David Bushman

Curator, Television

October 24, 2012

100 Great Episodes: Doctor Who

by David Bushman

When I was program director at TV Land we collaborated with TV Guide on a special issue titled "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time," published in June 1997. Being the rigid literalist that I am, the concept was anathematic to me, since no one can justifiably identify the 100 greatest episodes of all time without having seen every episode of every program ever made, though you know where that argument got me. (For the record, the number-one episode was "Chuckles Bites the Dust" from The Mary Tyler Moore Show; I have no recollection of whether I concurred, but I certainly have the utmost admiration and respect for the episode.)   

Anyway, what we were really identifying were the favorite episodes of everyone in the room (along with an effective means of generating attention and thus promoting our two brands). Now that I am no longer obligated to sublimate my opinion for the greater good, I'm determined to identify my 100 favorite episodes of all time, even if it takes the rest of my life to do so. I will be revealing these selections from time to time as mood and opportunity arise and—this part is especially important—in no particular order, so that the episode I'm about to anoit doesn't necessarily rank first or one-hundredth or anywhere specific in between; rather, it just ranks.

So, without further fuss ...

Series Title: Doctor Who

Episode Title: "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (2005).
(I cheat a wee bit here because these are technically two episodes, though part and parcel of a single arc, so it seems unfair to halve them.)

Key Personnel: The Doctor is the ninth doctor, portrayed by Christopher Eccleston. It is said that your first Doctor, like your first Bond, will always be your favorite, and you'll get no lip from me. He is accompanied here of course by Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the Buffy Summers–inspired London shop girl and the only regular companion Eccleston had during his single season on the show. The heavily credentialed Steven Moffat (Coupling, Sherlock, The Adventures of Tintin) scripted both episodes, in his pre-showrunner days. These episodes also mark the debut of the swaggering Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), introduced here as an intergalactic conman, though his heroic instincts are already apparent and great things lie in store for him as the protagonist of the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood.

Plot: The TARDIS (the Doctor's time/space-traveling machine) pursues an extraterrestrial cylinder back in time to 1941 London, the height of the blitz. The city is being terrorized by a band of zombie-like creatures whose faces are mysteriously transformed into gas masks made not of leather or some synthetic material, but of human flesh and bone (or, as the Doctor puts it: "Human DNA is being rewritten, by an idiot"). Jack, a 51st Century Time Agent, is posing as an American volunteer captain in the Royal Air Force, and has tricked the TARDIS into pursuing the cylinder to London, hoping to scam the Doctor and Rose into ponying up big bucks for it under the mistaken belief that it is a Chula warship (when in fact it is only a Chula ambulance, though in no way the worthless piece of junk Jack believes it to be).

How Do I Love Thee?: Let me count the ways:

1) Many Who aficianados rank these as the spookiest episodes ever produced, and they get no argument from me. Both unfold entirely over the course of a single night, with director James Hawes incorporating elements of both noir and horror. Certain moments (like Dr. Constantine's transformation, pictured right) are spine-chilling, even watched in broad daylight. But for my money the most terrifying scene occurs in Room 802 of Albion Hospital when the Doctor, Rose, and Jack come to the sudden realization that the rattling of the tape recorder means the tape has ended, so the little-boy zombie leader is no longer speaking via a recording but is right there in the room with them. "Are you my Mummy?" indeed!

2) Though especially dark and foreboding, the episodes sparkle with wit -- even laugh-out-loud humor -- much of it via the romantic tension generated as Jack and the Doctor compete for Rose's affection (or are they competing just because their male egos demand it?). We're talking major double-entendre action: Moffat himself has commented that the word "dance" is a metaphor for sex, and there's a hilarious scene in which Jack ridicules the Doctor's iconic sonic screwdriver ("Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic'?") that has everything to do with tools but nothing to do with screwdrivers.

3) Still, the real payoff here comes in the quieter scenes, like when Eccleston converses with a cat or lauds the spirit of "one tiny, damp little island" that stood up to Hitler's war machine, and of course the dancing scenes themselves. Here's where Eccleston distinuishes himself as the definitive Doctor, at least for me. Yes, he can be as manic and heroic an any Doctor, but I particularly admire his depth, introspection, and tenderness. There's a truly great scene early in part two where Rose tells the Doctor that she trusts Jack because "he's like you, except with dating and dancing." When the Doctor protests that "You just assume I don't dance," Rose replies: "What, are you telling me you do dance?" "Nine hundred years old, me," the Time Lord says. "I've been around a bit. I think you can assume, at some point, I danced." Rose tries to coax a two-step out of the Doctor to Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" (this is 1941), but he's too distracted with the challenge at hand, and eventually their quiet little moment is interrupted by Jack's return. Stick around to the end, though, and watch the Doctor and Rose hoof it up to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which has to be one of the greatest Doctor Who scenes ever.  

Say What?: Lots of great quotes here, like Rose telling the Doctor "I think you're experiencing Captain envy" or lamenting that he doesn't use more high-tech alien gadgetry with the line "Give me some Spock, for once. Would it kill you?" or the Doctor commenting thusly on a young woman's plan to feed the homeless children of London by slipping into temporarily abandoned homes during air raids and divvying up the food: "It's brilliant! I'm not sure if it's Marxism in action or a West End musical." One of the funniest exchanges occurs when the Doctor, Rose, and Jack are on the run from the little-boy zombie, and Jack reaches into his pocket for his sonic blaster but pulls out a banana instead (long story).

The Doctor: "Go, now! Don't drop the banana!"

Jack: "Why not?"

The Doctor: "Good source of potassium!"

So that's my argument for "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances." Whovians, did I pick the right episodes?

(My thanks to intern Diantha Vliet for finding all of the great video and still images you see in this post.)

Doctor Who at the Paley Center in NY

See screenings of classic Doctor Who at the Paley Center:
Oct. 27, Nov. 24, Dec. 29.

  • Best companion? We better not wait, the next one may change both of our choices.

    TV: Sara Jane (I really enjoyed the episode Davies brought her back)

    Books: Professor Bernice Summerfield (who I like better than any of the print versions of the Doctor)

    michael42, November 12, 2012 at 10:09 pm

  • I just finished rewatching all of season four -- Tennant's last -- and was struck by how dark the character became toward the end, confronted by the Master, the return of the Time Lords, and his own impending "death." Lots of anger issues there.

    Maybe as I rewatch seasons five and six I will uncover nuances to Smith's performance that I hadn't noticed before.

    I guess the next argument is which of the companions is best, but that's for another post (Rose, of course).

    David, November 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm

  • I suspect Tom Baker is on most fans list. Tennant versus Smith is influenced by which writer you prefer, Davies or Moffat. After the darkness of Eccleston, Tennant was so much more fun. Tennant's character seemed to be enjoying himself.

    I prefer the Moffat story lines over Davies. I still prefer Baker over Tennant (who would finish third on my list), but Smith has benefited from the best stories of modern WHO.

    I am always amazed by Smith's face, such a young face with old eyes. Smith's Doctor may be played by the youngest actor but it is the oldest, most experienced Doctor. Child like and ancient, with a playfullness of Tennant, the pain of Eccleston, and a wisdom none of the Doctor's before possessed.

    But then we are critics, we rarely admit to liking the most popular:)

    michael42, November 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm

  • Link is right on, Michael. These recaps are great. I am learning a lot about classic Who from our monthly Paley Center screenings. Not long ago we screened the first Doctor Who episode ever aired, with live commentary by the director. Great event. 

    My sense is that Baker and Tennant are the most popular Doctors.

    David, November 11, 2012 at 9:27 pm

  • Over at AV club they are reviewing the classic DOCTOR WHO episodes. This week's says some nice things about #7 (Sylvester McCoy) and his importance to today's version.


    (as always I hope my link works)

    My list of classic Doctor's by favorite is #4 Tom Baker, #2 Patrick Troughton, #7 Sylvester McCoy, #5 Peter Davidson, #3 Jon Pertwee with the other two too unbearable to watch. I also include the movie Peter Cushings part of memories I try to forget.

    michael42, November 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm

  • Barnaby, many thanks for your post. Funny that you talk about mood with respect to Doctor Who: this is one show that always leaves me in a better mood after watching.

    If your favorite episode depends on your mood, do you have a favorite Doctor?

    I will check in with the BBC again on those two episodes.

    David, October 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm

  • Love this post, and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is a great choice to represent Doctor Who. My own choice would depend on the day, and my mood. The wonderful thing about Doctor Who for me is that no matter what my mood, situation, or how I am feeling, I can find a Doctor Who episode to match it. And I can honestly say I can find something to enjoy in every single one of them!

    I love the classic screenings every month. They are a real treat, and Tomb of the Cybermen should look spectacular.

    We need to get the recently recovered missng episodes shown - Airlock and The UnderWater Menace Episode 2!


    Barnaby DWNY, October 25, 2012 at 1:57 pm

  • We are screening the classic episodes here the last Saturday of every month, and while I love them all, my reaction is pretty much the exact opposite of yours -- I would much rather watch the new ones over and over. I really never watch TV to turn my brain off, and having read so many of your analyses of crime shows, I would venture to say you rarely do either.

    David, October 25, 2012 at 10:56 am

  • David, I wonder what you think of the classic versus modern WHO. I find I can watch and enjoy any Tom Baker episode over and over, but can't say the same about the modern episodes. I'm not sure why. I think the simple funny stories allow me to turn off my brain and just enjoy the show, while the emotional rollercoaster of the modern episode is too much of a challenge.

    michael42, October 25, 2012 at 10:13 am

  • Michael, I won't argue with any of the points you make. I of course believe that sci-fi shows functioning on multiple levels are far more interesting, and in the case of the Doctor Who reboot sacrifice none of the fun. The science fiction is intriguing, the show is still extremely funny, there is real character drama (I cannot watch Doomsday, for example, without tearing up, no matter how many times), and the moral/ethical issues frequently raised are challenging to ponder.

    Matt Smith -- now THERE'S an interesting choice. Good for you.

    David, October 25, 2012 at 9:46 am


David Bushman

Curator, Television


Before joining the Paley Center in 1992, David Bushman was senior television editor of Daily Variety in Los Angeles and weekly Variety in New York. He also served as director of programming at TV Land from 1997 to 1998. He has taught and lectured on TV at numerous institutions, but on only one continent. He may be the only person in the world pining for an E-Z Streets reunion.


Noir, Fantasy Baseball, The Pogues, Soccer, Running


David Bushman

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