The new series of Doctor Who and loud melodrama are best friends. Since the show began again in 2005, you can count on any season delivering at least one explosion, one moment of universal peril, and/or one tragic character twist. The new show has filled the skies with Daleks, set Gallifrey aflame, torn the Doctor from everyone he loves, killed Rory, and kissed Kylie Minogue. Doctor Who has no qualms about going straight for our panic button and pressing it hard.
And we enjoy it, otherwise we wouldn’t be watching. But lost in all the noise are small, lovely moments that are just as impactful; that portray just as much in only seconds. Below is a collection of our favorite, greatest, smallest moments from Doctor Who.
“I’m not saving it. Time’s up.” – “The End of the World”
What’s the very first trip the Doctor takes his first post-Time War companion? A relaxing trip to planet Barcelona? Sightseeing on Woman Wept? A grand tour of the Medusa Cascade? Not even close. All of time and space at his fingertips and the first thing the Doctor does is show Rose her own world burning to nothing.
The reveal is fascinating when you’re first watching the show. Who is this guy? Who would do that? The choice of locale is even more telling after you know about the Time War and the Doctor’s role in it. Only two episodes in and he’s reaching out to Rose the only way he can think of, by giving her an idea of what he’s just gone through. The rawness of his choice is most telling in this exchange:
Rose: “But what about the people?”
The Doctor: “It’s empty! They’re all gone. All left.”
Rose: “Just me then.”
“Rose, I’m trying to resonate concrete.” – “The Doctor Dances”
At this point in the show’s history, the question of the Doctor’s sexual appetite was up in the air. Would he be a bit staid like in the classic series or would he be more… adventurous? The show is still revealing the answer to that particular question, but this was the first moment that directly addressed it, and the first moment the show teased us with the prospect of Rose and the Doctor falling in love. Here, the Doctor’s response to Rose’s overture to dance with her is wonderfully idiosyncratic. His excuse is playfully flimsy and perfectly like him. As soon as you hear the line, you know that’s exactly what the Doctor would say.
“The correct form of address is Your Majesty.” – “Tooth & Claw”
Queens have classically made trouble for the Doctor in the new series (and vice versa), as he always seems to underestimate their abilities. So it’s amazing to realize you’re doing the same thing when first watching “Tooth & Claw,” as you’re waiting for the Doctor to save Queen Victoria from the menacing monk chanting across the dinner table. Suddenly, the Queen is taking matters into her own hands, and reminding us that a Queen of England is not to be trifled with.
Seriously, Queen Victoria will pop you. And she’s probably a werewolf.
Sarah Jane finds the TARDIS by accident in “School Reunion”
Here’s Sarah Jane Smith, having been abandoned decades ago by the Doctor, and on a random investigation she stumbles into a closet only to find the TARDIS towering over her. The viewer expects her to be happy to see the Doctor and the TARDIS again, but in one instant we realize how wrong that assumption was. Sarah Jane has worked for years to deal with the loss of the Doctor and in one instant that trauma is back, as powerful as ever. And it’s all there on Elisabeth Sladen’s face.
“We never saw this coming…” – “The Age of Steel”
Rose and Mickey are a lesson in growing up. They have a relationship that they both are happy with until the Doctor comes in and tears them apart, filling 19-year-old Rose’s head with the universe and great deeds and his own particular brand of madness. But Mickey is a part of Rose, the part that she leaves behind whenever she goes traveling with the Doctor, and she can’t seem to stop coming back to him. She can’t let that part of her life whither away, the part that was Rose Tyler: Dreaming Shop Girl Going Nowhere Special.
But life seldom lets us hold onto the past the way we want to, and as Mickey begins to grow up too, Rose loses him. In an alternate universe he finds a cause to fight for, friends to help, and a piece of his family that he thought he had lost. He and Rose have to say goodbye, and there’s a moment of reflection: remembering their old selves, the ones who dreamed of doing great things. They know they will do great things, the both of them, but this is not quite the future they had imagined as kids. And nothing is more true to life than that.
Rose tells Tommy to go after his dad in “The Idiot’s Lantern”
“The Idiot’s Lantern” is a mostly-forgettable episode sandwiched between Cybermen and Satan Pits, but it contains a lot of perfect moments, and says a lot about the growing love between the Tenth Doctor and Rose. When she’s attacked by The Wire, the Doctor gets furious in a way we’ve never yet seen him, and at the end of the episode, when young Tommy is watching his poisonous dad leave the homestead, Rose steps in to curb the cruelty he feels for him. And it’s not too hard to imagine Rose saying this for the Doctor’s benefit, either.
Rose: “Tommy, go after him.”
Tommy: “What for?”
Rose: “He’s your dad.”
Tommy: “He’s an idiot.”
Rose: “Course he is. Like I said, he’s your dad. But you’re clever. Clever enough to save the world so don’t stop there. Go on!”
It’s a small moment, but it illustrates just how much Rose is growing as a person while adventuring with the Doctor; in ways that the Doctor himself isn’t. Here, she takes responsibility for the mess they’ve created and looks ahead to what Tommy needs to do after they leave. Something the Doctor, at that point, was still having a lot of trouble with.
The Doctor’s chat with the devil from “The Satan Pit”
Because we’re talking about small Who moments that gestured at larger emotional themes, you might think that bringing up The Devil might be like some kind of “ringer” moment, and about as fair as bringing a live velociraptor to a chicken race. But I’m not referring to the big romantic declaration Tennant belts out when he says he “believes” in Rose. Instead I’m focusing on a less melodramatic, well-acted, well-constructed bit of dialogue before that. This one begins as a fairly innocuous conversation insofar as the Doctor is always trying to figure out the real deal behind a majority of these monsters. The vampires are never just vampires, the ghosts are never just ghosts, and so the Devil can’t be the “real” Devil, right? It’s got to be something zany and sci-fi. So the conversation proceeds the way many of these conversations do, with the Doctor acting smarter than the thing he’s questioning in attempt to get the straight dope. It goes something like this:
The Doctor: “You can’t have come from before the universe. That’s impossible.”
The Devil: “Is that YOUR religion?”
The Doctor: (noticeably embarrassed) “It’s a belief.”
The way Tennant delivers that last word is almost a gulp. The Devil got him on that one, and for an instant we see the Doctor losing a basic ontological debate. How do we talk about the stuff we talk about in the universe? Well, the Doctor always frames everything a certain way, but what if he’s wrong? What if all that philosophizing was just the belief or opinion of one crazy guy? This reveals a lot about the way Tennant played the character of the Doctor. Arrogant and brave, but also aware of his shortcomings to the point of being occasionally embarrassed of his own behavior. In this situation, the Devil is more honest about the notions of plurality in terms of how discourse about basic issues is even framed in the first place. In terms of creating groundwork for how metaphysics is being discussed, the Doctor is sloppy and he knows it. And he’s embarrassed! The line is good, but only Tennant could have done it quite like that.
While we’re at it, though it’s not a small moment per se, elsewhere in the episode, the Devil basically reveals to us YEARS before the airing of “The End of Time” that the Doctor killed all the Time Lords by calling him “the killer of his own kind.” Gotta love that Russell T. Davies for having that planned out even back then!
Donna’s mom admits she’s given up on Donna in “Turn Left”
This episode is wall to wall melodrama. The Doctor’s dead, London’s been nuked, America’s been turned into fat, everyone’s being herded into camps, and even the stars are going out. But perhaps the most chilling moment is when Donna comes back into their shantyhouse after looking unsuccessfully for work and tries to cheer her despondent mother up. Donna finally winds down by grief-joking, “Suppose I’ve always been a disappointment, haven’t I?”
Her mother, a woman who’s spent her life watching her daughter amount to nothing, watched her husband die before his time, and now has to live out her days in a dying world, doesn’t even look at Donna. “Yeah,” she mutters, loud enough to make sure Donna hears, and continues staring into the distance.
It’s the kind of knife twist that Russell T. Davies pulls off particularly well. Even in the midst of planetary chaos, nothing hurts like your parents admitting they think you’re a failure.
“You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honor.” – “The End of Time, Part II”
The Doctor and the Master have one of the greatest relationships that the show provides, and not just in the revived series; some of the Doctor’s best moments in classic Who occurred opposite his “best enemy.” The Tenth Doctor’s finale confirmed that the two had started out as friends, and the Master did save the Doctor’s bacon on more than one occasion in the show’s past (because, according to him, he couldn’t imagine a universe without that TARDIS-stealing sanctimonious git). But the Doctor always held him up as the villain, told his companions to fear him and promised to stop him at all costs.
And then the end was near, and the Master had him strapped to a chair, and the Doctor took the time to talk to him (even with Wilf watching the exchange). He praised the Master’s brilliance, equal to his own, and made an offer that he perhaps should have made a long time ago. And in that moment, we can see the Doctor come to a realization — that they have made each other. It’s no wonder they can never escape these confrontations. Owning up to that is easily one of the Doctor’s most beautiful emotional moments on the series to date:
The Doctor: “’Cause you don’t need to own the universe, just see it. Have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space. That’s ownership enough.”
The Master: “Would it stop, then? The noise in my head?”
The Doctor: “I can help.”
The Master: “I don’t know what I’d be without that noise.”
The Doctor: “Wonder what I’d be… without you.”
“Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” — “The Beast Below”
The Doctor gives the human race a lot of leeway because we’re his favorite species. He turns the universe upside down to save us all time and time again, and never asks for a thank you, but that doesn’t mean he’s blind to our flaws. In fact, being such a super genius makes him even more critical of those flaws when we do something truly wrong. So when he sees a star whale being tortured by humanity in order to survive, he makes a horrible decision: to save the beast agony by lobotomizing it. Because he can’t bear to see the creature go on that way, but he can’t be responsible for the death of every human being on Starship UK either.
Still, he isn’t dismissive over how unfair his bias toward humanity can be, and the Eleventh Doctor can’t stop his first moment of proper fury as he demands that every human stop talking to him. Because he’s about to do something horrifying, about to commit genocide again, and it’s humanity’s fault. This moment of raw pain makes Amy’s act of saving the star whale all the more potent: in just a few minutes, we get a glimpse of exactly what it is about humanity that the Doctor loves — and loathes.
River Song realizes she’s kissed the Doctor for the last time – “Day of the Moon”
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. At least, it is when you’re watching two people head in opposite directions through their entire romance. There was always going to be a day when the Doctor kissed her for the first time, and the for the last time, and River Song has always understood that on an intellectual level. But it’s obvious that, given her carefree, time-tossed ways, she never thought that day would be so soon. Alex Kingston plays this moment to the absolute hilt, and Matt Smith dancing foppishly, nervously away as she experiences one of the saddest moments of her life just twists the knife all the more.
We could go on and on with this, but we’ll halt here so you can add your own favorite small moments from Doctor Who. Which small moments from this show resonate most with you?
This article originally ran on November 3, 2011
Emily Asher-Perrin is the Tor.com Editorial Assistant and would happily wheel you around an aircraft carrier while she danced to the Scissor Sisters.
Ryan Britt is a long-time contributor to Tor.com and is the most important person in the whole of creation.
Chris Lough is the production manager for Tor.com and will always remember you, Banakafalatta.