With Jodie Whittaker’s tenure in the TARDIS coming to an end later this year, now is the perfect time for those who maybe haven’t gotten into Doctor Who before to take the plunge ahead of the mystery Fourteenth Doctor’s arrival in 2023, which marks the immortal sci-fi series’ 60th anniversary. The show originally began in 1963 before being cancelled in 1989. In 2005, it returned to our screens in a revamped format and now stands as one of the world’s most popular TV franchises and the BBC’s jewel in the crown.
But, if you’re new to Who, what are the best episodes to begin with? Well, obviously you could simply start with season one and work your way through, but with a show that changes so much week to week, you might prefer to take a grab-bag approach and watch an array of episodes from over the past 17 years, featuring any of the five Doctors to lead the series in that time.
So, if that sounds like an appealing plan to you, then here’s a guide to the 10 best standalone Doctor Who episodes for beginners, from festive Christmas specials to chilling bottle episodes and everything in between.
“Rose” (S1, 2005)
The most obvious jumping-on point for new Whovians has to be “Rose,” the revived series’ pilot episode. In a stroke of genius, it reintroduces viewers to this universe through the eyes of everywoman Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) as she encounters an extraordinary man known as the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and helps him foil an attack on London by living shop window dummies. “Rose” might not be as tonally assured as later episodes, but it’s still a strong opening hour.
“Dalek” (S1, 2005)
Everyone’s familiar with the Daleks, but if you’ve never watched the series, then you might think the psychopathic pepperpots are a little silly. The brilliant thing about “Dalek” is that it challenges people’s preconceptions of them head-on and reminds fans why they’re the deadliest creatures in the Whoniverse. The episode sees the Doctor and Rose having to fight for their lives when a lone Dalek brutally exterminates its way through an underground bunker.
“The Christmas Invasion” (Special, 2005)
When the show came back in 2005, it began a new tradition of annual holiday specials. The ball started rolling with the excellent “The Christmas Invasion,” which introduced us to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor — and the Whoniverse has never been the same since. That said, the Time Lord is actually kept out of action for much of the episode, as he recuperates after his regeneration, which leaves Rose to face off against invading aliens the Sycorax on her own.
“Blink” (S3, 2007)
Even if you’ve never seen Doctor Who before, the likelihood is that you’ve heard of the Weeping Angels. The sinister statues made their debut in this 2007 episode, which is regularly touted as the series’ finest-ever outing. It’s a highly unusual episode, too, as the central character isn’t the Doctor or companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) but Sally Sparrow (future Hollywood star Carey Mulligan). “Blink” is essentially a 45-minute horror movie and not to be missed.
“The Eleventh Hour” (S5, 2010)
After Tennant exited the TARDIS, Who rebooted itself again with “The Eleventh Hour,” which perfectly established the more whimsical tone of the Eleventh Doctor’s era. Unlike Ten in “Christmas Invasion,” Matt Smith’s Eleven hits the ground running as he has to locate a shapeshifting fugitive before outer space police destroy the earth, all while struggling to adjust to his new body. Karen Gillan also makes her debut as new companion Amy Pond.
“Vincent and the Doctor” (S5, 2010)
While the Eleventh Doctor’s era is known for its whimsy, it could also be incredibly moving, too. Case in point, the peerless “Vincent and the Doctor.” Written by Love Actually‘s Richard Curtis, the episode sees the Doctor and Amy befriend Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran). Though there is an alien in the mix, the sci-fi elements of the plot are pared back and “Vincent” is really a tear-jerking meditation on living with mental illness and depression.
“The Day of the Doctor” (Special, 2013)
On the surface, recommending the show’s 50th anniversary special as a good standalone episode for a beginner sounds bizarre, but if you want to jump in at the deep end, then there’s no better place to start than with the feature-length “The Day of the Doctor,” which features Matt Smith and David Tennant’s Doctors teaming up with John Hurt’s newly introduced lost incarnation. Big, bold, and thrilling, there’s no better episode to get across everything the show can be.
“Listen” (S8, 2014)
The Twelfth Doctor’s era isn’t an easy jumping-on point for newbies, as it’s quite heavily serialized. But “Listen” is a mostly standalone episode that is a must for anyone who’s seen “Blink” and is looking for something similarly spooky. In this one, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) traverse space and time on the hunt for a creature that may or may not exist — a creature perfectly evolved to hide that can only be seen in the corner of your eye…
“The Pilot” (S10, 2017)
While Capaldi’s incarnation started out gloomy and mean-spirited, he lightened up considerably across his lifespan, which makes “The Pilot,” the opening episode of his final season, a great entrance point. Here, the Doctor has started teaching at a university and takes inquisitive student Bill (Pearl Mackie) under his wing. Mackie’s a vastly underrated companion in Who history, and this eerie, entertaining episode is rooted in a welcome LGBTQ+ love story.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” (S11, 2018)
In the first total reset of the show since 2010, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” marks the introduction of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and her so-called “fam,” Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). Whittaker is immediately a delight in the role, full of energy and warmth, and the more grounded tone recalls “Rose,” albeit paired with the fast pace of “The Eleventh Hour.”
“Rosa” (S11, 2018)
Not to be confused with “Rose,” “Rosa” has to be the very best episode of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era. Like “Vincent and the Doctor,” “Rosa” is another poignant historical biopic that sees the Doctor and her friends encounter Rosa Parks as a white supremacist time-traveler attempts to kill her to prevent the rise of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The episode tackles its themes of systemic racism with a deft hand and ultimately packs a powerful punch.