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25 Defining Moments From Doctor Who’s 50-Year History

Saturday’s anniversary episode of Doctor Who, “The Day of the Doctor,” flipped the action of the series around and gave it a dynamic new mission. (Read Vulture’s recap of the episode here.) As such, we decided to go back to the show’s beginnings and explore the twists and turns it has taken over the years, this weekend aside. A “defining moment” could be a line, a scene, an episode, a plot development, a casting decision, or, in one case, an entire season. Journey along and take a look back at 25 memorable markers that led up to the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”

It Begins — “An Unearthly Child” (1963)
Let’s start with the most obvious. The very first episode of Doctor Who. From the haunting theme music and trippy credit sequence to the police box curiously humming away in a London junkyard to two schoolteachers debating one peculiar student, the thing just moves. Those schoolteachers head for the junkyard, meet a crabby old man played by William Hartnell, and force their way into the police box, which turns out not to be a police box at all. Yes, Doctor Who proved to be a powerful, mysterious concept right out of the gate, but not without the ability to falter, as demonstrated by the three Stone Age–set episodes that followed.

An Unforgettable Villain — “The Daleks” (1963)
With its second serial, the series recovered its groove. The arrival on the dead, alien planet and the discovery of an ornate lost city were weirdly intriguing, but it was that thing coming toward Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) in the final seconds of the first episode that terrified a nation of British schoolchildren, compelling them to tune in a week later. Daleks are as much a part of the fabric of Doctor Who as the TARDIS, regeneration, and the sonic screwdriver. The show owes a great deal of its success to their creation, and it’s probable that without them, we wouldn’t even be celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who today.

The Threat Hits Home — “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964)
The show’s ability to juxtapose the alien and the familiar was evident from the first moments of the series, but the show dared to increase the stakes by having the Daleks invade our world. Once this happened, Doctor Who could never be the same, as monsters now had the ability to come to us. The Daleks trundling across Westminster Bridge has become one of the great iconic Who images.

One Story to Rule Them All — “The Tenth Planet” (1966)
It’s impossible to give enough praise to whoever came up with the idea of regeneration (a process initially modeled on an LSD trip), even though the term itself wasn’t used until many years later. It is the key to the ongoing storyline of Doctor Who, allowing for all of the adventures that have been created over the past 50 years to effortlessly exist within the same canon. So, yes, when William Hartnell was too sick to continue with the series, he morphed into Patrick Troughton, and Doctor Who added a bold new layer to its mythology. (The episode also introduced the Cybermen.)

A Show for Grown-ups — “The Web of Fear” (1968)
The introduction of UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), the top-secret military organization dedicated to sorting out alien life on planet Earth, is one of those developments that nobody could’ve guessed would alter the fabric of the series. But it did, by helping to move the show to a much more adult, action-driven format. Technically, UNIT doesn’t really come into existence until the following season’s “The Invasion,” but it’s here where all the seeds were planted, and Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), soon to be Brigadier, makes his first appearance. Topping it all off, “Web,” featuring the return of the Great Intelligence and the Yeti, is quite possibly the greatest story of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton’s era.

Hello, Time Lords — “The War Games” (1969)
In Troughton’s final regular episode — also the last one of the sixties, and the last in black and white — the mythology again lurches forward with the introduction of the mysterious, seemingly psychic Time Lords, who’d previously been unnamed and unseen (sometimes referred to by the Doctor as “my people”), via a forced visit to their sterile home world. There the Doctor was put on trial for interfering in the affairs of other races and exiled to Earth with another new face, and the secrets of the TARDIS were wiped from his memory. Six seasons' worth of the unknown was resolved in a half hour.

The Master — “Terror of the Autons” (1971)
This subpar sequel to “Spearhead” is noteworthy for several developments, including bringing in Katy Manning’s Jo Grant. But it is undoubtedly the introduction of the Doctor’s Time Lord arch enemy the Master, played by Roger Delgado, that ranks as its greatest triumph. He emerges from his TARDIS, hypnotizes a carnival barker, and begins carrying out dastardly deeds. Designed to be the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, the Master quickly became as important to Who as the Doctor himself, featured in every single story of his inaugural season. At the time of writing, he hasn’t been seen since David Tennant’s swan song, which feels more than a bit criminal. 

Together for the First Time — “The Three Doctors” (1972)
“The Three Doctors” is a bit tacky, and never feels as urgent as it should, yet a hat must be tipped at its celebration of the first ten years of Doctor Who by bringing together the three actors who’d played the central role. Even though the First Doctor doesn’t have much to do aside from sitting inside a tiny TV screen (Hartnell was extremely ill by this point), there’s still magic in the air. At the end of this story, the Time Lords lift the Doctor’s exile, and he is free to once again roam time and space. A decade later the show would improve on (but not perfect) this gimmick with “The Five Doctors.”

The Companion — “The Time Warrior” (1973)
Companions are a massive component of Doctor Who, but they do tend to come and go, often without great ceremony. So introducing Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith was, at the time, business as usual, yet in hindsight it was unusually special, because Sarah Jane Smith was so unusually special. Before Sarah Jane you watched Doctor Who and thought about how neat it would be to travel with the Doctor, but after she arrived, you fantasized about how it’d be even cooler to wander time and space with Sarah Jane. She brought fun to the TARDIS, laying down the template that’s been expanded on with the companions of today. Anybody who watched Sarah Jane fell for her on some level. “The Time Warrior” also introduces the Sontarans and finally gives a name to the Time Lord planet: Gallifrey.

The Introduction of Tom Baker — “Planet of the Spiders” (1974)
Seeing one Doctor regenerate into another was normal at this point in the series, yet nobody could have foreseen that Tom Baker would go on to become the definitive classic series Doctor, play the role for a mammoth seven seasons, and help give Doctor Who an entrancing and exciting new lease on life. Baker attacked the role with an intensity not seen in any of his predecessors, and in a way that none have quite managed since — except, perhaps, David Tennant, who has stated that the Pertwee-to-Baker regeneration is his earliest TV memory. It’s a turn of phrase often undeservedly tossed around, but Tom Baker was born to play the Doctor.

The Origin of the Origin — “The Deadly Assassin” (1976)
An entire story devoted to the reinvention of all that was Gallifreyan makes this story a moment unto itself. Not content to just strip away more mystery by presenting a Time Lord society that wasn’t vastly different from our own, “Assassin” refigured Who history with all manner of poetry in the forms of the Matrix, the Eye of Harmony, established the twelve-regeneration limit for Time Lords, and introduced the Time Lord leader Rassilon (as well as his Sash and, ahem, Rod). From here on out, the classic series, for better or worse, firmly bought into and often plundered its own history and mythology, with more convoluted developments around the corner. This episode was also so violent it had TV watchdog Mary Whitehouse frothing at the mouth.

A Companion, Mourned — “Earthshock” (1982)
The climax of “Earthshock” wasn’t the first time a companion was killed off on Doctor Who (see Katarina), but it was the first time it was done at great dramatic cost, by obliterating a character that had been a regular for a year and a half at the time of his death. Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric went out in a blaze of heroic glory, attempting to save a prehistoric Earth (that it turned out didn’t need saving after all) from imminent destruction. The aftermath of the event was infused with a gravitas rarely seen on the series, and the end credits played out in silence over the bratty wunderkind’s crumbled gold badge for mathematical excellence.

The Best? — “The Caves of Androzani” (1984)
The story that’s probably been voted the greatest Doctor Who tale more times than any other features the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) accidentally poisoned by a lethal toxin. Finding themselves accused of gunrunning, the pair wishes only to find an antidote and take leave. However, a deformed madman, his army of androids, and bursts of erupting mud stand in their way. With energetic cutting and frenzied pacing, what most defines “Androzani” is the notion that the Doctor is willing to give up his life for a single person, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The Season-Long Story Line — “The Trial of a Time Lord” (1986)
Certainly the longest “moment” on this list, this bold experiment was a full season of fourteen episodes featuring one long story line in which the Doctor (Colin Baker) was once again put on trial by the Time Lords. The last Time Lord story of the classic series, “Trial” is fueled by a vibe of climactic finality. With the hypocrisy and uncaring cruelty of their ranks exposed, it sets up the Time Lords as the corrupt, ruthless people eventually seen upon their return at the close of Tennant’s era. All over the place in terms of quality, the story still manages an epic feel, even if the ending sort of fails to deliver on the promising setup. In its final episodes, “Trial” even redefines the Doctor by revealing that his prosecutor, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston), was an evil shadow version of the Doctor himself, from somewhere in between his twelfth and final incarnations.

Farewell for Now — “Survival” (1989)
At the close of this episode, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) walk off into the afternoon sun, arm in arm. His voice-over declared a simple mission:

The Doctor: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice. Somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!”

At the time it was broadcast, the public was unaware that Doctor Who wouldn’t be back on TV regularly for another sixteen years.

The Doctor Returns — “Rose” (2005)
The first episode of the new series expediently brought Doctor Who into the new millennium, giving viewers unfamiliar with the character pretty much everything they needed to know in 45 minutes. But it gave old-school fans plenty to chew on as well. The episode introduced the concept of the Time War, and showcasing a bruised incarnation of the titular Time Lord (Christopher Eccleston) that was unlike any Doctor before him. Aggressively modern, and character-driven in a way that the series had never been before, “Rose” was an ideal jumping-off point for the revamped Doctor Who. In the episode that followed it, “The End of the World,” it was revealed that Gallifrey and the Time Lords had been destroyed in the Time War, and that the Doctor was the last of his kind.  

The First Glimpse of the New Doctor — “The Parting of the Ways” (2005)
No sooner than we started truly falling for Eccleston’s Ninth, he was abruptly taken from us. The first-season finale had a great deal going for it, as writer Russell T. Davies attempted to thematically sum up everything that his version of Who was about over the course of a single episode. With such a rich tale, its final moments featuring Nine regenerating into Ten were nearly as inconspicuous as Pertwee’s morph into Baker 30 years before. Eccleston was a serious actor and star of numerous critically acclaimed films. Who was this Tennant guy suddenly taking his place? There was no way of knowing at the time that Tennant would eventually lead viewers to all but forget that there had even been a Doctor in the new series prior to him.

It’s All One Show — “School Reunion” (2006)
Of course the return of Sarah Jane Smith was a cause for celebration, but not quite for the reasons one might think. While it was awesome to see Elisabeth Sladen back in action, and with an appropriately fleshed-out character able to verbalize feelings of a sort that were rarely allowed in the classic series, none of that is what made “School Reunion” so important. No, it’s because Lis’s presence was hard narrative proof that the new series was indeed an extension of the old. Before her appearance in this episode, the new series could just as easily have been a reinvention of what came before. With her, it instantly became part of the ongoing epic TV story line.

Foe Vs. Foe — “Doomsday” (2006)
The Daleks and the Cybermen had been the Doctor’s most consistent foes since appearing on the Who scene all the way back in the sixties, and yet they had never encountered one another onscreen. This was remedied in the second season finale, in which the two races not only met but engaged in all manner of carnage and battle. Admittedly, the idea of it was probably more interesting than the actual execution, but that matters not, because this episode fulfilled a long-standing fanboy dream of seeing the two most powerful enemy races in Doctor Who knock the crap out of one another.

The Doctor, Deconstructed — “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” (2007)
This two-parter from season three is one of the most high-concept ideas Who ever attempted. But “Human Nature” justifies the loftiness of its aspirations by arguably being the pinnacle of the new series. While running from a family of aliens, the Doctor changes his physiology to human, erases his memory, and hides out as a schoolteacher named John Smith in pre-WWI England. And then he accidentally falls in love, as the vicious aliens descend upon the school. Here we found out more about the Doctor and what makes him tick than in probably any other outing of the entire series. Freema Agyeman turned in the greatest work of her tenure as companion Martha Jones and Tennant gave two career-defining performances.

New Villains, Finally — “Blink” (2007)
“Blink” must be the most famous episode of Doctor Who ever made, and yet the Doctor’s participation in it is minimal. Starring a considerably less well-known Carey Mulligan as its central figure Sally Sparrow, it plays like a stand-alone piece of horror-infused sci-fi. Steven Moffat toyed with dramatic structure via time travel in “Blink” in a way that hadn’t really been done prior. It was the original “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” episode, and Moffat’s been riffing on it ever since. Yet the boldest “Blink” move is undoubtedly the Weeping Angels — an alien race of monstrous living statues that feed off the energy released from sending their victims back in time. New Who hadn’t had great luck with creating memorable new aliens prior to the Angels, but Moffat changed all that, and it continues to be one of his strongest attributes.

Gallifrey, Finally — “The End of Time Part II” (2010)
David Tennant’s final episodes are much sillier than they needed to be, and yet, at least the second half has to be singled out for its reintroduction of the Time Lords and the planet Gallifrey, which are core components of Who mythology, and a significant key to understanding the Doctor’s ongoing struggles. And to see Gallifrey realized on such a grand scale is breathtaking. The intensely quiet climax featuring the Doctor, the Master, Rassilon (played here by Timothy Dalton — James Bond himself), and Wilf’s gun hammers home the Doctor’s problematic history with his own race versus his unabashed love for the possibilities inherent in the rest of the universe. Then it all hangs its heart on its sleeve by ending with the Doctor again sacrificing himself for one seemingly insignificant person.

Breaking the Rules — “Vincent and the Doctor” (2010)
The old “let’s take a trip to the distant past and meet someone famous” routine is a formula that’s led to a number of pleasant romps, but is often little more than having a good time. That changed with Richard Curtis’s script for Matt Smith’s first season, in which the Eleventh Doctor met up with Van Gogh (Tony Curran), and aided the tortured artist in finding some semblance of peace. The adventure culminated with the Doctor surely violating some law of time by taking Van Gogh on a trip in the TARDIS to see his own exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay of the present. Poor Vincent almost had a breakdown upon discovering his work was still being celebrated so many years in the far future, and Curtis proved that some of the best Doctor Who is created when the show breaks its own rules.

Getting to Know the TARDIS — “The Doctor’s Wife” (2011)
Another famous guest writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote this flight of fancy, which sought to deconstruct one of the show’s great central mysteries: the dimensionally transcendental time-and-space machine, the TARDIS. When an alien being transposes the soul of the TARDIS into the body of a woman called Idris, the Doctor is finally able to communicate with his closest and, contrary to his claim, most reliable friend in a way not previously possible. The pair share both laughter and pain, and it’s gut-wrenching when it has to end. The defining moment?

The Doctor: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go!”
Idris/The TARDIS: “No, but I always took you where you
needed to go.”

Looking Ahead — “The Name of the Doctor” (2013)
It’s no coincidence that this exploration ends with the last episode aired prior to “The Day of the Doctor.” It’s why we just celebrated 50 years of Doctor Who: Because the show, even after five decades of storytelling, still has more to say and to show us. “The Name of the Doctor” was another shattering series of events — an affair saturated with death, in which the Doctor visits his own burial ground on Trenzalore, which ended with the Doctor in his own timeline, facing a side of himself he couldn’t bear to acknowledge. And it looks like it might not be the last we’ll see of that not-so-sunny locale, as the “Coming Soon” at the close of “The Day of the Doctor” indicated we might return there at Christmas, when Matt Smith hands over his TARDIS key to Peter Capaldi.

Photo: BBC