Doctor Who is a truly one-of-a-kind show, spanning 60 years and delivering to audiences some truly jaw-dropping, memorable pieces of science fiction. The show has produced countless award-winning, tear-jerking episodes that have burned themselves into the brains of fans and casual watchers alike. But among all the iconic, critically-acclaimed episodes, are a number of brilliantly written and entertaining stories that often fly under the fandom’s radar to become underrated Doctor Who episodes.
The show has spanned 60 years and 871 episodes. It’s inevitable that fans overlook a few of The Doctor’s countless adventures when they share their favorite episodes with each other. As Russell T. Davies will be returning as showrunner, and David Tennant returning to play the Fourteenth Doctor, I thought it would be an appropriate time to go over some of the most underappreciated episodes from this beloved era of the show.
I’ll be highlighting episodes that either received mixed reactions from fans or seem to be frequently left out of discussions of “best episodes”. I’ll be going over episodes featuring both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant as the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, as they were both part of the Russell T. Davies era of the show. (Plus, the Ninth Doctor only had one season, so it would be hard to give him his own list!)
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Series 1-4 of Doctor Who]
“Aliens of London” / “World War Three”
This story marked the first two-parter of NuWho, which told the story of the Slitheen family’s invasion of the British government, and eventually Earth.
I think this episode loses a lot of fans because of the goofiness of the Slitheen. For those who don’t remember, these giant green aliens skin humans alive, making their skin into suits to disguise themselves as government officials. As a side effect of their giant bodies fitting into the much smaller humans, they release gas from their bodies a lot, which causes a farting noise.
Yes, the fart jokes in these episodes are a little much. But just imagine if some comic relief hadn’t been present in this episode. The concept of aliens skinning humans alive and wearing them as a disguise is pretty horrific, even for Doctor Who. That, plus the very real fear of nuclear war, could’ve made for a shockingly grim story.
I personally feel like some silliness was necessary to balance out the darker aspects of this story. Plus, it is one of the first episodes of the revived series, RTD and co. likely didn’t want to alienate (pun intended) families with young children so early on.
Flatulence humor aside, this is a very well-written and structured entry in the RTD era. The episode opens wonderfully, with the Doctor accidentally returning Rose (Billie Piper) to Earth a full year after her departure by mistake. Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey’s (Noel Clarke) reactions to Rose’s disappearance are very real and reflect real-world concerns about young women disappearing. It’s an emotional beginning to the episode that really nicely places the story in some grounded context.
Plus, the Slitheen’s evil plot is pretty unique, as Doctor Who’s alien invasions go. Aliens disguising themselves as humans and then inventing a fake alien threat to drive humanity to nuclear war is pretty creative. The scene with the pig towards the beginning is shockingly well-crafted and creepy. Despite not having revisited this episode as often as some other entries on this list, I still vividly remember that scene and the effect it had on me as a kid.
On top of all that, when they’re not farting (and making dated fat jokes) the Slitheen are genuinely pretty threatening aliens. Their weakness to vinegar, I will however admit, is not that creative. Very Signs.
“The Long Game”
This is probably the most forgotten Doctor Who episode of the Nine’s brief tenure. While it’s may not be as explosive or exciting as some of his other outings, it’s still a fantastic piece of television.
The central concept is that an alien called the Jagrafess is manipulating the news to slow the development of humanity. It also features the departure of one of the Doctor’s shortest-lasting companions, Adam Mitchell, who only traveled on the TARDIS for two adventures.
This episode is surprisingly nuanced. It’s an examination of how media can be perverted to manipulate and control people’s attitudes, which feels increasingly relevant in modern times. Also, “The Long Game”’s exploration of humans interfacing with technology also feels very pertinent.
We also get to see a darker side of the Ninth Doctor. In the end, he banishes Adam from the TARDIS after one mistake. It’s clear that the Time War deeply affected Nine. He is less forgiving, and perhaps more ruthless than he once was.
Additionally, I think the design of the Jagrafess is both unique and threatening. It’s a shame they’ve never brought back this monster in the main series.
“Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel”
This story is understandably controversial within the fandom, given its introduction of the alternate universe Cybermen. (Have we ever fully reconciled the existence of both the AU Cybermen and the Mondasian Cybermen within the Whoniverse? I know that “World Enough and Time” made an attempt, but even that didn’t fully explain everything.)
Looking past unnecessary reinvention of the origin story to a classic villain, this is an excellent Cyberman story. The Cybermen are really threatening in these episodes, and the Cyber-conversion scenes are some deeply upsetting, stomach-turning stuff.
This is also one of the better explorations of the alternate universe concept within the main series. Having Mickey visit his grandmother is really touching. The background pieces, like the blimps, and increased human-technology interfaces, make for a fascinating setting.
But the centerpiece of this episode, for me, is Rose’s reconnection with her father. Rose wants to see her father again, who is deceased in the main timeline, only to find that her parents’ relationship is actually worse in this universe, which is genuinely heartbreaking. Plus, seeing Jackie Tyler as a stuck-up wealthy housewife who mistreats her staff, only to have her ultimately get converted to a Cyberman, is memorably haunting.
Despite having a rating of 8.0/10 on iMDB, I feel like fans weirdly hate this one a lot, and rarely bring it up in discussions of best Tenth Doctor episodes, which is such a shame.
This episode works wonderfully for being set almost entirely on a dirty, rainy street corner in the future and within various people’s cars. “Gridlock”’s depiction of a dark future where drug addiction has wiped out much of the human race, with the survivors trapped underground on an endless highway is memorably grim.
RTD does some interesting things with developing a culture for this strange, car-bound ecosystem. The relationships between the drivers, the hymns that they sing, and the ways in which different drivers’ cars are decorated, are all really nice touches that make this society feel layered. It’s a unique and well-done take on post-apocalypse fiction.
The death of the Face of Boe is a poignant moment, especially upon rewatching, after discovering his true identity. Additionally, the appearance of the Macra is wildly unexpected, yet a treat for fans of the classic series.
I’m always surprised that “42” isn’t among more people’s favorite episodes. I mentioned in my “My Whovian Journey” piece that this was the first Doctor Who episode that I actually watched in full as a nine-year-old, so of course it has a special place in my heart.
Nostalgia aside, “42” is excellent. It’s got to be one of the most stressful, heart-racing episodes of the Tenth Doctor’s run. It’s kind of surprising that in a show so much about time, there aren’t more real-time Who episodes.
The production team did a fantastic job with the grimy, run-down spaceship with a ragtag crew trope in “42”. Captain McDonnell is a badass as well, who makes for one of the more memorable “base under siege” leaders in the Who canon.
My absolute favorite bit of this episode, though, is the living star. Every time Tennant looks into the star and whispers “It’s alive” I get goosebumps. Plus, the huge-hulking sun-possessed people with their creepy sci-fi helmets make for extremely scary monsters.
“The Sontaran Stratagem” / “The Poison Sky”
Most fans of NuWho would probably agree that Series 4 is one of the strongest seasons of all of the revived series. I would even go so far as to say it’s quite possibly the best season of the entire show.
From “Partners in Crime” to “Journey’s End”, there is not a single bad episode in this season. A huge contributor to this is the beloved Donna Noble. It’s no wonder they got Catherine Tate to return for the 60th Anniversary special this year.
Yet for all the triumphant highlights that came out of Doctor Who in 2008, there is one story that I think gets frequently overshadowed by all the excellency of the rest of this season, and that is “The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky”. This story is a wonderful reintroduction to the Sontarans, as well as a memorable entry in the long list of UNIT-centric episodes.
This is another episode that has aged well thematically. It handles issues about carbon emissions and the genius but detached-from-reality billionaire. The idea of murder-by-self-driving-car is frightening and eerily prophetic.
For me, the highlight of this episode is the return of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), one of my favorite companions. Following up with The Doctor’s companions after they’ve left the TARDIS always makes for interesting storytelling. It’s especially fascinating when said ex-companion ends up going in a direction that The Doctor is not too fond of.
Seeing Donna and Martha interact and bond over their experiences is especially rewarding. Although we get more of this in the following story, “The Doctor’s Daughter”, they make for an excellent on-screen duo, one that I wish we could have gotten more of.
“Planet of the Dead”
Unlike some of these other entries, I know exactly why this episode has flown under the radar. A number of Whovians, at least the American ones, haven’t even seen it.
What reminded me of “Planet of the Dead”, actually, was rewatching it with a friend this past weekend. Despite Doctor Who playing an integral role in her childhood, we realized halfway through that she had never actually seen the 2009 Easter Special. This was through no fault of her own, however.
Back when Who was on U.S. Netflix (ah, those were the days), Netflix didn’t list a few of the specials, such as “Planet of the Dead” and “The Waters of Mars” as part of the main series; they were listed as separate, one-off “movies”. As a result, I myself went for a while without having seen either of these stories. Therefore, many American fans who were watching the show on Netflix for the first time circa 2011-12, only watched through the episodes that were listed as part of the main series, skipping over a few of the specials in the process.
Upon rewatching, I adore this adventure. This is another story where, like “Gridlock” it has a relatively small, confined scale, but the implications of the story are massive. The concept is pretty straightforward: a busload of strangers (with The Doctor on board) accidentally travel through a wormhole to a seeming desert planet and have to coordinate with UNIT to find their way back.
One of the highlights of this episode has to be the metallic alien stingrays. They’re one of the more unique monster concepts that came out of the RTD era: a swarm of flying creatures that hop from planet to planet, devouring everything on its surface within a week. These unnamed aliens are frightening in a wonderfully apocalyptic, almost cosmic-horror, kind of way.
Michelle Ryan also shines as the one-off companion, cat burglar Lady Christina de Souza. She is confident, domineering, clever, and almost a match for The Doctor himself in how she takes charge of the situation in this episode. It’s a shame we never got to see her again in the main series (gosh, maybe I should finally check out Big Finish’s Lady Christina spin-off series).
What’s on your list of underrated Doctor Who episodes?
Doctor Who is currently streaming on HBO Max. Which episodes of these underrated Doctor Who episodes featuring Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant do you like best? Which other RTD-era episodes do you think are the most underrated and overlooked? Let us know in the comments or over on Twitter!
And if you haven’t already, check out our theory on how multiple Doctors from Doctor Who’s past could return for the 60th anniversary!