Doctor Who: The 60 best stories

As the BBC sci-fi series celebrates 60 years, we choose the 60 most essential episodes of Doctor Who so far

Doctor Who: The 60 best stories (BBC/Illustration: Yahoo News)
Doctor Who: The 60 best stories (BBC/Illustration: Yahoo News)

Doctor Who is officially 60 years old and fans are in for a treat as celebrations begin to roll out, including new specials and more than 800 episodes of the show and its spin-offs available to revisit on BBC iPlayer.

Ahead of three new one-offs featuring David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor and Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, you might fancy watching some older episodes. Whether you’re revisiting the series, or you want to catch up before Ncuti Gatwa takes over the TARDIS this Christmas, deciding where to start can be daunting.

Unfortunately, the first-ever serial, An Unearthly Child, is unavailable due to rights issues, but in running so long and constantly rebooting, Doctor Who has a very established and easy-to-follow format.

An ancient alien picks up strangers, drops off friends, and fights enemies while travelling in time and space – you get the gist.

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But you’ll also find that vast iPlayer catalogue is bigger on the inside, which is why we’ve picked 60 essential stories to watch or rewatch on the road to the 60th anniversary.

The best William Hartnell Doctor Who stories to watch

A black and white photo of William Hartnell in character as The Doctor in Doctor Who. (PA/Alamy/BBC)
British actor William Hartnell originated the role of The Doctor in Doctor Who from 1963-1966. (PA/Alamy/BBC)

Following that original serial, there’s a good mix of historical and futuristic stories, ranging from educational to fantastical settings. Early on, The Aztecs cautions its travellers on the dangers of trying to alter history, while the 22nd-century adventure The Dalek Invasion Of Earth speculates on what a Dalek-occupied London might look like, complete with squadrons patrolling Westminster Bridge.

The show’s scope widens over its first three seasons. The Time Meddler introduces the Meddling Monk (Peter Butterworth) as a rival TARDIS user who wants to change the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. The Ark sees a nice trip to a future colony turn into a century-spanning pandemic thriller, courtesy of a companion’s flu.

And in The War Machines, there’s a prototype of the contemporary alien-invasion stories we see nowadays, as Hartnell’s Doctor faces self-aware computer WOTAN and its killer robot army. If you’re after a 1960s starter kit, these five stories just about cover it.

The best Patrick Troughton Doctor Who stories to watch

A black and white photo showing Patrick Troughton adjusting the controls of the TARDIS in Doctor Who.  (PA Images via Getty Images)
Patrick Troughton played the second incarnation of the Doctor in the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Sadly, a lot of the Second Doctor’s era was affected by the BBC’s policy of wiping old programmes, but there are animated reconstructions of several episodes, including Troughton’s debut, The Power Of The Daleks. The serial sees some sneaky Daleks trick a human colony into thinking they’re friendly, and it makes a nice double bill with The Macra Terror, set on a planet where the higher-ups insist “there’s no such thing as Macra”.

With more surviving episodes, The Tomb Of The Cybermen riffs on The Mummy with a far-future expedition to find the remains of the Cybermen. In the same season, the spooky six-parter The Web Of Fear traps the Doctor and friends in the London Underground with the Great Intelligence and its robotic Yetis.

Elsewhere, The Mind Robber is a true one-off, set in a realm called the Land of Fiction. Starting with a bottle episode set entirely onboard the TARDIS, the story pinballs off in surreal, funny, and scary directions like nothing else in Doctor Who.

The best Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories to watch

A colour image of Jon Pertwee dressed in a velvet suit in a laboratory in an episode of Doctor Who.  (PA/Alamy)
Jon Pertwee bought some dandy threads to Doctor Who. (PA/Alamy)

The first full-colour era sees the Third Doctor exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. In successive season openers, he fends off invasion plots by the Nestene Consciousness and its plastic drones, first joining forces with UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) in Spearhead From Space, then sparring with an old rival, the Master (Roger Delgado) in Terror Of The Autons.

The Master and UNIT recur throughout Pertwee’s run, including action-packed adventure The Sea Devils and giant maggot eco-thriller The Green Death. There are gadgets and chase scenes galore, and later, Pertwee joins forces with special guest stars Hartnell and Troughton in The Three Doctors.

He also meets journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) while battling a marooned Sontaran in The Time Warrior, which may be the ideal first classic story for a New Who fan to start on.

The best Tom Baker Doctor Who stories to watch

A still from Doctor Who shows The Master - played by Anthony Ainley - and The Doctor - played by Tom Baker. (left, Anthony Ainley). (PA/Alamy)
Tom Baker's Doctor (right) faced many enemies during his tenure, including The Master. (left, Anthony Ainley). (PA/Alamy)

Unquestionably the most iconic incarnation, the Fourth Doctor is introduced opposite an array of returning monsters. For instance, his first season gives us the chilling origin story Genesis Of The Daleks, which also marks Sarah Jane’s first meeting with Davros. The rest of his era trends towards new monsters, like the Zygons, the Krynoids, and memorably, Sutekh in Pyramids Of Mars.

Known for the Gothic horror of stories like the genre-bending Time Lord thriller The Deadly Assassin and android murder-mystery The Robots Of Death, the era gets lighter as it goes on. Sci-fi swashbuckler The Androids Of Tara and timey-wimey caper City Of Death represent the lighter touches in the longest-serving Doctor’s era. Tom Baker stayed in the role for a total of seven seasons, finally bowing out in Season 18’s Logopolis.

The best Peter Davison Doctor Who stories to watch

Peter Davison's The Doctor, wearing his cream costume and hat, while holding a cricket bat and ball stood in front of the TARDIS. (Avalon/Getty Images)
Peter Davison's The Doctor wore cricket whites during his tenure in the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. (Avalon/Getty Images)

The 1980s starts out aimed more at teenage boys than a family audience, with Peter Davison’s amiable Doctor played as a young man traversing a harsh and violent universe. However, some of the highlights of the era are its departures from this tone, such as Kinda and Snakedance, two surreal, psychological-horror outings in which a malevolent snake-like entity called the Mara targets the Doctor’s companion Tegan (Janet Fielding).

Another fan-favourite is 1983’s 20th-anniversary special, The Five Doctors, which (sort of) brings back all the Doctors for a romp through Gallifrey’s forbidden Death Zone. But the best example of the violent space show incarnation of the programme comes right at the end, as The Caves Of Androzani pitches the Doctor and his new friend Peri (Nicola Bryant) into a deadly interplanetary dispute between a mining corporation and robot revolutionaries.

It’s a dark, gritty end, but it may be this era’s finest hour.

The best Colin Baker Doctor Who stories to watch

Colin Baker wearing his colourful Doctor Who costume links arms with a viking-type character and Nicola Bryant (right) in a publicity still for Doctor Who. (PA/Alamy)
Colin Baker (left) and Nicola Bryant (right) with a menacing creature in a publicity still for Doctor Who. (PA/Alamy)

During a tumultuous period of the show, Colin Baker is a Doctor who never gets his due. The stories are often interesting even if the scripts and the production don’t live up to them, and you could argue that the 2005 revival was partly inspired by Vengeance On Varos, with its green-skinned alien capitalists and government by television. It’s also a two-parter with 45-minute episodes, and Part One has an all-time great cliffhanger.

Also, it might be cheating to include an entire season, but The Trial Of A Time Lord is billed as one 14-episode story, in which the High Council of the Time Lords puts the Doctor on trial for his exploits. Highlights in the evidence include a warrior king played by Brian Blessed, a space-liner murder mystery with big plant monsters, and some of Baker’s best moments as the Doctor. It’s all one story, honest!

The best Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who stories to watch

Christopher Bowen as Mordred crosses swords with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor along with Jean Marsh as Morgaine whilst on location filming for the Dr Who story Battlefield, 16th May 1989. (Photo by Arnold Slater/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Sylvester McCoy (centre) on location shooting Battlefield in 1989, with Jean Marsh as Morgaine (left). (Arnold Slater/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

After a difficult decade, the comeback starts with Paradise Towers, a bonkers serial set in a futuristic high-rise apartment building populated by teenage girl gangs and killer cleaners. Next, the show’s 25th anniversary spans from the action-packed Remembrance Of The Daleks to the bizarre, unsettling fantasia of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy.

Altogether, there’s a strong case for Season 26 being the best TV drama the original run produced. The Curse Of Fenric is a standout serial in a standout season, as Ace (Sophie Aldred) comes of age and McCoy’s Doctor settles a long-running contest with an ancient foe.

It’s annoying that the BBC cancelled the show when it got this good again.

The best Paul McGann Doctor Who stories to watch

Paul McGann (left) with Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook on the set of the made-for-TV Doctor Who movie that was hoped would reboot the series. (PA/Alamy)
Paul McGann (left) with Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook on the set of the made-for-TV Doctor Who movie that was hoped would reboot the series. (PA/Alamy)

The 1996 TV movie was intended as a pilot for a revival starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. That didn’t pan out, but McGann makes a terrific impression as he fights the Master (a never-camper Eric Roberts) in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999.

Of all the flawed but essential Doctor Who viewing, this is the most flawed and the most essential.

The best Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who stories to watch

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in the 2005 Doctor Who episode Father's Day. (BBC/Alamy)
Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in the 2005 Doctor Who episode Father's Day. (BBC/Alamy)

“A girl meets an alien, and together they travel the universe.” That’s how Russell T. Davies opened his pitch for 2005’s revival and Rose is the full 45-minute realisation of that. With many echoes of Spearhead From Space, this superb pilot makes Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) central to the new Doctor’s universe from the get-go. Later in the series, Father’s Day strengthens the emotional core of the new series.

Elsewhere, Dalek puts the Doctor’s greatest enemy into a single-location thriller and makes them terrifying for a whole new generation. And Steven Moffat’s Empty Child two-parter is the standout of Eccleston’s too-short run as the Doctor, tempering behind-the-sofa terror with the ultimate feel-good ending.

The best David Tennant Doctor Who stories to watch

David Tennant in character as The Doctor surrounded by light with the TARDIS behind him. (PA/Alamy)
David Tennant's all-action Doctor in a promo shot for the 2008 series of Doctor Who. (PA/Alamy)

Piper’s exit in the second series is arguably even bigger than Eccleston’s regeneration, but Tennant’s first go-round in the TARDIS made him a household name. Series 2 introduces him to old friends (Sarah Jane Smith in School Reunion) and future companions (Donna Noble in The Runaway Bride) as he makes the role his own.

Series 3 adds Freema Agyeman as the always-undervalued Martha Jones and builds to a blinding run in the back-half of the series, including the Human Nature two-parter, in which Tennant also plays regular human schoolteacher John Smith; Blink, Moffat’s Doctor-lite chiller starring the Weeping Angels; and a dramatic three-part finale that restores the Master (John Simm).

Carey Mulligan with a weeping angel in the 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink. (BBC/Alamy)
Carey Mulligan starred in Steven Moffat's chilling 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink, which gave very little screen time to the Doctor himself. (BBC/Alamy)

Donna returns full-time in Series 4, which sees Moffat teeing up his showrunnership by introducing River Song (Alex Kingston) in the Silence In The Library two-parter, and Davies shooting for an Avengers: Infinity War-level crossover in the two-part finale with the Daleks, Davros, and all the companions. Doctor Who has never been bigger than this!

The best Matt Smith Doctor Who stories to watch

Karen Gillan and Matt Smith appear to float through space in a promotional still for Doctor Who. (BBC/Alamy)
Matt Smith (right) with Karen Gillan (left) in a promotional still for Doctor Who. (BBC/Alamy)

Proving there is life after Tennant, Moffat relaunches the show with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in the TARDIS. The first series is a steel trap of meticulous setups and glorious punchlines, starting with Amy Pond’s childhood in The Eleventh Hour. Of the standalone episodes, the Richard Curtis-written Van Gogh episode Vincent And The Doctor is another extraordinary highlight.

There’s a magical overtone to Smith’s era, not least in A Christmas Carol, a superb festive special in which Moffat and the Doctor take a leaf out of Charles Dickens’ book and appeal to an old miser (the late, great Michael Gambon). Elsewhere, Neil Gaiman writes The Doctor’s Wife, in which the TARDIS goes beyond the known universe and turns into a scatter-brained Suranne Jones.

Matt Smith, John Hurt, and David Tennant in 2013's Day of the Doctor. (BBC)
Matt Smith, John Hurt, and David Tennant in 2013's Day of the Doctor. (BBC)

And of course, there’s The Day Of The Doctor, the revival’s first true multi-Doctor anniversary blowout. Investigating a Zygon plot takes the Eleventh Doctor, the Tenth Doctor, and a bonus past Doctor (John Hurt) on a quest from Elizabethan England to the last days of the Time War, in a dazzling celebration of Doctor Who’s first 50 years.

The best Peter Capaldi Doctor Who stories to watch

Alex Kingston (River Song) and Peter Capaldi (The Doctor) in the 2015 Doctor Who episode The Husbands of River Song. (Alamy/BBC)
Alex Kingston (River Song) and Peter Capaldi (The Doctor) in the 2015 Doctor Who episode The Husbands of River Song. (Alamy/BBC)

A few years on, Peter Capaldi’s passionate and introspective take on the Doctor is long overdue a reappraisal by its detractors. While much of the praise focus on his darker episodes – like the terrifying one-man-show Heaven Sent or the definitive Cybermen story across his finale, World Enough And Time and The Doctor Falls – his era holds other delights.

There’s Mummy On The Orient Express, which most agree is where the Twelfth Doctor found his groove, and The Husbands Of River Song, a Christmas farce that’s also an irresistibly romantic send-off for Kingston’s character.

And go on, treat yourself by counting the multi-Doctor epilogue Twice Upon A Time as the third part of that Cyberman finale, just to cheer yourself up after!

The best Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who stories to watch

John Bishop (Dan), Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor) and Mandip Gill (Yasmin) in a colourful 2021 Doctor Who promo still. (BBC Studios)
John Bishop (Dan), Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor) and Mandip Gill (Yasmin) in a 2021 Doctor Who promo still. (BBC Studios)

A year on from her departure, Jodie Whittaker’s era doesn’t feel as recent as she is. Certainly, it’s worth revisiting her first series and showrunner Chris Chibnall’s early triumphs. Demons Of The Punjab reconfigures Father’s Day as a Partition-era Remembrance Sunday special. The Witchfinders is a cheerful roll around with mud witches and King James I. And It Takes You Away is another one-off that straddles Scandi-noir, Stranger Things, and soap opera all at once.

Your mileage may vary on Chibnall’s major story arc, which starts with the surprise addition of Jo Martin as a previous Doctor in Fugitive Of The Judoon. But if we’re counting The Trial Of A Time Lord as one story, we also have to count Flux, a bingeable six-part serial in which the universe itself comes apart around the Doctor and friends Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) and Dan Lewis (John Bishop).

The Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials start on Saturday, 25 November 2023 on BBC One and iPlayer and continue on 2 and 9 December. Over 800 episodes of Doctor Who are now also streaming on BBC iPlayer.

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