As I explained in my ‘The Worst of the 12th Doctor’ post, I’ve been a huge fan of Doctor Who from a young age, and since the show’s revival in 2005, I’ve been longing for a Doctor more reminiscent of the classic stars of Who. Ever since his first, full episode, Deep Breath, when Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor looked Clara dead in the eye and laid down the new law by telling her “I’m not your boyfriend”, I knew that this was the Doctor I was waiting for.
While there have been some low points in the three series where Capaldi has reigned as the incumbent Doctor, there have been some extremely strong points too. There are, of course, a wealth of other episodes that are also pretty good (like The Caretaker), others that are pretty bad but don’t quite rank as ‘The Worst’ (The Lie of the Land) and some that are fine, but rather forgettable and not worth talking about (Sleep No More). But today, we’re looking at the absolute best of the twelfth Doctor. Once again, this is in absolutely no order, but this time, we’re adding on a few extra episodes, because the world can always use more Who:
[Once again, prepare for spoilers aplenty from the entirety of Peter Capaldi’s run]
The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat
There was a fair amount of Steven Moffat-bashing in the previous post. That doesn’t represent a dislike of Moffat on my part; it’s more an acknowledgement that Moffat can do a lot better. While the man in charge has written some of the absolute worst episodes of Capaldi’s tenure (like the aforementioned Death in Heaven and Hell Bent) he’s also written some of the best.
So, once again, before we dive into the best of the best in regards to Capaldi’s full episodes, first, we’re going to take a look at The Day of the Doctor; an episode where Capaldi makes a brief cameo appearance, and that, as a whole, represents the best of the best when it comes to Doctor Who episodes.
There are a plethora of reasons why this is such a spectacular episode. It’s fun, it’s well-written, well-acted, slathered in Doctor Who lore, and most importantly, not afraid to poke fun at itself. There’s a lot of TV out there that takes itself too seriously, and in this spectacular episode, Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat, is more than willing to acknowledge it’s flaws in a respectful and humorous ways. Whether that be critiquing the annoying NuWho habit of wielding the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, or acknowledging that there has been a major increase in romantic sub-plots; nothing is off-limits in this episode.
Most of these critiques are delivered by the late, great John Hurt, who gives a fantastic turn as the ‘War’ Doctor. While it’s a shame Christopher Eccleston turned down the chance to return to the show for this 50th anniversary special, the show is all the better for having brought Hurt into the Who mythos. He bounces off David Tennant and Matt Smith with a brilliant amount of chemistry, as each Doctor brings their own brilliance to the table. Furthermore, it gives a great character study in a way only Doctor Who can, all the while exploring some of the shows more bombastic elements, while focusing predominantly on a more down-to-earth story. Or at least, as down-to-earth a story has Doctor Who can have.
And on top of all that, the show unites all thirteen Doctors as they work together to save Gallifrey in a scene that can only make Whovians tingle with delight:
#1: Heaven Sent, by Steven Moffat
In the same way that The Day of the Doctor proved to be a fascinating character study into the Doctor, and allowed actors John Hurt, David Tennant and Matt Smith to show off their various Doctor-y quirks; both those unique to the actor and those embedded in the character, Heaven Sent allows Capaldi to do the same.
The episode see’s the Doctor trapped inside the confession dial, still hurting after just seeing his companion, Clara Oswald die in Face the Raven (another serious contender for this list). What follows is the Doctor navigating a strange castle in the middle of the ocean, which resets each room every day, except for one mysterious wall of diamond that blocks off his escape. The only other occupant of the castle is a creepy creature from the Doctor’s past, who pursues him throughout the episode, and who can kill all those it touches.
What ensues is a whole episode where the only person Capaldi truly has to bounce off of… is himself. It gives him a chance to flex all his acting muscles as he charms and dazzles the audience, dashing through empty corridors and evading a monster that, unlike many of its modern predecessors, does have the capacity to scare you.
And as the twists of the episode slowly begin to come together, with the Doctor realising that he has been reliving the same day over and over again for several billion years, it becomes a tale that is both inspirational and utterly heart-breaking; a testament to the character of the Doctor, all thanks to a fantastic performance by Peter Capaldi, and a script that reminds us how Steven Moffat got the job of show-runner.
It also introduces the Twelfth Doctor’s best, most beautiful and criminally underused costume. Another plus.
#2: Flatline, by Jamie Mathieson
Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was a divisive companion. From her inception, she seemed to be yet another Who hero who defied the laws of time and space by showing up at three different points in time before travelling with the Doctor, and being dubbed ‘the impossible girl’. Her somewhat forced relationship with the Doctor lead to the atrocity of the episode Hell Bent, wherein the Doctor threatens to break reality to save her from death. Furthermore, that episode gave the ultimate cop-out when she was indefinitely resurrected and allowed to go travelling across the universe with her own TARDIS.
She was often the focus of many Moffat-isms, with her intellect and potential fluctuating wildly depending on whatever situation the episode presented, and there was often the feeling that she was almost too ‘perfect’. However, in spite of all that, Coleman had some cracking episodes, particularly towards the end of Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor.
However, her best episode was, without a doubt, Flatline. Flatline saw an invasion of creatures from a 2D dimension, who began leaching the outer dimensions of the TARDIS, causing it to shrink, with the Doctor trapped inside. Armed with his psychic paper and sonic screwdriver, Clara stepped up for the episode to be the Doctor, even finding her own companion in the loveable Rigsy. Whereas in other episodes, Clara’s overly witty dialogue was a bit on-the-nose, in Flatline, it all made sense.
Clara was able to poke jokes at the show and the character of the Doctor, all the while dealing with her own personal life and becoming a hero truly worth admiring. Of course, at the end of the day, it is still the Doctor who swoops in to banish the Boneless back to their home dimension, but only after Clara’s ingenious thinking and the natural charm of Jenna Coleman lead to her amounting a band of followers and concocting a plan for both his, and the TARDIS’ revival.
On top of all that, the villains of the piece are genuinely creepy, and writer Jamie Mathieson scripts one of the stand-out speeches from series’ eight through ten. So good, in fact, that part of it has been quoted in this article’s title:
#3: World Enough and Time, by Steven Moffat
With a few exceptions, the best episodes of Doctor Who are generally the penultimate episodes. While they do, sadly, herald the series’ ever nearing end, and potentially, the departure of the incumbent Doctor, they usually have the highest stakes and the benefit of having their story seeded throughout the series before it. Series one saw the return of the Daleks and the reveal that they controlled the Earth after a slow build from episodes like Dalek and The Long Game. Series three gave us the return of the Master. Series four cleverly referenced various planets going missing, leading up to Davros and the Daleks building an engine of universal destruction. Series five saw the Doctor investigating the cracks in the universe, unaware that they were caused by his own exploding TARDIS. Series eight featured hints of the afterlife, guarded by the illusive Missy.
The penultimate episode of series ten held the same level of quality, but this time, it was a little different. The overarching theme of the series was the mystery of the Doctor’s vault, and Missy’s imprisonment within. Then, we got our first big switch up as the secrets of the vault were revealed half a series early, and the theme instead changed to that of Missy’s redemption.
These misdirects continued into the episode itself. Unfortunately, the surprises weren’t always that surprising on account of the fact that the BBC’s publicity told us who and what would be showing up in the episode, but ignoring that, there’s no denying this was a big one.
Instead of going bombastic straight up, the episode toyed around with science and gave us a very personal through line wherein Bill was trapped on the opposite end of a 400-mile-long ship to the Doctor, with a new character, Mr. Razor, as her only friend. Razor’s presence was a welcome addition to the cast, bringing humour, compassion and a little more heart to what could have been a very gloomy episode.
And then Moffat ripped that heart out by revealing that Mr. Razor was the Master in disguise the whole time, in an excellent series of call-backs to the Masters of the seventies and eighties. And then he took it a step further, by revealing the ‘patients’ stumbling around throughout the episode were actually the progenitors of the Cybermen, showing that while we may scoff at some of the monster designs from Doctor Who’s early years, when written correctly in the right setting, they can still be hell’a creepy.
Again, all of those surprises were undermined somewhat by the fact that the BBC told us all of this before the episode aired, but even so – World Enough and Time has garnered critical acclaim since its release, with some arguing that it is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who since 2005.
#4: Robot of Sherwood, by Mark Gatiss
A lot of people may dismiss Robot of Sherwood as an overly campy Doctor Who episode, but there’s a wealth of treasures in it’s 45-minute run-time. Alongside being an incredibly fun story, it delves into the idea of what it is for a man to gain a mythic status, and parallels the Doctor’s experiences with that of Robin Hood, one of the great British fictional heroes.
As it comes early on in Capaldi’s run, it also has the unenviable task of continuing to cememnt the twelfth Doctor’s character. As is the case for most episodes following a regeneration scene, the end of The Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath still saw Twelve’s personality simmering under the surface, and so it’s not until Into the Dalek and Robot of Sherwood that we truly get to see what he’s all about.
Faced with a character as whimsical as Robin Hood, the Doctor is presented as a stern, confrontational hero; a far cry from Matt Smith and David Tennant’s Doctor’s, who most likely would revel at the chance to meet the green-hued hero. Instead, Capaldi’s Doctor takes on a position of antagonism, refusing to believe in childish fairy tales and exclaiming his severe dislike of ‘bantering’. But what’s truly beautiful about this episode is that despite all of that, Capaldi’s Doctor still fits in to the silliness of stories like this, and is not too straight-laced to avoid engaging Robin Hood in a friendly sword-fight, wielding nothing but a spoon. Many actors may not be able to strike that balance of severity and silliness, but Capaldi does so effortlessly.
Of course, Capaldi isn’t the only shining star of the episode. Robot of Sherwood is also wonderful because it demonstrates Doctor Who’s capacity for bringing out the best in its guest-stars. Tom Riley is delightful as Robin Hood, as is Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Yet, for all Miller’s great moments, it’s easy to imagine that the episode would be just as great if it was just one, long double act of Capaldi’s Doctor and Riley’s Robin butting heads and continually trying to outdo one another as the greater hero, which a lot of this episode focuses on.
#5: The Zygon Inversion, by Peter Harness & Steven Moffat
We’ve had quite a few moments during Peter Capaldi’s run where stories have made a critique of contemporary issues. This most recent series has seen the Doctor and his friends making cracks at the lives of students, capitalism, and as is expected, Donald Trump.
However, one of the strongest critiques against a contemporary issue came in the two part Zygon story from series nine. As the story works its way towards the climax, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart finds herself in a face off with ‘Bonnie’, a Zygon posing as the Doctor’s companion, Clara. Each of them stands ready to start a war, with their hands held above one of the two ‘Osgood boxes’; boxes that, the Doctor warns, will have dire effects for the human race and the hidden Zygon population, depending on what button or boxes is pushed.
Before they can do anything, however, the Doctor tries to reason with both parties, giving an incredibly heartfelt speech that shits all over the concept of war, arguing the many cons and highlighting, in the end, the pointlessness of any conflict that leads to loss of life, citing the blood on his own hands, and the thousands of screams he hears every time he closes his eyes. At any other time, such a speech may be poo-pooed as being overly sentimental, but in today’s world, where terror attacks and hate crimes are far too common, the speech, and the episodes ideals in general, become especially poignant:
Furthermore, this is one of the most interconnected episodes of Capaldi’s run, calling back to Death in Heaven and The Day of the Doctor, alike. It is also a bit of a gem because it’s one of the rare examples of a two-parter where the second episode is just as good, if not better, than the first.
#6: Dark Water, by Steven Moffat
Back in 2014, when series eight frequented our screens, we were still trying to gauge the new Doctor and the elements his show would have. By episode eleven, we’d already had crazily campy episodes like Robot of Sherwood, darker episodes like Into the Dalek, downright terrible episodes like In the Forest of the Night and thought-provoking episodes like Listen. We had no idea what to expect (assuming, once again, that you hadn’t had the BBC’s publicity ruin any twists for you as they are want to do); the show could go anywhere for its finale. All we knew (or rather, hoped) was that we may finally get some answers about Missy’s identity, and that it would probably involve the afterlife in some way, shape or form.
And what we got was one of the darkest episodes to date. After Clara’s boyfriend, Danny Pink, got hit by a car (huzzah!), the Doctor and Clara attempted to travel to the afterlife itself, to bring her boyfriend back from the dead. Instead, what they found was a mysterious institute, where scientists did their best to make sure the dead were comfortable after passing on, because, they claimed, the dead remained conscious.
Moffat tends to pray on humanities fears when writing his episodes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This one did. I, for one, have had a dream where I remained conscious after death, and it really shook me to my core, so seeing my fears realised in this episode was a bit of a gut-punch, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Whether you’ve had a similar dream, fear what comes after death or are worried for the fate of a departed loved one; Moffat’s writing had the potential to throw audiences into disarray with just one simple sentence and a nerve-wracking premise.
And then, on top of all that, we got a menacing reveal of the Cybermen, who had targeted Earth’s ‘key strategic weakness’ (that the dead outnumber the living) as Missy revealed herself to be the Mistress, because she ‘couldn’t very well keep calling [her]self the Master’, could she? With that revelation finally out in the open, we were left to desperately wonder how the Doctor could save the Earth from one of the biggest Cybermen armies ever, while the Doctor was forced to ponder why his greatest enemy had snogged him earlier in the episode, and pull a facial expression that evoked the time Han Solo realised Leia had snogged her brother to get back at him.
#7: Mummy on the Orient Express, by Jamie Mathieson
As you probably have come to terms with by now, I love Doctor Who. It’s my favourite television show; one of my favourite works of fiction; and there’s a very strong chance it always will be. While I have rounded up some of what I think the best episodes of Capaldi’s run are, I’ve barely had the chance to touch on all the brilliant, zany stories that are out there.
Given the chance, I could probably rant at you for days on end about my love of the show, my favourite episodes and why I’m so enamoured with particular scenes. But judging from my sister’s reaction whenever I get started on her, you’d probably grow pretty tired of it very quickly and wish me gone from your presence.
What I’m getting at here is that I love a lot of Doctor Who, but this final entry in particular is one of my favourites.
Mummy on the Orient Express is a fabulous episode; it calls back to an earlier Matt Smith story; it sees Capaldi channel the voices of various Doctor’s before him (in a sort of mental board meeting) and it ushers in the return of the jelly baby – all the while, just telling a good one-off story.
While Mummy on the Orient Express does have moments that are crucial to the overall arch of series eight, it works perfectly as a stand-alone that you can flick on, sit back, relax and enjoy.
It has all of the features mentioned in the above entries. It’s expertly written, has a compelling and creepy monster, an intriguing mystery, loveable side-characters, keeps Danny Pink’s involvement to a minimum and brings out excellent performances from Coleman and Capaldi.
In my last article, I wrote about how Extremis offered nothing of true value to the series. Part of the reason I was so annoyed is because dumping a pointless episode like that into a series deprives us of potential gems like this one. An episode that has so little to fault that it’s hard to even pick up on what the faults may be. It’s a true Doctor Who story that doesn’t rely on timey-wimey nonsense, sex appeal or grandiose villains who hide their dullness behind a put-on accent.
It’s just the Doctor, and his companion, travelling in the TARDIS; seeing new wonders, saving lives, making friends and doing the right thing.
It’s episodes like this that show why Peter Capaldi should stay on for another series. He’s the perfect actor for the role, but he hasn’t always been blessed with the best stories.
Unfortunately, the BBC have finished filming the Christmas Special, so both Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat have left the TARDIS. We’ll see them one last time as they return to our screens alongside the First Doctor, but then, that’s it.
And I’ll be honest with you…
I don’t want him to go.