On New Year's Day, Doctor Who debuted its second Festive Special, "Revolution of the Daleks." If the episode left you eager to revisit Doctor Who, or if you made the New Year's resolution to watch or get caught up on the series finally, there's good news for you. The entirety of modern Doctor Who is streaming now HBO Max. The BBC relaunched its long-running sci-fi series in 2005 and It immediately garnered newfound popularity at home and abroad, cultivating a new generation of fans. The series is now 12 seasons into "New Who," which can be intimidating for a newcomer or even fans looking to revisit the show. The series has gone through three showrunners, five lead actors, and lots of beloved companions in the 15 years since it made its return to television, which sometimes adds to the confusion.
Most Doctor Who episodes have something worthwhile about them, but not all of them are essential. If you're ready to start with episode one and watch the entire series, go for it! It's a worthwhile endeavor. If you want a guide to the best and most essential stories in the series, that's where we come in. We've compiled a guide to the must-watch Doctor Who episodes for your binge-viewing pleasure.
Doctor Who is like a long-running superhero comic in that occasional creative team shakeups leads to periodic changes in tone and style. These moments are excellent places to jump into the series. Here are some starting points:
- Season 1 - Star at the beginning! Starting here is what we recommend for most newcomers. Russell T. Davies relaunched Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. By Season Two, David Tennant replaced Eccleston and is the definitive Doctor for many fans. Davies loved to write stories about modern trends and events with a light-hearted and accessible tone.
- Season 5 - Steven Moffat, the breakout writer of the Davies era, took over as showrunner after Davies left. Moffat was less into modern allegory and more interested in clever (some say too clever) story structure and examining Doctor Who's internal mythology. Matt Smith debuts as the Doctor in this season. At first, he isn't too different from Tennant, making it a smooth transition, but he drifts from his predecessor as time goes on.
- Season 8 - This season isn't the major overhaul that Season 5 was since Moffat remains the series' showrunner. However, Peter Capaldi replaces Smith as the Doctor and brings a different energy to the series. If you want a Doctor that's a little less goofy and a little more the adult in the room, start here.
- Season 10 - This season is still Moffat as showrunner and still Capaldi as the Doctor, but is even more self-contained than previous seasons. If you want a Doctor Who taste-test, this isn't a bad season to try out.
- Season 11 - Chris Chibnall, another Davies era writer, takes over a new showrunner, and Jodie Whittaker becomes the first woman to play the Doctor. It's hard to talk about Chibnall's era in the same way we talk about Davies and Moffat's because it's still early. Thus far, he seems to be a balance of Davies and Moffat, with his first season leaning more on Davies' style and his second season, Season 12, digging into the mythology the way Moffat did. If you want to get current with Doctor Who as quickly as possible, start here.
Wherever you choose to start, we've got a season by season guide at the ready. Keep reading to begin your journeys in the TARDIS:
The first season gives us Christopher Eccleston's only performances as the Ninth Doctor. We're also introduced to Billie Piper as companion Rose Tyler.
- Episode 1 - "Rose": Meet Rose and the Doctor. It's best to start at the beginning to get a sense of what the show is all about.
- Episode 6 - "Dalek": Russell T. Davies reintroduces The Doctor's greatest foes, and reveals how much the Doctor has changed since the original series went off the air.
- Episode 8 - "Father's Day": This one is tricky. On one hand, it introduces some time travel rules that the series goes on to ignore at almost every turn. But the character work it does for Rose and the Doctor makes it a worthwhile watch.
- Episodes 9 & 10 - "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances": The peak of the Ninth Doctor's character arc is, for many fans, the episodes where Doctor Who gots it hooks in for good. Also, we get the first appearance of the lovable Captain Jack Harkness.
- Episodes 12 & 13 - "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways": The culmination of this season's big mystery, and Eccleston's farewell.
The show's second season introduces David Tennant as the ever-popular Tenth Doctor. For the reboot era's oldest fans, this is the beginning of the defining era for the series.
- Episode 1 - "The Christmas Invasion": The show's first Christmas Special also serves as our introduction to the new Doctor.
- Episode 3 - "School Reunion": Sees Elisabeth Slayden reprising her role as classic Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith.
- Episode 4 - "The Girl in the Fireplace": A Doctor Who fairytale.
- Episodes 5 & 6: - "The Rise of the Cybermen"/"Age of Steel": Reintroducing Doctor Who's other best-known alien antagonists with a new spin.
- Episodes 8 & 9 - "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit": One of Doctor Who's more philosophical stories.
- Episodes 12 & 13 - "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday": The bittersweet conclusion to the Cybermen story.
The third season keeps the Tenth Doctor but brings a new companion into the TARDIS. It also builds up to the return of the Doctor's archenemy.
- Episode 1 - "The Runaway Bride": This one is mostly here because it introduces a character who will become important next season.
- Episode 2 - "Smith and Jones": Meet our new companion, Martha Jones.
- Episode 8 & 9 - "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood': An excellent two-parter that gets to the very core of who the Doctor is.
- Episode 10 - "Blink": Routinely cited as one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever, as it should be.
- Episodes 11-13 - "Utopia"/"The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords": The return of The Master in an epic three-parter.
David Tennant's final full series pairs him with fan-favorite companion Donna Noble. It also begins the Russell T. Davies farewell tour.
- Episode 1 - "Partners in Crime": The Doctor reunites with a familiar face.
- Episode 2 - "The Fires of Pompeii": A pretty good episode that becomes surprisingly important later on.
- Episodes 8 & 9 - "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead": An absolutely thrilling two-parter that introduces River Song, who becomes of huge importance in later seasons.
- Episode 10 - "Midnight": A tense standalone episode. Some of Davies' best writing.
- Episode 11 - "Turn Left": An unusual and emotional prelude to the end of the season.
- Episodes 12 & 13 - "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End": This is basically Avengers: Endgame for the Davies era of Doctor Who.
Between Season Four and Season Five, David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor in a series of four specials. The episodes are mostly self-contained, and you can safely ignore the first two. The final special, a two-parter, is essential viewing.
- "Planet of the Dead" - A stellar episode that includes the prophecy that will drive David Tennant's Doctor through the remainder of his time on the series.
- "The Waters of Mars" - It's a standalone story, but it does a great job of setting the tone for what comes next.
- "The End of Time" - Ten's final farewell sees him facing the Master again and facing the hard truth about who he's become.
Matt Smith debuts as the Eleventh Doctor. Also, Stephen Moffat takes over as showrunner, which results in a new look and new tone for the series.
- Episode 1 - "The Eleventh Hour": The new cast debuts in what, for my money, is the best introductory episode of the series.
- Episodes 4 & 5 - "The Time of the Angels"/"Flesh and Stone": The Weeping Angels return.
- Episode 7 - "Amy's Choice": The relationships between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are put to the test.
- Episode 8 & 9 - "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood": This two-parter might be skippable if not for the last few minutes, which you absolutely cannot miss.
- Episode 10 - "Vincent and the Doctor": This episode about Vincent Van Gogh is a fan-favorite.
- Episode 11 - "The Lodger": James Corden guest stars in a charming, light-hearted episode that serves as a nice breather before the finale.
- Episodes 12 & 13 - "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang": The entire season has been building up to this!
The Doctor and his two companions from Season Five return. This season is all about the mystery that's laid out in its first episode.
- Episodes 1 & 2 - "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon": The Doctor heads to the United States and finds a mystery only he can unravel.
- Episode 4 - "The Doctor's Wife": A fan-favorite episode, written by Neil Gaiman, that redefines the Doctor's relationship to the TARDIS.
- Episodes 5 & 6 - "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People": This two-parter isn't bad, but it's another one where you're really here for the last few minutes.
- Episode 7 - "A Good Man Goes to War": A game-changing episode that answers some lingering questions about a fan-favorite character.
- Episode 8 - "Let's Kill Hitler": Answers whatever questions about said character still linger, and is silly fun on top of everything else.
- Episode 10 - "The Girl Who Waited": This one is for the Rory and Amy fans.
- Episode 12 - "Closing Time": James Corden returns!
- Episode 13 - "The Wedding of River Song": This one is a long time coming.
This season is unusual in that it was serialized in two parts, which makes the season-long storytelling a little awkward. It brings back Smith as the Doctor and says goodbye to the Ponds while introducing the new companion, Clara Oswald.
- Episode 1 - "Asylum of the Daleks": Reactions to this season-opener were mixed, and opinion remains divided, but the story is important going forward.
- Episode 4 - "The Power of Three": Not the best-loved episode of the show, but it introduces a recurring guest character.
- Episode 5 - "The Angels Take Manhattan": Amy and Rory's sendoff.
- Episode 6 - "The Snowmen": Here's where that bifurcated season structure gets a little weird. We get a Christmas Special in the middle of the season. But it's a good one! It brings back a classic Doctor Who villain, and furthers the mystery of "the impossible girl."
- Episode 7 - "The Bells of St. John": This episode kicks off the second half of the season with a proper introduction to companion Clara Oswald.
- Episode 10 - "Hide": A standalone adventure. A fun, horror-tinged episode.
- Episode 14 - "The Name of the Doctor": There's a lot going on here. We get more on "the impossible girl" mystery, Trenzalore, and some stage-setting for the two big episodes to follow. If you've never watched the series before, enjoy picking your jaw up off the floor after that final scene.
The 50th Anniversary
Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary (counting from the classic series' first episode, obviously) between Season Seven and Season Eight. The epic 50th-anniversary special brought back David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor to team up with Matt Smith as Eleven, as well as Billie Piper in a new role, for a story that went back to the Time War that's been hanging over the Doctor since the new series began. Then Smith got his farewell episode in Christmas Special that followed.
- "The Day of the Doctor" - The 50th Anniversary Special with Smith, Tennant, Piper, and John Hurt. A beautiful celebration of the series.
- "The Time of the Doctor" - Eleven's stellar farewell episode.
Peter Capaldi takes over as the Twelfth Doctor in this season of the show. He teams with returning companion Clara Oswald. Capaldi is a longtime Doctor Who fan and he channels some classic Doctor vibes in this season, which is full of fun one-off episode.
- Episode 1 - "Deep Breath": Meet the new Doctor.
- Episode 4 - "Listen": A tense episode that goes to the root of the Doctor's character and Doctor Who's mythology.
- Episode 6 - "The Caretaker": This one is all about the characters.
- Episode 8 - "Mummy on the Orient Express": More goofy fun.
- Episode 9 - "Flatline": Another standalone episode. This one really shines the spotlight on Clara.
- Episodes 11 & 12 - "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven": While this season is mostly standalone, there is a season-long mystery running in the background. It comes to the fore with some grand revelations in the season finale two-parter.
This season is where Peter Capaldi really finds his voice as the Doctor. He spends less time trying to imitate the Doctors he loved in his youth and instead crafts a Doctor persona that's an aging punk rocker who is isn't angry at humanity, just disappointed. This also caps off Clara's time as a companion.
- Christmas Special - "Last Christmas": Not the best episode ever, but it does resolve the lingering question of whether or not Clara will return to the TARDIS.
- Episodes 1 & 2 - "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar": When the Doctor shows up wearing sonic sunglasses and playing an electric guitar while riding atop a tank in medieval Europe, you know you're in for a good time.
- Episodes 5 & 6 - "The Girl Who Died"/"The Woman Who Lived": Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams guest stars as Ashildr, an important character for this season.
- Episode 7 & 8 - "The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion": Capaldi gets to deliver one of the all-time great righteous Doctor monologues.
- Episode 10 - "Face the Raven": The end of Clara's story... or is it?
- Episodes 11 & 12 - "Heaven Sent"/"Hell Bent": Don't make the Doctor angry. You won't like him when he's angry.
- Christmas Special - "The Husbands of River Song": This episode ties up the remaining loose ends in the romance of River and the Doctor. It's a nice farewell to the character.
This is both Capaldi's last season as the Doctor, and Steven Moffat's final outing as showrunner. Pearl Mackie plays new companion Bill Potts.
- Episode 1 - "The Pilot": Meet Bill.
- Episode 3 - "Thin Ice": Bill sees a different side of the Doctor.
- Episode 5 - "Oxygen": A horror in space episode that sets up the next story arc.
- Episodes 6, 7, & 8 - "Extremis"/"The Pyramid at the End fo the World"/"The Lie of the Land": A three-parter! The first episode, "Extremis," is where we get answers to this season's mystery, which involves the Doctor's secret vault. The remainder of the trilogy garnered mixed reactions from audiences, but that first episode is absolutely essential.
- Episodes 11 & 12 - "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls": Keep a tissue box nearby.
- Christmas Special - "Twice Upon a Time": David Bradley guest stars as the First Doctor in this special, which doesn't really have a plot, but that's kind of the point? Really, this is Moffat and Capaldi making their final statements on Doctor Who before walking out the door.
Season 11 marks the biggest shift for Doctor Who since the fifth season. Chris Chibnall takes over as showrunner and changes the entire look and feel of the show. Also, Jodie Whittaker debuts as the first woman to play the Doctor. She's joined by three companions: Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, and Bradley Walsh as Graham O'Brien.
- Episode 1 - "The Woman Who Fell to Earth": Meet the new Doctor and her companions.
- Episode 2 - "The Ghost Monument": The Doctor and her new companions go on their first adventure.
- Episode 3 - "Rosa": The Doctor meeting Rosa Parks proved popular with fans.
- Episode 4 - "Arachnids in the UK": A simple "the Doctor vs. monsters" style episode. Introduces Chris Noth as Jack Robertson, a shady American businessman with political ambitions who returns later in the show.
- Episode 6 - "Demons of the Punjab": The standout, standalone episode of the season. It even won a Hugo Award.
- Episode 8 - "The Witchfinders": Worthwhile if only for Alan Cumming's scenery-chewing performance as King James I.
- Episode 9 - "It Takes You Away": This cabin in the woods horror story with a twist is up there as one of the best episodes of modern Doctor Who.
- Episode 10 - "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos": Resolves some lingering plot threads from Whittaker's first episode.
- Festive Special - "Resolution": The Christmas Specials are now "Festive Specials," which have, thus far, aired on New Year's Day. This is arguably a more satisfying season finale than the season's finale.
Jodie Whittaker returns as the Thirteenth Doctor with a TARDIS full of companions. In his second season as showrunner, Chris Chibnall practically reinvents the Doctor's entire history mythology.
- Episodes 1 & 2 - "Spyfall": Doctor Who does James Bond-style spy shenanigans in a two-parter that lies the groundwork for big things to come.
- Episode 3 - "Orphan 55": This episode is a little on the nose with its message, but it starts to show a change in the companions' attitudes towards traveling with the Doctor.
- Episode 5 - "Fugitive of the Judeoon": This episode is essential and has more than one jaw-dropping surprise for longtime Doctor Who viewers.
- Episode 7 - "Can You Hear Me?": This episode has classic Doctor Who vibes, maybe more so than any other modern Doctor Who episode, dealing with characters and concepts that had been mostly forgotten. As such, it's a delightful change of pace for modern Who fans that may whet their appetite for classic Whos tories.
- Episode 8 - "The Haunting of Villa Diodati": A fun haunted house episode set on the night Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein that also serves as an important chapter in the season-long mythology arc, setting up the two-part finale.
- Episode 9 & 10 - "Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children": What begins as a new riff on the classic Cybermen invasion scenario ends on what may be the biggest twist/retcon in Doctor Who history.
- Festive Special - "Revolution of the Daleks": Follows up on the season finale nicely, brings back a fan-favorite character, and bids farewell to two of the Doctor's current companions. (Note that this episode isn't yet available on HBO Max at the time of writing but is streaming on the BBC America website and app.)