season it’s hard to believe (and the writer eventually took over the show, so there you go). It’s a well-constructed episode with an genuinely sinister threat, and the humor feels sharper and more well-constructed than it has in some episodes. Plus, it introduces John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, a character who’s popularity skyrocketed to the point that he got his own spin-off show. This one re-watches beautifully, and everything hangs together well.
5. “Parting of the Ways”
This is the second half of a two-parter, but you’re better off skipping part 1, which is mostly set-up and reality show parodies that feel pretty dated ten years removed. You can watch just Part 2 and be okay, but if you feel like you need to watch part 1, knock yourself out. Part 2 concludes with the Doctor battling his most iconic villains and ultimately reaching a satisfying conclusion to his season long story arc with Rose.
1. “Christmas Invasion”
We meet a new Doctor. It’s a fun, breezy, Christmas special. Full disclosure, David Tennant is who I think of as “my” Doctor. Even though he is barely on-screen in “Christmas Invasion,” it’s amazing how thoroughly he makes the role his own. The moment he emerges from the TARDIS and stares down the monster-of-the-week near the end is a real “rah-rah” moment. The episode also uses Rose to validate the new Doctor for the audience. She accepts him, so we can too. The threat has elements of goofiness (killer Christmas trees, anyone?), but there’s a sense of fun here that really sells it.
2. “School Reunion”
It introduces a character from the old series in a really cool way, and it has some interesting moral dilemmas regarding the Doctor’s powers and abilities, and the temptation he always has to use them. This is the episode that begins to tip its hand about what distinguishes current Doctor David Tennant from previous Doctor Christopher Eccleston. Tennant is a bit more romantically inclined (for better or for worse) and despite his exuberance, there’s some underlying sadness that come to define him as much as his unbridled enthusiasm. It’s introducing elements it will more fully explore later (like the next episode), but it’s the first sign that there’s more to this Doctor than boyish charm.
3. “Girl in the Fireplace”
The last episode toyed with the idea of how painful it is for the Doctor to have a companion, since he knows they can’t really stay with him (he can live thousands of years, and they can’t). This episode presents that problem in all its brutal glory and it’s brilliant and heartbreaking, resulting in a series high-point.
4. “Rise of the Cybermen”/”Age of Steel”
Honestly, I don’t like this two-parter. I don’t think it holds together very well, and the threat always feels awkwardly executed. I include it because it introduces the idea of a parallel world, which will become important later, and it shows the departure of a companion. If you feel like you can skip that bit of mythology building, feel free.
5. “Satan Pit”/”Impossible Planet”
It explores the Doctor-companion relationship in an interesting way, but what I really like about this episode is that it ends without a clear solution, which doesn’t happen very often on Doctor Who. The Doctor is faced with a problem which might be bigger than he is, and it threatens his core beliefs.
6. “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”
This two-parter has some elements that drift into ridiculous fanboy service (“Dude, if Daleks and cybermen fought each other, who would win?”), but it ultimately works because of the episode’s emotional through line and a perfect, devastating ending.
1. “Runaway Bride”
This is not a great episode, but it introduces a character than comes back later. There are some good character interactions and emotional beats, and shows the Doctor in a traumatized mood. That’ll be his default setting for most of the third season. It has a monster that looks pretty cool, but doesn’t do much besides look cool, but there’s enough good here to recommend it.
2. “Smith & Jones”
This is a fun episode in which we meet the season’s new companion. The threat is played mostly for gags, but it works on that level. The new companion works well with Tennant, and the episode functions as a light season premiere.
It’s an okay episode, with some mythology building. The traffic jam monster threat feels a bit silly, but it presents some interesting growth for the Doctor and his companion, capped off with a great ending speech by David Tennant.
4. “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”
These episodes are perfect, and that’s all that needs to be said. I feel like the less you know about how they play out, the better, so I’ll say no more.
It’s a great, loopy (“wibbly, wobbly,” perhaps) time traveling episode with some of the show’s creepiest monsters. It’s an example of a writer having a lot of fun with time travel, but there’s also some brilliant dialogue (“It was raining when we met./ It’s the same rain.”). There’s a reason it’s such a fan favorite.
6. “Utopia”/”Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Timelords”
Okay, this three-parter is a bit complicated: Part 1 is great, part 2 is pretty good until the end, and part 3 is terrible until the end. You need to watch it, because it reintroduces an iconic character (who will come up again) and does some mythology building, but I’m not calling these high point of the show. In fact, there are those who might say these are low points. I wouldn’t go that far, as I think there’s some good stuff buried amongst the schlock, but these are the worst episodes I’m telling you to watch.
1. “Partners in Crime”
A character comes back to be the new companion. There’s some fun comedy (silent communication through windows, anyone?), and a cool ending tease. Not a great episode, but plenty of laughs.
2. “Fires of Pompeii”
It’s a fantastic, dark episode with a well-done ending. You also see an actor who will pop up again in season 8 in a far more substantial role. More importantly, though, it deals with the burden of seeing the world through a lens of events that can be altered and events that cannot, as well as how powerless the Doctor can feel when faced with such a dilemma.
3. “Sontaran Stratagem”/”Poison Sky”
This two-parter reintroduces an iconic group of monsters and a previous companion. It’s kind of fun. The threat is never played that seriously, which makes sense given that Sontarans look like potatoes, but you will see them again, and this is a good intro for them.
4. “Doctor’s Daughter”
This is, at best, a marginal episode, only included here on the basis of David Tennant’s excellent performance and the interesting emotional core at the heart of the story.
5. “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”
An awesome two-parter from future show-runner Steven Moffat. It has creepy monsters and the introduction of River Song, a character who plays a major role in future episodes. Plus, it’s set in a library, which automatically makes it awesome.
A bit of over-acting here from some supporting characters (you’ll know who I mean), but a good, creepy premise reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” with some stellar acting from David Tennant and a brilliant, jaw-dropping 3rd act twist. “Do we have a deal” has never sounded so chilling.
7. “Turn Left”/”Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”
An iconic villain and a whole bunch of past characters return. Parts 1 & 2 have great cliffhangers and Part 3 has a pretty depressing ending (in the best sense of the word). It feels like a good send-off to show-runner Russell T. Davies vision of Doctor Who and its spin-offs (Torchwood, The Sarah Jone Chronicles), since those spinoff characters play major roles.
8. “Waters of Mars”
Awesome episode with a dark premise, creepy monsters, and one of the darkest endings the series has ever done. It explores the idea of a Doctor without boundaries in a way that at first feels exhilarating but quickly shifts into terrifying. Tennant is particularly brilliant here.
9. “End of Time, Parts 1 & 2”
Part 1 is a big mess and Part 2’s only marginally better, but the end of Part 2 is so perfect and brilliant that it’s worth sitting through the rest of it. It’s a melodramatic sendoff that’s as emotionally manipulative as hell, but I fall for it every time.
1. “Eleventh Hour”
We have a new Doctor, a new companion, and a new show runner. Eventually, Doctor Who fandom will be divided into Davies vs. Moffat. We’re Team Moffat around here, and this episode is a brilliant start to the new era. This episode effectively reboots the show and has been used by many as their starting point with Doctor Who if they didn’t want to bother with the first four seasons. (Note: We here at WeMinoredInFilm do not recommend such a strategy, however.)
2. “Time of the Angels”/”Flesh & Stone”
A great two-parter that reintroduces a popular monster and a previously seen character. The supporting players are really well drawn and it introduces key plot points which will carry on through this season and the next.
3. “Vampires in Venice”
A Doctor Who vampire episode? Um, yes please. There are a lot of jokes (and most of them work), and it properly introduces the season’s second companion. The actual vampire threat may be the least compelling part of the episode, which is more of a testament to the character development and less of a knock on the vampires.
4. “Amy’s Choice”
This episode has some really loopy stuff in it (in a good way) and a great psychological deconstruction of the Doctor and his companions. It benefits from multiple viewings.
5. “Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”
We are reintroduced to some iconic monsters (and they’ll show up again), and the premise is intriguing, if a bit overwrought. I recommend it because there is a major plot point that happens here, and the ending is pretty perfect.
6. “Vincent and the Doctor”
A forgettable monster, but it has a fantastic actor (Bravo, Tony Curran) as Vincent Van Gogh and a beautiful ending.
7. “Pandorica Opens”/”Big Bang”
Okay, the less you know about these, the better. Just know, they’re awesome – probably the best season finale the show’s ever done. I’ve come back to these so many times, and they work on every level.
1. “A Christmas Carol”
A really lovely episode that has just the right amount of Christmas sentiment. It has a lot of fun with its time travel premise, a great guest performance from Michael Gambon (aka, Dumbledore), and an ending that’s both joyous and heartbreaking.
2. “Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”
A really strong season opener with a brilliant beginning that introduces plot strands that run the length of the season. Plus there are good, creepy monsters.
3. “The Doctor’s Wife”
It’s a perfect episode. What do you expect? It’s written by Neil Gaiman. I don’t even want to tell you anything else. It’d be a crime to spoil anything. Just watch it and prepare to be blown away.
4. “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People”
Watch these two all the way through, don’t watch these two, either way make sure to watch the ending of “The Almost People.” You will not see the twist coming, and its ramifications immediately spill over into the next episode.
5. “A Good Man Goes to War”
A lot of viewers feel season 6 goes off the rails, that it just gets too outlandish for its own good, but I actually kind of like how loopy everything gets, concluding its first half with a mythology-heavy hour that goes out on a jaw-dropping cliffhanger.
6. “Let’s Kill Hitler”
This episode is a bit scattershot, but enough of it works, even the part where the Doctor and his companions actually meet Hitler and put him…well, you’ll see. Spoilers. Speaking of which, this is the episode where you finally learn River Song’s backstory.
7. “The God Complex”
It’s strange, quirky, and has a lot of great character confrontations leading to a surprising, but emotionally satisfying ending. I love this episode now more than I did the first time I watched it, and that love grows with each re-watch.
8. “Closing Time”
This one has a lot of fun with its domestic premise. The solution to the problem is a bit twee, but it’s just too much fun to completely dismiss, and it ends with a cool twist. Plus, see talk show host James Corden before he was delivering pizza on CBS.
9. “The Wedding of River Song”
We have a decent finale with some really well-written dialogue, some likable character interactions, some cool twists, and some not-so-cool twists, but it has to be watched because of what it adds to the show’s overall mythology.
1. “Asylum of the Daleks”
It introduces a character who will become very important later. This episode lays the groundwork for the mystery that will dominate the second half of this season.
2. “Power of 3”
This one has a pretty weak monster premise, but the first half involves the Doctor forced to wait for the mystery to a particularly slow pace. His impatience and inability to simply sit and wait is a recipe for plenty of “The Doctor is so hyperactive” humor.
3. “Angels Take Manhattan”
There is a moment near the end of this episode that almost entirely derails it (and it involves the Statue of Liberty). It’s to the episode’s credit that it works its way back from that precipice and has a perfect, soul-crushing ending. For me, though, this is the season where Moffat does kind of lose his way and this particular run of episodes, while none are embarrassing, just lack the highs of previous seasons.
4. “The Snowmen”
Doctor Who usually does Christmas pretty well and this one is no exception. Plus, it reintroduces a major character. This is really the high point of Season 7.
5. “Bells of Saint John”
It introduces the new companion Clara and has a lot of fun with that. The resolution of the episode’s central mystery is a bit of a letdown, but it’s a fun ride on the way.
6. “Journey to the Center of the Tardis”
The reset button at the end of this episode is pretty problematic, but there’s a lot of clever and entertaining stuff that happens up until that point. Finally, the show moves past its perfunctory season-long mystery surrounding Clara and treats her like an actual character.
7. “Name of the Doctor”
A lot of mythology stuff, some great acting from Matt Smith, some well-crafted emotional beats, and a pretty cool cameo cliff-hanger happen here. The central threat is a bit of a mess, but this episode feels like the series is beginning to right itself.
8. “Day of the Doctor”
Omigod, it’s just too good. It’s everything I love about Doctor Who all wrapped up in one brilliant package. I cannot fully express my love for this episode, the franchise’s 50th anniversary special which was granted a bigger a budget and a near movie-length running time.
9. “Time of the Doctor”
All cards on the table: this episode is a big ‘ole mess. It crams way too much into its running time, and the old age makeup is not great. Having said that, the ending is so pitch-perfect, I forgive it all its faults. It’s Matt Smith’s farewell, and the ending never fails to kill me.
1. “Deep Breath”
It introduces the new Doctor (who you’ll recognize if you’ve watched The Thick of It or In the Loop), who is instantly meaner and harsher toward Clara than the previous Doctor. It’s also got a pretty creepy looking monster at its center, and some fun banter between its two leads. The running time is a bit padded, but it is a decent start to the season and an effective introduction to the surlier, less cuddly new Doctor.
It’s so, so good. It plays like a child’s nightmare/ bedtime story. The less you know about this one, the better.
3. “The Caretaker”
Please forgive the awkward sequence at the end, involving a character and some way too well executed flips, because the rest of the episode is rich with character development and the always welcome humor of a “Doctor hiding out amongst humans” premise.
4. “Kill the Moon”
This episode divides people. Some can’t get past the absurdity of its premise (which I won’t get into here), but if you can accept it and move on, then there’s some great interactions between Clara and the Doctor. He does something really unforgivable, and she calls him on it. It ends the episode on a perfect, uncertain note.
5. “Mummy on the Orient Express”
Don’t let the goofy title fool you, this episode is a brilliantly executed horror mystery, with some excellent character moments. This Doctor and companion are my favorite duo, and this episode’s a prime example of why. The mystery is really fun and the ending finally gets to the heart of the Doctor, revealing what has been expected: there’s a good man hiding beneath the gruff exterior.
A classic example of a “better upon rewatch episode,” this one has Clara imitating the Doctor after he gets sidelined. It may not really be essential (although a character introduced here does come back in the current series), but it’s a good standalone episode that introduces the idea that Clara may be enjoying life on the TARDIS too much and losing some of her humanity. Foreshadowing?
7. “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven”
Probably the darkest season finale the show’s ever done (although the upcoming series finale may prove me wrong. Time will tell.), this two-parter reintroduces a character in a brilliant way and features particularly inspired acting from Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Never before has a hug looked so heartbreaking. You’ll see.
8. “Last Christmas”
It’s not a Doctor Who Christmas special if it’s not deeply depressing, even if it’s a Christmas special in which the Doctor actually meets Santa Claus. The ending of this one is beautiful, brilliant, clever, fantastic, and everything Doctor Who.
And there you are, you’ve made it through every Doctor Who episode worth watching on Netflix. I wish I had a certificate or something to help you celebrate your accomplishments. As it is, all I can say is a hearty “well done.”
So, what do you think guys? Are there episodes I’ve missed? Should have left out? Let me know in the comments! As I said, other opinions are available.