Season 11 of Doctor Who will feature one of the most anticipated TV debuts of 2018. The enduring British science fiction show will star Jodie Whittaker as the titular character known as The Doctor.
Whittaker’s leading role as the first woman Doctor along with two people of color companions, a Black male composer, a new showrunner, and the first POC writer is the beginning of a new era in a show that hinges on change.
Some sci-fi fans have been hearing about this magical time and space saga and are curious about checking out the show for the first time. And, there are also many people who have casually tuned in during the show’s modern era (2005-present) and now want to become a more regular viewer, but they don’t quite have a grasp on the show.
Perhaps you are one of these people. If so, the best way to learn about Doctor Who is to simply dive in and go for the ride!
There are a few modern era episodes (currently available on Prime Video) that will help paint a visual picture of what Doctor Who is about and why fans love this show. They can serve as a refresher course for the casual viewer and even plant reminder seeds to former fans (known as Whovians) about the things that made them a fan years ago.
And, they are simply a trip down memory lane for die-hard viewers who are getting increasingly pumped for Jodie Whittaker’s debut this October. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive and does not represent every single great episode of Doctor Who.
As a matter of fact, I don’t think all of these episodes are the “best” I have ever seen, but they are a solid start to understanding more about the show.
***NOTE: For clarity purposes, I will refer to past versions (incarnations) of The Doctor as he because the character was played by and presented as a cisgender male.***
What better place to start than the beginning of the modern era? “Rose” introduces fans to The Doctor and the “bigger on the inside” time machine known as the TARDIS.
The episode’s titular character Rose Tyler (who later becomes his traveling partner aka a companion) inadvertently becomes entrapped in The Doctor’s latest quest to save Earth.
She serves as an audience surrogate as The Doctor gives a brief explanation of who he is (a humanoid alien known as a Time Lord) as well as how the TARDIS works and how he uses his sonic screwdriver.
“Rose” also gives the first of many ominous explanations/warnings about who The Doctor is and why he can be dangerous. Viewers also get the thrill of seeing The Doctor extend the most glorious traveling invitation in the world.
‘The Christmas Invasion’
“The Christmas Invasion” marks a lot of firsts for modern Doctor Who.
For new viewers, it shows the aftermath of what happens after The Doctor transforms into a new physical form to circumvent death, which is known as regeneration, and makes the connection that this is a part of this hero’s history.
It is also the first of the infamous Christmas specials that Whovians look forward to each year. There are proper aliens, Lion King quotes, a sword fight, and a hint of the dark side of The Doctor’s persona.
Daleks are an important villain in Doctor Who history that played a key role in making the show popular back in the ’60s. This episode is the enduring villains’ first appearance in the new series and will be far from their last.
“Dalek” shows that The Doctor’s moral compass often differs from humans and it pulls back the curtain on the Time War. This war has deeply affected The Doctor and continues to be a big theme in his journey for several seasons to come.
‘The Sound of the Drums’/’Last of the Time Lords’
Companions come and go. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is a major part of the show.
Some of them leave willingly and others are ripped away by unforeseeable circumstances. This story may come at the end of Martha Jones’ run, but it is an example of the impact an ordinary companion can make on the world.
It also focuses heavily on The Doctor’s complicated relationship with the Master. This character has been a part of the Whoniverse for many years and is a fellow Time Lord from Gallifrey who has less than heroic intentions.
The dynamic between these two characters shines in this story and shows that even aliens have frenemies.
‘Partners in Crime’
Doctor Who has a lot of heavy and teachable moments, but it is also a ton of fun. “Partners in Crime” is a nonsense romp with The Doctor and his “plucky” sidekick Donna Noble.
There are adorable creatures made of fat, a ridiculous villainess, and plenty of moments of levity that all combine to demonstrate how this show is quite odd in the most fantastic way.
“Blink” is a rarity because it is both a Doctor and companion-lite episode due to real-life scheduling conflicts. This was previously explored in “Love and Monsters,” but that is definitely not the most stellar episode of Doctor Who.
But, this time, the show hit it out of the park with a story about Sally Sparrow and her associates. It may seem weird to have an episode that focuses on characters who aren’t established with the audience, but “Blink” makes this concept work.
It is widely considered one of the best episodes in the modern era and introduces the Weeping Angels — a truly terrifying villain.
‘Silence in the Library’
Hellllooo, River Song. She’s an extremely important character and perhaps one of the few people who can match The Doctor’s wit.
“Silence in the Library” has a bit of it all — a strange villain, an otherworldly setting, a creepy kid, all the feels, and a dark, twisty overall storyline.
It also hints at more to be unraveled with River Song in the future and has scary foreshadowing about The Doctor’s companion at the time.
‘The Eleventh Hour’
The upcoming season premiere of Doctor Who will mirror “The Eleventh Hour” in many ways. This season 5 debut episode was the beginning of a clean slate of the show with a new Doctor, showrunner, and companion.
It affirms how the companion has become increasingly centered in Doctor Who’s overall premise and gives fans a boots-wearing, whimsical version of The Doctor. Jodie’s Thirteenth Doctor will have similar personality traits to the Eleventh Doctor, so it’s a sneak peek into what new fans can expect.
And fans who loved this incarnation will remember the thrill of this era.
‘Vincent and The Doctor’
Doctor Who is so much more than gallivanting across the universe. It is a show that will shatter your heart into a million pieces and leave you weeping on your couch. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
No episode displays the feels better that “Vincent and The Doctor.” As a time-traveler, it’s pretty common for The Doctor to run into historical figures, but he typically works hard to not meddle too much with their timelines.
In this episode, he makes an exception and it results in one of the most tear-jerking scenes in modern Doctor Who history. There likely isn’t a Whovian alive who doesn’t love this episode.
‘The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe’
The Doctor loves (and often needs) to have a companion to keep him on track, but he can have some solid solo adventures. This episode isn’t the first time he has traveled alone, but it is an often-forgotten Christmas episode.
It’s Doctor Who meets Narnia and introduces an endearing family. It also cements that, depending on the incarnation, The Doctor does slow down sometimes to do normal things like eat dinner with loved ones.
‘The Day of the Doctor’
It’s the magnum opus of modern Doctor Who. This feature length special celebrated 50 years of the series and was an epic trip that tied together several elements of both the modern and Classic era of the show.
The Time War, a forgotten Doctor, and TWO modern Doctors met with past characters and villains for one wild adventure. It only makes sense that The Doctor would eventually run into other versions of himself at some point and it’s an ego fest when it happens.
‘Face the Raven’/’Heaven Sent’
Remember those warnings about The Doctor sometimes getting out of control? They can also apply to a companion who becomes too wrapped up in the adventure. Traveling with The Doctor changes a person and sometimes it is in a negative way.
Their reliance on the hero can cause them to take risky actions and this time it backfires. The “death” (its a relative term in this show) of a companion hasn’t happened often over the years, but it does happen.
“Heaven Sent” shows how this would affect The Doctor even though he has seen countless deaths in hundreds of years. And, it shows off the fine acting chops of Mr. Peter Capaldi.
‘The Eaters of Light’
“The Eaters of Light” is an intriguing piece of Doctor Who written by Rona Munro, the only Classic era writer to pen a modern episode. It shows the positive aspects of how The Doctor helps his companions gain confidence and find their purpose in life.
It is also a reminder that The Doctor doesn’t always know what is best and sometimes needs human input to keep him in check. “The Eaters of Light” is a relatively recent episode and one of my personal favorites from the 10th season.