Doctor Who’s Doctor-Lite Stories Ranked

Stories without the Doctor are all pretty good, but which is the best?

Photo: BBC

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who episode “73 Yards”.

Doctor-Lite stories have so far been very good, which raises the possibility that the thing that′s really holding back Doctor Who is Doctor Who.

As you may know, Ncuti Gatwa was finishing filming his last series of Sex Education for Netflix while “73 Yards” was being filmed, and so the episode was pushed onto the array of ′Doctor-Lite′ stories (put simply: ones in which the Doctor doesn′t appear very much). The idea of doubling up the filming of episodes and balancing the cast accordingly has been in place since the show returned in 2005, with it formally being named as a budget-saving strategy in 2007 with “Blink”. They may also be referred to as “double-banking” episodes where two episodes are filmed simultaneously and so the regular cast can’t substantially appear in both.

Doctor Who often gave its leads a holiday in the 1960s, due to the punishing schedule of rehearsal and recording, meaning cast members didn′t appear in single episodes. However due to the deterioration of First Doctor actor William Hartnell′s health – and some story reasons requiring it – there is also a First Doctor story which falls into the category.

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Here are the main entries in that category, arranged in totally objective order of good to very good.

7. 73 Yards (Series 14, 2024, Fifteenth Doctor)

Written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Dylan Holmes Williams.

The Doctor accidentally steps into a fairy ring in Wales, and Ruby is cursed to live a life of solitude (apart from the ominous figure who remains the titular distance from her at all times). Combining elements of alternate realities, folk horror, dystopia and the uncanny, “73 Yards” gives Millie Gibson a chance to shine as Ruby.

Fresh in the mind, and yet to settle, “73 Yards” contains both familiar and new territory for Doctor Who. It’s gripping and tense throughout, and well-performed. Its ending – in which an older Ruby is revealed to have been the figure haunting her younger self, and the words she used to drive everybody away so from Ruby were never revealed – has proven divisive. With solid momentum though, I’m happy with the choice to leave aspects of the story unexplained.

6. The Massacre (Season 3, 1966, First Doctor)

Written by John Lucarotti, directed by Paddy Russell.

This historical, of which only the audio and still images survive, takes place in the build-up to the Huguenot massacre of 1572, and the Doctor only appears in the first and fourth episodes. William Hartnell appears throughout, though, also playing the Abbot of Amboise. Companion Steven (Peter Purves) is left alone in Paris and isn’t sure if the Abbot is really the Doctor or not, as tensions between Catholics and Protestants rise.

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Written by John Lucarotti and then redrafted by Donald Tosh (the novelisation by Lucarotti is closer to his earlier drafts), this has Peter Purves as the de facto lead, and the Doctor’s unwillingness to interfere with history brings him into conflict with his friend. Brutal and tragic, undercut by its final scene, “The Massacre” is echoed by 2008’s ‘The Fires of Pompeii’.

5. Turn Left (Series 4, 2008, Tenth Doctor)

Written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Graeme Harper.

In which companion Donna Noble is shown a world where she didn’t meet the Doctor, and as a result millions of people die.

By showing us stories that were precious big, bold and camp in tone and removing the Doctor and Donna, Russell T. Davies shows us the incredible darkness and horror lurking just beneath the frothy surface. Consider the scene in “Voyage of the Damned” where the spaceship in the shape of the Titanic misses hitting London and the Queen waves in gratitude: very silly, very camp, a big broad moment for a Christmas Day audience. Here, though, it’s just utterly bleak.

This one loses marks for some apparently casual Orientalism with the ‘Yellow Peril’ leanings of the fortune teller who creates an alternative history based on Donna’s actions. It gains some for superb performances by Jacqueline King, Bernard Cribbins and Catherine Tate.

4. Love & Monsters (Series 2, 2006, Tenth Doctor)

Written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Dan Zeff.

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Starring Marc Warren as Elton Pope, one of a group of ordinary people brought together by a shared fascination with The Doctor, this story is almost scientifically designed to trigger fan cringe – that fear of Doctor Who being embarrassing to be seen liking – by leaning into the idea of what Doctor Who looks like to its detractors. And yet it is aiming to do the same thing as “Turn Left” – look past the version of the show we know and poke around in the debris, looking at the people left behind.

People prefer “Turn Left”, often for reasons of tone: “Love & Monsters” embraces camp, starting with a Scooby Doo-style chase sequence and immediately upsetting the kind of person who wants Doctor Who to be a very serious programme. Also folk don’t like the blow-job gag at the end, which is fair enough.

Elton Pope tells us about the Doctor’s sporadic appearances in his life, and it’s both joyous and tragic. A story that explores similar ideas to the following year’s “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” (itself arguably a Doctor-lite story) but with a markedly different tone and gags that very much split the room, “Love & Monsters” is flawed but also much better than its reputation suggests.

Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Hettie Macdonald.

Can I just shock you? I’ve always liked “Blink”. Liked but not loved, which goes against its reputation as an instant classic. Nonetheless this story featuring a pre-fame Carey Mulligan tackling statues that come to life when you can’t see them is one of the show’s shorthands: one of the most iconic Doctors (for about three minutes) and one of the most iconic monsters.

As with many Steven Moffat stories, there are moments of absolute genius (Billy Shipton’s death, for example), nerdy in-jokes (“the windows are the wrong size”) and a rom-com ending (apart from the montage specifically designed to terrify your very living soul).

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2. Flatline (Series 8, 2014, Twelfth Doctor)

Written by Jamie Mathieson, directed by Douglas Mackinnon.

The TARDIS exterior shrinks after Clara exits, trapping the Doctor inside. Clara finds herself in Bristol, carrying the TARDIS/Doctor around in her bag, investigating graffiti that comes to life and kills people.

Showrunner at the time Steven Moffat said that Doctor Who uses up ideas at an incredible rate, and this story is full to bursting with them. Continuously inventive, visually distinctive, macabre, funny and thrilling, “Flatline” is an underrated gem from the point where the Capaldi era really started kicking into gear.

1. Father’s Day (Series 1, 2005, Ninth Doctor)

Written by Paul Cornell, directed by Joe Ahearne.

Ninth Doctor companion Rose Tyler wants to see her long-dead Dad. The Doctor, infatuated, shows off to her. From here reality starts to unravel.

Situated mostly in a church as the world ends through sound effects and implication, “Father’s Day” is both well-liked and nonetheless underrated.

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What Doctor-lite stories demonstrate is that, freed from the conventions of a normal episode, writers can dig into ideas and subjects that aren’t normally covered. Any security that the Doctor brings is gone. You can expand what the show can do accordingly. Combining this with a familiar setup (essentially, it’s a base-under-siege, a story format popularised in the 1960s) where the occupants aren’t scientists or military personnel, but scared civilians seeking sanctuary as the world ends, is a masterstroke.

Here, as he did with the New Adventures novel range of the early 1990s, writer Paul Cornell expands the show’s emotional palette with a story that shows the reality of a man rather than the version Rose learned, and is all the more heartbreaking for it.

Doctor Who series 14 is airing now on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and Disney+.