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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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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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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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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).

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The Eleventh Doctor’s Farewell

From: "The Time of the Doctor"
Premiere: December 25, 2013

You knew that Matt Smith's swansong would be big; accordingly, this explosive finale finally reveals what's been hidden on the other side of the crack in little Amelia Pond's wall, ties up a few other lingering mysteries seeded throughout the Eleventh Doctor's journey, and culminates in a massive showdown in which the Doctor uses his regeneration energy to blow a Dalek threat out of the sky. Still, the real magic of this episode is in its smallest details, revealing in full the Doctor's magnanimous heart – err, hearts.

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The Seventh Doctor’s Hidden Agenda

From: "The Curse of Fenric"
Premiere: October 24, 1989

Rebounding from a silly, dodgy start, Sylvester McCoy's turn as the Seventh Doctor hit high gear in its second and third seasons, with script editor Andrew Cartmel implementing what came to be known as the "Cartmel Masterplan" – a notion that the Doctor was far more powerful (and perhaps more sinister) than we'd previously been led to believe. One result was this casserole of vampires, Vikings and an Alan Turing stand-in, in which the Doctor blatantly manipulates his traveling buddy in order to checkmate an ancient foe.

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The Tenth Doctor Meets a Soul Mate

From: "The Girl in the Fireplace"
Premiere: May 6, 2006

On a derelict spaceship, the Tenth Doctor and his companions discover a time window (in the form of a fireplace) that leads to the 18th-century bedroom of Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV of France – targeted in the machinations of elegant but deadly clockwork robots. Not so much a historical adventure of the kind the First Doctor commonly encountered, "The Girl in the Fireplace" is effectively a ravishing love story for David Tennant and his pitch-perfect cast mate, Sophia Myles.

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The Ultimate Enemy

From: "Dalek"
Premiere: April 30, 2005

To get some idea of the sheer horror and revulsion demonstrated by the Ninth Doctor (Chris Eccleston) in "Dalek," imagine that not only are you the last survivor of your race, but that you sacrificed your own people to destroy an enemy – and now a living representative of that enemy is displayed in chains before you. The enormity of the Doctor's guilt over his undisclosed actions in the universe-shredding Time War is telegraphed completely in his rage – a point not missed by his captive.

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The Doctor Finds His Match

From: "The Time Warrior"
Premiere: December 15, 1973

Among the most convincing products of Jon Pertwee's stretch as the Third Doctor, the tightly wrought serial "The Time Warrior" gave the Doctor's home world the name Gallifrey at last. Set on Earth in the Middle Ages, the story introduced the Sontarans, a potato-headed clone race built for war, and even more importantly, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), an investigative reporter and the first Doctor Who companion who could match the vastly more intelligent and experienced Doctor in resourcefulness and wit.

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The Tenth Doctor Meets River Song

From: “Silence in the Library”/ “Forest of the Dead”
Premiere: May 31, 2008 / June 7, 2008

A two-parter from David Tennant’s third season as the Tenth Doctor, this pensive, creepy mystery introduces two of the best creations in the revived series. One is the Vashta Nerada, a species of swarming micro-organisms that emerge from shadows to strip their victims to the bone, leaving a corpse repeating its last words over and over. The other is Professor River Song (Alex Kingston), a red-haired tornado of a mercenary archaeologist. The Doctor meets River for the first time here, and her story ends in “Forest of the Dead” – yet through the paradox of mutual time travel, the two have a lively future ahead, including a major familial twist.

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Cybermen March Down From St. Paul’s Cathedral

From: "The Invasion"
Premiere: November 2, 1968

As when the Daleks rolled through London on the First Doctor's watch, this milestone serial offered the image of militaristic ranks of invading Cybermen tromping down the steps in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. The story also reintroduced one of the most durable secondary characters in the series: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), previously encountered as a colonel in "The Web of Fear," and now charged with operating UNIT, a military task force that will play a significant role in the Third Doctor's earthbound adventures.

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The Eleventh Doctor’s Stonehenge Soliloquy

From: "The Pandorica Opens"
Premiere: June 19, 2010

Lured to Stonehenge by the opening of the Pandorica, a legendary trap built to contain the most dangerous threat in the entire universe, the Eleventh Doctor learns that battalions of his chief foes – Daleks, Sontarans, Zygons, Nestene and more – are circling overhead. One of the most wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey sagas of the Matt Smith's span, "The Pandorica Opens" gives the Doctor the chance to deliver an epic warning to his would-be conquerors. (The story continued in similarly disorienting fashion with "The Big Bang" a week later.)

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The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors Meet

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

On the exact 50th anniversary of Doctor Who first airing, David Tennant's Tenth Doctor and Matt Smith's Eleventh finally meet, and immediately jockey to see who has the longer sonic screwdriver. But it's another embodiment – John Hurt's battle-hardened War Doctor – who steers his younger incarnations toward a vital resolution, in the process finding salvation in an encounter with a doomsday weapon that chooses Rose Tyler as its avatar. In a subtle yet grand final flourish, Tom Baker makes an extraordinary cameo appearance. Only an appearance by the absent Chris Eccleston could have improved this celebratory epic.

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‘Oh, So You’re My Replacements. A Dandy and a Clown.’

From: "The Three Doctors"
Premiere: December 30, 1972

Given the time-traipsing premise of Doctor Who, it was practically preordained that one day a given Doctor might meet another of his incarnations. It happened first in 1972, in a serial that marked the tenth anniversary of the series. Confronted with the menace of insane Gallifreyan forefather Omega (Stephen Thorne), the Time Lords allow the Third Doctor to work in concert with his two predecessors. Watching Pertwee and Troughton battle for the spotlight is more fun than the actual story; best of all is the withering assessment of the pair delivered by a visibly infirm but feisty Hartnell.

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The Tenth Doctor Meets the Love of His Life

From: "Human Nature"/ "The Family of Blood"
Premiere: May 26, 2007 / June 2, 2007

Adopted by writer Paul Cornell from his own 1995 novel featuring the Seventh Doctor, "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" provided the Tenth Doctor with the chance to experience simple human love. Pursued by an alien family that wants to steal his longevity, the Doctor stashes his Time Lord nature in a fob watch of the same kind that Professor Yana will later carry in "Utopia." Robbed of his chance at a normal life with schoolteacher Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes), the Doctor exacts a terrible revenge – but the gentlest moments of this moving story resonate most.

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The Fifth Doctor’s Noble Sacrifice

From: "The Caves of Androzani"
Premiere: March 8, 1984

In his final outing as the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of his companion, Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant), after both are poisoned as a result of wandering into what amounts to a trade war over a drug that increases longevity. Overcoming a tragic masked warlord portrayed in shades of Phantom of the Opera, the Doctor administers the last dose of an antidote to Peri, then regenerates into the ill-starred Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker).

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The Eleventh Doctor’s Manic Debut

From: "The Eleventh Hour"
Premiere: April 3, 2010

Crash-landing in the garden behind the home of perky, lonely Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood), the newly regenerated Eleventh Doctor finds a mysterious crack in the little girl's wall – an apparition that will linger throughout Matt Smith's tenure. His manic energy, a combination of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton's gentle slapstick and his own gangly, youthful zeal, create an instant charm. Leaving her for what he thinks is a moment, he returns 12 years later to encounter the 19-year-old Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Yet even as their relationship deepens in later episodes and seasons, you sense that in some ways the Doctor is always relating to a wishful seven-year-old playmate abandoned with her suitcase.

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‘Hello, Sarah Jane’

From: "School Reunion"
Premiere: April 29, 2006

For the first time, a classic Who character appears in the contemporary series: Sarah Jane Smith, played anew by Elisabeth Sladen. A winningly villainous headmaster Mr. Finch (Anthony Head) and the return of vintage robotic dog K-9 (voiced by John Leeson, another classic-series veteran) enhance "School Reunion," but what truly makes it hum is the achingly tender meeting of an older Sarah Jane – who would spin off into a terrific children's series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, until Sladen's untimely death in 2011 – with a seemingly younger Tenth Doctor.

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Return of the Master

From: "Utopia"
Premiere: June 16, 2007

Reunited at the end of the universe, the Tenth Doctor, companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and time-traveling rake Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) find the last surviving humans bunkered in an old rocket silo, where Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), an elderly scientist, is attempting to repair a vessel meant to convey everyone to safety. When a familiar watch causes Martha to stir a vague memory, Yana learns that he is actually the Master; in a young, virile regenerated body (John Simm) he sets out to conquer 21st-century Earth.

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The First Doctor Leaves Behind a Companion

From: "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"
Premiere: November 21, 1964

When it comes to unforgettable images from the original Doctor Who run, few compare with the sight of a Dalek squadron rolling across Westminster Bridge. The year is 2164, and the Daleks have arrived on Earth, where they are converting prisoners into "Robomen" to do their bidding. Throwing in with a ragtag resistance, the Doctor wins the day – and abandons his granddaughter Susan, in hopes that she will enjoy a normal life with freedom fighter David Campbell (Peter Fraser).

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‘”Are You My Mummy?’

From: "The Empty Child"/ "The Doctor Dances"
Premiere: May 21, 2005 / May 28, 2005

Faced with a genuinely terrifying epidemic during the height of the London Blitz, the Ninth Doctor and Rose encounter a mysterious boy with a gas mask fused to his faces, who blankly repeats a chilling question: "Are you my mummy?" Along with Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), whose popularity would earn him the lead role in Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, the Doctor resolves the calamity, and in a rare celebratory moment beams with joy: "Everybody lives!"

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‘Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor’

From: "The Name of the Doctor"
Premiere: May 18, 2013

Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith's final full season ended on the planet Trenzalore with a terse caption that posed more questions than it answered. If the character Smith played was indeed the Eleventh Doctor, then who was this aged, battle-hardened figure lurking in the shadows on the planet where the Doctor was destined to die? In a series known for cliffhangers, here was one of the most tantalizing.

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Debut of the Master

From: “Terror of the Autons”
Premiere: January 2, 1971

Making the most of a tricky situation – the Third Doctor, a dandy scientist played to a swashbuckling tee by Jon Pertwee, is abandoned on Earth by his Time Lord superiors – “Terror of the Autons” pits the Doctor and his new assistant, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), against alien invader the Nestene Consciousness and its synthetic soldiers, the Autons. Mannequins crashing through a storefront window in the Autons’ 1970 debut, “Spearhead from Space,” was among the most chilling scenes in the series, so much so that the gimmick was revisited in “Rose.” Here, you also met the Master, a conniving renegade Time Lord played with menacing glee by Roger Delgado as the Moriarty to the Doctor’s de facto Sherlock.

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‘I’m a Doctor – but Probably Not the One You Were Expecting.”

From: "The Night of the Doctor"
Premiere: November 14, 2013

Fan service it might have been, but this online "webisode" preamble to the 50th Anniversary special packed a lot into its not-quite seven minutes: the triumphant return of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor; evidence of how widely reviled the Time Lords became during their endless war with the Daleks; a smart tie to classic Who in the Sisterhood of Karn, last seen in the Fourth Doctor's era; an explanation for John Hurt's War Doctor character in the television episodes that flanked this clip; and, quite possibly, canonization of the Eighth Doctor's many superb adventures in audio dramas produced by English company Big Finish.

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The Tenth Doctor’s Easter-Egg Intervention

From: "Blink"
Premiere: June 9, 2007

Beginning with what in other hands could have been a liability – limited time in which to shoot with Tenth Doctor David Tennant and his companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) – script writer Steven Moffat created a nail-biting masterpiece and the first monsters of the contemporary age to rival the all-time baddies. Guided by Easter eggs implanted on DVDs by a Doctor stranded in 1969, in the present day Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) confronts the Weeping Angels, silent but deadly assassins who cease to exist when viewed straight on.

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‘Nice to Meet You, Rose. Run for Your Life!’

From: "Rose"
Premiere: March 26, 2005

The stakes could hardly have been higher when Doctor Who returned to the airwaves, but "Rose" met and exceeded expectations. You got the rubbery, visceral Ninth Doctor of Christopher Eccleston, who sadly only turned in one season. You got a conscious tie to vintage Who in the Autons, lethal animated plastic people introduced during the Third Doctor's run. And in Rose Tyler, played by former pop star Billie Piper in a career-altering turn, you got a relatable surrogate through whose eyes a wonderful and dangerous cosmos comes alive brilliantly.

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Ace Bashes in a Dalek’s Dome

From: "Remembrance of the Daleks"
Premiere: October 5, 1988

Amid the looming threats of rival Dalek factions, an English neo-fascist cadre and a powerful artifact stashed away by the Doctor long before, companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) – real name Dorothy McShane, a mouthy, bomb-chucking partner to Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor – comes into her own, dispatching a Dalek with a baseball bat soaked in alien energy. Fondness for explosives aside, Ace is a scrappy, independent young Earth woman – and a clear antecedent for Rose Tyler in the subsequently revived series.

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The Death of Adric

From: “Earthshock”
Premiere: March 8, 1982

Notably upping the stakes for the too-often comfy, convivial era of the Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison, “Earthshock” lived up to its title twice over. First, it reintroduced the Cybermen in one of their most ruthless outings to date, and second, one of the Doctor’s companions, perpetually petulant young math genius Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), met with a heroic death onscreen, an incident that would have lingering repercussions for the Doctor and his remaining mates.

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The Fourth Doctor’s Fateful Decision

From: "Genesis of the Daleks"
Premiere: March 8, 1975

Portraying the Fourth Doctor in only his fourth adventure (and already no stranger to chewing scenery), Tom Baker grapples with the greatest ethical dilemma of his life. Simply by crossing two wires, the Doctor can eliminate the Dalek race in its cradle. Urged to do so by companion Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor ponders the enormity of the act: "Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?"

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‘You Belong to Us. You Shall Be Like Us’

From: "The Tomb of the Cybermen"
Premiere: September 2, 1967

The Second Doctor and his traveling companions, Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) and Victoria Waterfield (Debra Watling), stumble upon an expedition on the planet Telos meant to uncover the final resting place of the Cybermen, whose disappearance centuries before is part of the historical record.  The scene in which a newly sophisticated, more inhuman batch of Cybermen arises from frozen hibernation in a breathtaking multi-level catacomb is one of the most riveting images in the entire series. (Watch closely for a bit of spontaneous slapstick from Troughton and Hines as they enter the tomb.)

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The First Doctor Regenerates

From: “The Tenth Planet”
Premiere: October 8, 1966

“It’s far from being all over.” With those words, William Hartnell’s First Doctor shuffled toward his shocking demise – and transformed into the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton. Were it only for the introduction of the Cybermen – a weird cyborg race from Earth’s wayward twin planet, Mondas, and another of the Doctor’s most durable nemeses – then William Hartnell’s swansong in the title role would still merit iconic status. But “The Tenth Planet” also ushered in a new facet to the Doctor’s alien biology, his race’s ability to regenerate into a completely new form – assuring that Doctor Who could carry on even without the actor who played the title role.

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Dawn of the Daleks

From: "The Daleks"
Premiere: December 21, 1963

Arriving by accident on a radiation-soaked planet called Skaro, the Doctor and his companions encounter for the first time the pestilential pepper-pots known as the Daleks – horribly mutated creatures whose lives are preserved by mechanical shells, and who are locked in mortal combat with a race of splendid humanoids known as the Thals. The invention of writer Terry Nation – who shrewdly retained rights to his creation, spun them off into two feature films, and had the last word in their resurrection for the new Doctor Who series – the Daleks would become the Doctor's arch-foes. Never have a plunger, a whisk and an eyestalk packed more menace.

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‘That’s Not Right!’

From: "An Unearthly Child" (a.k.a. "100,000 BC")
Premiere: November 23, 1963

In three words, Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) foreshadows the enormous premise of a new BBC series meant for children. Susan, the granddaughter of a mysterious, crotchety old man later identified as the Doctor (William Hartnell), has borrowed a book about the French Revolution from her solicitous schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). Flipping through its pages, she immediately spots errors. Is she unusually bright? Or was she perhaps there to see those events unfold firsthand? It was Susan who coined the acronym TARDIS – "Time and Relative Dimension in Space" – for the archaic, temperamental blue police box in which the Doctor and his companions travel. The rest is history — and the present and the future.

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