A lot of people I know stopped watching the show during Moffat’s tenure, even to the point that some have been entirely waiting out Capaldi’s run as The Doctor, waiting for a change of management. I have plenty of issues with Moffat, but I do think it’s an absolute travesty to have completely missed one of the best Doctors simply because they didn’t like the head writer.
So, this week I decided to put together a list. These are the ten adventures from the course of Capaldi’s time that you should definitely set aside a weekend to see. (Note: These are submitted in chronological order, not ranked by quality.)
1. "Deep Breath"
Series 8 (Season 35 if you count like I do) is not a good season. It’s just not. The awkward handoff from Matt Smith to Capaldi, the aftermath of the 50th-anniversary special, and the lack of focus in Clara Oswald’s character once the Impossible Girl storyline was resolved resulted in sort of a mess. That said, “Deep Breath” holds up as a good introduction for the new Doctor. It has the “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks” aspect that later came to define some of Capaldi’s best adventures, including a giant dinosaur, the clockwise men, the Paternoster Gang, the introduction of Missy and even a rare post-regeneration appearance by a previous Doctor. Ultimately, many of the character traits they tried to establish for Twelve were later abandoned, but as an introduction in the revived series, it’s at least superior to “The Christmas Invasion.”
2. "Time Heist"
Good standalone episodes have gotten rarer as the revived series goes on, and that’s a shame. Ironically, for Capaldi, Series 8 had some of the best of his work you could just jump into without preamble. One of these is “Time Heist,” which is basically a Doctor Who version of Oceans 11 where Twelve leads a ragtag team of misfits to rob the most impenetrable bank in the universe. It’s got a rather typical Moffat ending, but the ride there is amazing.
3. "Mummy on the Orient Express"
I will admit, my fondness for this adventure has mostly to do with the fact that I think Jamie Mathieson is the best thing to happen in Doctor Who writing since Neil Gaiman was asked to pen an episode. The Doctor and Clara investigate a strange, evil force on an intergalactic space train, and it calls to mind such classic adventures as “The Ark in Space.” Twelve even offers jelly babies at one point. More than any of his other early episodes, “Mummy” helps Twelve establish who he will be for the rest of his incarnation.
4. "Last Christmas"
If I had to make a Top 10 list of the best Doctor Who Christmas specials, ones written by Steven Moffat would occupy the entire top half of said list except maybe “Chimes at Midnight” by Robert Shearman. The man is just really, really good at Christmas, and “Last Christmas” is definitely the episode I fell in love with the Twelfth Doctor. Nick Frost plays Santa Claus, Faye Marsay enchanted us with her dancing and broke our hearts when Shona did not become the new companion, Twelve and Clara’s relationship finally, FINALLY gelled together, and just to top it all off, Patrick Troughton’s kid is in it. It’s dark, as all the Twelve Christmas specials are, but it’s beautiful, as all the Twelve Christmas specials are.
5. "The Magician’s Apprentice"/"The Witch’s Familiar"
The reason I called this the essential adventures and not the essential episodes is that Series 9 started doing a lot of two-parters, and the official archives count them as single adventures. So, apologies for the technicality.
Remember when I mentioned the “throw everything” school of writing? Nothing epitomizes this like “Magician / Witch.” Daleks (including some models not scene in decades), Missy, Davros, The Doctor playing guitar, a brand-new villain, cameos by One and Four, UNIT, and probably more things that I’ve forgotten show up in a gumbo of awesome. A tremendous shout-out needs to go to Julian Bleach as Davros, whose much more muted appearance than the one he turned in during David Tennant’s run has now made him my favorite Davros.
6. "The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion"
I’m not a big fan of the Zygons as villains, but there has never, ever been a better speech by The Doctor in the history of the show, the novels, the comics or the radio plays. I linked it, but I kind of feel the world needs to have it driven into their heads like a corkscrew into a bottle, so I’m going to quote it below…
Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die! You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken. How many lives shattered. How much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk!
If you see no other Capaldi adventure, see this one.
7. "The Husbands of River Song"
Admittedly, I’m including this as a sort of housekeeping adventure, as it details the end of River Song’s storyline. Even people who don’t have a lot of love for Moffat typically like River Song, and of the various River adventures, this is definitely up there in terms of emotional impact. It also has Twelve delivering the single best punchline of The Doctor’s entire lives in the most bittersweet, yet snarky, way possible.
8. "The Pilot"
Though I enjoyed Series 10 a great deal, it’s very much more in the vein of a Netflix series meant to be consumed all at once than any series since the revival. That makes picking individual adventures difficult. However, “The Pilot” is a wonderful introduction for Bill Potts as a companion, and is gloriously creepy to boot. It’s a bit mired down in the overall story arc of the season, but it’s still fairly comprehensible regardless.
I’m a big fan of what I call the Event Horizon episodes. Anything that ratchets up the scares on a spaceship or space station is going to get me excited. This adventure about a zombified space crew under the control of an unscrupulous company is as terrifying as it is morally compelling. It sets up a long and pointless story arc where The Doctor is blind for several episodes, but other than that it is a tops adventure.
10. "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls"
The end of the Missy story arc is a hell of a ride. These episodes feature the return of the original cybermen, and if you ever thought they were laughable, then prepare to have that particular delusion popped. It also brackets nicely with some plot points introduced in “The Pilot,” and sets up the upcoming Christmas special. One thing you can be sure of, the Twelfth Doctor is not going gentle into that good night. The pacing is slow but intense.
Honorable Mention: "Heaven Sent"/"Hell Bent"
I feel I should mention this adventure, if nothing else because it was the first Doctor Who adventure submitted for a primetime Emmy award. And it is a monster, following The Doctor as he travels through a personal perdition and finally returns home to Gallifrey. However, it’s also one that you absolutely cannot just drop into without significant knowledge of the previous seasons, so maybe save it for a whole series re-watch if you find you’ve come to love Capaldi.
See you at Christmas.