Coming in cold to the Doctor Who universe? We envy you…then again, maybe we don’t. The Doctor’s legend extends through five decades and multiple incarnations, the most recent being Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. The ninth season premiere — airing Saturday, September 19 at 9pm on BBC America — represents the franchise’s 814th episode, if you’re counting all the way back to 1963. Embarking upon a binge-watch of that magnitude could send a person into a time vortex from which she may never return.
To sum up: The Doctor is a Time Lord, the last surviving member of an alien race. He has a time machine that looks like a blue phone booth but is much bigger on the inside. He always travels with a Companion because he is lonely. A madman with a box.
Even choosing 10 to watch strictly from among the 119 episodes that have aired since Doctor Who’s resurrection in 2005 is incredibly tough. Under the stewardship of executive producer Steven Moffat, and Russell T. Davies before him, The Doctor’s lore has expanded in its complexity and ambitiousness since the Time Lord’s adventures way back when.
Instead of looking at this as a list of Doctor Who’s greatest, then, think of it as 10 gateways into a story as vast as the skies above. Note that none of the Twelfth Doctor’s adventures are listed here, since they can easily be marathoned on Hulu Plus and Netflix. But if only have time to watch one starring Capaldi, check out the Season Eight premiere, “Deep Breath.”
Season One, Episode Six, 2005
Doctor/Companion: The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).
In this episode written by Robert Shearman, a distress signal draws The Doctor and Rose to an underground site in Utah that houses a billionaire’s collection of alien artifacts – including a living Dalek. This episode reintroduces the most classic of Doctor Who’s adversaries, also revealing a rage and a profound guilt roiling within The Doctor’s emotional core.
THE EMPTY CHILD
Season One, Episode Nine, 2005
Doctor/Companion(s): The Ninth Doctor (Eccleston), Rose Tyler (Piper) and Jack Harkness (John Barrowman)
Arriving in London during the Blitz, The Doctor and Rose meet Captain Jack Harkness, a Time Agent who possesses a dangerous device. In the process, they also encounter a plague being spread by a child, which reduces people to zombie-like shells wearing gas masks. Barrowman’s much-loved Captain Jack, first seen in this episode, went on to lead the Who spinoff Torchwood.
Season Two, Episode Three, 2006
Doctor/Companion: The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose Tyler (Piper)
Also Starring: Elisabeth Sladen, Noel Clarke and Anthony Head
The Doctor and Rose go undercover within a high school where strange things are occurring, including a lunch program that’s serving up out-of-the-ordinary nutrients. In the course of their sleuthing they cross paths with Sarah Jane Smith (Sladen), companion to the Doctor’s third and fourth incarnations, as well as the K9 Mark III robot. Anthony Head, aka Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Giles, co-stars as the school’s sinister headmaster Mr. Finch.
THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE
Season Two, Episode Four, 2006
Doctor/Companion(s): The Tenth Doctor (Tennant), Rose Tyler (Piper) and Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke)
Also Starring: Sophia Myles
Jumping between two time periods, The Doctor, Rose and Mickey land on a derelict spaceship 3,000 years into the future and discover that it houses a number of fireplaces — one of which leads to the 18th century bedroom of a French girl named Reinette, who is being hounded by a group of clockwork androids. The girl eventually grows up to become Madame de Pompadour (Myles), and The Doctor realizes he is utterly smitten with her.
Season Three, Episode 10, 2007
Doctor/Companion(s): The Tenth Doctor (Tennant) and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman)
Also Starring: Carey Mulligan
Many Whovians consider this to be one of the series’ best episodes, even though The Doctor and his companion Martha play minor roles in it. A woman named Sally Sparrow (Mulligan) handles the bulk of the action, which pits her against the Weeping Angels, a race of predatory creatures that sends victims back in time to a period before their birth, feeding on the potential energy of the lives they left behind. They can only be stopped by being seen — meaning, their prey cannot blink or turn its back on them. You may never think of statues in the same way again.
SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY
Season Four, Episode Eight, 2008
Doctor/Companion(s): The Tenth Doctor (Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate)
Also Starring: Alex Kingston
In the 51st century, the Doctor and Donna journey to a planet-sized library with no humans present, and where a computer kiosk warns them to “count the shadows.” Soon after, the pair meets Professor River Song (Kingston), marking the first appearance of the enigmatic woman who plays a vital role in The Doctor’s existence. River Song returns in many guises over subsequent seasons, with her latest adventure to occur in the 2015 Christmas Special.
VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR
Season Five, Episode 10, 2010
Doctor/Companion: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan)
Also Starring: Tony Curran and Bill Nighy
In this incredibly poignant episode written by Richard Curtis, The Doctor and Amy visit one of the Companion’s favorite artists, Vincent van Gogh (Curran), after the Time Lord notices a sinister face appearing in one of his paintings. Finding Van Gogh on the verge of plummeting into madness, The Doctor and Amy help the painter face the physical demon that’s plaguing him while soothing his sense of loneliness and depression. The climactic scene, shown here, is one of the most viscerally affecting of the series.
THE PANDORICA OPENS and THE BIG BANG
Season Five, Episodes 12 and 13, 2010
Doctor/Companion(s): The Eleventh Doctor (Smith), Amy Pond (Gillan) and Rory Arthur Williams (Arthur Darvill)
Want to make a romantic weep? Sit them down in front of this two-part story, which explored Amy Pond’s lifelong loyalty to her Raggedy Doctor — and the depth of Rory’s love for Amy — in an adventure that begins in 102 AD Britain and involves a mysterious object known as The Pandorica. For the record, this episode also featured more of The Doctor’s enemies standing in the same place than had ever been seen together before.
THE DOCTOR’S WIFE
Season Six, Episode Four, 2011
Doctor/Companion(s): The Eleventh Doctor (Smith), Amy Pond (Gillan) and Rory Arthur Williams (Darvill)
Also Starring: Suranne Jones
Within a story that lures The Doctor, Amy and Rory into the clutches of a being that devours TARDISes is the extraordinary revelation that The Doctor’s time machine is sentient, and has more influence over where it takes him than one may have suspected. Penned by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, this episode reimagined the TARDIS as not merely a ship, but The Doctor’s most devoted companion.
THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR
Special Episode, 2013
Doctor(s)/Companion(s): The Eleventh and Tenth Doctors (Smith and Tennant), along with the War Doctor (John Hurt) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman)
An estimated 87 million people from 94 countries around the globe gathered to watch this 50th anniversary episode earning it the Guinness World Record for the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama. Every incarnation of The Doctor appears either in person or via archive footage, with Tennant returning to join Smith, along with Hurt as another incarnation known as The War Doctor (and Capaldi’s eyebrows). More than a celebratory stunt episode, Day gives closure to one of the series’ long-running mysteries: What exactly happened during the Time War?
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based writer who serves on the board of the Television Critics Association. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Variety and Salon, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision.