Doctor Who seasons, ranked

I’ve always found it difficult to choose a favorite season of Doctor Who. It seems natural to favor the ones that feature your favorite Doctors and/or companions, but even so every season is a mixed bag. If you pick a season with your favorite story in it, odds are you’re taking a few duds in with the package deal.

Of course it’s a silly question in the first place, since once a season is broadcast you can watch it in any order you choose. But if it weren’t for silly Doctor Who questions we’d have no Doctor Who questions, so I ranked all 36 seasons. I used math! And spreadsheets! I may not have used them “correctly,” but I’ll spare you the details of my methodology and include them as a footnote after the ranking, so those of you with lives can skip them. I will, however, summarize with caveats:

  1. The system I used assigned each story points based on a four-value scale, ranging from “I don’t like this story and don’t care if I ever watch it again” to “This is one of my favorites.”
  2. Stories I’ve never seen, never listened to audio for, and don’t recall the novelisation of — that is, stories I effectively “don’t know” — were given the same value as the ones I didn’t like. This means a lot of 60s stories were rated perhaps unfairly low. I’d worry about this more if not for the fact that — don’t tell anyone — I generally don’t enjoy the 60s stories very much, as a rule. That rule has many exceptions, but by and large, I am a philistine who is indifferent to pure historicals, bored by black and white, and hostile to Hartnell. He is my least favorite Doctor by a considerable margin. So even if I had seen reconstructions of the missing stories, there’s a good chance the seasons would stay where they were anyway.
  3. My ratings were generally subjective — I wasn’t trying to rate the absolute quality of the story, or whether I would recommend it to anyone, but whether I personally enjoy the story and would watch it again eagerly. I might have given your favorite story a zero, and I might consider a story you loathe to be reasonably pleasant entertainment. So if you’re thinking of using this as a guide of some kind, which would of course be the highest praise, keep in mind that my tastes, though not especially idiosyncratic (I love the 70s), are mine and you might not share them.

Shall we begin?

36. Season 3 (Hartnell)
It’s probable I’m shortchanging this season, since the fact is I’ve only ever seen one story in it, and that’s The Ark. I own two more of them on DVD (The Gunfighters and The War Machines) but haven’t dared to sit through them yet. I’ve listened to all of The Daleks’ Masterplan. You get the idea. Maybe someday in the future they’ll discover enough of the missing episodes that I’ll fall in love with Galaxy 4 and The Savages, or finally get what everyone loves about the crazy epic Masterplan. In the meantime, technically, this is the bottom. Something has to be.

35. Season 23 (C. Baker)
The Trial of a Time Lord has a pivotal place in Doctor Who history. I know it has a special place in some people’s hearts. I’ve watched it many times, over and over. It has its moments. Just not very many.

34. Season 2 (Hartnell)
A crucial season in the show’s history, with plenty of fascinating stories we’d be much poorer without: The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Rescue, The Web Planet, The Time Meddler. This season would rate much higher if I enjoyed these stories as much as I admire them.

33. Season 21 (Davison)
The precise moment when my feelings about the show change from a sense of unlimited, glorious possibility to a sense of crushing, leaden, Sawardian gloom. Even McCoy and Cartmel couldn’t quite lift the mood after this.

32. Series 8 (Capaldi)
I’m surprised this one ranked as low as it did, but yep, in hindsight it turns out I just didn’t much like most of these stories. Fantastic finale, but most of what led up to it was just okay.

31. Season 4 (Hartnell / Troughton)
You’ll notice a pattern here, which is that even the Dalek stories people love don’t get my pulse racing above a slow trot. Even so, I suspect some of the other stories would lift this season higher if I could only watch them in their entirety.

30. Season 10 (Pertwee)
Even a bad Pertwee season is pretty enjoyable, but this one is weighed down by (yep) 12 episodes of Daleks or the lead-up thereto. The highlight for me is of course The Green Death.

29. Season 1 (Hartnell)
It seems unfair to judge the show’s very first season by the same criteria as everything that built on it, but the unvarnished truth is that the spots of brilliance are buffered by stretches of tedium. The fantastic first episode is followed by three grueling segments about cavemen. The startling weirdness of the Daleks is stretched out over seven uneven parts. The genuinely impressive variety of stories in this first season is offset by the fact that there’s only one I unreservedly like, and it’s the two-episode bottle story that doesn’t outstay its welcome. At least I’ve seen all but one of these stories, so that helps. Sometimes you get points just for showing up.

28. Series 7 (Smith)
I remember really liking this series, but when I look back and rate it, the numbers speak for themselves. There’s Hide and The Crimson Horror, but there’s also A Town Called Mercy and The Rings of Akhaten. There’s The Name of the Doctor, but also Journey to the Center of the TARDIS. What with 7A and 7B, and the inclusion of two Christmas specials, there are more distinct stories here than in any other season/series of the show, plenty of room for lots of ups and downs. Though I didn’t count them in the ratings, at least this year ended with Day of the Doctor, which was wonderful, and Time of the Doctor, which…er…at least it ended with Day of the Doctor.

27. Season 24 (McCoy)
This season is a lot of fun. It may be the most fun Doctor Who has ever been. And generally my philosophy is that fun Who is the best Who. But with only four stories per season in the McCoy era, a lot is riding on each one, so here’s where the math put it. Truth is, there’s equal fun to be had in stories with more to offer, though I’m looking forward to revisiting Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen sometime soon.

26. Season 26 (McCoy)
It’s not Doctor Who’s fault I thought I was outgrowing the show at this point (only to later reverse this process, obviously), but it might explain why Curse of Fenric didn’t do much for me. The sound and lighting problems the show was plagued with at this point didn’t help, making fairly decent stories look and sound like bad community theater. Then again, maybe some of the blame for that goes to the direction; more dynamic choices surely could have helped Ghost Light appeal to my teenaged self.

25. Series 10 (Capaldi)
Here’s another year I thought I really enjoyed, and yet here we are. Bill is one of my favorite companions of all time, and of all the Moffat seasons, this is the one I felt most at ease with, like it finally had nothing to prove and no agenda beyond a good story. What drags it down is that the Monk trilogy is almost entirely dreadful; most of the episodes are good but not great; and the Wikipedia article I’m using to divide the seasons throws Mysterio in here like the one red sock staining the whole wash.

24. Series 6 (Smith)
It’s a year of extremes here. On the one hand there’s The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, The God Complex, and Closing Time. On the other, there’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

23. Series 5 (Smith)
One of my very favorite Doctors, saddled with some of my very least favorite stories. If you could round up all of my favorite Matt Smith stories into one year, you’d have an absolute powerhouse, but instead you’re left marveling at how talented he was at making even the total dogs enjoyable. Most of them.

22. Season 6 (Troughton)
Not a bad placement, especially considering my reprehensible lack of enthusiasm for Sixties Who. The ranking might even go up when I finally get around to watching The Dominators. Then again, given its reputation, maybe not.

21. Season 20 (Davison)
Stories rise and fall in my list of favorites all the time, but I feel pretty confident in assuming that this is the only season of Doctor Who that will ever contain TWO of my all-time top 5 stories. If it were all as good as Snakedance and Enlightenment, this would be the season to beat.

19. Series 4 (Tennant)
This is one of a very few ties in my ranking. It’s an impossible choice. I’m going to let it stand. This year is slightly less consistent, with more moments of true genius (Midnight, Turn Left, and if I’m being generous, Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead) and more moments of embarrassing nonsense (the Sontaran two-parter, The Doctor’s Daughter, and that awful finale)…

19. Series 2 (Tennant)
…whereas this year is a little more bittersweet what with the love story, and a little flatter what with the lower highlights and the run of just-okay stories. But then there’s Rose and Mickey, and Sarah Jane and K9, and that lovely innocence the show still had back then. I can’t decide. I am so, so sorry.

18. Season 15 (T. Baker)
This is a pretty low ranking for a season featuring Image of the Fendahl, one of my very favorite stories of all time, and a batch of other stories that all things considered are pretty decent, if not impressively ambitious. It’s just hard to get as excited about them as I’d like; as the money ran out, the stories got beiger and beiger.

17. Series 1 (Eccleston)
I’ll have more to say about Eccleston’s Doctor if I ever get around to that Doctor ranking I keep writing in my head, but this is about the stories. It was a pretty solid first year, even if it took me a while to warm to it. Kicking things off with Rose and The End of the World was part of why I stuck around long enough to put up with an actor who seemed determined to play the role as the Doctor’s younger, butcher brother.

16. Season 5 (Troughton)
Even I must admit this was the most formulaic season in the show up to that point, and it probably would have ranked much lower if not for the rediscovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, two splendid and very strange stories I’d never paid any attention to before but promptly fell in love with.

15. Series 9 (Capaldi)
I find a lot of New Who to consist of only mildly engaging stories made watchable by great performances and a string of terrific moments. This year was the opposite: startling premises that by and large demanded attention, almost but not quite hobbled by some questionable performances and deeply embarrassing moments. All the bits where the Doctor is playing guitar on a tank, for example. Nevertheless, with the exception of Sleep No More, there’s something enjoyable about each story here, and it ends with the best Christmas special and the best River Song episode since the first one.

14. Season 22 (C. Baker)
As a whole, this is one of my least favorite times of the show: an abrasive Doctor with a borderline abusive relationship to a whiny companion, striding through grim bloodthirsty Sawardian slaughterhouse plots. It’s everything Doctor Who shouldn’t be. And yet there’s something bold, brash, outspoken, and capable about the Sixth Doctor that makes him considerably more appealing in hindsight (and in isolation), and though most of these stories range from bafflingly bonkers to horrifically bleak (the sublime Two Doctors colliding the two to great effect), only Timelash seems to have nothing interesting going on (and even that has Paul Darrow). Every other story was doing something almost unprecedented and undeniably memorable.

13. Season 16 (T. Baker)
My favorite segment of the Key to Time is the third. The Stones of Blood is almost certainly a top ten story for me, helped considerably by the time a young encyclopist watched it in the dark at his grandmother’s house after everyone else had gone to bed. It would have been a hide-behind-the-sofa moment for me if I hadn’t been sleeping on its pulled-out bed: I was convinced that at any second the Ogri were going to come smashing through the porch windows and crush me or drain my blood. To be honest, nothing else this year has anything like the same hold on me, even the critical favorite The Ribos Operation, but it’s all done with such brio and nothing is less than all right.

12. Series 3 (Tennant)
This is the year I finally got on board with New Who, and perhaps not coincidentally it was the Seventh Doctor New Adventure Human Nature, adapted for the Tenth Doctor, that did the trick. Though this year includes a few mid-series stinkers, particularly that insane Dalek two-parter, Martha is a breath of fresh air and the reveal of the Master is still one of the new show’s biggest triumphs. No New Who series before or since has felt quite so exciting or laden with potential, or come closer to fulfilling it.

11. Season 12 (T. Baker)
The first Tom Baker season must have felt pretty exciting and laden with potential as well. It’s easy to forget that aside from Ark in Space (which has far worse creature effects than most of its fans are willing to admit), this season consists of a somewhat corny robot King Kong story, an inexplicable and largely pointless diversion about a Sontaran doing unethical experiments, a desultory Cyberman installment, and a story about space Hitler that saddled every future Dalek story for the next decade and change with his pruny ranting gob. On paper this shouldn’t have been much to write home about, but each of these stories is full of moments that transcend the initial concept. Robot immediately if unintentionally defines the new Doctor’s character by throwing the essence of the last five years at him and barely denting his hat; Revenge of the Cybermen features those frightening Cybermat poisonings, and even The Sontaran Experiment raised the stakes on Sontaran malevolence from merely kidnapping scientists. And as for Genesis, well: it’s a Dalek story, and there’s quite a bit of dreary running around, but it’s legendary for a reason.

10. Season 18 (T. Baker)
It’s easy to poke fun at Christopher Bidmead’s season of Doctor Who as a supposed “return to science” that’s full of magic, or at new producer John Nathan-Turner’s mandate to rein in the jokes while putting question marks all over the Doctor’s clothing. But with the single exception of Meglos, there isn’t a just-OK story in the bunch, and the show has only very rarely made the universe seem as strange and wondrous as it does in Warriors’ Gate and Logopolis. Other seasons are more fun, but few have ever been as opulent, mystical, and ominous as Tom Baker’s last.

9. Season 25 (McCoy)
I have a sneaking suspicion this is a trick of the math. Until I did this exercise, I would never have expected this season to break the top ten, much less to beat out multiple seasons of both Tom Baker and Matt Smith. Thing is, stuff like The Happiness Patrol is the reason I’m glad McCoy’s Doctor exists, and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is cut from similar cloth. I’m less enthused about Remembrance of the Daleks, an above-average story about the most overrated Doctor Who monster, and Silver Nemesis is unendurable. But on a four-question test, every answer counts for a lot — it’s easier to bomb it, but it’s also easier to ace it.

8. Season 11 (Pertwee)
If Ark in Space’s bubble-wrap and styrofoam monsters make watching it an exercise in leaping imaginative gaps, Invasion of the Dinosaurs is the boot camp obstacle course. In order to enjoy Malcolm Hulke’s still-chilling story of an evacuated city hiding a gullible “back-to-Eden” cult brainwashed by government and military officials, you have to make a heroic effort to overlook the unbelievably awful dinosaur effects. Or you have to read the novelisation, as I did countless times as a kid. It’s easier to appreciate The Time Warrior’s marooned Sontaran, or Planet of the Spiders’ pouncing arachnids. It’s not peak Pertwee, but even if you write off Exxilon and Peladon, you’ve still got three veritable classics…and Sarah Jane Smith to boot.

7. Season 19 (Davison)
I don’t mind admitting this is almost entirely a matter of nostalgia, even more so than the unashamedly subjective ratings I’ve used for other seasons. I’ll defend Kinda to the death, and feel very sure about the wondrous strangeness of Castrovalva, but I’m under no illusion that my love of Four to Doomsday and unaccountable affection for The Visitation and Black Orchid are in any way based in objective quality. Earthshock is overrated, Time-Flight impossible to underrate, but otherwise this season came to my local PBS station at just the right time for me to fall in love. Adric included.

6. Season 9 (Pertwee)
Ultimately, though, 70s Who is still my favorite Who. I don’t win any points for original opinions here, but I do win points for being right. Even the 70s trad loyalists might question my love of The Mutants, but I really can’t understand why. Then there’s the time travel enigma of Day of the Daleks, the charm of The Curse of Peladon, and the terrific imprisoned-Master scenes of The Sea Devils. Even the goofy Time Monster is at the very least unforgettable. It’s a time of excellent quality control for the show, and if that sounds like a boring virtue, watch this season again and imagine a 21st century year this consistently entertaining.

5. Season 8 (Pertwee)
The Master has returned more often than he (or she) really should have over the years, to the point of becoming something of a joke half the time, but in the beginning he was marvelous. Colony in Space might be a slog, but the other four stories here range from quite good to fabulous.

4. Season 17 (T. Baker)
Among classic Who fans there might not be a more divisive season. It’s when Douglas Adams took over as script editor, for better or for worse, and though City of Death is the undisputed highlight (and my boringly uncontroversial favorite story ever), a lot of the other stories are looked down on by many fans on one side of the divide as silly, cheap-looking, and full of self-indulgent Tom Baker horseplay. However, I’m on the other side of the divide, and I have to tell you that everyone else over here is way more fun. Even the Dalek story has its moments, and everything else including the no-longer-really-lost story Shada is music to my eyes and ears. It’s as 70s as season 18 is 80s, it’s as fun as season 18 is serious, and it features my favorite TARDIS team to date in the Fourth Doctor and Romana. The show probably could never have continued like this for long, but this brief moment was enough.

3. Season 13 (T. Baker)
Features three ironclad classics: Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, and The Seeds of Doom. Includes two more solid adventures: Terror of the Zygons and Planet of Evil. Throws in one dodgy underdog, which was my very first Doctor Who story in novelisation form and thus — you guessed it — skates in on nostalgia alone: The Android Invasion. The truth is it probably doesn’t get better than this; exactly halfway through the original run of the show, here’s the actual peak. My personal math puts two other seasons just a little higher — one for its achieved ambition, the other for its consistent intelligence — but honestly? If you’re a New Who fan and you’re going to watch just one season of the classic series, this is the one you should watch.

2. Season 14 (T. Baker)
A season that says goodbye to one of the Doctor’s most beloved companions, introduces one that’s even more interesting, and finds time in between to finally, properly introduce the Doctor’s home planet. Masque of Mandragora and Face of Evil are good, Hand of Fear and Deadly Assassin are great, and Robots of Death and the controversial Talons of Weng-Chiang are among the best the show has to offer. What could this team have done for an encore?

1. Season 7 (Pertwee)
A radical departure at the time, but now so classic it’s often considered reactionary. It’s hardly the most varied or colorful year in Doctor Who, none of the stories make my top ten (as much as I like them), and many of the elements that make the show what it is are missing (until Inferno). It’s where the show basically becomes Quatermass for a while. It doesn’t quite seem right to put it at the top. And yet these four stories are top-notch in terms of quality and as exciting as they come, setting a tone which is allowed to relax in later Pertwee years and a template that drives the show energetically forward. Miffed by the unerring quality, I tried docking Ambassadors of Death a notch for being slightly less eventful than the other three, but it narrowed only the size of the lead, not its certainty.

The math, if you’re interested
I listed every Doctor Who story, divided into seasons according to the Wikipedia article. This led to some slightly counterintuitive groupings of Christmas specials in seasons I didn’t think of them as being part of. I grouped Hartnell episodes into single stories as we (and the DVD range) typically think of them today, and lumped Mission to the Unknown in with The Dalek’s Masterplan. I treated most New Who two-parters as single stories, but I did split Utopia from The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords. In Series 9 I treated Girl Who Died / Woman Who Lived as a single story, but I treated Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, and Hell Bent as three separate stories. What can I say — it made sense at the time.

I treated the Tennant specials (The Next Doctor through The End of Time) and the Smith specials (Day and Time of the Doctor) as separate seasons, and did not count them as part of the overall ranking. If you’re curious: the Tennant specials would have turned the Season 16 / Season 22 / Series 9 tie into a four-way, and the Smith specials would have fit in right between Season 11 and Season 19.

I tried a few different point systems in an attempt to find interesting ways to distribute the weights and see whether a season with a few favorites and a lot of lousy stories would beat out one flush with worthy but not unusually appealing stories. I’m not sure I ever found the answer or indeed understood math well enough to accomplish that goal, but in the end it felt satisfying to take a chunk out of the Fibonacci sequence and weight the ratings that way. Thus:

  • 0 points went to each story I thoroughly dislike or have never seen
  • 3 points went to each story that has something I like in it
  • 5 points went to each story that I generally like and would be pleased to watch again immediately
  • 8 points went to my absolute favorite stories of all, the ones I feel true affection for

For the record, 66 stories earned the “favorite” rating. They were as follows.

  • Troughton: The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, The Invasion
  • Pertwee: Spearhead from Space, The Silurians, Inferno, Terror of the Autons, The Claws of Axos, The Daemons, The Mutants, The Green Death, The Time Warrior, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Planet of the Spiders
  • T. Baker: The Ark in Space, The Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood, City of Death, Nightmare of Eden, The Horns of Nimon, Full Circle, Logopolis
  • Davison: Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday, Kinda, Snakedance, Enlightenment, The Caves of Androzani
  • C. Baker: The Two Doctors
  • McCoy: The Happiness Patrol, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
  • Eccleston: Rose, The End of the World, Dalek
  • Tennant: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, Army of Ghosts / Doomsday, Gridlock, Human Nature / The Family of Blood, Blink, Utopia, Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars
  • Smith: The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, The Lodger, The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, The God Complex, Closing Time, Hide, The Crimson Horror, Day of the Doctor
  • Capaldi: Dark Water / Death in Heaven, The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion, The Husbands of River Song, Thin Ice, The Eaters of Light, World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls