Doctor Who has been one hell of a rollercoaster under Matt Smith and Steven Moffat’s reign. The quality of the episodes themselves has been markedly variable, as reflected in our own reviews, and for a little while the staff here was worried that we’d always be down about the show, or that we were chronicling the decline of the series.
Even if that had been the case (the 50th anniverary episode and its surroundings celebration did a huge, wonderful job at rejuvenating the series), Doctor Who is still the best damn sci-fi show on television. As we stand here, mere days from the fall of the Eleventh, we’re feeling thankful for all the sheer oddity that his episodes have added to the series as a whole. We pick our favorites below!
“Vampires of Venice”
This episode is simple, clever and absolutely hilarious, which is always how Who operates at its best. If you can say that your episode involves the Doctor jumping out of a bachelor party cake and flashing a library card as credentials, you’ve already knocked it out of the park. But the emotional moments of this episode resonate beautifully as well—Rory Williams has the distinction of being the first companion to truly call the Doctor out on his bullshit, taking him to task for making people want to impress him and therefore endangering their lives. The defeating of the villain is really a sidenote to this tale, one that sees Rory on the outside looking in as Amy and the Doctor jump around in frenzied excitement over alien vampires. It’s the beginning of building the trio into a team, a great historical period, and features some measured posturing against the queen mother where the Doctor is concerned. A romp, but a meaningful one.
To begin with, there is no real villain in this episode, which is always an exciting story choice. We do, however, get a glimpse of just how dangerous the Doctor’s dark side can be—while we had seen his proper rage come to the forefront during Davies’ era, we had never been subjected to how insidious and deceitful that aspect of the Doctor was, nor how it could endanger the lives of his companions. The episode is sharp in how it effectively shows Rory and Amy’s domestic bliss as a little too blissful (read: boring), a very realistic fear for a couple just about to be married. But more importantly, everything that this episode accomplishes is in the title; with the Doctor powerless, for the first time ever, he truly puts the most important choice into a companion’s hands. He lets Amy decide how they go out even though that decision could kill them, and acknowledges that the choice should be hers after what she’s suffered. It’s a real growing up moment for the both of them, and one of the aspects to their relationship that made Amy a very special companion.
“The God Complex”
A perfect example of misunderstood alien life being made out as the baddie, one of the best sort of dilemmas Who provides. It’s particularly satisfying when the Doctor himself misreads a situation, proving that 1000+ years of travel in time and space should never give you right to presume anything. While the plot takes place in a hotel-looking space, it is effectively a “several people stuck in a room” sort of plot, and the extra characters the tale provides are all incredibly interesting in their own right, which is essential in those stories. But most importantly, the episode still manages to move forward Amy’s emotional arc, examining her attachment to the Doctor, and just how deeply it has damaged her. (One of the more fascinating aspects of Amy’s tenure as a companion is how her connection to the Doctor may have actually done her more harm than good, which is rare for the people who fill those running shoes.) The Doctor’s decision to ask her to let go of him is one of Eleven’s more heroic moments.
“The Lodger” & “Closing Time”
My close friends and readers of Tor.com know I’m something of a fickle Doctor Who fan. I either find myself being a total apologist for the show, or more recently, a hipster hater. (Which at least comes with the privilege of $1 IPAs at Mission Dolores before their weekly shuffleboard tournament.)
I do miss David Tennant and it has taken me probably longer than it should to warm to Matt Smith. Smith may be a better comic actor than Tennant, though, and I love funny! To that point, some of my favorite Doctor Who episodes have always been the funniest, which is why I absolutely love both episodes with James Corden’s Craig: “The Lodger,” and “Closing Time.”
Written by Gareth Roberts, “The Lodger” originally saw life as a short comic strip, which featured Mickey Smith and the Tenth Doctor. (Famously, Moffat’s “Blink” also began life as a comic adventure featuring a different Doctor than the aired version.) Both of these episodes operate on a low-stakes “maybe there are aliens in your neighborhood” principle, which helps humanize and undercut some of the more preposterous Doctor Who baggage. The big epic Doctor Who episodes can be fun, but juxtaposing a centuries-old badass like the Doctor into a boring domestic situation is automatically comic gold. Whether he’s just impolitely dominating everyone at football or working (somewhat incompentently) at the mall, the idea that a seemingly weird (but human-looking) guy is actually there to save the entire planet from your living room or local dressing room is awesome.
Further, I don’t mind Amy and Rory at all, but I sort of love Craig and Sophie (Daisy Haggard) more. There’s real pain when he just takes off at the end of “Closing Time,” leaving Craig’s place for the big stakes stuff. You really get the sense Craig is an actual person, a real character with a life on Earth who’s life was changed for the better by the Doctor. This doesn’t mean the Doctor isn’t SUPER annoying when he shows up, sending Craig on super inconvenient adventures. But the image of a pudgy guy with a baby strapped to his chest running to help save the universe is awesome. And that’s what good Doctor Who is all about: regular people getting empowered to do battle with monsters, aliens, and stuff that goes bump in the night.
“A Christmas Carol” and “The Snowmen”
It’s downright criminal how good these episodes are. Steven Moffat is often at his best when he’s not feeling compelled to write towards a larger story arc and these two Christmas episodes, especially “A Christmas Carol,” come off as stories that the writer felt a personal desire to tell. That care comes through in the weight that he gives to the characters in these episodes.
Former showrunner Russell T. Davies also did his best work under the same kind of focus (For example, “Turn Left” is a total mess of a plot, but it comes off brilliantly because of the care RTD took with Donna’s story.) but Steven Moffat is possibly the most clever plotter the show has ever had, and when he really cares about a story he’s able to merge the horrifying, the daffy, and the dramatic into a single story that is greater than the sum of its parts. When that happens, it’s utter magic. This is how good Doctor Who can be. This is how good it should be. This is how good ALL television should be. When the show achieves this kind of transcendence, like it does in “A Christmas Carol” and “The Snowmen,” it’s difficult to watch it come down from that.
I got the same feeling from “Hide” and although the episodes following it have been entertaining, none have quite reached the zenith that this one did.
I also adore it for being an episode that’s simply impossible to explain, much like the show itself. You just have to watch it, which makes it an experience.
“Vincent and the Doctor”
This one seems to divide the fanbase more than I would expect. Sure, it’s a little overly sentimental and a bit predictable and the Krafayis doesn’t make much sense, but I couldn’t care less. This episode is all about the FEELS, and that is perfectly okay. Functionally, it serves as a bit of a break in the immediate aftermath of “Cold Blood,” and gives the Doctor a much needed chance to work through his guilt over not saving Rory—clearly dragging Amy all over the galaxy on a whirlwind tour of vacation spots isn’t doing the trick. So when the Doctor tells Amy that they can’t save everyone, the lesson is for his own benefit as much as hers. This episode also gets major props because van Gogh’s madness isn’t played for laughs. It’s instead very real and terrifying when he suddenly orders the Doctor to leave, and just as heartwrending when he later breaks down at the museum. And that bit where he explains the colors of the sky? I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
We could go on! “The Girl Who Waited” was definitely on this list, but we ran out of room. “The Day of the Doctor” is also one of our favorites, but isn’t really an Eleventh Doctor affair. What are your favorite Eleventh Doctor stories?
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and solely responsible for the slow degradation of Doctor Who. (Sorry, guys.)
Chris Lough is the Production Manager at Tor.com and remembers every black day he ever stopped you, Ryan.
Whenever Sarah Tolf sees Tony Curran pop up in other shows or movies, she STILL wants to give “Vincent” all the hugs. Sigh.