Top 10 “Doctor Who” episodes/serials with David Tennant

November 6, 2008

In honour of David Tennant, who’s stepping down from his role as Doctor Who, we decided it would be appropriate to cook up a Top 10 list of the best episodes/serials featuring the 10th Doctor.

10. 42 (from series 3)
-nominated by bloginhood
A perfect example of television’s ability to create time-driven suspense: the Doctor only has as long as an episode lasts to save a ship and its crew from destruction as it’s dragged down towards a star while an alien lifeform stocks them from within. As always, Tennant shows off his capacity for frenetic energy with aplomb. Freema Agyeman has some great character-building scenes as Martha has to deal with various crew members and the very real prospect of death. Even though the Doctor and Martha go leaping off in the TARDIS at the end, this is an episode that’s very much about loss. The episode also puts a frightening spin on an old, but seldom-used SF trope about sentience and stars.

9. Midnight (from series 4)
-nominated by harrysaxon
A series 4 episode as yet unaired in Canada and the US, this is a bit of an odd episode. The last regular single episode head writer Russell T. Davies wrote, it is a terrific journey back into the original series. It’s unique in the new series as a “Doctor by himself” episode, of which there are less than half a dozen over 45 years. And it could have been an original series episode. Entirely dialogue-driven. One unremarkable set, probably a recycled airplane set from another film or program. No special effects. One or two matte paintings to set the scene. Tense, claustrphobic, beautifully acted (fun fact; the older professor on the shuttle is David Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton). This episode was a treat to those of us who enjoyed the original series, and North America should look forward to it in a few weeks.

8. Tooth and Claw (from series 2)
-nominated by bloginhood
The episode opens with evil Scottish monks busting some heads with wire-flying kung-fu moves, then moves on to Queen Victoria making good use of a pocket pistol, some very frightening scenes with a werewolf, and the founding of Torchwood. How could you not love it?!

7. Girl in the Fireplace (from series 2)
-nominated by harrysaxon
It’s rare the Doctor falls in love. Rose was a special situation, something that took time, and experience, and had a lot of complex feelings. This one is just straight-out head-over-heels love at first sight, with the Doctor falling madly in love with Madame de Pompadour as he keeps popping into her life at random moments due to a time rift. His feelings towards Rose are back-burnered effectively, as Mickey had joined the TARDIS crew the episode before and the Doctor was feeling a little put out. Strong acting, memorably cool steampunk villians, and the Doctor at his most swashbuckling heroic – on horseback, no less – with a poignant ending that has the Doctor almost more emotional than we’ve ever seen him.

6. Gridlock (from series 3)
-nominated by bloginhood
Having the bulk of the story revolve around the Doctor’s break-neck search for Martha through a never-ending (both in terms of distance and duration) traffic jam made this a very entertaining episode. Lots of funny little scenes as the Doctor hops from “car” to car, including a great performance by Brendan Gleeson Ardal O’Hanlon as a cat who’s actually something of a sly old dog. But what really makes Gridlock a fine piece of writing are the scenes when the Doctor has to say goodbye to his very old friend, The Face of Boe, and when Martha becomes the first Companion to really face the Doctor down about his evasiveness about his past and force him to share his memories of home. While the scene fades out as he begins his tale, we still know very clearly that the Doctor has grown up a little as a result of this confrontation and acceptance that it’s time to share more than just adventures.

5. Blink (from series 3)
-nominated by harrysaxon
Maybe a bit of a sneaky addition since the Doctor and Martha appear very little in it; this is still, probably, my personal favourite episode in the whole series, and would be #1 if this were a personal list. It is genuinely terrifying, a true behind-the-couch episode. Sally Sparrow is one of the greatest one-off characters of the entire show, and her brief acquaintance with Billy Shippton one of the most charming and naturally acted screen chemistries I’ve ever seen. Funny, scary, clever; this is the episode I feel is the best introduction to anyone you’re trying to get hooked on the series, as you don’t need to know anything about the Doctor – other than that he’s a time-traveller – or the mythology of the series to enjoy it.

4. The Impossible Planet & The Satan Pit (from series 2)
-nominated by both
This two-parter is about confronting terror – frequently fleeing from it, sometimes staring it in the eye to try to understand (and ultimately out-think it), and maybe defeating it. Long before the demons and aliens make their appearances, the stage is set with menace as the Doctor and Rose come to a reasearch station on a planet with a black hole looming overhead. When one of the researchers and the crew’s alien slaves are possessed by an evil will, things get much, much worse. An episode with some very frightening moments, but also a wonderful scene where the Doctor confronts the Devil (the shot of the Doctor staring frankly and unflinchingly into the face of evil is one of the most memorable in the entire history of Doctor Who for me) and shows curiosity rather than fear, showing us again just how old, experienced and powerful this Timelord really is. And then there’s Rose, mastering her fear and doing her own significant part to save the day.

This is an episode that doesn’t stand out in my mind like some of the others – until I watch it. What really made this episode is that it’s the one where Rose fully blossoms as the experienced Time Lord companion. When the Doctor is out of commission on the base – which is for the majority of the 2-part serial – Rose rapidly and assertively takes control of the situation, and extricates them from the whole thing pretty much on her own. In the concluding moments of the serial, he actually sacrifices himself (though a deus ex machina extracts him afterwards, naturally) on the simple faith that Rose will figure everything out and make it alright in the end. And she does. The stuff of legend, indeed.

3. Army of Ghosts & Doomsday (series 2)
-nominated by both
The culmination of the original Rose arc; need I say more? Okay, then; Cybermen AND Daleks. The reunion of Rose’s parents (sort of) and the return of Mickey. A massive global war involving billions. The long-hinted introduction of the Torchwood Institute, leading to a successful spin-off series. The most emotional conclusion of any of the Tennant seasons. Enough said? No? The Daleks and Cybermen actually start trash talking each other.

Who doesn’t like a monster mash that threatens to annihilate the entire Earth? Not only is the Doctor pitted against his greatest enemies, the Daleks, and pretty bad if not greatest enemies, the Cybermen, but he’s caught in the middle as the two semi-electronic races slug it out with each other for dominion. And it’s not just a matter of the two species blasting away at each other – there are some pretty funny moments as they trade verbal barbs as well. But that’s all just window dressing for the drama between the characters. It’s touching to watch Rose and her mother trying to deal with the possibility of integrating Rose’s father – or, at least his alternate-universe equivalent, into their lives. Most wrenching of all though, is when the Doctor and Rose lose each other, after coming so far together and moving in the direction of a real and loving relationship.

2. Human Nature & The Family of Blood (from series 3)
-nominated by both
Ignorance is bliss – until bloodthirsty aliens come to spoil it, anyway. The Doctor casts off his Timelord nature and becomes ordinary human John Smith, teaching at a bording school in 1913. Despite attempts by a watchful Martha Jones to keep him out of entanglements, the Doctor/Smith falls in love with the school nurse. This is an episode where we see real depths of the Doctor’s character, if only for a while, and the burden of his immortality when Smith is finally forced to revert to the Doctor to save the school, it’s children, the nearby village (and presumably the planet) from the alien Family of Blood. Here his love turns to ultimate loss because once resuming his endless life as a Timelord, the Doctor still wants to be with the nurse, but despite inviting her to come along in the TARDIS, he knows he’ll outlive her. More painfully, the nurse rejects the Doctor, saying that he’s different from her man Smith, and so to her, Smith – and the relationship with the Doctor – is now lost and as good as dead. These are some episodes where we get to see the real depth of Martha’s feelings for the Doctor too – you can see it’s killing her to stand by and watch as Smith/the Doctor falls in love with another woman, and not be able to do anything about it because Smith has no memory of her as anything other than a maid, and because it would be improper in the pre-WWI era for a black housekeeper to have a relationship with a white teacher, and for a woman to make advances towards a man. Martha’s also pained because despite her own desires, she doesn’t like to watch Smith/the Doctor setting himself up for the inevitable agonizing break. And yet she soldiers on, acting as guardian and caretaker for the Doctor and eventually continuing on their journies together, despite knowing he’s passed her by, and likely with a sense that she probably won’t get a chance at him herself. And of course, the story wraps up with another kind of pain too – the pain of ultimate punishment as the Doctor takes vengeance on the Family with a creative viciousness that only an immortal can mete out on other immortals. It’s not merely justice the Doctor is administering on the Family for their crimes, it’s all the more harsh because he’s getting revenge for the Family forcing him to give up the prospect of a happy, if small, life with a woman he loved. Truly one of the more powerful stories in the new series’ repetoire.

There are strong elements of camp to this serial, but it has perhaps the greatest payoff in Tennant’s tenure. The Doctor becomes human was a fun idea, and we got to see a side of Tennant’s acting we’ve never seen before; as John Smith, he was radically different from the Doctor. The supporting cast was excellent, especially Tim. In-jokes in John Smith’s “dream diary” were a treat for original series fans. And the stunning payoff features the Doctor at his most terrifying and cruel, the side of him he tries to keep hidden.

1. Utopia & The Sound of Drums & Last of the Time Lords (from series 3)
-nominated by both:
It should come as little surprise this would come near the top of my personal list, as my pseudonym on Not A Planet Anymore should indicate. The first part features probably the finest actor to appear on the new series, RSC standout Derek Jacobi. But even more attention-grabbing was John Simm’s performance as the latest incarnation of the Master – the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes for many, many serials over the years – it is nothing short of inspired. Hilarious, cruel and quite insane, just as we like our arch-nemeses. Deeply enjoyable to have Captain Jack along for the ride, as well. The final payoff was perhaps just a touch overdone, but it still was an absolute standout moment of the Tennant years.

As much as the nomination for #2 on this list was about pain and loss, this group of episodes also powerfully illustrates those feelings, but in a different and final way. One that results in utter hopelessness for one person, and a resolved, deliberate grip on hope for another. I wish that Russell T. Davies had written a better plot device for the Doctor to regain his powers and triumph (at least in the very short term) over the Master – it was extremely campy and may as well have been taken right out of Peter Pan (We’ve got to save Tink! Clap if you believe in fairies! All of you kids, everywhere: clap if you believe in fairies!). But that was the only real weak point in the story. The rest was extremely well done. The Master’s ultimate triumph, for example, in truly dying and leaving the Doctor as the last of the Timelords, in anguish at having discovered there was another but then damned to be eternally alone, was brutally sweet indeed. And these episodes also had more impressive moments in Martha’s development. She shows her resourcefulness, strength and determination when alone and on the run in a hostile world, going from curious physician and adoring companion to rebel leader/general/storyteller/hope-giver and eventually the Doctor’s saviour. But Martha gets more than that. As someone who is in love with the Doctor, rather than getting left behind at some point, or tagging along adoringly yet unrequitedly until her eventual demise, she finds the strength to abandon him, and to tell him exactly why. The Doctor’s probably had to deal with the why before, but there’s a sense that Martha’s probably one of the few people who’s said it bluntly to his face, confronting him with the consequences of his nature, his personality, his choices and his lifestyle, and in doing so, making him grow up a little more. Obviously leaving the Doctor is a painful decision for her – she still loves him, but she knows it’s the best decision for her and she carries through with it. And in so doing, Martha shows that a lowly human has something a massively powerful Timelord doesn’t – hope. She’s determined to go on and find someone else who will love her back, and she has the potential and the likelihood of succeeding – the Doctor never will. He is always alone and won’t and can’t allow his Companions to become that close to him to ease his loneliness (because they will eventually leave or die), and so he is without hope. (Mind you, one has to wonder if the Doctor has ever considered the larger consequences of if he actually did have another of his kind to be with – I wonder if it would ever occur to the Doctor that, as Lorien pointed out in B5, nothing lasts forever, and even immortals drift apart over time, bringing them ultimately back to loneliness whether they like it or not.)

Honorable Mentions:

School Reunion (from series 2)
nominated by bloginhood
Great to see Sarah Jane and K-9 back again, if only for a little while. More top-notch characterization as Sarah Jane ends the show by taking the Doctor to task, as many Companions probably wish they could, for eventually leaving her behind.

The Doctor’s Daughter (from series 4)
nominated by harrysaxon
Who can resist the fun of seeing the real-life daughter of the actor who played Fifth Doctor play the daughter of the Tenth Doctor whose actor’s favourite Doctor was the Fifth?

The Christmas Invasion (from series 2)
nominated by harrysaxon
The debut of David Tennant is worthy of a mention. All of us worried about the departure of Eccleston breathed a sigh of relief. “No second chances. I’m that sort of man” became the definition of the Tenth.


  1. Brendan Gleeson was not in Gridlock (#6), nor in any episode of the new series 1-4 of Dr Who. The cat character was wonderfully played by actor Ardal O’Hanlon.

  2. Sorry, my mistake! O’Hanlon it is!

  3. OMG! This list has no credibility because “Gridlock” just sucked. Big time. One of the worst episodes of the entire series. It’s just filled with stupidity.

  4. @ SF Fangirl:

    You disagree with one pick on a list of 10, plus honorary mentions (and it wasn’t even the #1 pick on the list) and promptly draw the conclusion that the whole thing has got no credibility? That’s extreme bordering on irrational. Now, if you disagreed with every episode on the list, then you might – just might – have a point.

    But then again, unless they’re based on surveys of large groups (and ours never made that claim), lists are implicitly personal preferences. Gridlock is one of mine, and rather than fire labels around, I stated my reasons for it. I dare say some other fans (and I’m not making any claims as to how many) enjoyed that episode (or at least elements of it) as well.

    If you didn’t like it, fine. That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. Maybe you could have shared why, and in so doing perhaps caused some folks out there (perhaps even me) to re-evaluate their opinions. Maybe you could have gone one step further and made a constructive contribution like suggesting a better episode that could have occupied that slot. But you didn’t. Let’s not go firing potshots about credibility just because your favourites are different than mine. At least go after a legitimate fault like the Gleeson/O’Hanlon mistake (which Chayna was kind enough to point out, and which I acknowledged and corrected).

    My question to you, SF Fangirl, would be if you don’t like Gridlock, what other episode(s) would you prefer to see on the list?

    I promise, I won’t make any cracks about your credibility.

  5. I’d just like to say, if there’s any credibility that’s shot, it’s bloginhood’s. Totally his nomination. I’m all about the “Blink”.

    Okay, seriously; I liked Gridlock too; what’s wrong with it? I mean, the death of the Face of Boe, something which has powerful emotional resonance if you know who the Face of Boe is. The Doctor leaping around from car to car. Funny people in the cars. A cool Irish cat dude. What’s not to like?

  6. I definatly would have AT LEAST put the –
    Turn left, Stolen Earth, and Journeys End (not so much “Journeys End” but just to complete the 3 parter)At LEAST as an honourable mention.

  7. I would probably agree, and for more than just an honourable mention. However, we are a Canadian site, and chose to avoid discussing episodes that hadn’t gone to air in North America – save “Midnight”, which was airing that week and for which I was able to avoid spoilers in a way that you just can’t for a major finale.

    At the time we wrote this article, the S4 finale hadn’t yet aired in North America, hadn’t been seen by bloginhood, and I really didn’t want to spoil him or the North American audience.

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