Doctor Who’s Best Episodes: the Steven Moffat Era

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In 2005, Steven Moffat wouldn’t have been as successful a Doctor Who showrunner as Russell T. Davies. The two are very different writers, with Moffat simultaneously introverted and romantic in comparison to Davies’ passionate tenure’s underlying cynicism. The latter was much better suited to introducing the show to a wider audience, and the former was better at interrogating the show’s tropes and characters (much easier to do if you’re going second). The two are in conversation with each other, consciously or not. Moffat started off one of his storylines towards the end of Davies’ final series (and, more pragmatically, Davies didn’t include the Daleks in ‘The End of Time’ because Moffat was planning a Dalek story early in Series 5). 

Indeed, Moffat’s time on the show is in conversation with the entire history of Doctor Who, asking fundamental questions about the character’s identity, ethics and flaws, going right back to the character’s beginnings (near the beginning and end of his first incarnation) and asserting the importance of fear as a motivating factor (which absolutely clicks if you go back and watch the Hartnell stories with that in mind). 

Children and childhood became important on a wider scale in the Moffat era. The show designed to frighten children would feature them more often, and consider their viewpoint. However it would also occasionally kill them, and was more in love with the ideas behind monsters than copyable behaviours, more about nightmares than the playground. 

All of which makes the two distinct Moffat eras, with different approaches for the 11th and 12th Doctors, seem like exercises in chin-stroking cleverness rather than just entertaining telly. In fact Moffat’s background in comedy was as much an influence on his one-liners as it was his plot structures – anyone who remembers ‘Coupling’ won’t be shocked to see Moffat deploying similarly non-linear narratives, constraints and high concepts to his time as Doctor Who showrunner. These meta-fictional genre-hopping adventures weren’t for everyone, but the people who did like it really liked it.

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10. Robot of Sherwood (Series 8, Episode 3, 2014)

Written by Mark Gatiss. Directed by Paul Murphy.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Peter Capaldi TARDIS

This is a story that might not be sought out much for rewatch, but without the broadcast context – a new Doctor, a promise of darker stories, scenes of beheading being deleted due to real-life murders – there’s a lot less pressure on it. Occupying the frequently maligned ‘Bit of a romp’ slot, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is great fun and – being in the third block of Series 8 filming – allows Peter Capaldi to move his abrasive take on the character into a broader and more light-hearted setting. 

Generally speaking the most popular episodes of Doctor Who, the ones that get ranked highly in fan polls and articles like this, are the more serious ones. However within ‘Caves of Androzani’ and ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ are moments of comedy (perhaps pitch-black comedy, but comedy nonetheless) to provide a bit of contrast. Over the course of a series Doctor Who needs some sillier episodes. If it took itself seriously all the time then it wouldn’t be Doctor Who

A show this malleable asks its audience to accept different rules for the different kind of stories it tells, and playing off the grumpiest Doctor in a long time against a thigh-slapping-but-apparently-real-outlaw (Tom Riley) is tonally very clear: this episode is serious about what it does, just not necessarily the way it does it. On those terms this is great, and dismissing it as frivolous is doing a disservice to the need for lighter stories and indeed frivolity in general – there’s a lot to be said for passing 45 minutes enjoyably, and acknowledging the effort required to achieve this is equal to that of an unrelenting horror where everyone dies. 

9. The Eleventh Hour (Series 5, Episode 1, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Adam Smith

Doctor Who The Eleventh Hour Matt Smith

The pressure on this story was tremendous. Russell T. Davies had taken Doctor Who to huge ratings and cultural saturation. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor had become the first incarnation to challenge Tom Baker’s Fourth as the visual shorthand for the character.  There was talk, however briefly, at the BBC of simply winding the show up once Tennant left, which was nixed by Davies.

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Matt Smith has talked about his nerves on taking over the role from Tennant, with someone shouting “Don’t break Doctor Who” at him in the street. Moffat, ever self-deprecating but clearly capable of neuroses (for further details see: everything he’s ever written) was apparently unaware of the talk of cancellation but nonetheless under pressure too (until ‘The Day of the Doctor’, he regarded this as the most difficult script to write). So when this was broadcast in April of 2010 there was a huge sense of cathartic relief as Matt Smith emerged from a crashed TARDIS to say “Can I have an apple?”, because then we knew everything was going to be alright.

With that weight off everyone’s shoulders, the episode moves forward with establishing the fairy tale (which, being largely tales of terror and death set in heightened versions of reality, suit Doctor Who very well) of Amelia Pond and her Raggedy Doctor, and an increased focus on seeing the Doctor through children’s eyes. Smith’s nerves weren’t evident on screen, he stalks through chaos as if silently emitting a cheerful ‘I’m going to go over here and if you’re in the way that’s your problem’ signal, while everyone else catches up around him. Doctor Who, meanwhile, does exactly the same thing, a young/old show that reeks of confidence. How could anyone consider cancelling it after this?

Well, Netflix might, but no one else would.

Maybe Warners.

8. Thin Ice (Series 10, Episode 3, 2017)

Written by Sarah Dollard. Directed by Bill Anderson.

Doctor Who Thin Ice Peter Capaldi Pearl Mackie

Sarah Dollard excels at writing procedurals against an unusual backdrop, stories that can fizzle out in lesser hands, but this one maintains its spark throughout.

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Peter Capaldi said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that he wanted to access the strangeness and magic of William Hartnell (or, more specifically, Hartnell’s impact on a young Capaldi watching on dark winter nights), with the default for the character now being “a cosmic imp”. Certainly Tennant and Smith both have that ostentatiously impish front, but there’s a devilish side to both (more clearly evident in Eccleston’s recovering incarnation). Capaldi clearly relishes the scenes where the night is drawing in and hard choices are about to be made, inverting the character so the hard edges were on the outside, but by Series 10 his Doctor had calmed into a more genial figure (as did Hartnell’s Doctor over the course of the first season). So when we see those hard edges revealed again (in an appropriately icy setting) it’s a potent moment, such as when new companion Bill bluntly asks him if he’s killed someone before, and he tries to be the cosmic imp, tries a line that worked on Clara, and both fail. 

Dollard’s script puts distance between the Doctor’s words and his actions, developing Moffat’s idea that the Doctor is an ideal that the person aspires – but frequently fails – to be. So we have the scene of the Doctor punching Sutcliffe immediately preceded by the Doctor claiming that “Passion fights but reason wins”. It’s an incredibly satisfying moment of hypocrisy in terms of characterisation and racists getting hit in the face. 

This also harks back to the First Doctor – the man who convinced the Thals to fight purely so he could leave Skaro, who considered bludgeoning someone’s head in with a rock – in terms of aggression and pragmatism, but now that’s tied to a more selfless ideal with a tension between theory and what can actually be achieved (see also: the entirety of Moral Philosophy). You can see the development of the character and their origins even before the distinction is realised with the First Doctor’s return in ‘Twice Upon a Time’. 

It also sees, three episodes in, Bill getting sucked into the Doctor’s way of thinking. Interestingly, the Doctor challenges genre-savvy Bill to change the future, rather than preserve the past, which is an inversion of the usual preservation of history dynamic. Bill, reeling from seeing her first deaths, soon starts to see ethical choices the way the Doctor does, just like Clara did in Series 8. 

7. Mummy on the Orient Express (Series 8, Episode 8, 2014)

Written by Jamie Mathieson. Directed by Paul Wilmshurst.

Doctor-Who-Peter-Capaldi-Mummy-on-the-Orient-Express

It’s not that the first half of Series 8 is bad (‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘Listen’ are highlights) but it’s this story that really sees the Twelfth Doctor start to soar. ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ finds the Doctor and Clara finally sitting down to talk about his morality, and instantly the show feels freer, no longer weighed down by the Doctor’s abrasive personality and seeming coldness. 

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However, it’s not merely that the main characters’ relationship can move forward, but that Jamie Mathieson writes the show as if he owns it – there’s a confidence here which belies this being his second script, and the key is the characters who face the titular Mummy. Mathieson makes you care about the cannon fodder, and the nature of the deaths – on a countdown, the monster seen only by the victim – elevates the story. David Bamber as Captain Quell, especially, gets a memorable exit in a scene that’s almost entirely driven by character – the Doctor urging him to narrate his own death in case it provides a clue, Quell snapping with fear and then feeling more alive then he has in years, the Doctor then refusing to grieve because there’s no time, and then Clara lying to Maisie despite the Doctor’s coldness. It’s a rapid series of character moments, full of interpersonal conflicts, and everything lands. It feels like ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’: a sign of a show knowing what direction it’s going to take and with the quality to suggest it’s going to be great.

6. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Series 5, Episodes 12 and 13, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Toby Haynes.

Doctor Who The Big Bang Matt Smith

The first episode is a barnstorming bit of adventure: the entire series turns up to point us towards a base-under-siege that leads to the cliffhanger: the escalating stakes of a series finale taken to its logical conclusion with the entire universe blowing up. This is obviously big, but the best bit is the moment you realise something’s wrong (round about the point where Amy doesn’t remember Rory), and everything that’s been set up falls into place: the Doctor’s big speech, so often performed out of context at conventions, is rendered colossally hubristic. 

Then we get a key feature of Moffat’s finales, which we first saw in ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’ where the second episode is something of a rugpull, moving in a different direction to the momentum of the first. Then, another key feature of Moffat’s finales, is the Doctor’s sacrifice to atone for his mistakes. If you don’t manage to reorientate yourself the first time round, the second episodes of Moffat’s two-part finales really reward repeat viewings.

Amid the fairy tale pay off, where Amy summons the Doctor out of pure belief – the kind she had as a child – we have the quietly revolutionary idea of a companion getting married off and not having to leave the TARDIS. Only took 47 years.

5. Heaven Sent/Hell Bent (Series 9, Episodes 11 & 12, 2015)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Rachel Talalay.

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Doctor Who Hell Bent Peter Capaldi

Heaven Sent’ is, of course, a tour de force of constraint as creativity and one of the single best performances in the lead role. Here the Doctor finds himself trapped in the revolving and shifting corridors and gardens of a castle stuck on an island, pursued by a hooded figure whose touch brings death. Death is very much on the Doctor’s mind as he’s just watched Clara die and is still raw with grief. The episode culminates in a sequence where the Doctor eventually breaks through a diamond wall after millions of years and deaths (dear God, the way Capaldi’s voice breaks when he says “All you need for energy is something to burn”), only to find himself on Gallifrey – a planet he last saw saved in ‘The Day of the Doctor’.

Less highly thought of is its dark inversion ‘Hell Bent’, where we see the same determination the Doctor displayed in ‘Heaven Sent’ used to almost casually dismiss Gallifrey and save Clara. It’s a more melancholy, downbeat episode without its counterpart’s triumphant crescendo. However, that’s the point. This is a story about the Doctor’s heroism, the Doctor’s rage and the thin dividing line between the two: the Doctor on the attack is a dangerous and tragic thing (see also ‘A Good Man Goes To War’), that he would tear down his home – especially after trying so hard to return – to save Clara and endure billions of years of torture out of an ambiguous sense of duty… maybe this is not entirely good? Maybe not something we should just straightforwardly laud?  

Key to all of this is that ultimately the Doctor does not save Clara: Clara does. The Doctor’s plan would not have worked but it’s Clara’s insistence on her death, on her right to choose what happens to her that allows her to go off in her own TARDIS at the end. ‘Heaven Sent’ in isolation might be quite something, but ‘Hell Bent’ elevates it. 

You can see why it divides opinion; slow, dialogue heavy, light on action, showing the Doctor at his worst and actively questioning the heroism of the previous episode… not typical series finale fare, but that’s exactly why its reputation will grow. It improves on every viewing.

4. The Day of the Doctor (50th Anniversary Special, 2013)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Nick Hurran.

Doctor Who Day of the Doctor Matt Smith David Tennant

A miracle day, really. Given the previous series had felt like a downturn in quality (though, looking back, Series 7 has some really strong stories but is dragged down by a couple of poor instalments and Steven Berkoff allegedly screwing up the ending of ‘The Power of Three’) there was nervous excitement about this special. Certainly few people were expecting a potential chart topping behemoth, and Steven Moffat probably wasn’t one of them. The most pressurised script of his career went through various permutations based on actor availability (only Jenna Coleman was contracted when he began writing), BBC edicts (when Christopher Eccleston decided not to return, the BBC vetoed Moffat’s suggestion that another past Doctor return, resulting in the creation of John Hurt’s War Doctor), and good ol’ Intense Fear (this was the 50th Anniversary Special of a beloved show due to be broadcast simultaneously around the world that needed to satisfy fans with multiple and conflicting demands).  

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Serendipity struck, then, in the creation of the War Doctor who represented the original run and thus eased the worry of how to involve past Doctors. We also got a new sense of momentum for the show: not the Doctor’s quest for Gallifrey, so much as a new set of ideas to explore over the next three series. We have the Doctor as an ideal, a code that he tries to live up to but can break, and Hurt’s reaction against the 10th and 11th Doctors would be replicated by Peter Capaldi. Elements of this story would be used to develop the Doctor’s backstory, building towards his relationship with Missy in Series 10 – what’s really strongly developed here is the death toll the destruction of Gallifrey would involve and how this would be one of the foundations moving forward. This is a show for children and so there’s a development of the idea of children on Gallifrey with the number of them lingering in the Doctor’s mind before and after he uses the Moment (an inspired use of Billie Piper), which in turn leads to the child in the barn in ‘Listen’ and the backstory suggested by ‘Hell Bent’ and the Doctor’s conversation with Bill about the Master in ‘World Enough and Time’. Yes, going forward we would have Capaldi’s more wintery Doctor, but also we’d have a show where the Doctor’s childhood loomed larger than ever before.     

3. A Christmas Carol (Christmas Special, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Toby Haynes.

Doctor Who A Christmas Carol Michael Gambon Matt Smith Katherine Jenkins

It’s the best Christmas special isn’t it? Romantic and melancholy and resonant with its “halfway out of the dark” motif. It manages to include flying sharks into a riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – with your actual Michael Gambon as Scrooge – without it seeming a bit much. While Moffat’s cleverness is ostentatious and this can wind people up the wrong way, let’s look at something he said on the ‘City of Death’ DVD extras: “Douglas Adams brought to Doctor Who something completely useless. He brought the revelation of what Doctor Who would look like if it was written by a genius. Well, there just aren’t too many geniuses, so I don’t know that there’s much to learn from the way he did it.”

The thing is, Moffat and Russell T. Davies also demonstrated what Doctor Who would look like if written by a genius: a fricking flying shark in a Dickens adaptation. Doctor Who can do that, almost no other show can, and so frankly Doctor Who should be colliding ideas together like this as often as it can. Moffat has spoken of the show using up ideas at a tremendous rate, and certainly he seems to fritter away concepts that could power a story on a grace note or background detail, or set up one idea only to veer away from it when another one takes over. Yes, every single character he writes is hornier than a teenage unicorn, and yes, you can spend every single episode he writes waiting tensely for sex comedy that would have got written out of the second draft of a Carry On film, but nonetheless we have been spoiled by this double whammy of geniuses running the show, and if there is anything to learn it is that. 

2. Flatline (Series 8, Episode 9, 2014)

Written by Jamie Mathieson. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon.

Doctor Who Flatline Jenna Coleman

While ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ felt like a high concept episode realised extremely well, ‘Flatline’ is a whole other level of creativity. In terms of writing the show like you own it, Mathieson is at an even higher gear here by combining strong characterisation with an eye for the medium: visuals that few other shows could manage that range from the horrifying (the human nervous system on the wall, the juddering march of the boneless creatures) to the joyous (the Doctor’s hand scuttling out of the tiny TARDIS doors like Thing from The Addams Family). Mathieson detailed parts of the creative process on his website, where he describes the meetings that ensued after he was told the story needed to be Doctor-light after he’d already done two drafts. There’s a sense here, though, that Mathieson spent three weeks rewriting ‘Flatline’ and pouring everything he had into it in case he never got to write for the show again (and then, when he delivered the script he was phoned a week later asking if he wanted to write something called ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’).

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Here you can see Clara emerging with renewed confidence, echoing Rose’s brief turn as the Doctor-figure in ‘Turn Left’, and Capaldi’s Doctor lightening up slightly – both things that would be built upon in the following series, but again this is happening while a tense, inventive story unfolds. Mathieson, to no-one’s great shock, would go on to become an established part of the writing team over the next few series.

1. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (Series 10, Episodes 11 & 12, 2017)

Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Rachel Talalay.

Doctor-Who-World-Enough-and-Time-Missy-Michelle-Gomez

You may have noticed in other ranking articles that Den of Geek is rather fond of this story. There’s a legitimate criticism here that, compared with the finales of his predecessor, that Moffat’s are inward-looking, critiquing and playing with the tropes of Doctor Who rather than blockbuster, tell-your-friends, watercooler-moment television. However it’s arguable that this is far from a negative quality. In his first series, Moffat blew up the entire universe. There wasn’t really anywhere to go from there, and so the stakes get more personal: the focus is on the Doctor’s death, Amy and Rory’s departure, and the Doctor’s identity leading into the reveal of the War Doctor. When the universe is at stake or the Earth threatened, it’s with the Doctor defending it from a small town or because the Master is offering a warped kind of friendship. Then we get the Doctor trying to avert Clara’s death and finally him, Bill and Nardole trying to save a small number of survivors from the oncoming Cybermen. The backdrop might be one of famous characters and monsters, but the stakes are not saving a planet, or a universe. That’s fine. Indeed, Russell T. Davies considered it for David Tennant’s regeneration story, but abandoned it when given two specials to fill instead.

You may also have noticed that we often rank ‘Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways’ highly too. Both stories have a sense of completeness for their Doctors, a sense that this is their logical conclusion. For the Ninth it’s having their morality be rewarded, as it influences Rose to save him and means he doesn’t have to commit a double genocide again. For Capaldi’s Doctor, who has been loudly struggling with the idea of being a good man – the Doctor of repute rather than a scared idiot – the fact that he finally drops any pretence or front means a lot. There’s no abrasive quipping, no ends justifying the means, just him and Bill facing almost certain death to hopefully buy some time for a small number of people with the knowledge that his appeal to his best friend hasn’t worked. No one else knows this is happening. 

The scale is perfectly pitched and resolves the character arc in an incredibly satisfying way – Missy and an army of Cybermen hark back to the Series 8 finale, but instead of Danny Pink taking the hit to save the day it’s the Doctor doing it. The Cybermen aren’t something the Doctor can reason with, they’re a threat that needs nullified. Unlike ‘Closing Time’, few people complain about “blowing them up with love” in this episode.

Read our celebration of the finest Russell T. Davies-era stories here.

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