Doctor Who: Ranking the Modern Series Openers

I was listening to an old podcast the other day about Asylum of the Daleks, recorded shortly after the episode aired, and in it they mentioned that this was one of the better season openers, with, I think, only The Eleventh Hour and Partners in Crime as rating higher. 

(Daily Doctor Who #362)

I couldn’t help think about how while I generally agree that Asylum is a good episode, I really disagreed with the guy’s rankings.

So as I thought about jotting one of my last Daily Doctor Who posts (we’re almost done with the year!) I thought, let’s rank all of the 13 series openers that we’ve had on this show.  We can even include the current season, since all I’m looking at is the actual opening episode, not the opening story.

So, from worst to best…

13. New Earth

(Series 2)

David Tennant as the 10th Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose. 
Written by Russell T. Davies.  Directed by James Hawes

Easily, the bottom of the barrel for me.  The Tennant-charm was only annoying at this point, and somehow the lunatic idea that these hospital-zombies had every single disease which resulted in them not just collapsing in a pool of morbidity, but rather lumbering after people, was just too far out there for me.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, then the Doctor cures all the diseases by prancing around like a lunatic with a bunch of freeze-pops tied around his neck.

I know full well that with a show like this, we all have those far-out ideas that we love and others that we hate and that sometimes the separation between them is not logical, but for whatever reason this one falls into onto the intolerable side of that divide. 

12. Partners in Crime

(Series 4)

David Tennant as the 10th Doctor and Catherine Tate as Dona Noble.  And surprise!…Billie Piper as Rose. 
Written by Russell T. Davies.  Directed by James Hawes
.

I was not looking forward to Catherine Tate’s return to Doctor Who, having found her character in The Runaway Bride to be particularly annoying.  But she was the best part of this episode—I thought she was funny and loved the interplay she had with the Tenth Doctor, whether it was miming through the window or misunderstanding his desire for “a mate.”

But that is just about all I liked about it.  The Adipose are one of the grossest ideas I’ve ever seen on the show, and the plot itself around them was pedestrian at best.

11. The Pilot

(Series 10)

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor, Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts and Matt Lucas as Nardole.
Written by Steven Moffat.  Directed by Lawrence Gough

I love Capaldi as the Doctor, I enjoy Matt Lucas as Nardole, Pearl Mackie has got a lot of charm as Bill, and Steven Moffat is my favorite writer, but I’m really not a fan of the The Pilot.  It’s got some creepy moments but it’s all built an emotional story which completely fails to ring true—we’re supposed to believe that the connection between Bill and the oily duplicate of a girl she barely knew was so strong that it could become the foundation not only of a episode but of a small season arc.  But it wasn’t, and so it doesn’t

10. Rose

(Series 1)

Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose.
Written by Russell T. Davies.  Directed by Keith Boak.

Pretty close to the bottom is Rose which is elevated almost entirely by the novelty of just being the first episode of the new series overall.  That made it easy to overlook a world of sins, but even so I knew as I was seeing this in 2005 that the animated wheelie-bin and plastic Mickey were not what I was wanting in this show.  I liked the chemistry between the Doctor and Rose specifically (“Nice to meet you—now run for your life!”) and of course it was exciting that there were shop-window Autons everywhere, but otherwise the episode itself was pretty bleah for me.

9. Spyfall, part one

(Series 12)

Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, and Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair.  With Sacha Dhawan as…surprise!…the Master.
Written by Chris Chibnall.  Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.

Spyfall, part one is an episode that has not aged well in my memory.  There is a feeling of breezy fun for much of its runtime but ultimately sets up a bunch of stuff that it never gets around to making sense of.  The spy-trappings of the episode, which are arguably supposed to be its draw card, are clumsy and hackish—as if the production team had read about spy movies but never actually seen one.  The supposed intellectual sparring between the Doctor and Daniel Barton has none of the finesse that characterizes the best examples of that trope, for example.  And the reveal that O is actually a villain (and indeed, the Master) is surprising, but only because there’s basically no set-up, and both the Master’s actions and the actual reveal are poorly motivated.  It’s well produced and there’s lot of potential here, but it’s badly badly wasted. 

8. Deep Breath

(Series 8)

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald.  With Michelle Gomez as Missy, and…surprise!…Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor.
Written by Steven Moffat  Directed by Ben Wheatley.

Peter Capaldi’s debut story is a mix of material that is extremely strong with that which is, frankly, terrible.  I love Capaldi himself, particularly his eyebrow-focused encounter in the alleyway, and his interplay with Clara later on.  Indeed, Clara is much better suited with Capaldi than she was with Matt Smith. 

But, the scenes of Clara being grilled by Madame Vastra are insufferable in the older woman’s smugness, and the story’s androids—who are immediately fooled into thinking that you are not organic the instant you hold your breath—are perhaps the stupidest in all fiction.

7. The Magician’s Apprentice

(Series 9)

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald.  With Michelle Gomez as Missy.
Written by Steven Moffat  Directed by Hettie MacDonald.

Truth be told, I really like this story, and would have thought I’d have ranked it higher.  But most of the stuff I really like is in the second part of the story, so if I am just looking at the opening episode itself, it just doesn’t rise any higher than this.  The first episode is occupied with all that business with UNIT, which is annoying, and with the sequence in the 1100’s at the castle, which is fun but silly.  It’s only when the action gets to Skaro that the story really engages me.  But from then on, the character-based drama between the Doctor, Clara, Missy and Davros is a winner…it’s just mostly found in part two.

6. The Woman Who Fell to Earth

(Series 11)

Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, and Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair.
Written by Chris Chibnall.  Directed by Jamie Childs.

The Woman Who Fell to Earth had nothing in it as great as the best parts of Deep Breath, but it didn’t have anything as stupid as the worst parts either, and in the end that slow-and-steady approach elevated it above the last new-Doctor debut.  Indeed, The Woman Who Fell to Earth had a lot of work to do, introducing a new Doctor, new companions, and in general a whole new approach to the show, and in general succeeded reasonably well.  It’s not a great episode, but was a fine one which overall boded better for the new era than the show was actually able to deliver.

5. Smith and Jones

(Series 3)

David Tennant as the 10th Doctor and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones.
Written by Russell T. Davies.  Directed by Charles Palmer.

Easily the best Russell T. Davies season opener for me, Smith and Jones has got that light-hearted fluff feel that all of his openers did, but with way more charm and inventiveness.  The Judoon were silly but fun and Martha immediately makes a good impression.  I wasn’t a fan of the creepy old lady sucking the unlikable stuffy administrator’s brain out with a straw (one of those many times Davies invites us to uncomfortably laugh at the story’s victims) but on the whole it was a story I really enjoyed

4. Asylum of the Daleks

(Series 7)

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, plus Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin (aka Clara).
Written by Steven Moffat.  Directed by Nick Hurran.

This is the story that was the subject of the podcast that inspired this post.  I’m not crazy about Zombie-Daleks, and I think Amy & Rory’s wedding problems (and their resolution) are rushed and not really plausible…but just about everything else in the episode works a treat.  Jenna Louise-Coleman makes an outstanding debut on the show, immediately impressing with her fast-talking wit, and the Daleks themselves are pretty fun and interesting this time around.

3. Flux Chapter 1:  The Halloween Apocalypse

(Series 13)

Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, and John Bishop as Dan Lewis.
Written by Chris Chibnall.  Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.

This story is only halfway over, so it’s possible that my opinion of the first part will diminish later on, but for now I’m seeing this episode and this story as a real return to form for Doctor Who.  Jodie Whittaker is more fun than she has been for the past two years, and is effectively capturing the key aspects of the Doctor—wit, courage, resourcefulness, sadness and hope.  And Chris Chibnall is making far better use of the story’s lead cast than we had any reason to hope for.  There are a lot of characters and threads that are introduced, but the show does an amazing job juggling those all those elements, and whetting our appetite for the story that is to unfold.

2. The Eleventh Hour

(Series 5)

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond. With Caitlin Blackwood as Amelia and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams.
Written by Steven Moffat.  Directed by Adam Smith.

I was tempted to put this as my all-time highest, because it is a phenomenal piece of work.  For the first time since Rose, the entire show was being reinvented all at once, and the results are unbelievably successful.  Matt Smith gives one of the most commanding first performances of a Doctor that we’ve seen, and the way the episode is structured to introduce him through Amelia’s eyes, and then re-introduce the grown Amy through the Doctor’s eyes, is brilliant.

The only weakness is that the actual threat of Prisoner Zero, which takes up the bulk of the middle of the episode, is a bit vague and nebulous.  It makes the episode feel slightly thin from a plot point of view (even while it is a complete winner when it comes to character and style).

1. The Impossible Astronaut

(Series 6)

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, plus Alex Kingston as River Song.
Written by Steven Moffat.  Directed by Toby Haynes. .

My top pick for a series opener, in modern (and maybe all) Doctor Who. The Impossible Astronaut is gripping and stylish and introduces one of the series’ eeriest monsters in the Silence.  The plot is thick and layered, and introduces the show’s season-long story arc right off the bat in a way that is arresting and memorable. 

There is some disappointment in this story only in some of the details in the way it plays out…not with Day of the Moon, because that was equally amazing, but over the sixth season.  But just taken on its own, this episode is top-notch.

And there you go. If I was counting first stories rather than episodes, then obviously Flux couldn’t be rated yet. The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar would have gone just below Asylum of the Daleks. And maybe Spyfall parts 1 & 2 would have dropped down a ranking, I’m not sure.

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