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Let’s Do the Time Lord Again: 50 Best ‘Doctor Who’ Moments

As the new doctor hits American screens, travel back through the highlights of this classic British sci-fi show

Let's Do the Time Lord Again: 50 Best 'Doctor Who' Moments

From its relatively inauspicious start on November 23, 1963, as a brainy late-afternoon diversion for children, the BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who has gone on to capture the imaginations and hearts of generations of viewers. For more than 50 years, the good doctor has jumped in his phone-booth-ish Time and Relative Dimension in Space machine — that’s TARDIS to you and me — and, along with a rotating cast of comely female assistants, traveled through the ages to fight genocidal robots, evil aliens, renegade “time lords,” serial killers, alt-universe fascists and other intergalactic bad guys. Every few years, the doctor “regenerates” himself, and a new actor steps into the role. It’s gone from a cultish sci-fi show to a genuine pop cultural phenomenon, complete with conventions, books, feature films and parodies (see Community‘s Inspector Spacetime).

With a new 12th (or is that 13th?) incarnation of the mysterious time-traveling Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, set to debut on August 23, we’ve tallied 50 of the most memorable Doctor Who moments, from the classic series, the one-shot TV movie from 1996, and the wildly popular contemporary incarnation launched in 2005. Jump in your homemade TARDIS and let’s warp back through the years.

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50

The Twelfth Doctor’s Unheralded Debut

From: "The Day of the Doctor"
Premiere: November 23, 2013

Tucked into Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith's penultimate episode was a choice Easter egg that defied leaks and spoilers. Aiming to save the Time Lord home world Gallifrey rather than see it burn, all of the Doctor's incarnations team up: Doctors 1 through 11, plus John Hurt's War Doctor – and, seen only in a glimpse of furrowed eyebrows, the then-newly announced Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

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49

The Fourth Doctor Enters the Matrix

From: "The Deadly Assassin"
Premiere: October 30, 1976

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) is summoned to Gallifrey in order to help untangle a political plot involving renegade Time Lord the Master (played by Peter Pratt, and gruesomely deformed here) and a scheming politician. Operating solo for the first time ever and framed as a would-be assassin, the Doctor takes a prescient (and decidedly trippy) excursion into the Matrix, Gallifrey's global neural net, in which thought patterns become virtual reality.

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48

President Nixon Takes a Phone Call

From: "The Impossible Astronaut"/ "The Day of the Moon"
Premiere: April 23, 2011 / April 30, 2011

Iconic and paranoid, President Richard M. Nixon plays a major part in one of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith's most befuddling adventures. United with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and River Song (Alex Kingston) in Utah, the Doctor encounters a mysterious astronaut who rises from a lake with a deadly mission – and the whole crew encounters the Silence – or Silents, depending on who you ask – an alien invasion force that no one can remember seeing.

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47

The Eleventh Doctor’s Impossible Encounter

From: "The Snowmen"
Premiere: December 25, 2012

Embittered by the recent loss of his companions, an apathetic Doctor is roused back into action against the scheming Simeon (Richard Grant) by misfit investigators the Paternoster Gang – Silurian detective Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Sontaran nurse Strax (Dan Starkey) – and Clara (Jenna-Louise Stewart), a Victorian governess who uncannily resembles someone the Doctor encountered recently… and someone else he has yet to meet.

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46

The Third Doctor Visits Fascist London

From: "Inferno"
Premiere: May 9, 1970

Marooned on Earth by his Time Lord superiors, Jon Pertwee's swashbuckling Third Doctor is entangled in a scientist's reckless plans to drill deep into the planet's crust. Desperate to repair his time-traipsing TARDIS, the Doctor is shuffled into a parallel universe where he encounters sinister counterparts of his companion Liz Shaw (Caroline John, in her terrific final appearance), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and other seemingly familiar faces.

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45

Donna Noble Hears the Song of the Ood

From: “Planet of the Ood”
Premiere: April 19, 2008

The Ood, a gentle, tentacle-faced servant race previously encountered in deep space by the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones, return in this powerful, nuanced meditation on corporate ruthlessness and slavery. Comedian Catherine Tate (The Office) gives one of her finest performances as companion Donna Noble, whose mouthy, brassy veneer falls away in the face of the Oods’ heartbreaking song of captivity.

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44

The Tenth Doctor Receives Unexpected News

From: "Gridlock"
Premiere: April 14, 2007

Imperiled at all turns in the universe's worst traffic jam on an Earthlike planet, the Tenth Doctor receives a portentous message from the long-lived, rack-stretched Face of Bo: "You are not alone." Numerous episodes will pass before the Doctor finally discovers the real meaning of that inscrutable prognostication.

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43

The Doctor Versus Reality TV

From: "Vengeance on Varos"
Premiere: January 19, 1985

Colin Baker drew the short straw as the Sixth Doctor, introduced at the nadir of network support for Doctor Who. Gambits meant to be edgy – a gaudy outfit, an unpredictable temperament, an astounding ego – fell flat, thanks to dodgy writing and direction. But this bloody serial, in which an apathetic public spoon-fed conflict via reality TV uncannily predicted our modern milieu, introduced a memorably slimy antagonist in Mentor mercenary Sil (Nabil Shaban). Dispatched hastily on television, the Sixth Doctor eventually found definitive form via nuanced audio dramas from British production house Big Finish.

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42

The Land of Make-Believe

From: "The Mind Robber"
Premiere: September 14, 1968

The trippiest Doctor Who serial ever introduces Patrick Troughton's whimsical Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to Rapunzel, the Minotaur, Blackbeard, Sir Lancelot and other characters from fiction and myth. Zoe Heriot might have been written as a teenage astrophysics genius, but the sparkly, skintight cat suit Wendy Padbury sported in this nutty fable emphasized other assets entirely.

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41

Lady Liberty as a Weeping Angel

From: "The Angels Take Manhattan"
Premiere: September 29, 2012

Given the premise of an Eleventh Doctor serial set in New York City and featuring the Weeping Angels, the eeriest nemeses introduced in the contemporary series, you knew it had to happen. And even if it made no sense at all, the sight of a fanged Statue of Liberty grimacing down over doomed companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams was a sight well worth dispensing with logic to deliver.

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40

The Eleventh Doctor Meets the TARDIS

From: "The Doctor's Wife"
Premiere: May 14, 2011

In a stunning display of virtuoso writing by popular science-fiction novelist and comics maverick Neil Gaiman, the TARDIS comes alive, personified in the form of Idris (Suranne Jones) while stranded on a sentient asteroid outside the known universe. A brilliant investigation of a central yet previously unexamined relationship, the episode delivered some of the best dialogue ever, including this bit for darling, daffy Idris: "Biting's excellent. It's like kissing, only there's a winner."

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39

Rose Tyler Returns

From: “The Stolen Earth”/ “Journey’s End”
Premiere: June 28, 2008 / July 5, 2008

The two-episode farewell from Russell T. Davies, the producer who brought Doctor Who back from limbo, was an extraordinary lollapalooza, reintroducing Dalek creator Davros (played here by Julian Bleach), roping in the casts of spin-off series Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and even including a cameo by Richard Dawkins. But in terms of iconic images, nothing could touch the spectacle of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) turning up toting a gigantic alien rifle, Buffy-style.

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38

The Second Doctor Meets the Ice Warriors

From: "The Ice Warriors"
Premiere: November 11, 1967

It's surprising that the Ice Warriors became an iconic Doctor Who threat, given the scarcity of their actual screen time. Introduced in this gripping six-part serial – two episodes of which were lost to frugal BBC disposal habits that saw numerous early segments destroyed, with hunters scanning the globe for remaining copies to this day – the lumbering, tortoise-shelled, hissing soldiers from Mars proved memorable despite turning up just three more times before their modern resurrection in 2013's claustrophobic "Cold War."

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37

Donna Noble Enters the Doctor’s Life

From: “The Runaway Bride”
Premiere: December 25, 2008

Casting British comedian Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, Tenth Doctor David Tennant’s third and final companion, was a risky gamble that paid off handsomely. Making her debut as a principal extra in a Christmas episode, Tate was a brassy balance to the cerebral Doctor, the likes of which had only been hinted at by previous companions like mouthy Australian stewardess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and perky computer programmer Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford).

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36

The Fourth Doctor’s Parisian Affair

From: “City of Death”
Premiere: September 29, 1979

Lalla Ward, cast as the second incarnation of the Fourth Doctor’s officious Time Lord companion Romana (previously portrayed by Mary Tamm), presumably didn’t have to work too hard to make sparks with Tom Baker – the couple married not long after. Ward, now hitched in real life to Richard Dawkins, is a witty foil for Baker in this larky escapade, partly written by script editor Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and shot on location in Paris.

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35

The Third Doctor Stands Up for Earth

Jon Pertwee's flamboyant Third Doctor investigates mysterious deaths linked to industrial waste and related environmental concerns in this disconcertingly relevant adventure. But what fans tend to remember most are the gigantic maggots that threaten companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) in her final outing.

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34

The Tenth Doctor Departs

From: "The End of Time"
Premiere: December 25, 2009

John Simms returns as the Master and, in a visionary bit of head-buggery worthy of an Aphex Twin album cover, turns everyone into himself – with the goal of using his usurped power to bring the Time War-destroyed Gallifrey back to life. Timothy Dalton is brilliantly pompous as Time Lord founder Rassilon, and Bernard Cribbins, as everybloke Wilfred Mott, makes a wonderful companion to David Tennant's Tenth Doctor. Mortally wounded in the second of two episodes, Tennant practically begs to be spared. Then, wham! Onward to Matt Smith with a hearty "Geronimo!"

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33

The Fourth Doctor Hunts a Serial Killer

From: “The Robots of Death”
Premiere: January 29, 1977

A provocative, thoughtful and gorgeously designed murder mystery in the manner of Agatha Christie, this gripping serial finds Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor and his companion Leela (Louise Jameson), a barbarian huntress fetchingly clad in a leather bikini, tracking down a serial killer striking down crew members on a mining ship served by elegant robots who may be less docile than their programming is meant to allow.

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32

The Eighth Doctor Gets His Moment

From: "Doctor Who" (a.k.a. "The Movie")
Premiere: May 14, 1996

In which the BBC, the Fox Network, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox teamed up to reboot Doctor Who with a TV movie meant to serve as a back-door pilot for an ongoing series. Despite the creditably sinister Master of Eric Roberts and a strong female lead in Dr. Grace Holloway, portrayed by Daphne Ashbrook, the reboot didn't stick. It was the sole TV outing for Paul McGann as a virile, swoon-worthy Eighth Doctor – yet if you add up the novels, comics and audio dramas produced between classic Doctor Who and its contemporary reboot, McGann's Doctor is in fact the most thoroughly documented of all.

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31

The Debut of the Impossible Girl

From: "Asylum of the Daleks"
Premiere: September 1, 2012

Not long before this cinematic epic of a season-opening episode aired, the Doctor Who team announced that Jenna-Louise Coleman had been cast as the Eleventh Doctor's new companion, starting after the midseason departure of fan favorites Amy Pond and Rory Williams. Try to imagine the shrieks of delighted recognition, then, when Coleman turned up here, unannounced, as crafty, doomed Oswin Oswald – a clever gambit miraculously unspoiled by audiences who saw advance movie-house screenings of the episode. 

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30

The Second Doctor is Sentenced

From: "The War Games"
Premiere: April 19, 1969

The most ambitious epic that Doctor Who had attempted to date, and the last serial in black-and-white, "The War Games" ran for 10 episodes. The mad saga involved the War Lord (Philip Madoc), an alien commander building a super army with help from the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw), a renegade member of the Doctor's race – identified here for the first time as Time Lords. Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor wins the day, but at a grave cost: His Time Lord superiors force him to regenerate and banish him to Earth, and wipe the memories of companions Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) and Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury).