The series openers of Doctor Who are some of the most important within each run. Not only do they often have to introduce new characters to the Who universe, but they also have to re-establish the premise and the tone of the series for any new joiners. As such, it sort of has to have an easy-going, approachable air, while still also giving a hint and a foreshadowing at the adventures soon to follow. Over the past twelve series of Doctor Who since it was revived in 2005, there have been a variety of approaches and styles to the initial outing of a series, and though they are all distinctly different, some are certainly more successful than others.
14. Let’s Kill Hitler
”Mark, you’re off your rocker, how can there be 14 entries in this list when Doctor Who has only been going for 12 series?” Thank you for the question, voice in my head. Well, see, for some reason that’s best known to his illogical self, Steven Moffat in his infinite wisdom decided that he would split Series 6 and Series 7 down the middle, meaning that these series did not just have a series premiere, but they also had a mid season premiere. Technically. Mainly it just served to shift the series back to a September start.
The midseason premiere followed the massive revelation in “A Good Man Goes to War” that River Song was, in fact, Rory and Amy’s child Melody Pond, who was stolen by Madame Kovarian to be raised as the perfect assassin for the Doctor. This opener falls into the groove of being more exposition heavy than it is entertaining or emotional, by getting out of the way more revelations of River also actually being Rory and Amy’s heretofore unseen childhood best friend Mels, before she regenerates, and then ultimately deciding that she doesn’t want to kill the Doctor and resolves to be an archaeologist instead. It’s a necessary episode in terms of linking together stray parts of River’s timeline, but it would have been nice to see Amy and Rory actually react to the fact that their child was kidnapped and raised away from them, even if they know that ultimately River turns out fine. Losing a child isn’t something that you can shrug off as easily as this episode, and indeed the rest of Amy and Rory’s time on the show suggests.
13. The Bells of Saint John
Here is another midseason premiere. Following on from 2012’s Christmas special “The Snowmen”, the Doctor had realised that the woman he knew as Clara Oswin Oswald had saved his life, and died, twice, leading him to find the present day Clara. Unfortunately, this Clara is far more of a watered down version of her predecessors, lacking both their fierce intelligence, and wit, as well as, crucially, likability. Couple this with a bizarre premise about infected radio waves and spoon heads, not even the capable performances of Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman and even Celia Imrie can make this episode palatable. Ultimately, it’s more concerned with the mystery of Clara than it is establishing her as an interesting character in her own right.
12. The Pilot
”The Pilot” is designed as a soft reboot for Doctor Who: a natural jumping off point for new viewers with the arrival of new companion Bill Potts. The interactions between her and the Doctor are a breath of fresh air, and it is remarkably enjoyable to see the Doctor starting from scratch again after 4 years since the last new companion. Throughout the tenure of Clara Oswald, her relationship with the Doctor had taken a turn into vaguely acerbic banter, and a hugely toxic relationship between the two, so it was nice to take a back seat and see the show get back into travelling around the universe with a friend. The only problem is that nothing much of consequence or interest actually happens within this episode. A Dalek appears momentarily, and we see a great deal of locations, but other than that the plot is overwhelmingly plain. Turns out the enemy is caused by a puddle of alien spaceship oil that then pursues Bill and the Doctor throughout the entire universe.
However, there are major plus points in the form of Bill, who is a ball of energy and played brilliantly by Pearl Mackie; the Doctor, who is on fine form here, as well as the hints towards the contents of his vault, which will continue to be a plot point through his final series.
11. Deep Breath
At the time, “Deep Breath” seemed a wonderful instalment, mainly because the show had finally broken free of the muddled and twisted storytelling that was characteristic of Matt Smith’s era. Opening with a giant T-Rex menacing Victorian London is a pretty incredible visual, and this episode definitely went some lengths to give Jenna Coleman’s Clara an actual personality following an entire half-series of being a plot device.
The enemy is actually merely recycled from a previous story, another Moffat creation, the clockwork droids, which worked well in “The Girl in the Fireplace”, but is significantly less surprising here. While Clara is given loads to do in figuring out the Doctor’s plan and really coming into her own, the character of the Doctor takes a massive hit, becoming cold and callous and evening abandoning Clara to certain death. This was a major issue in the Doctor’s characterisation through Series 8, in fact, that he was written as being overly unfeeling, which has never been a hallmark of the Doctor’s personality before. He has always been motivated through a strong sense of justice, as well as a love of adventure, and his cantankerous attitude simply didn’t marry well to this idea at all.
10. New Earth
I feel kind of bad that “New Earth” has ended up so far down this list, because I genuinely love it as an episode. At this point in Doctor Who’s history, however, the series premieres were just designed to be unbridled fun. This was before the itch to make each series bigger and better than the one before kicked in and the show started to trip over its own feet. As such, “New Earth” is probably the campest New Who has become, with both Billie Piper and David Tennant skipping around with glee while they are possessed by the downright fabulous Lady Cassandra. The plot isn’t too bad, with a race of cat nuns responsible for breeding an entire race just to perfect disease cures, and it’s certainly an entertaining ride. It is less successful purely because the audience were waiting for a glimpse of Rose and the Doctor in action, and this episode spent the vast majority of its time splitting the pair up. Considering the brilliance elsewhere in Series 2, it is somewhat of a lacklustre start.
9. Asylum of the Daleks
”Asylum of the Daleks” was the audience’s introduction to Series 7, the first part of which was advertised using movie posters, with the premise of each instalment being like a mini-movie. The episode certainly feels epic in its scale, as Amy, Rory and the Doctor are all kidnapped by the Daleks and tasked by their Parliament to destroy their Asylum. There are wonderful moments, including many nods to the past in glimpses of old versions of the Dalek casing, as well as chilling beats where Dalek eyestalks slowly poke their way out of people’s skulls.
Ultimately, however, this episode is brought down by the Ponds, which does make one wonder whether they should have just called it quits after they left in Series 6. Their departure in “God Complex” was much more gratifying than here, in which apparently they have divorced off screen and feels wholly unnecessary by the end of the episode. One notable surprise, however, was the introduction of future companion Clara, though in this form she is known as Oswin. The plot revelation that she has in fact constructed a reality around herself because she has been turned into a Dalek is hugely emotional, but still not enough to make the canon-bending premise of this episode worthwhile.
8. Smith and Jones
Re-establishing the show after Rose’s departure was never going to be easy. Fortunately, however, this was before the show had pulled out every trick in the book, so transporting a hospital to the moon along with the appearance of space police rhinos is compelling enough to hold the audience’s interest. What’s more, Freema Agyeman is hugely likeable as Martha Jones, demonstrating not just how fiercely independent she is, but also how capable she is at holding her own against the doctor, her nature level of inquisitiveness, and the burden she takes upon herself at managing her chaotic family. There’s a massive amount of information about her given in just 45 minutes, but it’s already enough to cement her in the hearts of the audience.
7. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Arguably the largest transformation Doctor Who has undergone, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is wonderfully crafted and thought through. From cinematography to the writing, you get the sense that this is a well written episode of TV, written by a credible writer, instead of just a Doctor Who episode. Whittaker pulls out a brilliant performance from her very first appearance of this new incarnation of the Doctor, assuring the audience that they’re in safe hands. Yaz, Ryan, Graham and Grace are also set up well, giving promising hints as to their characters and family lives, though none of them are as well developed as companions had been in the Davies era.
Tim Shaw (I forget his actual alien name) is downright sinister throughout this episode, and removing the Doctor from her usual tricks, such as the TARDIS helps cement the new TARDIS team and how they work together. It’s a promising start to a series that varied widely in terms of plots and locations, though was sorely lacking in meaningful character development.
6. Partners in Crime
This episode is simply a hoot. Seeing the return of Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, not to mention Bernard Cribbins as her grandfather Wilfred, is massively satisfying. The chemistry that she shares with David Tennant’s Doctor is electric and their partnership is arguably the most successful of New Who. Even though the actual alien plot is somewhat lacking in terms of tension, it successfully sets up the pair for their series of adventures. Not only that, but there are tantalising glimpses at the future, with a surprise appearance from Rose Tyler and a signature Davies throwaway mention to the disappearing planets, the relevance of which would only fully be realised in the epic series finale.
Reception to Jodie Whittaker’s first season was…lukewarm, to put it politely. While making the series more standalone was of huge benefit to the casual viewer, it did dramatically reduce the character development of the regulars, plus the epic feel of finales that fans had become used to. At the end of that series, many felt as if they knew very little more about Yaz, Ryan or Graham than they did at the start.
“Spyfall” certainly feels more epic. From the beginning, with the involvement of MI6, to casual globetrotting, this definitely feels like an adventure with purpose. Of course, the appearance of the Master, now played by Sacha Dhawan, was a major jawdropping moment. The cliffhanger of the Doctor’s companions plummeting towards the earth while she was trapped in a desolate landscape was certainly one that kept viewers itching to tune back in.
That doesn’t mean that it is flawless. Ultimately, there just isn’t enough plot to spin out over two episodes. While the show looks fantastic, some of the elements of the spy service, such as Stephen Fry’s presence, and Graham taking laser shoes which, I’m sorry, are just not a credible adult weapon, are plain silly and don’t mesh well with the more serious tone that they are trying to take. What’s more, the second episode is solely dedicated to the Doctor trying to get back to the present day to reunite with her companions. When the Master turns back up after living through the past years (because that’s not at all dangerous leaving the Master loose on earth), it reeks more of “The Curse of Fatal Death” than an actual credible plot point. On the whole, it isn’t a cohesive story, but it was a marked improvement over the previous series and is an entertaining enough start to a good series, with wonderful references to the Timeless Child story arc and the renewed destruction of Gallifrey.
4. The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar
Steven Moffat’s series of Doctor Who had a habit of needing something new to draw the audience in (because quality writing wasn’t enough of a draw, apparently. It also wasn’t incredibly present, so perhaps that’s why it couldn’t be relied upon). Series 5, of course, had the debut of Matt Smith’s Doctor and Karen Gillan as companion Amy Pond; Series 6 was split in half; Series 7 had Jenna Coleman join the cast; Series 8 had Peter Capaldi assume the role of the Doctor; Series 10 had Pearl Mackie come on board as Bill Pots. Series 9 was unique in its storytelling by only telling two-parter stories, having largely neglected two-parters since Series 6.
This two-parter saw not only the return of the Dalek planet of Skaro, but also of the creator of the Daleks Davros, and fan-favourite Missy. Considering that Missy had only just appeared in the Series 8 finale might make this reappearance somewhat less surprising, but a Davros story is always satisfying. Clara is on fine form here, demonstrating her lust for danger and adventure that would ultimately prove to be her downfall, while Missy is chaotic as ever with her unpredictable energy. What’s more, Capaldi has found the perfect level of aloof, yet compassionate grandfather that he had been lacking in his debut outing, and became much more of a warmer character overall, in contrast to his and Clara’s constant quibbling throughout Series 8. While not perfect, with the introduction of the much-reviled sonic sunglasses, and a plot that drags somewhat in the middle (as, really, there is no need for it to be a two-parter), it is a solid and thoroughly enjoyable opening to Series 9.
3. The Eleventh Hour
I keep on talking about “big changes” that series openers were tasked with. Much like “Rose” and “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, “The Eleventh Hour” had to introduce not just a new Doctor, but also a new companion. In this case, however, even more eyes were on the show because Russell T Davies had also left, leaving the show in Steven Moffat’s hand. This was a statement to what the show was to feel like from now on. Fortunately, Series 5 is, probably, the most cohesive and assured collection of episodes that Moffat helmed.
Matt Smith puts in a brilliant performance here, giving his Doctor such delicious, boyish energy and charm. A character who is slightly embarrassing and weird, but who embraces it. The entire story is a little bit bonkers and surreal, with a breakneck pace, culminating in the Doctor’s now iconic speech on the rooftop as he finally puts on his bow tie, warns the Atraxi off earth, with Murray Gold’s score behind him and declares “I’m the Doctor”. Amy’s introduction is also satisfying here, and Karen Gillan plays her both with an incredible ferocity but also with a profound vulnerability.
This episode also set up key components in the mystery that would propel not just this series, but would continue (somewhat awkwardly) throughout Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. The crack in the wall, and silence falling, would pursue the Eleventh Doctor with a rabid intensity for the next three years, but here it is sprinkled in with remarkable simplicity.
2. The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon
”The Impossible Astronaut” launches Series 6 with a bang, taking the show where it has never been before.
A mysterious letter inviting not just Amy and Rory, but also River, to Lake Silencio in Utah (they even filmed in America – hurray, budget!), where they witnessed the Doctor’s death at the hands of an astronaut who emerged from the lake. This revelation sends them on a journey through time with the Doctor’s past self to investigate the astronaut’s past, leaving Amy conflicted while she tries to prevent the Doctor’s death.
What’s more, this episode is also responsible for introducing one of the best new Doctor Who villains in the form of the Silence. They look truly chilling, and the fact that they are forgotten as soon as they are observed makes them even more sinister.
“The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” is a truly epic start to Series 6, setting up an intriguing premise of the Doctor’s death. Though ultimately the conclusion was less than satisfactory, this plot gave us multiple massive revelations about River Song’s true identity and was hugely compelling.
Was there really going to be another series premiere that could top this list? Sure, “Rose” doesn’t have the epic no-holds-barred approach that many of the premieres now have to employ just to grab our attention, but it is the blueprint that set the tone for the entire of New Who. Looking back now, it’s easy to underestimate how much “Rose” reinvented Doctor Who for a modern audience. Firstly, it framed the companion at the centre of the show, in contrast to the Doctor himself (something which some show runners could be reminded of). Eccleston also puts in a stunning performance as a traumatised and tortured incarnation of the Doctor, and we hear the first mention of the Time War, a hallmark of the universe that Davies created. Billie Piper is, of course, sublime as Rose Tyler, a character who most of the audience can immediately relate to as we embark upon the madcap adventure with a time traversing, ancient extraterrestrial. While the Autons aren’t exactly the most sinister, and most of the encounters are played for laughs, this episode is just plain fun, and it demonstrates exactly what Doctor Who could be. Needless to say it was hugely successful, and Doctor Who still runs to this day.