The popularity of Doctor Who has skyrocketed since Matt Smith took over the role of the 900+ – now 1200+ – year old Time Lord, especially here in the States. When the series triumphantly returned in 2005 is was still very much a cult show with a small, yet devoted fanbase. Over the seasons the show’s audience grew. David Tennant‘s four year run as the Tenth Doctor did much to bring the series into the spotlight; ask almost any new-to-Who fan and they’ll say he was their first Doctor. Today, Doctor Who is a bonafide, mega-hit. In the last few weeks leading to this Saturday’s premiere Matt Smith and new companion Jenna-Louise Coleman have been featured on dozens of magazine covers, appeared on late night talk shows, and their faces are plastered on ads everywhere. Doctor Who is BIG.
Which is only fitting, really, as the series enters its golden anniversary, celebrating 50 years. In this, the first part of a two part list – hey, if they can split their seasons in two, why not us? – we’ll be covering the best episodes of the Eleventh Doctor. These episodes are listed chronologically, not in an order of great to greatest. Ready? Let’s dive in, GERONIMO!
The Eleventh Hour
Beginning moments after The Doctor’s tearful goodbye and regeneration, “The Eleventh Hour” finds him plummeting to Earth, the TARDIS aflame, and the possibilities of new beginnings everywhere. Following the Tenth Doctor would be no easy task, but the Eleventh surprises all of us with his silly yet somber demeanor. This Doctor is darker, having been born out of a great sadness, but you’d hardly know it watching him spit out every bit of food the young Amelia Pond offers. And what a wonderful introduction that serves to The Doctor/Companion relationship, him literally dropping in on a young girl and promising her the adventure of a lifetime.
“The Eleventh Hour” is not only thrilling – The Doctor has 20 minutes to save the world! – but it works well to bring new viewers in. It begins completely fresh, no prior Doctor Who knowledge necessary. We, like Amy, meet a strange man we’re compelled to follow, even when there are dangerous signs everywhere. For one, we see The Doctor’s name inspiring fear in The Atraxi, something his previous incarnation was only building to. Yet, we’re compelled to trust him, almost inexplicably, like one would a parent or a teacher.
“The Eleventh Hour” plays very much like a fairytale, as young Amelia becomes Amy and she’s reminded that even though she’s grown up, magic – in this case The Doctor – can still exist.
Plus, how could we not include the inception of fish fingers and custard!?
In “Amy’s Choice” we’re presented with two starkly different realities. One where Amy and Rory have settled in Leadworth– sorry, Upper Leadworth, and the other has them back in the TARDIS, in peril, as usual. The quandary is, which of them is real? And not only is it up to Amy to decide which reality she wants, but also, which man? Doctor Who has always toyed with the idea of attraction between The Doctor and his Companion, most heavily with the Tenth and Rose, but in “Amy’s Choice” that notion is twisted even more.
She runs away with The Doctor the night before her wedding, the most epic case of cold feet ever, and The Dream Lord – a marvelously creepy performance from Toby Jones – preys on that fear. Through heartbreaking manipulation he forces her into choosing which man she couldn’t live without, and she chooses Rory. This allows Rory to become a Companion in the way Mickey never did. Mickey was a joke who didn’t realize his girlfriend had run off on him, he was the tin dog. And while, yes, Rory gets his own running joke – this episode is his first of many deaths – there’s never any doubt he and Amy are very much the real deal. Something the series’ never lets us forget, all the way to “The Angels Take Manhattan,” where Amy makes a similar, but only choice she ever could.
“Amy’s Choice” has so much deep exploration of The Doctor, his Companions, why he chooses them, how treats them, it could easily have a dissertation devoted to it. The fact that The Dream Lord is in the end a twisted, sinister version of The Doctor speaks volumes about how he sees himself. It’s a brilliant episode highlighting that while The Doctor is fun and jovial, he literally has hundreds of years filled with pain and loss weighing heavily on him.
Vincent and The Doctor
Doctor Who is a special show for many reasons, but I think most of all because of the unlimited possibilities there are for storytelling. With the TARDIS you can go anywhere, anytime, and meet anyone. There have been more than a few historical guest stars on Doctor Who, from Marco Polo to Winston Churchill, but none is more special than The Doctor’s adventure with Vincent Van Gogh.
First off, they’re casting for Van Gogh is spot-on, Tony Curran does such a great job portraying the tormented painter. He’s soulful and a little whimsical, not so unlike The Doctor, but he’s also plagued by visions. The on-screen reproductions of famous locations painted by Van Gogh, like Café Terrace at Night and Bedroom in Arles, are amazing. In some ways “Vincent and The Doctor” reminds me of “The Shakespeare Code,” with The Doctor recognizing how these artists see the universe in a very special way, but that episode never brought me to tears.
At the heart of “Vincent and The Doctor” is a little bit of wish fulfillment. The tragedy of Van Gogh’s life is he never lived to learn what an incredible impact he made on the world of art. That’s where The Doctor comes in, that’s what he can share with Vincent. He takes him to a museum in our time, shows him his own exhibit, and has Bill Nighy – another wonderful guest spot – explain in a beautiful speech how Van Gogh is easily the most important artist, ever.
Sadly, it doesn’t change anything, Van Gogh still commited suicide and never sold a painting in his lifetime. Today we understand what a dreadful disease depression can be, and one quick trip to the future can’t fix that. But as The Doctor explains, “life is a pile of good things and bad things…the good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.” The Doctor shows people how special and unique they truly are, and that definitely adds to anyone’s pile of good things.
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
A Doctor Who season finale is no easy episode to write. It needs to be epic, it needs to be exciting, it also needs to bring together all those loose threads you’ve left dangling over the previous season. “The Pandoria Opens,” and subsequently, “The Big Bang” manage that quite well. And as Moffat Era finales go, this one’s the best. Where later efforts at the big, universe ending, showdowns are muddled, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” is clever, well thought out, and at the same time mind-boggling at just how many loose ends it brings together.
An irresistible trap created for The Doctor from the memories of his Companion by an alliance of his worst enemies is a threat worthy of a finale. What makes “The Pandorica Opens” such a great setup is we didn’t see it coming. We’d never have assumed it was a prison made for The Doctor. The Doctor is good, we trust The Doctor, he only ever wants to save us, but look at the fear he’s inspired in everyone else. Look at all the enemies he’s made. That Pandorica speech is not only a wonderful speech, but The Doctor’s arrogance on display.
The Rory the Roman bit, it works, and never once left me questioning how this allowed him to cheat death. Unlike say The Ponds being forever locked away in an overly paradoxical New York City. There’s barely a loose end. Everything comes back to that little girl with a crack in her wall, living in too big of a house, all alone. It’s why The Doctor kept coming back, it’s why Amy’s family disappeared, it’s why Amy was able to remember those who had been forgot, it’s why The Pandorica need open at all. Try and find another finale, especially of Moffat’s, that wraps up so neatly. Plus, how funny is it once you realize the entirety of this season has occurred on the night before Amy and Rory’s wedding.
And if we’re hashing out finales, “The Big Bang” works almost as well as a send off for The Doctor. Sure, we know it isn’t the end for him, but in that moment when he’s in Amelia’s room recounting the story of how his adventuring began you can sense him facing death. I mean really facing it, no regeneration, this is it. And his moment of reflection is beautiful, as is his acceptance of it all.
We’re given a happy ending, and not a contrived happy ending. They rebooted the universe! All was saved, and since it would have been a universe without The Doctor, and the universe just couldn’t let that stand, Amy Pond remembered and brought him back. The Eleventh Doctor’s first season is the best season there’s been of new Who. Nevermind squabbling over who’s the best Doctor, Season 5 is solid. There’s barely a bad, or even mediocre episode in the bunch. Of where they go from here, I wish could say the same.
Whatcha think? Do you agree with our picks? Is your favorite Eleventh Doctor episode on the list? If not, and it came after Season 5, check back for The Eleven Best Episodes From the Eleventh Doctor – Part 2!