As I was writing my recent round-up of The 20 Worst Episodes of the Moffat Era, I was very conscious of the fact that many of the criticisms I made about my least favorite episodes could just as easily be applied to some of my most favorite episodes. Dismissing an episode of Doctor Who because its plot makes no sense, for example, is a little like complaining about bad things happening to nice people on Game of Thrones, or objecting to an episode of Deadwood because there's just so much darn swearing in it.
If you can't accept the rules of the game, you probably shouldn't play at all.
So I acknowledge the inherent risk of hypocrisy, and I have no doubt that someone could (and will) argue against my "best" episodes for exactly the same reasons that I hate my "worst." But that, too, is the nature of the game, and I think it speaks in particular to the precious and peculiar alchemy of Doctor Who.
There really is no other show on television quite like it. Forget for a moment the fact that it completely reinvents itself—with an entirely new cast and crew—every few seasons. This is a show that essentially reinvents itself nearly every episode, requiring viewers to adjust their viewing style anew.
What kind of show does that? A show like The Wire, for example, is very challenging, but once I'm in, I'm in. There's an initial adjustment period—in which the show teaches me how to watch it—but, after that, I know roughly what to expect, and I understand the rules. It may change storylines and focus from episode to episode, or even from season to season, but it still feels like The Wire.
But the same is not true for Doctor Who, which changes not just storylines but characters, settings, genres, tones, themes, and narrative rules nearly every week. Thus, every episode needs to teach us how to watch it, asking us to buy into its narrative conceits. The way we watch "Robot of Sherwood"—our expectations for it, our willingness to accept its storytelling mechanics, our judgement on what works and doesn't work—is completely different from how, seven days later, we watch "Listen." And something that succeeds brilliantly in one story may completely fail in the next.
(Okay, nothing succeeded in "Robot of Sherwood." But you get my point.)
I am fond of referring to Doctor Who as a "high-wire act," because the metaphor is so apt. When it works, it's a dazzling, improbable display of grace and daring that takes place far above our heads. But it is always doing its tricks on a thin and wobbly tightrope, just one minor slip away from a sudden and ignoble crash back to earth.
But perhaps a better metaphor would be one borrowed from Steven Moffat's creation Clara Oswald: Doctor Who is a soufflé. Sometimes sweet, sometimes savory, always puffed up large (but mostly full of hot air), it's a notoriously tricky, delicate confection: it's a wonder when it works, but it's always at risk of falling in on itself.
And, as Clara reminds us, the soufflé is not the soufflé: the soufflé is the recipe. No single recipe exists to guarantee a perfect episode of Doctor Who, but we can tell when the ingredients are missing, misjudged, or slightly off in their ratios. Myself, I look for intelligence, and humor, and genuine emotion. I want to encounter ideas, and I want to experience wonder. Whether a particular episode is a tragedy, an adventure, or a farce, I still want to feel genuine character development happening, and I want to feel important themes being grappled with. And I look, always, for ambition, for an episode to attempt something new, and say something real, and reach ever so slightly beyond its grasp.
Like all art, a great episode of Doctor Who must always, always, be bigger on the inside.
And, fortunately, Steven Moffat knows this. In an email to Russell T Davies, shortly before taking over Doctor Who, Moffat spoke about the lack of ambition in many writers:
"John Cleese once said (at the time of Fawlty Towers, when he owned comedy) that he thought his main advantage as a writer was that he knew how hard it was supposed to be. That’s what I mainly think when I read scripts – I think, you have no idea how hard this is." 1
My objections to a lot of the Doctor Who stories on my "Worst" list—whether they were written by one-time guest-writers or certain frequent contributors—can be reduced to this complaint: they didn't know how hard it's supposed to be. They looked at Doctor Who and all they saw was a silly children's show with monsters and wacky sci-fi shenanigans. They delivered something shallow and derivative, because they didn't understand that the infinite flexibility of Doctor Who meant they should be telling stories that did more, not less, than other shows.
At his frequent best, Steven Moffat has served us those episodes that were bigger on the inside. The main reason I've enjoyed writing about Moffat's Doctor Who is that stories under his reign have almost always been richer and more rewarding than they appeared to be, yielding unexpected treasures once we started probing beneath the surface. He's delivered the monsters and the runarounds and the wacky sci-fi shenanigans (thank God), but he's also explored incredibly complex concepts, and interrogated challenging themes, and provided moments of genuine, startling emotion. Whatever my complaints about Moffat—and I have them, as we all know—it has been a glorious, honorable run, full of brilliant ideas, and indelible moments, and improbable beauty.
A couple of notes before we enter into this lengthy listicle. First, I am concerned only with Moffat's time as showrunner, saving me the trouble of figuring out where his Davies-era episodes fit into the competition. (For the record, "Blink" is a novelty masterpiece, but—as a pure Doctor Who story—I'm not sure my personal favorite among Moffat's work isn't still his first story, "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances.") Second, unlike in my "Worst of" list, I'm mostly treating multi-parters as single stories here. (Any episode, after all, can be terrible, but a story generally has to work completely to qualify for the Hall of Fame.) Finally, I'll no doubt have more to say about the entirety of Seasons Five through Ten when I get around to reviewing Moffat's final episode, "Twice Upon a Time."
But, for now, let me make my arguments for what constitutes the very best of Moffat's Doctor Who.
20. THE SNOWMEN
For a perfect example of that "bigger on the inside" quality, let's start with Moffat's 2012 Christmas special, "The Snowmen." The Doctor Who Christmas specials do tend to be larger and slightly sillier than the average episode—"big and blousy and Christmas Day-y," as Davies once said2—which leaves them open to easy dismissal by the fans and critics. Boasting menacing snowmen, malevolent ice-nannies, and a spiral staircase to the clouds, "The Snowmen" definitely meets its obligations to provide seasonal spectacle and family-friendly fun.
But look just beneath the luster of new-fallen snow, and you'll find a thematically rich and emotionally complex episode about the Doctor still dealing with his guilt and grief over the loss of Amy and Rory. The tale of the Ponds was all about what I've called "The Companion Conundrum": the Doctor's growing awareness that his interaction with normal humans is not always in their best interests. Here, Moffat manages to expand and somewhat resolve that theme as subtext to a big, blousy Christmas romp: the Doctor's frozen heart is mirrored in the very villains of the piece, to be combated—and thawed—by the timely arrival of warm new companion Clara. Featuring one of Matt Smith's most precise performances, and the best version ever of Jenna Coleman's many incarnations of Clara, "The Snowmen" is an under-appreciated classic. Read my full review here.
19. AMY'S CHOICE
Moffat's first season took place entirely on the night before Amy and Rory's wedding, and so there was always a fundamental question at its core: would Amy settle down with Rory—and assume the responsibilities of adulthood—or would she stay a little girl and run off with her imaginary friend The Raggedy Doctor? This conflict between "ordinary life" and "life with the Doctor" is one of Moffat's hobby-horses, and variations on this question would plague the Ponds for their entire stint in the TARDIS. But the dilemma became a literal one exactly halfway through the first season, in Simon Nye's clever episode "Amy's Choice."
Here, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are trapped within two different realities: one in which Amy chose to travel with the Doctor, and one in which she and Rory retired to raise a family in their sleepy hometown of Leadworth. (Each reality has its dangers. The "normal life" threat is cleverly represented by old age: the monster that stalks even the safest and most boring of individuals. Meanwhile, the other reality finds the trio freezing to death in the TARDIS, foreshadowing a theme Moffat would deal with more explicitly throughout his run: the risk that traveling with the Doctor can turn a person cold.) Featuring a stellar turn by Toby Jones as "The Dream Lord"—who (touching on another of Moffat's obsessions) turns out to be the dark side of the Doctor himself—"Amy's Choice" is an early, smart, slightly silly adventure that puts an interesting twist on some of Moffat's pet themes.
18. THE RINGS OF AKHATEN
Strangely, Neil Cross's "The Rings of Akhaten" seems to be not just dismissed but widely disliked. It's a shame, because Cross was actually one of my favorite guest-writers of the Moffat era, and one of the best writers ever at melding Classic Who structure with New Who sensibilities. (See also: #14, below.) "The Rings of Akhaten" is a well-paced case-study in the art: Cross takes a classic series premise—the Doctor lands on an alien world and tears down its entire religion—and uses it to explore and further questions Moffat had been asking about the nature of the Doctor and his relationship with his companions.
Most people will remember this story for the Doctor's extraordinary monologue, which—while arguably overblown—is nicely written, and acted the hell out of by Matt Smith. But I love it for its ideas (an economy based on sentimental objects); its celebration of humanity (Clara's simple memories are worth more than all of the Doctor's universe-old ones); its obvious critique of religion; and its darker, less obvious critique of both the Doctor and Doctor Who: two immortal giants who consume human lives and stories at a greedy, gluttonous pace. Seriously, if you're one of the haters of this episode, revisit it. And read my full review here.
At least once every season—and often more than once—Moffat reminds us that he's still the clever bastard who wrote "Blink." Season Ten's "Monk" trilogy turned out to be an exercise in diminishing returns, but it opened with an absolute cracker of an episode in "Extremis," a creepy mind-bender of a tale with genuine surprises and fiendishly clever twists.
"Extremis" plays out as three narratives: the Doctor in the past (dealing with Missy's sentencing and execution); the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole in what only appears to be the "present"; and the real Doctor, sitting outside Missy's vault, effectively watching an episode of Doctor Who on his sonic sunglasses. Moffat weaves these three mysteries together into a spooky and effective tale about never giving up, and delivers the meta-commentary that the Doctor doesn't need to be real to be a source of inspiration, hope, and courage. Scary, visually interesting, thematically rich, and even funny—"Do not, under and circumstances, put the Pope in my bedroom!"—"Extremis" is Steven Moffat firing on all cylinders for (as it turned out) the very last time. Read my full review here.
16. THE EATERS OF LIGHT
Classic series writer Rona Munro ("Survival") came back to show the kids how it's done with Season Ten's "The Eaters of Light."
The story itself—which features Romans, barbarians, and a mindless monster roaming the hills of second century Scotland—is simple enough, even formulaic. But Munro and director Charles Palmer saturate "The Eaters of Light" with atmospheric and evocative beauty, and treat all the participants as actual, complex human beings in a smart, sad, brilliantly-paced episode. It's the perfect example of how to treat this "children's show" with intelligence and maturity, and unlock the mythopoetic music that can be generated by its genre mechanics. Read my full review here.
15. CLOSING TIME
There's not a doubt in my mind that Gareth Roberts' "Closing Time" will be a controversial choice for this list, and not just because—between his making jokes about sexual assault and his making out with Sean Spicer—we're all pretty goddamned sick of James Corden at this point. But bear with me: I'm including it as perhaps the best proof in Moffat's run that Doctor Who can sing ambitious, emotionally complex songs in any number of keys. Like its prequel story "The Lodger," from Season Five, "Closing Time" is a bit of straight-up comic relief in an otherwise heavy season, and it works very well on that level. (The Doctor's interactions with Baby Alfie—a.k.a. "Stormaggedon, Dark Lord of All"—are a particular delight.) This adventure's "A-plot" (about Cybermen) is admittedly pretty weak, but it scarcely matters in an episode that brilliantly showcases Matt Smith's comedic timing and the lighter side of Doctor Who.
But what impresses me most about "Closing Time" is how it works in relation to the episodes around it. Season Six is Moffat's indisputable triumph as a showrunner: no other season manages so well to integrate guest-written, stand-alone episodes into the thematic goals of the season as a whole. Here, after hammering us (and him) with the dark side of the Doctor's influence on his human companions (in episodes like "A Good Man Goes to War," "The Girl Who Waited," and "The God Complex"), Doctor Who shifts gears and tones to remind us (and him) of the Doctor's positive contributions to individuals and humanity as a whole. So "Closing Time"—which seems on its surface to be a throwaway, "funny" episode—actually uses its shift in tone to function as the emotional turning point of the season. There aren't a lot of shows that could pull that trick off. Read my full review here.
I said above that Neil Cross was one of the best writers at seamlessly integrating the sensibilities of New and Classic Who, and Season Seven's "Hide" is Exhibit A in my argument. (In fact, if you had asked me, pre-2005, what a modern version of Doctor Who could look like, "Hide" is more or less exactly what I might have had in mind.)
Doctor Who is replete with haunted-house stories, but this is one of the best: a genuinely spooky (and visually lovely) homage to Shirley Jackson's tale of repressed emotion, The Haunting of Hill House. Perfectly paced, "Hide" manages to generate actual suspense and atmosphere, while finding time for mature, substantive character work. Jessica Raine and Dougray Scott get to play grown-up characters who are emotionally compelling both individually and as a romantic couple, and relatively new companions Clara and the Doctor get to know each other in ways that feel meaningful and important. (Clara's full realization of the Doctor's alienness—in a moment of horror at his casual relationship to all of human history—is beautifully played by all concerned.) Scary, fun, and thematically resonant, "Hide" is a near-perfect stand-alone episode of Doctor Who. Read my full review here.
Another near-perfect one-shot episode—which nevertheless manages to advance the themes and emotional sub-text of its season—is Peter Mathieson's "Flatline," from Season Eight. As a stand-alone hour of Doctor Who, "Flatline" does just about everything we could ask: it's scary, it's wildly original, it has well-defined characters, it never once stops moving, and it is laugh-out loud funny. (A gag like the Doctor's hand crab-crawling his tiny TARDIS around should never work, but it does here, because Mathieson and director Douglas Mackinnon seed and earn the comedy perfectly.)
As an entry in Moffat's larger Season Eight narrative, however, "Flatline" is doing something far more important. Clara's arc in Seasons Eight and Nine was largely about her becoming dangerously like the Doctor, and "Flatline" deepens that by putting Clara temporarily in the Time Lord's role, giving her her own companion, and forcing her to make the hard decisions. "Flatline" lands the comedy, the action, and the character work: as I said in my review, anyone who can't love an episode like this should get out of the Doctor Who-loving business. Read my full review here.
Steven Moffat has provided plenty of evidence for the theory that it's what we don't see that terrifies us the most. He's scared us with monsters we can't see (the Vashta Narada), monsters who get us when we're not looking (the Weeping Angels), and monsters we forget the moment we look away from them (the Silence), among others. In Season Eight's "Listen"—one of the few absolute gems from the back half of Moffat's tenure—he explores the outermost edge of this theory, scaring us with a monster that may not be there at all.
It's a strange, quiet, hauntingly beautiful episode, which generates fear from the place Moffat has said Doctor Who truly lives: in the space under our beds. In doing so, "Listen" also explores the nature of the Doctor—what he's been running from for thousand of years, and why he spends his life dragging monsters into the light—and the value of Doctor Who itself. Why is a children's show so scary? Because fear—as the First Doctor told us—makes companions of us all. Because fear is a super-power, and so is its constant companion, hope.
11. THE GOD COMPLEX
Season Six was largely about two of Moffat's chief (and intersecting) obsessions: the Doctor's oversized, near godlike reputation; and the troubling nature of his relationship with his companions. Both of these issues come to a climactic head in Toby Whithouse's smart and emotionally powerful "The God Complex."
The Doctor—along with Amy, Rory, and a cast of unusually well-delineated supporting characters—is trapped in a spooky 1980's style hotel, which bears a thoroughly intentional resemblance to the hotel in The Shining. The Doctor spends most of the episode believing that the minotaur within feeds on fear, but it turns out to be belief that the monster devours. To escape the maze, the Doctor must dissuade Amy from her blind faith in him, shattering all her hero-worship illusions about him in the process.
It's the true climax of Amy's entire arc with the Doctor, and—with the episode that precedes it, which we'll get to shortly—the sophisticated culmination of Moffat's exploration of the Doctor's potentially destructive relationship with his companions. In fact, the Doctor says goodbye to the Ponds at the end of the episode—for their own good—in a touching scene that should have been Amy and Rory's last appearance. (Moffat undermined the lesson somewhat by bring the Ponds back for six more episodes. However, "The God Complex" is the last time in Moffat's run that any companion actually lives in the TARDIS.) But nothing that happened after robbed "The God Complex" of its standing as one of the best and most thematically important episodes in Moffat's entire run. Read my full review here.
10. A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Unlike his predecessor Russell T Davies—who seemed content to throw in some homicidal Santa robots or a star-shaped spaceship—Moffat has been pretty good about making the Doctor Who Christmas Specials actually about Christmas. And he never did it better than at the end of his first year, with 2010's brilliant "A Christmas Carol."
Here, Moffat puts his penchant for "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey" shenanigans to smart, genuine, incredibly moving purpose, by retelling Dickens' classic story as only Doctor Who could do it. Guest star Michael Gambon gives one of the best performances in Who history as Scrooge-stand-in Kazran Sardick, whose frozen heart is only thawed when the Doctor forces him to become his own ghosts of past, present, and future. Other specials (like "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe") would attempt to incorporate Christmas tropes into the plot in annoying, cloying fashion, but here they all work seamlessly and in accordance with Doctor Who logic, paying off in a dark, psychologically complex redemption story that feels emotionally true. "A Christmas Carol" deals with bitterness, regret, child abuse, and the pain of lost loves, and speaks to our secret desire to not just understand but actually rewrite the narratives of own lives. (And if you don't feel like thinking too much about all of that on Christmas Day, there's a flying shark in the air, and face-spiders in the cupboard, and a swinging party at Sinatra's house to enjoy.) The perfect episode for children and grown-ups to watch together on Christmas Day, "A Christmas Carol" showcases the full range of what Doctor Who can do when it's at its very best.
9. THE TIME OF ANGELS/FLESH AND STONE
"A forest in a bottle on a spaceship in a maze. Have I impressed you yet, Amy Pond?" Moffat's first episode as showrunner (see below) had been a triumph, but after that his first season started to feel a little shaky. ("The Beast Below" was fun but flawed, while "Victory of the Daleks" was straight-up awful.) We were ready for Moffat to impress us by the time his first two-parter came around, and we got what we wanted (and then some) from "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone." This was what we'd hoped Moffat's Doctor Who would be like.
Opening with a truly dazzling bit of wibbly-wobbly stuff that reintroduced Alex Kingston's River Song in unforgettable fashion, "The Time of Angels" then became an exercise in slowly building suspense: the Doctor and company journeyed further and further into a dark network of caves in search of one Weeping Angel, only to discover at the end that they were surrounded by the things. Then (as he is prone to do), Moffat mixed things up thrillingly in the second part of this story: in "Flesh and Stone," the claustrophobic horror-movie set yielded to an open fairy tale environment (complete with Amy Pond—looking like Little Red Riding Hood—making her way through a forest of dangers.) This story isn't perfect—I've always hated the moment when we see the angels move—but it is so impossibly packed with brilliant ideas and truly chilling moments that it still qualifies as one of Moffat's very best.
8. THE ELEVENTH HOUR
It is hard to remember now just how uncertain things were going into Season Five. For all his many faults, Russell T Davies had been the sole architect of the reborn Doctor Who, turning the franchise from a nerdy cult classic to a mainstream powerhouse. And David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, had been arguably the most popular actor ever to inhabit the role. It was by no means certain that the show could actually survive—let alone continue to thrive—in the wake of these two men's departures. (To make matters worse, the new showrunner, Steven Moffat, had gone and cast a virtual child—27-year-old Matt Smith—in the role of the Time Lord. How could that possibly work?)
All of these doubts evaporated about four minutes into the charming, atmospheric opening of "The Eleventh Hour." From the moment Smith pokes his head out of his crashed TARDIS and asks for an apple, he absolutely owns the role, and we imprint on him as thoroughly as little Amelia Pond does. ("Trust me, I'm the Doctor," he says a few minutes later, and by then we do: it already feels, in fact, like he's always been the Doctor.) The rest of the "The Eleventh Hour" is a frantic, non-stop runaround, with a simple and slightly silly plot that strikes exactly the right balance for a first episode: it provides space for us to fall in love with our new Doctor and companion, and allows Moffat room to cleverly seed both the mysteries (the crack in the wall) and themes (the Doctor's dangerous self-confidence, and his potentially traumatic effect on his human acquaintances) that would occupy him for seasons to come. As an episode of Doctor Who, "The Eleventh Hour" is very good; as an introduction to a whole new era of Doctor Who, it's damn near perfect.
7. HEAVEN SENT
Though opinions will obviously vary on this, I personally find Moffat's last three seasons less emotionally engaging and impressive than his first three. We can perhaps put this down to fatigue, or—and this is my personal theory—to his having accomplished (by the end of Season Seven) most of what he set out to do with Doctor Who. We can not, however, blame it on Peter Capaldi, who proved himself capable of hitting any pitch Moffat wanted to throw his way. And, if proof were required, we need only look to the extraordinary one-man show that is "Heaven Sent," the unquestioned masterpiece of the Twelfth Doctor's era.
As I said in my review, it is true that there has never been an episode of Doctor Who like this one, but it's also true that "Heaven Sent" may be the prototypical episode of Doctor Who: just the Doctor running through a lot of corridors, fighting a monster with no weapons but his wits, and being forced to die and be reborn again, over and over. This is Doctor Who stripped of everything but the essence of the Doctor himself: his indefatigable spirit and inexhaustible will in the face of overwhelming odds. It is an exquisite piece of writing by Moffat, a series-best performance by Capaldi, and a stunning bit of direction and production design. "Heaven Sent" works on every level: as adventure, as metaphor, as character study, and as a demonstration of what only Doctor Who can do. Read my full review here.
6. THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR
Simply as a fun, celebratory story to honor the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, "The Day of the Doctor" is a successful (almost showy) bit of narrative juggling. It's a multi-Doctor story—featuring two, three, four, or thirteen Doctors, depending on how you feel like counting them— with a couple of companions (Clara and "Rose"), a couple of classic monsters (Daleks and Zygons), and a lot of supporting characters (including UNIT). It's a story that encapsulates a wide range of Doctor Who sub-genres, intermingling a historical Earth-based adventure, a present-day Earth-based adventure, and a space-based adventure set on Gallifrey. Moffat wisely chose not to try to do everything and put everyone in this story—perhaps learning from horrifically overcrowded RTD stories like "The End of Time"—but he honored the totality of this show's 50-year history about as well as he could have done in a single episode.
But where "The Day of the Doctor" really shines is as the capstone to what I have called "The Moffat Masterplan," Moffat's ongoing project to deconstruct the show he had inherited from Russell T Davies, and restore it to something more closely resembling the classic series. Moffat has always been obsessed with the question inherent in the show's title: who is the Doctor, really? And the Doctor he had inherited from Davies was not the Doctor of Moffat's youth: he had grown from the unassuming "cosmic hobo" of the classic series to an all-powerful and universally known messiah/demon figure, "a nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies." Throughout his run, Moffat had explored the darker side of the Doctor—its ramifications for both the universe and his own companions—while taking slow, careful steps to systematically dismantle the Doctor's tortured soul and bloated reputation. In "The Day of the Doctor," he took the boldest step yet in this ongoing reconstruction, undoing the most important sin in the Doctor's past: the genocidal destruction of his own planet. Here, Moffat does away once and for all with the "angry god" of RTD's run, and gives us back a hero who would never be cruel or cowardly, and who would rather—as the War Doctor says—"fail doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong." Read my full review here.
5. THE GIRL WHO WAITED
At this point in the countdown, let me just confess that you could rearrange my top five episodes in almost any order, and I'd be satisfied. (I keep moving them around myself, but it's always the same top five.) Certainly, Tom MacRae's exquisite, haunting Season Six episode "The Girl Who Waited" has, in my mind, just about as good a claim on the top spot as any other.
In one of the most successful science-fiction scenarios in New Who, the TARDIS Trio lands in a quarantined alien sanatorium, where Amy accidentally gets stuck in a different (and faster moving) time-stream. By the time the Doctor is able to blunder his way back to her, thirty-six years have passed, and Amy has become a cold, angry warrior, bitter at how traveling with the Doctor has cost her nearly her entire life.
Surprisingly—since it's an episode Moffat didn't even write—"The Girl Who Waited" turned out to be the dark heart of Amy and Rory's arc in the TARDIS, and the show's most mature exploration of Moffat's obsession with The Companion Conundrum. With just the three central characters (or four, if you count both Amys), MacRae uses this discreet crisis as a brilliant encapsulation of all the troubling issues that surround the Doctor's irresponsible addiction to normal people: the dangers he puts them in; the way they end up missing out on normal existence; their tragically short life-spans in relation to the Doctor's; and the way his influence risks changing them into something colder and less human. ("This isn't fair!" Rory accuses him at one point. "You're turning me into you!") Conceptually challenging, visually fascinating, layered with smartly apt metaphors, and featuring series-best performances from all three cast members, "The Girl Who Waited" is an emotionally devastating masterpiece. Read my full review here.
4. A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR
"The Doctor's darkest hour," River predicts. "He'll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further." That was a bold promise to make, but Moffat just about pulled it off in the absolutely stunning "A Good Man Goes to War," the mid-season finale of Series Six.
Every time I rewatch this episode—which I do often—I marvel uncomprehendingly at its construction, since it seems virtually impossible for it to accomplish everything that it accomplishes in the space of 47 minutes. (Moffat must have employed Time Lord technology to fit everything in.) It is an episode, after all, in which the Doctor doesn't even appear until nearly 20 minutes in—time well used to establish a large cast of significant supporting characters—and yet it's one of the most thrilling, most moving, and most important stories in the Eleventh Doctor's entire run. In the back half of this episode the Doctor moves from incredible anger (the "Colonel Runaway" speech is chilling), to arrogant triumph ("Demons Run is ours without a drop of blood spilled"), to heartbreaking loss (the horrifying moment when Amy's "baby" suddenly dissolves in her arms). Along the way, Moffat resolves the mystery of River Song's identity, ramps up the emotional stakes of The Companion Conundrum, and conducts his most important interrogation into the nature of the Doctor, who learns hard truths about himself that will inform the entirety of Moffat's tenure on Doctor Who. "A Good Man Goes to War" is a stone-cold classic, and Moffat operating at the very height of his powers. Read my full review here.
3. VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR
If we're speaking in terms of pure affection, I'm not sure Richard Curtis's "Vincent and the Doctor" isn't my all-time favorite episode of Doctor Who. Certainly, it's the one that tugs at my heartstrings the hardest, and succeeds in reducing me to an emotional wreck every single time I watch it. (Is it emotionally manipulative, and a little sentimental? You bet. And no Doctor Who fan should ever be afraid of sentiment, or deny that raw emotion is an instrument the show can and should play like a fiddle.)
It's also just Doctor Who at its simplest and purest, and therefore a fantastic episode to serve as an introduction for the uninitiated. "Historical figure" plus "monster" is as formulaic as this show gets, and the monster here—a mindless, blind, invisible turkey-dragon thing—is simple to the point of silliness. But that works in the story's favor, since the real monster is Vincent Van Gogh's depression. No other show on television could play these two threats off each other so effectively, or use their juxtapositioning to deliver such a heart-breaking but ultimately affirming story. "Vincent" centers around fantastic performances from all concerned—particularly guest-star Tony Curran as the tortured artist—and features clever, beautiful homages to Van Gogh's work. (The "Starry Night" sequence is an all-time favorite.)
But it's the overwhelmingly bittersweet ending that elevates "Vincent and the Doctor" to all-time classic status, reminding us that Doctor Who is not about showing us a world without darkness, or promising that all endings will be happy. It's a show about the light that's generated from fighting the darkness, and how struggling towards a happy ending—even when you fail—is a victory in and of itself.
2. THE DOCTOR'S WIFE
A brilliant story in its own right, Neil Gaiman's "The Doctor's Wife" also gets bonus points due to degree of difficulty. (If Neil had phoned me up and described the premise for the episode he was planning to write—which, weirdly, he didn't do—I would have told him it was a horrible idea, one that ventured into mysteries best left untouched, and one that risked mucking up 50 years of Doctor Who mythology.)
That just goes to show what I know. In any other writer's hands, personifying the TARDIS in human form would have been a terrible idea, but Gaiman (a life-long Who fan) understands the magic of this show perfectly. "The Doctor's Wife" is Gaiman's pitch-perfect love-letter to the favorite show of his childhood, and one that doesn't diminish but enriches the show's most important and longest-lasting relationship: the romance between a boy and his box.
Suranne Jones gives a dazzlingly endearing performance as the briefly-human, delightfully barmy TARDIS, relishing her first opportunity in hundreds of years to have an actual conversation with the Time Lord she "stole" and ran away with. Gaiman knows exactly how far to take these conversations, hinting at truths we've long suspected ("I always took you where you needed to go"), but leaving important mysteries unexplored and deeper emotions mercifully unexpressed. Around this premise, Gaiman manages to include other clever homages to Doctor Who, like hypercubes, classic TARDIS consoles, and Amy and Rory running through a series of suspiciously identical corridors.
But it's the central love-story that gives this episode its heart and purpose, and the perfect final image—of the Doctor dancing with his wife—reminds us that this love affair will continue and flourish as long as Doctor Who exists.
1. THE PANDORICA OPENS/THE BIG BANG
As I've said, any of my Top Five episodes has a legitimate claim to the crown, but I'm awarding top honors—controversially, no doubt—to a story that showcases Moffat at his most Moffat-like. Many of the complaints I had about my all-time worst episodes of Moffat's Who, in fact, could be laid at the feet of this story just as easily. (Is it big and bloated and overcrowded? Check. Do its plot devices bear a lot of scrutiny? Nope, definitely not. Does it milk cheap emotion from phony, temporary deaths? You betcha. Is it far too clever for its own good? By half, and then some.)
But, as I said when I began, that's the nature of the beast: when the recipe works, it works, and when it doesn't, it doesn't. And this big, two-part finale to Moffat's inaugural season definitely works, in ways that seem to turn all of its bugs into features. This is pure Moffat magic from start to finish: his always-tricky soufflé turns out exactly right here, achieving a perfect balance of spectacle, stakes, cleverness, scale, and emotional resonance that he would never again match, let alone surpass. (You can feel Moffat's other finales—stories like "The Wedding of River Song," "The Name of the Doctor," and the odious "Death in Heaven"—striving to recreate this impossible confection again, but they all collapsed in on themselves to varying degrees.)
The sheer number of brilliant individual moments in "Pandorica" alone would qualify this story for any list of Moffat's best. After a clever prologue taking us on a retrospective tour of Season Five characters—and ending on a punchline ("Hello Sweetie") that had not yet become annoying—Moffat builds up the suspense around what's actually in the Pandorica itself with a loving patience he would rarely allow himself again. ("Hello, you," the Doctor whispers through the box. "Have we met?") We get comic relief that is actually funny ("Sontarans! Talk about cross. Who stole all their handbags?"); a Cyberman who (for the first time in the new series) is actually scary; and, most famously, a monologue from the Doctor that is a crowd-pleasing delight and an iconic Doctor Who moment. (Moffat does love giving the Doctor bombastic speeches, which could often become insufferable. This one works because it's a total, conscious bluff—"That'll keep 'em squabbing for half an hour"—and because, as it turns out, the Doctor was actually being bluffed himself.) And the episode ends on a twist that works both as a cliffhanger and as a thematic statement for the entire Moffat Masterplan: the thing the Pandorica was designed to imprison—"the most feared being in all the cosmos"—turns out to be the Doctor himself. Fixing that was one of Moffat's chief goals as Doctor Who's showrunner, and here he's announcing his intentions in no uncertain terms.
And then comes the absolutely batshit conclusion of "The Big Bang." From the stunning moment at the end of the cold open—"OK, kid, this is where it gets complicated"—we're off to the races with Moffat. The man who invented the phrase "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey" would let himself go comparably wild in later episodes, but never again to such dazzling and deliberate effect. The time-jumping shenanigans here no doubt offended some Doctor Who purists, but I think it all works brilliantly: the tricks are fun and fiendishly clever, and Moffat keeps the pace brisk enough that we don't have time to think about any of them too much.
Best of all, Moffat uses the time he saves on quiet moments that lend all the nonsense emotional weight and gravity: Rory's 2,000-year-old vigil ("Why do you have to be so human?"); the dying Doctor's farewell to Amy in the Pandorica ("Gotcha"); and his sad monologue beside little Amelia Pond's bed, in which every minute of the Doctor's 900+ years are somehow visible on Matt Smith's boyish face. ("We're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?"). And it is all leading up to what is, for my money, as absolutely perfect a moment as Doctor Who has ever produced: "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."
Moffat has said many times that Doctor Who is a modern fairy tale, occupying the same psychic space and fulfilling the same important purpose that fairy tales once did. There's no doubt that he has relied a little too much on fairy-tale logic at moments during his run, and he does so here as well. But that, to me, is what makes this story so remarkable: it's the rare instance of Moffat not only employing that magical thinking effectively, but actually using it to say something real about the show itself. Season Five began like a fairy tale, and the function of fictions was at the center of the themes it explored. Little Amelia Pond—introduced praying to Santa Claus—believed in the fairy tales as a child, but she grew into a bitter, cynical adult after the fairy tales abandoned her. "Amy's Choice"—the question of whether Amy would grow-up and get married or have adventures with her imaginary friend—haunted the entire first season of Moffat's run. But here, that season ends with grown-up Amy finding her inner-child again, and recognizing that becoming an adult doesn't mean leaving the magic and wonder of childhood behind.
As I said when I wrote about this story elsewhere, it's not about making a choice between responsibility and adventure, between the real world and the world of the imagination, between seriousness and silliness. We can have all of that, and more. That's what Doctor Who reminds us, and that's what Steven Moffat, at his frequent best, has delivered to us for six glorious seasons.
- Email from Moffat to Davies, quoted in Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook, (BBC Books, 2008), p. 187.
- The Writers Tale, p. 18.