The best Doctor Who episodes written by Russell T. Davies run the gamut from weird and wacky to measured and meaningful. With the recent news that Davies is returning to Doctor Who as showrunner for the 60th anniversary (and at least a season beyond that), there's no time like the present to list his best episodes.
Davies was responsible for reviving the iconic BBC series in 2005, and acted as showrunner until 2009, when Scottish writer Steven Moffat took over. Reviving Doctor Who in the early aughts could have been a nightmare, but the new series proved a major hit in England and overseas, and the BBC has been churning out new episodes and hiring new Doctors ever since. During Davies' tenure as showrunner, the eponymous Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston for one season and David Tennant for three.
For posterity's sake, this list will not include any episode that aired during Davies' tenure as Doctor Who's showrunner, but will feature ten episodes written by the man himself. While Davies certainly gave us some, er, interesting episodes (we won't discuss “Love and Monsters” in this house), so many of his Doctor Who stories are incredibly touching and memorable.
So, allonsy, and take a look at Russell T. Davies' 10 best Doctor Who episodes (there will be some spoilers).
Watching this episode today might be an odd experience considering the rather hokey special effects and the rapid-fire editing, but "Rose" is a special one. Not only because it's the first episode of Nu-Who, but because it shows off exactly what Davies would bring to the table for his entire tenure as showrunner: relatable humor dispersed at a lighting-fast pace and well-written (if not slightly cartoony) characters full of pathos. Ignore the weird mannequin men and Rose's annoying friends and family, and just enjoy Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper putting on quite the show.
9. “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey's End”
This two-part arc comes at the end of the fourth season, and it's clear that both Tennant and Davies are nearing the end of their time with the series. The Doctor's companions from throughout the series (and one throwback from vintage Who) are brought back into the fray to help the Doctor face off against the iconic Daleks. He delays his impending regeneration in order to do so, but as the Doctor and his past companions and friends battle to save Earth, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) accidentally creates a cloned version of him (it's hard to explain) resulting in the Meta-Crisis Doctor. There's a lot of fan service here – the Meta-Crisis Doctor being a prime example, as he's used to tie up a characters' ending with a pretty little bow – but it's the good kind of fan service that you can't help but smile while watching.
8. “The Christmas Invasion”
“The Christmas Invasion” is the first episode of David Tennant's time as Doctor, and he spends a good chunk of it in a coma. The Doctor, having saved Rose, regenerates but is suffering severe side effects. His TARDIS crash-lands in London where he's taken to sleep off the regeneration – but a war-crazed alien race called the Sycorax are threatening to kill a third of the population, so he needs to wake up. When he finally does, Tennant is given a lovely monologue as the Doctor, full of goofy confidence and latent power that only Davies could write for him.
7. “The Sound of Drums”
Doctor Who can be a bit goofy. Whether it's the hokey effects delivered alongside very serious plot twists or the incredibly earnest dialogue that can sometimes feel weird for the jaded amongst us, Doctor Who is a very specific flavor of television. “The Sound of Drums” is a prime example of that, with the Doctor, companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) on the run after the British Prime Minister puts them on the most-wanted list. The PM is actually just a puppet for the Doctor's greatest nemesis, the Master (played incredibly unhinged by John Simms), who plays a game of cat and mouse with the trio. There's some great writing: in the conversations between Simms and Tennant, in the complicated character of the Master, and in the plot itself – even when the hokiness gets turned to 11 and Tennant dons a full face of old-age makeup.
6. “Turn Left”
A Doctor-lite episode that brings back a beloved companion, “Turn Left” shows us what a Doctor-less world might look like. Starring Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) as the Doctor's companion, we watch what would have happened if the Doctor hadn't saved the day so many times throughout history. There's some dark stuff at play that's still eerily relevant – including a London post-nuclear blast that's full of refugee camps – showing how well Doctor Who can pose questions about the nature of humanity. Then there's Rose and Donna's chilly relationship, which makes for an interesting dynamic, but when we finally get a glimpse of the Doctor in this episode, Tennant unsurprisingly steals the scene. The cliffhanger will get you, too.
5. “The Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”
This one still hurts. The two-part arc serves as Billie Piper's end as the Doctor's companion, signifying a shift in both his characterization and the series as a whole. “Army of Ghosts” begins with vaguely human-shaped silhouettes appearing all over the world. Humanity believes they've been visited by the ghosts of their family members – when in fact, it's the Cybermen forcing themselves into this universe from a parallel one. As the Doctor and Rose try to fight off this invasion, they realize the Daleks are involved too, and the two parallel Earths are in danger of falling into a massive void. Rose refuses to leave the Doctor's side in this fight, ultimately ending with her being trapped in the parallel universe, never to travel with him again.
Bereft, Rose follows the Doctor's disembodied voice to Bad Wolf Bay, where he appears as a hologram. The brief farewell between the two, the Doctor nothing but a projection of himself incapable of embracing the woman he loves, makes for an emotional ending that will have you in tears.
4. “Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways”
A fantastic finale and farewell to Eccleston's short-lived time as the Doctor, this two-parter is simple yet effective. The episodes feature the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack Harness as they face off against the Daleks yet again. They've taken over a human satellite with the goal of harvesting dead humans and turning them into Daleks. The Daleks decimate everyone in their path (including Captain Jack) and, just when you think the Doctor is next, Rose sweeps in to save him.
“Bad Wolf” brilliantly collects bread crumbs left behind throughout the season, while “The Parting of The Ways” gives Eccleston's Doctor a beautiful last moment between him and Rose. The two-parter offers a satisfying pay-off of previous episodes' hints and a fantastic look forward into the future of the series. It's a prime example of Davies' talent as both showrunner and writer capable of weaving together long and short threads.
3. “The End of Time”
This one is a tearjerker, so prepare yourselves. “The End of Time” is a two-part episode that focuses on the Doctor running away from his impending death. It's also literally the end of both Davies' and Tennant's tenure on Doctor Who. Since the two almost single-handedly defined "Nu-Who," the lead-up to this episode was an emotional one.
The Doctor butts heads yet again with his nemesis, the Master, who is trying to bring back their long-deceased race of aliens, the Time Lords. The Doctor thwarts the Master's plans, however, but is fatally injured. Knowing his life is about to end, he journeys to visit his past companions, ending with Rose Tyler, before Tennant utters the infamous last words, "I don't wanna go." It's gut-wrenching stuff that will leave you sobbing – AKA a top-tier Davies joint.
A bottle episode that could be taught in film school, "Midnight" is the stuff of Doctor Who legend. The Doctor and Donna part ways on a resort-style planet that's made of diamonds, with the Doctor setting off on a bus tour and Donna staying poolside. The bus gets stranded, however, and as the Doctor and its passengers try and figure out what's going on, a terrible knock on the hull rings out. The Doctor tries to keep everyone calm, and the importance of the episode becomes incredibly clear – it's the first "companion-lite" episode of the modern series, and without a human companion at his side, strangers don't tend to trust the Doctor. The claustrophobic setting and unknown entity facing the Doctor (who usually knows anything and everything) makes for a great horror episode, and Tennant shines as a Doctor that is perplexed, frustrated, and at times, scared.
1. “The Waters of Mars”
“The Waters of Mars” is a 2009 special that's one of David Tennant's last episodes as the Doctor and one of Davies' last as a showrunner. It also marks the first – and only – time the Doctor is fallible to the point where they teeter on the precipice of villainy. The Doctor lands the TARDIS on Mars in 2059, right by humanity's first colony on the planet. There, he realizes he has walked into a fixed point in time: soon the base will explode and kill everyone inside.
Canonically, fixed points in time cannot be touched or changed, no matter how tragic they may be – but this version of the Doctor is indecisive, morally confused, and nursing a God complex. As a result, he decides to get involved. There are horrors on Mars, but they're no match to watching Tennant play the Doctor so dark. Equal parts scary and somber, “The Waters of Mars” is top-tier Who.
You can check out these Doctor Who episodes and more on HBO Max.