#5 Turn Left by Russel T Davies
Let me start out by acknowledging that there IS some problematic Orientalism in this episode with the ~evil~ Asian mystic/fortune teller. Having acknowledged that, there is still a LOT to love about this episode. I mean the WW2 parallels are a bit heavy handed, but this episode does a good job of exploring the different ways that humanity reacts when faced with crisis situations. RTD is strongest when he is writing humans and their emotions, and this episode showcases that.
This episode is the pinnacle of Donna's story. The final two-parter is so full of the other companions that she doesn't get a moment to shine as herself (sorry, but I don't really count the Doctor-Donna) in that story. THIS episode is Donna's moment of glory, and it highlights one of my favorite themes about the RTD era. Even ordinary people can become heroes. Donna isn't anyone special. She doesn't have any special skills or experiences. But she is still brave enough to sacrifice her own life in order to save the world, even though she's terrified. Donna just needed someone to believe in her. In a universe without the Doctor, that person was Rose. Post "Journey's End", there is hope that her family will take on the role.
Moving on to Rose, I think she's fantastic here. It's clear that in her time in Pete's World (which seems to have been a few years), she's taken the skills she learned and talents she discovered with the Doctor and developed them further. The leadership she showed in "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" is displayed again here, and we see that cleverness she always had put to use in working with UNIT to figure out how to use the Tardis. Now, I don't believe for a second that Rose did any of the calculations or whatever to figure out how to use the Tardis to create the rudimentary time machine, but Rose is smart and has always been able to make connections in addition to being the resident Tardis Expert, so I have no doubt she was instrumental in that project. In a lot of ways, Rose really has become the Doctor in a universe where there isn't one, and the episode is definitely trying to draw those parallels. She's grown so much since she was that directionless teenager we met in "Rose". She's become a completely self-possessed, confident and capable woman.
#4 Midnight by Russel T Davies
This episode works on so many levels in spite of the absence of Donna or rather it works BECAUSE of Donna's absence. This episode shows us why the Doctor needs his human companions. Without Donna there to smooth things over and normalize him, the other passengers on the bus are scared of him and put off by him. The passengers here are just SO human. We only get one 45 minute episode with them, but in that brief time, the audience is able to understand who they are and how they relate to each other. Fantastic character writing.
Although the creature on Midnight is scary, the creature isn't the big bad here. The creature is unsettling because we never see it or ever find out what it is. The way in which the creature can control someone and repeat people talking, then synch up with people's speech before taking their voices certainly creates a creepy atmosphere. But the truly scary part of this episode are the passengers on the space bus. The mob mentality and the way that the passengers let fear turn them into people who would kill someone is real in a very scary way. I love that while RTD does celebrate the creativity of humanity, he is also very adept at writing the darkness inside humanity.
#3 Human Nature/Family of Blood by Paul Cornell
"Midnight" explored the Doctor's character by removing his companion from the equation. These episodes explore the Doctor by taking the Doctor out of the equation. David Tennant really gets to shine in these episodes as John Smith. John Smith is the shy academic, awkward around women, who doesn't really know how to deal with everything that is happening to him. That scene where he breaks down, wondering if he's real is completely brilliant. I've also been known to tear up in the scene where Joan has to convince John to become the Doctor again.
On the topic of Joan, I think she's a fascinating character. Yes, she's racist. If I met her in 2011, I wouldn't want to be friends with her. However, I still think she's a really compelling character in this historical and narrative context. Her husband died and she never expected to find love again. Watching her fall for John Smith is so sad because as viewers we know he isn't going to stick around. The scene where she confronts the Doctor, but care barely look at him because he looks like the man she can grown to love, but clearly isn't him is some really fantastic writing. Then the Doctor, full of guilt, asks Joan to come along with him. I think he wants to believe that he could love someone again, but more importantly I think he feels guilty for breaking this woman's heart because he went into hiding. But the BEST part of the scene is where Joan calls him out and says that all those people would not have died if the Doctor hadn't decided to hide there. The Doctor sometimes leaves destruction behind him, and he doesn't look back.
Martha is also pretty amazing in this episode, taking care of John Smith's useless ass. She is a woman of color trapped in an extremely racist society and has to put up with some really awful treatment, so she is totally justified in having those private moments of weakness in the Tardis. One of my favorite Martha moments is when she figures out that something isn't right with Jenny and confirms it by mixing up that gross concoction.
Add in some creepy living scarecrows, some poignant scenes of young boys with guns and the dramatic irony that the audience knows these same boys will soon be fighting in the trenches, and you've got two really fantastic episodes of Doctor Who.
#2 Waters of Mars by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford
Even though "End of Time" is the end of Ten's life, this episode is really the capstone to his character arc. Ten has lost a lot and really functions best when he has a friend. But this episode finds a man who has lost all of his friends and has been traveling on his own for longer than is good for him. He's confronted with a fixed point in time and his first instinct is to get the hell out of Dodge, but he gets sucked into events. Once he's gotten to know these people a bit, it's impossible for him to just walk away and let history take his course. He's lost too many people to watch these men and women die. So he snaps. What's the point in being able to travel in time and space if you can't save everyone? He's angry and it shows. He's determined to save these people and show time that he CAN win.
In addition to the brilliance that IS the Time Lord Victorious, I think the parasite that travels through water is a pretty fantastic monster of the week. Water is everywhere and it's persistent and patient. It only takes one drop. The terror and feeling of inevitability is captured really well.
And then you have the wonderfulness that is Adelaide Brooke. I love that for this special we get an older woman as a the companion of the episode. You don't generally get to see older women in these action type of roles. I love the rapport she has with the Doctor, and I love that she is able to see how messed up he is and calls him out on it. When she kills herself to set history right, it's painful in all the right ways. DAMN YOU, RTD.
#1 The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit by Matt Jones
In the great debate as to which episode to show people first when you are trying to get someone into the show, many people suggest "Blink". Personally, I think that episode isn't the best choice just because it doesn't feature any of the main characters or give a sense of what the show is really about. I advocate for starting from the beginning with "Rose", but if you're worried that the cheesiness of some of the CGI in that episode might turn a person off of the show, I think this two-parter is a great first episode to show someone. You don't NEED much knowledge of the characters or the history of the show in order to enjoy the episode. It's a good action-adventure story that touches a bit on deeper themes with some great character moments. Of course, it's even better in context, but even on its own, I think it's a really enjoyable story.
The themes of faith and belief are really well handled without being harped on too much. The creature calls himself the Beast, clearly trying to play on old mythological fears. He knows things about those on the space station, and it unsettles the space station workers. But the point of this episode is that what the Doctor and Rose really believe in is each other. And it's not a groundless faith either. Bother parties comes through for the other in the end.
The secondary characters are SO well developed here. Even though we only get to spend two episodes with them, you feel like you have a really good sense of these people and even feel sad when Jackson sacrifices himself to save the others. But the main characters aren't neglected either as they have to struggle with the possibility of being stuck in this time and place without the Tardis. Rose also really gets to come into her own in this episode, leading the space station crew and problem solving while the Doctor is down in the pit.
Episodes That Are Notably Absent: Blink. I don't hate this episode, but after seeing it a few times and knowing when all the jumpy moments are and what the twists are... it just kind of loses its appeal. Then you factor in the reappearance of the Angels in series 5, and this episode just loses its novelty completely.
Vincent and the Doctor. Again, I don't hate this episode. I think it is beautifully done from a visual perspective and hits all the right emotional notes. Unfortunately, it just doesn't QUITE get there on the character front and the actual plot of the episode falls flat for me, so while I do think it's a good episode, it's not Top Ten quality for me.