The Best of Doctor Who: “The Girl in the Fireplace” (02.04, 2006)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Euros Lyn

I tried. I really tried to make it un-obvious what the top of the list would be. I tried putting this one at the top. I tried putting “The Eleventh Hour” at the top. I couldn’t do it. You all know what’s going to be first, but you all know it for a reason–it is the best.

This episode was the episode that made it clear that Steven Moffat was the best asset the series had–a talent capable of writing a deep and complex Doctor who had all of the lightness he needed for comedy but all of the darkness he needed to have deep moments and all of the emotional complexity he needed to be explorable and capable of both exploring the storytelling possibilities of the show’s premise and making jokes with a knowing wink about its silliness.

Even in Moffat’s run in the show, during which he has shown a stronger recognition of the Doctor being a storytelling device more than he is a star, we have rarely seen the effects of his transience on the passersby with whom he only makes brief contact. But that is the entire premise of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The episode is not about the Doctor, Rose, or even the clockwork robot monsters they find. It’s about Madame de Pompadour, an independent rich woman in 18th century France who is being haunted by those clockwork androids throughout her life, protected intermittently by the arrival of the Doctor as her savior.

An unpredictable repeated savior like the Doctor has to cause issues, and he does. For all of her independence, intelligence, and power, Madame de Pompadour responds to catastrophe by shouting into her fireplace for the Doctor, not knowing that he cannot hear her because a few times he actually arrives and saves her, a dashing hero answering her call.

And of course, not only does she see the Doctor as a savior from the monsters, but as a savior from the impossible bores who surround her–the eventual adventure that will take her away from a drudging life and the handsome, dashing hero who will take her away from her dully-socially-acceptable husband. She spends her life expecting to get away from it all because of her discovery of the Doctor but never knowing how to do so. She may not know how or when she will get away, but she thinks she can, so she can survive anything but because it’s all short term.

“The Girl in the Fireplace” is great because it’s not just more emotionally thoughtful than the typical Doctor Who episode. It’s by far the most emotionally deep episode in the series’ history. Add in a good monster, some great humor, and some of David Tennant’s best performance, and it makes for one hell of a ride.

And keeping Rose off screen more didn’t hurt, either.

The Best of Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” (05.01, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Adam Smith

I said of “Amy’s Choice” that it was quite possibly the episode I’ve re-watched the most of any episode of Doctor Who. If there’s one I’ve watched more, it’s probably “The Eleventh Hour,” the episode that introduces Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor and Amy Pond* and kicks off easily the strongest season of the series’ history.

*Technically, it also introduces Rory Williams, but he is so ill-defined and ineffectual a character, there as essentially nothing more or less than a plot device, that it hardly feels at all like his introduction. That’s not really a criticism of the episode, of Rory, or of Arthur Darvill, but it’s how this episode plays out.

Everything that Moffat does well is on full display here.

I said that part of his formula is that he loves to build up to a melodramatic crescendo and then about half the time he comically pulls the rug out from under the ending while the other half he lets play out. In this episode, he does both. First, the Doctor celebrates his own accomplishment in saving the world by saying, “Who the man?!” only to see Amy and Rory stare at him as if he has just said the dumbest thing in recorded history and then say, “Okay, that was rubbish. I’m never saying that again.” Then, when he brings the Atraxi back and warns them not to return, concluding, “I’m the Doctor. Basically: run,” and that’s exactly what the Atraxi do.

Moffat’s sense of humor results in a number of great comic moments throughout the episode. There’s the sequence of child Amy Pond trying to get the Doctor food he likes, with his palpable excitement at each attempt matched by his disgust at every result until he ends up with the atrocious-sounding fish fingers and custard. There’s telling Jeff to delete his internet history. There’s his dismissive treatment of Rory in saying, “Not him–the good looking one!” And of course, best of all, there’s, “I’m the Doctor, I’m worse than everybody’s aunt!”

Meanwhile, the new principal characters he introduces are quickly defined in ways that make sense. The Doctor has always been a mixture of deep caring and dismissiveness, perfectly exemplified by his willingness to help a little Scottish girl who is afraid of a crack in her bedroom wall but also his treatment of Rory as though his completely worthless. He’s a genius who can figure out that there is an Atraxi prison on the other side of the wall and the crack is deeper than just between those two but also clumsy enough to take 12 years after he says he will return in five minutes. And the new Doctor’s lightness and zaniness are immediately apparent–he evinces none of the internal darkness of the Ninth or even the Tenth Doctor, and he does bizarre things like taste a shed to figure out that it’s far older than Amy says it is. Amy Pond is an adventurous girl with no fear and more than her share of sarcasm, and that’s clear even before we meet her adult self, with her acceptance of the Doctor’s crazy antics and disbelief that he has a time machine.

And then of course there is the introduction of Karen Gillan. Her limitations as an actor are pretty obvious–seriously, explain what the hell she is doing when she talks to the Doctor about the psychiatrists she “kept fighting” with that bizarre, ineffable look on her face. However, so is her magnetic charisma and attractiveness, as well as the fact that her limitations aren’t crippling–she plays her angry, confused disbelief of the Doctor when she locks his tie into the car perfectly and her eventual acceptance of his reality a moment later is also perfect.

Season Five is the best in the series’ history, and it was obvious that we were in for a great ride from the beginning, because it was so obvious that the series was in good hands. Even if you ignored the great work Moffat had done earlier in the series (Spoiler: He has two more episodes on this list. Yes, he wrote the top three.), “The Eleventh Hour” makes it clear that he knows what he’s doing.

Oh, and “I Am The Doctor” is Murray Gold’s finest work, and this is its first appearance.

The Best of Doctor Who: No. 4, “Amy’s Choice” (05.07, 2010)

Written by Simon Nye

Directed by Catherine Morshead

The top five on this list are really the episodes of Doctor Who that I re-watch again and again. That said, I doubt there is an episode I’ve watched more than “Amy’s Choice.” Its blend of Twilight Zone-style psycho-horror, general humor, and depth of examination of the lead characters makes it one of the strongest entries in the series’ history.

The episode begins with a weird, seemingly nonsensical segment in which a pregnant Amy and ponytail-sporting Rory get a visit from the Doctor, who has apparently not seen them in some time. They live in a very sleepy little village, Rory as the local doctor with Amy his stay-at-home wife. And then we discover that it was a dream, but the trick is, Amy, Rory, and the Doctor all had the same dream.

Then they discover that the TARDIS is floating powerlessly toward a cold star, slowly freezing them all to death, in what appears at first to be reality. Only then a mysterious figure appears, calling himself “the Dream Lord” and telling them that they have to choose which world is reality. What follows is essentially an argument over Amy between the Doctor and Rory, Rory wanting the sleepy village with Amy his wife and the Doctor wanting the world of mystery and danger on the TARDIS. While the conceit is that they are trying to decide which world is real, it’s really that Amy is being forced to choose between her earth fiancee and the madman with a box with whom she ran away the night before her wedding.

Along the way, we learn more about our three leads than we had ever known before. The Doctor is revealed to have a level of self-loathing that goes far beyond the survivor guilt that’s always been visible on the surface but also to be every bit as selfless as he has always appeared, willing to sacrifice himself in one world because Amy does not want to survive in a world without Rory, even though he knows that there is no evidence that it is the dream world. Amy, who always wanted adventure beyond what her loving fiancee desired, turns out to love Rory every bit as much as he does her. Rory, who was ill-defined to this point in the series, is someone who wants not just Amy but Amy in a calm, simple life without danger, excitement, or surprises.

When the Doctor reveals that the Dream Lord is him, it affects Amy’s view of him. Though she doesn’t seem to internalize his level of self-loathing until “The God Complex” in the next season, it’s the first time she seems to see any flaws in the Doctor, recognizing that he has a strangely negative view of himself. It’s a great bit of character development for the series, and that’s what makes the episode special.

Further, few episodes in this series have as many moments of sheer hilarity as this one. It has Amy’s fake labor, her decision that if they’re going to die they should do it wearing ponchos, the Dream Lord’s reference to K-9, and a number of other just fantastic jokes. An episode with this much complexity and thought that also has this much humor is difficult to top.