When people started reporting that Doctor Who was leaving Netflix streaming, I did what any reasonable person would do -- hurl myself headlong into denial and bite back the tears. After all, last year Netflix said they were dropping the good Doctor and then they changed their minds. That could happen again, right? Right?!
Alas, while Netflix retains its Who license in the U.K. (only until May), those of us here in the U.S. are counting down the hours until (the absence of) D day.
But, hey! We've still got one last weekend, you and me. One final chance for a healthy bit of binge-watching. So I've assembled 10 episodes -- episodes that stand alone, that won't tempt you to get caught up watching an entire arc (including the bad episodes), and most of all, episodes that show the myriad and wonderful aspects of Doctor Who which make a list like this worth writing at all.
Some notes before we proceed. These are all Nu-Who episodes. The classic stuff comes in multiple part serials, and they tend to run long. The goal is to be able to watch all these episodes and still, you know, have a life. And since the ninth and 12th Doctors only have one season each on the stream, I'm providing one alternative episode for each of them in case you've already watched my first choices to death.
Cool? Cool. Allons-y!
Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, the Daleks have been used quite liberally, sometimes to their collective detriment. But before we saw armies of the great old pepper pots of the galaxy, there was "Dalek", which pitted one Timelord versus one Dalek. And it's magnificent.
Even knowing as much as we do now about the fate of the Timelords and the Daleks after the Time War, in this episode the 9th Doctor and this one Dalek are, to the best of their knowledge, the last surviving members of each of their species. They're the final soldiers of the war that everyone lost.
How far each of them is willing to go to somehow feel like the winner says so much about both of them. The Dalek is willing to sacrifice itself, the Doctor is willing to kill. And when the Dalek tells the Doctor "You would make a good Dalek"? Chills.
Even Rose, who knows so little of these two warrior's history, plays such a profound role. It's her humanity that inspires each of them to be better. It's "Dalek's" unflinching willingness to explore PTSD and survivor's guilt in a way that is honest yet still entertaining that make it the one 9th Doctor episode that must be watched.
Back-up 9th Doctor story - "Boom Town": Despite the whole farty origin for the Slitheen, this episode is genuinely smart and funny. And the dinner scene is probably the best sequence in the entire 9th Doctor's run. All that plus Rose, Jack, and Mickey together at the same time made for a great temporary companion team.
Sarah Jane Smith. Do I really need to say anything else? Oh, alright, I will. Elisabeth Sladen was, for my (and many other) generations of Doctor Who fans, THE Doctor's companion. She was plucky, she was at times antagonistic, and she was the Doctor's best friend.
But the Doctor left Sarah. That's what the Doctor does. And while this episode's villains, the Krillitane, are shoddy CGI monsters of the week, they don't really matter. "School Reunion" isn't about baddies, it's about what happens to a companion after their time with the Doctor has ended. And Lis played that with the classic Sarah Jane pluck, but also with this profound sadness. The Doctor abandoned her -- his best friend! And it's the first time you ever really hear the Doctor admit that he leaves his friends behind because he can't bear the thought of watching them die when he almost certainly never ever will.
There's such lovely vulnerability to be seen. Even the tin dog, K-9 gets a heartfelt story. The whole thing worked so well that Sarah Jane Smith wound up with a show of her own. And how lucky we all were. Every moment we got to watch Lis Sladen perform was a gift.
The Girl in the Fireplace
David Tennant was at his best playing the Doctor when he seamlessly leapt from goofiness to sadness. "The Girl in the Fireplace" really shows off that ability. This is Moffat writing at its best -- scary clockwork robots, a creepy spaceship rebuilding itself with human organs, and the Doctor haphazardly inserting himself into the life of a woman with very complicated but ecstatically beautiful results.
Plus, it's funny! Inventing the banana daquiri early, being followed around by a horse, Rose and Mickey getting into trouble. There's really no emotionally boxes left unticked. It's arguably the episode that defines the 10th Doctor best.
It's not easy to tell a Doctor Who story without the Doctor or the companion. And yet this story which doesn't involve much from either is often considered to be the best in the show's 50+ year history. When I want to show Doctor Who to someone who has never seen it before, I will often show them this episode.
Why? I think it's that brilliant conceit -- Sally Sparrow discovers a note written to her in an old house, hidden beneath layers of wallpaper, words that seem to know her future before it happens. And as people areound Sally begin to vanish, a mysterious message stretching across a seemingly random number of DVDs calls out to her. And then she discovers that some stone statues can move when you're not looking...
It's just a perfect story. And the Weeping Angels, while never quite being as scary since this first appearence, are perfectly creepy here. Of course, it helps that Sally Sparrow was played by the outrageously talented Carey Mulligan before she become a huge success outside of the world of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who without the Doctor became a staple of the new series, but it never worked as well as it does here.
From Doctor-lite to Doctor-full. "Midnight" is the best answer to "What happens when the Doctor travels on his own" ever written. And after becoming known as the writer who throws in everything and the kitchen sink, Russell T. Davies discovered that he's at his best when under the strictest of limitations.
The Doctor gets trapped in a shuttle with a bunch of strangers on a planet with no atmosphere. But something is knocking from outside, something that wants to get in. How is that possible? Well, "Midnight" isn't interested in answers. It's just interested in filling you with a claustrophobic and existential dread.
The Doctor is usually a trustworthy hero, but this time he finds himself being both untrustworthy and a victim. It's not easy to have your titular character feel like they're in true peril, but most of the fear (which oozes out of this episode) stems from how genuinely terrified the Doctor becomes.
While there's only one small set, it's the soundscape that really makes "Midnight" sing. Clicking, creaking, knocking, and screaming, once things start going there's never a moment to feel truly safe. If you're looking for the scariest episode of Doctor Who since its 2005 return, this is it.
Vincent and the Doctor
Richard Curtis pitched Steven Moffat the idea of a Doctor Who episode about clinical depression. Doesn't sound like a good idea, does it? But it's a bloody marvel.
Vincent van Goph is one of the most beloved artists of all time and yet, in his own life, he was a failure. The Doctor to the rescue? Well, no, not really. For all the times in which the Doctor does save the day, he can't save Vincent from the torture of his own mind.
But instead of this being a sad story, "Vincent and the Doctor" is ultimately about how even someone suffering from the most powerful depression can still be afforded beautiful days. The Doctor and Amy can't see the monster they face, but Vincent can (a not-so-subtle metaphor if ever there was). But that doesn't mean the Doctor and Amy can't still help Vincent.
And they do. For one brief moment Vincent is given indisputable truth that his art lives on and is beloved. Yet he still kills himself. How rare for a family program to be quite that honest. It's a testament to Doctor Who that, when it takes a break from all the whizz bang of time travel and laser beams, it can tackle an issue as important as depression so effectively.
If you have depression, if you know someone who suffers with it, if you've lost someone or thought of ending your own life, "Vincent and the Doctor" has a way of bringing light into that seemingly unpierceable darkness.
The Doctor's Wife
The Doctor has only one consistent companion, the TARDIS. Thing is, she never says a word. Well, except for this one time, of course. Leave it to popular author Neil Gaiman to turn the most well-known relationship in Doctor Who completely on its head.
Trapped in a bubble dimension, the TARDIS suddenly and unxpectedly finds its being, I suppose, forced into the body of a woman. And suddenly she has the chance to say all the things that she might have, had she been able to all along.
All these years of the Doctor saying he stole the TARDIS, but it never occured to him that maybe she stole him. And while there's been an oft-joked about romance between the Doctor and the TARDIS, this is the first time it's truly confirmed that they love each other.
There's a malevolent spirit trying to occupy the TARDIS shell and some quirky side characters, too, but the headline is "This is the time the Doctor and the TARDIS talk". Once you see it, you'll never watch a single episode of Doctor Who the same way again.
The God Complex
You probably weren't expecting to see this episode on the list, but I dare you to find a better companion send off...that didn't turn out to actually be a companion send off. To be honest, this episode appears mostly because it stands out for being so stylistically different. The extreme close-ups, the old hotel that's just rooms full of your worst fears, and at the center of this unusual maze, an intergalactic minotaur god. Everything about that sentence is completely bonkers.
Another thing "The God Complex" does quite well is give us new characters to care about -- so they can die. And how pointed to have the Doctor take a shine towards Rita, a nurse who just so happens to be Muslim. And the episode does not shy away from the fact that we live in a world who might fear someone just because of their faith.
And that's what "The God Complex" happens to be about -- fear and faith. Specifically, it's about how faith, combined with fear, can make a person their own worst enemy. It also reveals some rather ugly truths about the Doctor and Amy's relationship. For all the ways in which the Doctor does care, he like Amy in part because she adores how brilliant he is. In order to save Amy's life, the Doctor must confess to not being a hero, he must admit that he's using Amy to pump up his own ego.
Personally, I like to pretend that this is the last episode for Amy and Rory. When the Doctor leaves them behind this time, it's very much in keeping with "School Reunion". The Doctor simply can't bear to watch Amy and Rory die. Leaving them behind here is as much his way of saving himself as it is of saving them.
Rarely does Doctor Who deal with the concept of faith, whether it be in a god, a person, or an idea, but it does so brilliantly here.
The Day of the Doctor
To paraphrase Gimli in Lord of the Rings, this still only counts as one! And it would be insane not to include the 50th Anniversary Special. David Tennant reprises his role as the 10th Doctor, Matt Smith struts his usual stuff, and John Hurt steps in and is the Doctor we never knew we were missing. Billie Piper's back, too, and we get our first glimpse a those cross Capaldi eyebrows. Oh, and, lest we forget, THE Doctor of Doctor Who, Tom Baker, turns up as well.
What else is there to even say? "The Day of the Doctor" is easily one of the most fun episodes in the entire show's 50 years. Plus, it finally puts a pin in the Doctor's guilt over the Time War. After nearly a decade of survivor's guilt, it was nice to see the Doctor finally able to move on to a new chapter.
Mummy on the Orient Express
Clara is about to leave the TARDIS forever when she and the Doctor are unexpectedly trapped on the Orient Express in space. There's a mummy on board that's killing people one-by-one, and the only way for the remainder of the passengers to survive is to figure out what the mummy really is and how to stop it.
Of all the season 8 episodes, I think this one does the best job of finding the middle ground between the Doctor's previous incarnation's empathy and Capaldi's cold pragmatism. The Doctor knows that the only way to figure out the mummy mystery is to feed it victims, but he can't quite bring himself to do it so ruthlessly. And thank goodness, there's some honest to pete self sacrifice on his part.
In a season where both Clara (and the audience, frankly) were about ready to jump ship, "Mummy on the Orient Express" is a great mystery that the Doctor solves by offering up his own life and safety in order to protect the lives of others. Almost like we were watching Doctor Who or something!
Also, this season saw the Doctor being uncharacteristically anti-solider, and the resolution for the mummy's story starts to see a blissful transition away from that unfortunate plot detour.
Plus, the mummy itself is neat looking.
Back-up 12th Doctor Story - "Time Heist": The Doctor is forced to rob a bank! It's fun! Look, I don't know what to say beyond "this was not a very good season but I felt like I had to include Capaldi less there be a riot". "Time Heist" is a good time, though, especially its supporting cast.