The current era of Doctor Who is celebrating 15 years of time and space traveling fun. There have been dozens of stories that explore this universe’s lore, teach valuable lessons, and are just plain odd. In the days of streaming and marathon watching, it’s not impossible for a new or casual fan to catch up on Doctor Who. But who really has the time to go through 12 long seasons of action?
A seasoned viewer could help them out by explaining a few core concepts from the show but even those basics become super complicated without any viewing context. Thankfully there are more than a few solid episodes that showcase the best of Doctor Who, capture its wonderful energy, and are wholly entertaining while taking fans through a range of complex emotions. Current fans delight in watching them, causal fans have at least heard of them, and new fans would be able to get a solid feel of the show, even if they don’t necessarily understand everything that is going on.
Of course, every essential episode can’t be listed in this post. But, these 15 episodes should be on any essential watch list for the modern era to represent each numbered incarnation of The Doctor.
This one is quite obvious. “Rose” may not appear on most “best Doctor Who” episodes lists but it’s an essential watch for anyone who wants to get into the current era. It’s the best jumping on point; it sets up the show’s premise and establishes the Doctor. It’s quirky, fun, a bit cheesy, and opens up this strange universe through the eyes of the very-relatable Rose Tyler.
Many people would want to travel in the TARDIS to escape their boring daily lives, witness a historic event, or even get a peek into the future to satisfy their curiosity. However, human nature would tempt the best of us to alter the past or future in our favor.
Rose is a great companion, but her misstep in “Father’s Day” proves that 1) life-altering decisions should be left to the Doctor’s discretion; and 2) one person’s life or death really can alter the entire universe. This episode is a powerful way to introduce just one example of the feels that Doctor Who fans can’t get enough of. We love to be emotionally destroyed.
“The Parting of the Ways”
The Ninth Doctor introduces Rose – and by extension new fans – to regeneration in such a caring and gentle way. His optimistic attitude and reassurance that he is the same person with a different face makes the blow a bit less severe. Regeneration aside, “The Parting of the Ways” also shows how powerful and complex the bond between Doctor and companion can become over time.
Honorable Mention: “Dalek”
New fans will definitely understand that this villain and The Doctor have a long and complicated history by the end of this episode. The Ninth Doctor and Rose’s relationship is quite solid at this point as she guides him away from making a terrible decision. And, if nothing else, it is interesting to see what Doctor Who thought 2012 would be like versus what it was actually like 8 years ago.
“Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”
Considering a two-parter as one entry might be cheating a bit but oh well. Ten and Donna are a companion match made in heaven and these episodes are awesome.
There’s the introduction of River Song, who will play a vital role in upcoming seasons, the Vashta Nerada, and a very emotional storyline for Donna Noble. Doctor Who’s ingenuity and drama shine bright here, therby making it a “must-watch” episode.
Rose may have been the first companion for a lot of fans but she was simply the latest in a long line of TARDIS travelers. “School Reunion” provides a perfect gateway to help new fans connect the current era with the show’s classic episodes via Sarah Jane Smith – one of the most popular companions of all-time.
This also rings true for casual and modern-era only fans and could possibly lead more people to diving into the show’s original run. “School Reunion” is also a rate opportunity to explore what happens to a companion years after they stop traveling with the Doctor. How do they go back to a normal life? Does the Doctor simply forget them and move on? How would they handle seeing the Doctor with a new face? Those questions get answers here.
A Doctor Who essential episodes list isn’t valid without “Blink”. Many fans and critics alike say it’s one of the best episodes ever – and they aren’t wrong. “Blink” introduces the terrifying Weeping Angels, wallops viewers with feels, and shows how vital a side character can be in the Whoniverse. Interestingly, the episode is both Doctor- and companion-lite but that’s not a problem. It’s a terrifying and thrilling ride that shows Doctor Who at its absolute best.
Honorable mention: “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”
We love a group effort. The Tenth Doctor gathers all his companions, some of their family members, Sarah Jane, Jack Harkness, and more for an epic adventure. There’s a lot to learn here about Davros and the Daleks as well as the power of the TARDIS. It’s a great sendoff for a ton of characters and a reminder that The Doctor must keep moving forward – even if they are alone.
“The Eleventh Hour”
“The Eleventh Hour” is probably the only other Doctor Who episode that would serve as a great starting point. Eleven’s introduction to Amelia Pond as a whimsical and weird figure, their reunion many years later, and his ability to save the world with his words all encompass the show’s lore and excitement. Oh, and don’t forget about the TARDIS and her amazing upgrade.
“Vincent and The Doctor”
THE FEELS. THE FEELS. This episode doesn’t require any real knowledge about the series to love it. It’s confirmation that this time-traveler definitely meets famous people from the past.
And sometimes it is fine to give someone a glimpse of their own future. Tony Curran’s portrayal of Vincent van Gogh is sheer perfection, there are dark forces afoot, and the final moments of this episode hurt in the best way possible.
This episode dives in The Doctor’s psyche in a wonderful way. Eleven is reeling from a major loss and hiding in (Early? Late?) retirement. But, evil snowmen and a brilliant governess bring him out of his funk and back into his old life. Doctor Who and Christmas specials are a staple in this era and this is perhaps one of the best ones yet with great storytelling, dialogue, and the beginning of a complex new companion arc.
Honorable mention: “The Pandorica Opens”
This episode is all about going big or going home. Doctor Who isn’t always the best at continuity but this has quite a few ties that come together here. There’s so much going on here and some of it is frankly confusing but the ride is fun and wild – basically a way of life as a Doctor Who lover.
“Thin Ice” has so many good things. Bill in a Regency era dress. The Doctor admitting that history was whitewashed. Bill taking the Doctor to task about his actions. The Doctor punching a racist for Bill.
There’s also some business about a big fish or something but that’s not what is really important here. “Thin Ice” won’t reveal anything new about the series but it’s fun and there are lots of little Easter eggs thrown in for good measure.
“Dark Water/Death in Heaven”
Helloooo Missy. Doctor Who may be seen by outsiders as some silly little sci-fi series but its much darker than they could imagine. “Dark Water” brings back a couple of great antagonists and has an underlying morbidity that sets up an equally somber conclusion in “Death in Heaven.”
“Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”
This one is pretty obvious. There are sweeping monologues from a very angry Doctor, Time Lord and Gallifrey action, and a great conclusion for the Doctor’s companion, Clara. These two episodes are pretty much perfect across the board and close an important chapter in Who history before the show’s soft “reboot” in Season 10.
Honorable mention: “The Eaters of Light”
This episode is one of many (“Flatline,” “Turn Left“) that allow the companion to shine separately from The Doctor. “The Eaters of Light” combines real-life history with sci-fi and shows Bill rallying scared and young troops towards a fight.
There’s some social commentary sandwiched perfectly into all the drama that doesn’t detract from the story. And, the episode’s writer, Rona Munro, is the first writer to write for the classic and revived series.
“Rosa” takes Doctor Who in a new direction. It blatantly addresses the racism of Rosa Parks time period, accurately showing how The Doctor’s TARDIS team would be treated during that time.
There’s some great character development for Ryan and important conversations among different members of the team. This episode takes Doctor Who back to its original premise – an education series with some otherworldly elements thrown into the mix.
“Fugitive of the Judoon”
This episode is simply mind-blowing with Black woman incarnation of The Doctor, the return of the Judoon, and other great surprises. It causes the Doctor to rethink everything she knew to be true and shows how this show can quickly go in a new direction to throw everyone for a loop.
“Haunting of Villa Diodati”
This is one of the best episodes (so far) in Thirteen’s run. A famous historical figure, a haunted house of horrors, an unexpected version of a well-know villain, and The Doctor having to dress down her companions for thinking that they know best in these high-stakes situations. Doctor Who can get caught up in a lot of lore and twisted storylines but this feels simply like a good ghost story.
Honorable mention: “Demons of the Punjab”
“Demons of the Punjab” made more history with a story that focused on South Asian characters. Representation and Doctor Who have always had a complicated relationship but the show certainly got it right this time.
This tragic love story infused with odd will make many fans do some Googling to learn about the partition of India and expand their horizons. Doctor Who is fun and entertaining but it’s also an avenue to teach us more about the world around us and ourselves.
What are some more essential Doctor Who episodes from the modern era? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: BBC Studios