As Doctor Who celebrates 60 years in 2023, and accessing the show’s history has never been easier, there’s no better time to dive into each Doctor’s greatest hits. With six decades worth of TV episodes, comic strips, novels, audio dramas, and spinoffs, tackling the Whoniverse can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated. However, the format of Doctor Who – particularly its classic era – does mean that it’s very easy to just dive in, feet first. For the majority of Doctor Who‘s 60 years, the only prior knowledge needed is that the lead character has a time and space machine that can travel anywhere.
While diving into Doctor Who may have been easier in the days of syndicated screenings on PBS and classic serials being released piecemeal on VHS and DVD, it can be a little harder now. Over 800 episodes of Doctor Who were dropped on the BBC’s iPlayer service, alongside Doctor and Companion reunion series Tales of the TARDIS. Such a bounty of Doctor Who new and old, could be difficult to tackle without a hand to hold, and there’s no better place to start than the best stories for each of the thirteen Doctors.
13First Doctor (William Hartnell) – The Aztecs
Broadcast 23 May – 13 June 1964
“The Aztecs” established many of the show’s rules around time travel, mainly that history cannot be rewritten. The moral dilemma faced by history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) as she contemplates averting the genocide of the Aztecs still holds up today. William Hartnell is on incredible form as the Doctor, showcasing the righteous fury and irascibility that belies a tender and sensitive nature. It’s a masterpiece of a story that sits comfortably alongside modern historical episodes like “The Fires of Pompeii” or “Rosa.” What’s more, the existing color production photos suggest that it’s a prime candidate for colorization following “The Daleks”, giving this classic a brand-new lease of life.
12Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) – The Tomb of the Cybermen
Broadcast 2 – 23 September 1967
“The Tomb of the Cybermen” is Patrick Troughton’s second of four Cybermen stories, and it’s the best one because of its stripped back character drama and paranoia. The Second Doctor, Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) are trapped in the dormant tomb of the Cybermen with a rogue’s gallery of characters with their own agendas. What makes it even more gripping is that the Doctor’s own curiosity is just as dangerous as the scheming of the antagonists. It also features one of the most memorable scenes in all of Doctor Who; the Cybermen awaking and emerging from their tombs, which is often imitated but rarely bettered.
Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith once cited “The Tomb of the Cybermen” as one of his favorite Doctor Who stories.
11Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) – Spearhead from Space
Broadcast 3 – 24 January 1970
It’s no exaggeration to say that Jon Pertwee’s debut serial, “Spearhead from Space” saved Doctor Who from being canceled. Derrick Sherwin completely turned the show around by stranding the Third Doctor on Earth, and making him scientific advisor to UNIT. As an early iteration of the so-called “UNIT Family”, Robert Holmes’ story contains all the base elements that would later be refined by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. It’s also the most cinematic looking Doctor Who serial of the classic era, owing to industrial action requiring the entire story to be filmed on 35 mm out on location. From its nightmarish shop window dummy monsters to its grounded setting, this is the blueprint for RTD’s own version of Doctor Who.
10Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) – City of Death
Broadcast 29 September – 20 October 1979
Written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, “City of Death” is the undisputed high point of the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who. Clearly a huge influence on Steven Moffat, the story revolves around a stranded alien stealing Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and using it to fund his return home. The location shooting in Paris makes “City of Death” something really special, as Doctor Who rarely left England’s Home Counties. It’s also packed full of laugh-out-loud jokes and big sci-fi ideas that stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward grasp with both hands. An excellent gateway Doctor Who story that showcases everything that makes the show so unique.
Tom Baker once reflected that watching “City of Death” is like watching two people fall in love. He would marry his co-star Lalla Ward a year later.
9Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) – The Caves of Androzani
Broadcast 8 – 16 March 1984
No story challenged the Fifth Doctor’s nice guy status like “The Caves of Androzani” by Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes. Regularly voted as one of the very best Doctor Who stories, it sees Peter Davison’s incarnation risk everything to save his new companion Peri (Nicola Bryant). It’s a fascinating story because it’s one of the rare times that there are no redeemable characters other than the Doctor and Peri. From the gun runners, to the warring factions, to the odious business people on Androzani Major, everyone is beyond the Doctor’s help. With the odds so highly stacked against him, it’s only by sacrificing his life to save Peri from Spectrox poisoning that the Fifth Doctor can really win.
8Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) – Revelation of the Daleks
Broadcast 23 – 30 March 1985
There are certainly better Dalek stories, but “Revelation of the Daleks” is the point at which Colin Baker’s Doctor Who era really clicks into place. Written by Eric Saward, “Revelation of the Daleks” is an unrelentingly bleak story about the desperate attempts by Davros (Terry Molloy) to remain relevant and eventually avenge himself against his creations. However, unlike other stories in Colin Baker’s first season, the Sixth Doctor is a far more reassuring presence for Peri, which softens the story’s harder edges. There are also some fantastic scenes between the Doctor and Davros that are up there with Tom Baker and Michael Wisher’s confrontation in “Genesis of the Daleks”.
7Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) – The Curse of Fenric
Broadcast 25 October – 15 November 1989
When Doctor Who ended in 1989, it was experiencing a real creative high point and “The Curse of Fenric” is the highlight of the Sylvester McCoy era. Arguably Doctor Who‘s first attempt at a story arc in the modern sense of the term, it tied up the mystery of the Seventh Doctor’s companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) in a truly powerful way. It’s full of the emotional character drama that viewers expect of modern Doctor Who, and touches on timeless themes like generational trauma and the futility of war. It’s also incredibly atmospheric and unsettling, with the British fog and rain playing a key role in establishing the ominous tone.
Fans can choose from either the as-broadcast 4-part serial or the feature-length edit of “The Curse of Fenric”, which forms the final episode of Tales of the TARDIS season 1.
6Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) – The TV Movie
Broadcast 14 May (US) & 27 May (UK) 1996
Paul McGann’s Doctor Who era was tragically cut short after just one night, when the pilot movie failed to perform as Fox had hoped. While Paul McGann’s Doctor would go on to lead multiple series of novels, audio adventures, and comic strips, there’s only one full-length TV adventure in his era. The Doctor Who TV Movie is nowhere near as terrible as some would suggest, and McGann’s performance is certainly a highlight. Matthew Jacobs’ script takes the basic elements of Doctor Who and updates it for a 1990s network TV audience to give a tantalizing glimpse into what an American co-production version of the show would have looked like.
5Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) – The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Broadcast 21 – 28 May 2005
In his autobiography I Love the Bones of You, Christopher Eccleston cites “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” as his favorite script from his Doctor Who era. It’s easy to see that in Eccleston’s performance as he gives his most “Doctorish” take on the central character of the whole series. The first two episodes written by future showrunner Steven Moffat, “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” is full of the darkness, comedy, and innuendo that would later define his own era of Doctor Who. However, here he gets the balance just right and gives audiences a genuinely creepy and unsettling Doctor Who two-parter that ultimately comes down to the love between a mother and son.
4Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) – Human Nature/The Family of Blood
Broadcast 26 May – 2 June 2007
Steven Moffat’s “Blink” may be the best Doctor Who story from David Tennant’s era, but he’s not actually in it all that much. “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” is, therefore, a far better showcase for the actor’s abilities. The idea of turning David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor into a human hits harder than in the original Seventh Doctor novel. David Tennant is excellent as both John Smith and the Tenth Doctor, and it’s heartbreaking when Smith has to change back to save the village. It’s a poetic tragedy that reminds viewers of the fact that the Doctor is doomed never to be the romantic hero that can settle down after their adventures are ended.
3Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) – The God Complex
Broadcast 17 September 2011
“The God Complex” by Toby Whithouse stands out in Matt Smith’s second season of Doctor Who because it’s free from the weight of the season’s larger arc. It therefore allows Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill to be an uncomplicated TARDIS team in a solid and unforgettable story. Set inside a creepy hotel, the Doctor, Amy and Rory are forced to face their fears. It’s Doctor Who doing The Shining in a way that only a family sci-fi show on the BBC can, and is therefore a perfect showcase of the ambition and invention that have defined Doctor Who for 60 years.
2Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) – Heaven Sent
Broadcast 28 November 2015
Doctor Who is often at its best when it’s testing the very boundaries of what the show is capable of. Recently voted the best Doctor Who story of all time by readers of Doctor Who Magazine, “Heaven Sent” is the perfect example of this. It’s a masterclass in writing, direction, acting and composing by Steven Moffat, Rachel Talalay, Peter Capaldi, and Murray Gold. “Heaven Sent” is the perfect demonstration of why the Doctor is such a unique TV hero; they’re never cruel or cowardly, and will spend billions of years punching a wall of diamond if it means that they can save their best friend.
1Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) – The Haunting Of Villa Diodati
Broadcast 16 February 2020
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is one of many brilliant episodes for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor during the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who. It’s also the best showcase for each aspect of her character, as it has both a great deal of comedy and deadly serious portent for the future of the universe. Doctor Who is always at its best when it’s juggling goofy humor with universe-ending catastrophe. “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” has this in spades, from ghost sandwiches and Lord Byron’s attempts to flirt with the Doctor to the galactic implications of giving the Lone Cyberman what he wants. It’s a perfect example of everything that Doctor Who has come to represent in the past 60 years.