For some it’s Thanksgiving, but for sci-fi fans across the globe, it’s Doctor Who Day! For those blissfully unaware, November 23rd marks 60 years of the world’s longest-running science fiction program. Spanning a whopping soon-to-be forty seasons, a TV movie, and countless expanded universe media, Doctor Who is one of the most prolific and beloved franchises in television history. In the next few weeks, we’ll witness the long-awaited 60th Anniversary specials, featuring the return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Doctor and Donna. While we eagerly anticipate these episodes, here’s my ranking for all the previous Doctor Who anniversary adventures. Only televised entries qualify for this list, so audio stories like the 40th’s “Zagreus” or comic stories like “Hunters of the Burning Stone” won’t be found here.
[Warning: Spoilers for Doctor Who anniversary specials through series 7—or season 33, if you want to get technical.]
#5. Doctor Who 30th (1993): “Dimensions in Time”
Starting off the list, we have easily the strangest entry. Running only 17 minutes long, the 1993 BBC Children in Need special also served to celebrate 30 years of Doctor Who. While the show had been infamously axed four years prior, that didn’t stop the BBC from celebrating the anniversary in probably the most unusual way possible.
“Dimensions” follows a vague semi-plot, in which the Rani captures all seven Doctors, various companions, and all sorts of aliens in a sort of space menagerie. The Doctors get stuck in a 20-year time-skip, conveniently set in a street market in London’s East End. During the time skip, they visit 1973, 1993, and 2013. By the end, the Doctor defeats the Rani by (???—probably reversing the polarity of the neutron flow or something). And thus, all is well.
The episode aired during the early 3D TV craze, and as such, this episode is chock full of bizarre special effects—most horrifically, uncanny valley-esque 3D models of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s heads floating about on the screen.
“Dimensions in Time” would barely merit inclusion on this list, if it weren’t for the fact that it was broadcast on the BBC and did, in fact, feature all the Doctors from Pertwee to McCoy. To be frank, it’s nothing more than a bizarre, Doctor Who 90’s fever dream, complete with an uptempo, eurodance remix of the theme song.
“Dimensions” has actually been addressed in the expanded universe. In the New Adventures novel “First Frontier,” Seven says that this adventure was indeed a nightmare that he once had. So, ridiculous as it may be, “Dimensions” is in fact EU canon, in its own weird way. Who knew the Doctor’s dreams were so low-budget?
If you want to subject yourself to this bad acid trip of a Doctor Who anniversary special, it is available to watch on YouTube.
#4. Doctor Who 25th (1988): “Silver Nemesis”
This is a bit of an odd anniversary special, seeing as it was a much smaller event than some of the others. During the late 80’s, Who was steadily declining in popularity, so there wasn’t quite the level of hype as there was for the previous specials. This three-part story featured Seven and Ace going toe-to-toe with the silvery Cybermen, appropriately.
I will not lie, I remember barely anything about this serial. Although it features the Cybermen, neo-Nazis, and a planet-destroying comet, this episode is not one of the more memorable episodes from season 25. “Remembrance of the Daleks” from the same season probably would have been a much more appropriate 25th Anniversary special. Indeed, it has supplanted “Nemesis” as the anniversary special in the memories of many fans.
Still, “Silver Nemesis” is by no means bad. Featuring some gripping action and fun time-traveling antics, it’s an enjoyable outing on the whole. But compared to the other specials, it’s maybe just the tiniest bit underwhelming…
#3. : Doctor Who 10th (1973): “The Three Doctors”
Now we’re getting somewhere! Kicking off season 10 in style, this highly influential story marked the first-ever multi-Doctor story, a formula that’s been a staple of Doctor Who ever since. “The Three Doctors” is everything wonderful about 70’s-era Doctor Who. It’s got excitement, camp, silly-looking monsters, the Time Lords, the Brigadier, UNIT, and rock quarries.
The rogue Time Lord Omega is draining Gallifrey’s power, and all of time is threatened. The Time Lords realize that the only person who can stop Omega is the Doctor, or rather, the Doctors. Bending the laws of time, they unite Three with his two previous selves. Together, the Doctors travel to Omega’s antimatter universe to stop the threat and save all of time.
But the absolute best thing about this episode has to be the witty, lightning-quick banter between the Doctors. Pretty much every multi-Doctor story since has incorporated some kind of rivalry and playful smack-talking between the Doctors. But the dynamic between Two and Three is extra fun, and Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton play off each other wonderfully in these episodes.
Sadly, William Hartnell’s failing health meant he was reduced to brief cameo appearances during “Three Doctors”. But that doesn’t stop him from throwing some brutal shade at his future selves. One can only imagine how much more this anniversary special would have been elevated if Hartnell had been available for a full-on appearance.
#2. Doctor Who 20th (1983): “The Five Doctors”
So much could have gone wrong with trying to unite all five incarnations of the Doctor to date for this Doctor Who anniversary special. And it did, but that didn’t stop “The Five Doctors” from being a relentlessly fun, over-the-top, heartfelt celebration of the show’s 20-year history.
All five Doctors, along with a smattering of past companions, get kidnapped and forced to play the deadly game of Rassilon. Although the natural suspect is the Master, it turns out that Lord President Borusa means to use the Doctors to enter the Tomb of Rassilon and gain immortality. On its own, this is a pretty decent plot, delving into the history of the Time Lords, and sporting an excellent twist villain. But, at the end of the day, “The Five Doctors” is pretty much just an excuse to pit the Doctors against the Master, the Daleks, the Cybermen, and plenty of other threats, all at once. And it works wonderfully.
Tragically, William Hartnell passed away in 1975, making “The Three Doctors” his last appearance as the First Doctor. Thankfully, Richard Hurndall became the first of several actors to take over this iconic role. To his credit, he does the part justice in this special. Tom Baker was also unavailable to return as the Fourth Doctor, but in his case, it was due to burnout from having played the character for seven long years. He was therefore replaced in the episode with archive footage from the unfinished season 17 finale, “Shada.” While he is missed, this episode still works shockingly well. Peter Davison, Pertwee, Troughton, and Hurndall all have fantastic chemistry and play off each other delightfully. Throw Tom Baker into the mix, and he might have stolen the show completely.
This episode is loaded with fan-favorite and quotable moments. Susan reuniting with her grandfather, Sarah Jane’s first appearance since 1976, a Raston Robot slaughtering an entire squad of Cybermen… the list goes on and on. Until the series revival in 2005, this was pretty much the peak of Doctor Who fandom for many years.
#1. Doctor Who 50th (2013): “The Day of the Doctor”
It’s difficult to deny the sheer impact, scale, and excitement surrounding Doctor Who’s golden anniversary. Who had never been so big, and may never be again. I mean, “Day of the Doctor” was simulcast in 94 countries, including in 3D movie theaters, breaking the record for the biggest TV drama simulcast in history. Now that’s what I call hype.
But recency bias and nostalgia aside, “Day of the Doctor” is still a wonderful episode, and one of the best in the show’s history according to many. After eight years of mystery and intrigue surrounding the legendary Time War, we finally got to see it on screen. Not only this, but we also met the late John Hurt’s War Doctor, the first of several secret past Doctors that we never knew about before. The War Doctor is an excellent addition to the character and lore of the Doctor, and answers a lot of questions that fans had wondered about for years. Hurt utterly bodied this role, and it’s a great tragedy that we’ll never get to see him revisit it.
But more Doctors than the War Doctor are at play in this special. In addition to the current Doctor Matt Smith, we also got to see the first return of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. These three stars play off of each other wonderfully, very much in the style of the playful but cutting banter of previous multi-Doctor stories. But that’s not all. We also get to see cameos from all previous Doctors, including a sneak peek of the then-future 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi.
All these Doctors are brought together by a singular goal: to change the outcome of the Time War and save Gallifrey from destruction. RTD’s introduction of the Time War back in the Eccleston era was one of the biggest canon shifts in the show’s history. “Day of the Doctor” therefore felt like the grand big finale of the first seven seasons of NuWho, bringing the Time War arc to a close at last. It’s a deeply satisfying and epic celebration that ties into the overall plot of the show even more so than any previous anniversary special.
In addition to all these Doctors, we get to see the return of the Daleks, UNIT, Billie Piper as The Moment, and the fan-favorite Zygons, making their first on-screen appearance since 1975. That’s not even to mention the countless other Easter eggs and references there to keep the hardcore fans pleased.
“The Day of the Doctor” perfectly balances a well-written and emotionally satisfying plot, celebrating the show’s 50th birthday, multiple Doctors and villains, easter eggs and fanservice, and thrilling sci-fi adventure. Even rewatching it now, it still feels monumental. Truly a landmark in Whostory, and an adventure in space and time that fans will still be discussing for years to come.
That’s it for my ranking of the Doctor Who anniversary specials!
It has been an excellent year of Doctor Who at The Cosmic Circus. Myself and all our staff Whovians are so thankful for all of you reading our bombardment of articles over the past year, which began last year with my own personal Whovian journey. We’re looking forward to thoroughly covering this exciting new era of the show for you all.
Speaking of which, the first of the 60th Anniversary specials “The Star Beast” will be available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Disney+ internationally on November 25. Our own Brian Kitson got a special sneak peek of the upcoming episode, so be sure to check out his light-spoilers review! And, if you’re beginning to feel the holiday spirit, be sure to check out our list of the best Doctor Who holiday specials!
And Happy Doctor Who Day! Here’s to sixty more wibbly-wobbly years!