It’s a list! Everybody loves a good list, right? There was a thread way back in the day on rec.arts.drwho that asked what the most important Doctor Who episodes were. I don’t remember my answers, but here are ten brand new picks for the most important TV stories to date.
10. Tom!: Robot
The definitive Doctor for many fans and easily the most recognizable of any classic Doctor, Tom Baker often stirs feelings of nostalgia and calls for him to be brought back as the “current” Doctor. His first adventure stands out as the beginning of a golden age of Doctor Who that lasted seven years and 178 episodes (including Shada). Robot also signaled the end of the days of UNIT as a constant in the program.
9. The only water in the forest: Silence in the Library & Forest of the Dead
Arguably, River Song is one of the most compelling and intriguing character in Doctor Who’s long history after the Doctor himself, whose relationship with the Doctor has been subject to more speculation and discussion since her first appearance in series four’s Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, which makes the two episodes particularly important in the Doctor Who mythos. Perhaps most significantly, she know’s the Doctor’s real name, which only added fuel to the fire.
8. Another fugitive in time and space: The Time Meddler
Up until The Time Meddler at the end of season two, there was no indication that there were other time travelers or members of the Doctor and Susan’s own people. But in what must have been a real shocker for the original viewers of this serial, it’s revealed that the Monk is also a time traveler, though unlike the Doctor, he’s more of a trickster who meddles in events in order to make things better or for personal gain. The Monk would reappear in The Daleks’ Master Plan, as well as in comics, books, and audios, eventually becoming far more sinister and unscrupulous.
7. The Master: Terror of the Autons
The Monk may have been the first other renegade Time Lord the Doctor encountered on his travels (and the War Chief notwithstanding), but the Master’s introduction in Terror of the Autons gave the Doctor something he hadn’t had previously: an archenemy that very quickly became a set piece in Doctor Who. The Doctor’s relationship with the Master has been variously explored on TV and in the expanded universe over the years, hinting at a friendly or even brotherly relationship that turned sour. In the Eighth Doctor novel The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, a mysterious man with a rosetta is implied to be the Master, and is one of only four Time Lords remaining in the universe following a vast time war (but not that time war).
6. The Doctor goes home: The War Games, part ten
Very little was known about the Doctor’s own people for the first six seasons; even their name was a mystery. But the final episode of The War Games is significant (even if the rest of it isn’t, for the most part), because we finally learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and we see some of his home planet, in all its retro sixties glory. This is also a pivotal moment in Doctor Who, as it signaled the end of the so-called “monster era,” the show becoming more a more adult-oriented action series. The War Games was also the final Doctor Who serial filmed in black and white.
5. Doctor Who returns to TV: Rose
Rose is important because it proved that Doctor Who was not dead, that it was still loved by fans all over the world, that it could pull in strong ratings, and (maybe even most importantly) that it could be very lucrative for the BBC. The BBC pulled out all the stops promoting the return of Doctor Who to television after a nine year absence, but it could have very easily been a ratings flop. Fortunately, 10.81 million people tuned in for the new series premiere on March 26, 2005, earning the show a 43.2 percent audience share. The Doctor was back, and this time, he was here to stay.
From a story point of view, Rose introduced the Time War, which continues to be an important plot element. The full details of the war have yet to be revealed, but it’s clear that the Doctor’s involvement in it, including his actions that destroyed the Time Lords, affected him deeply.
4. Regeneration and Cybermen: The Tenth Planet
As Doctor Who entered it’s fourth season, it was clear that William Hartnell wasn’t going to be able to carry on for much longer, and if he went, the show could very well have ended right then and there. But the production team made a pretty bold move: recast the Doctor with a different actor who was completely unlike William Hartnell and who gave the Doctor an entirely new personality. It was a big gamble, but it paid off, allowing Doctor Who to continue by periodically replacing the lead actor with a different man. Fifty years and eleven Doctors later, the show is still going strong thanks to this formula.
The Tenth Planet is also notable as the story that introduced the Cybermen into Doctor Who lore, quickly becoming the second most popular of the Doctor’s adversaries.
3. The adventure begins: An Unearthly Child
This is the serial that started it all, and a serious contender for the top spot. It’s really two different stories (a one episode introduction to the main characters, the TARDIS, and the premise of the series, and a three part adventure set in the Upper Palaeolithic). Originally broadcast just a day after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, the first episode was given a repeat a week later before the transmission of part two, something unprecedented at the time. But with a big name cast, headed by movie star William Hartnell, Doctor Who quickly became a staple of Saturday evening TV viewing, and An Unearthly Child, while perhaps somewhat dated fifty years on, stands up well to the test of time, and is a really good story, too.
2. Securing success: The Daleks
This one’s a no-brainer: without the Daleks, we wouldn’t be here today. Terry Nation’s original Dalek story was somewhat dull in execution, but extremely compelling as an allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of course, it didn’t hurt, either, that the Daleks were an instant hit on playgrounds all across Britain, and to date, the only two Doctor Who feature films were big screen adaptations of the first two Dalek serials.
1. The future: The Name of the Doctor
OK, technically (and literally, unless you’re one of the lucky few who received their blu-ray boxset early) this one remains to be seen, but Saturday’s Doctor Who series seven finalé makes some pretty bold promises—the Doctor’s greatest secret revealed, the answer to the oldest question in the universe: Doctor Who? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that The Name of the Doctor will be a game changer in the mythos of Doctor Who. Personally, I’m on the fence as to whether we’re really going to get all the definitive answers we’re hoping for, but I do think that one way or the other, something big is about to happen that will pose more questions than it resolves.
What do you think? Agree with this list? Disagree? What are your top ten most important Doctor Who stories from the last fifty years? Don’t be shy—let us know in the comments!
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)