Prepare to have your expectations subverted! Here’s a rundown of the Doctor Who episodes which contained some of the biggest plot twists in the Whoniverse.
Before we start, we should say that we will be limiting this list of Doctor Who episodes to New Who only, given that we have some 60 years of plot twists to consider. But don’t worry, we’ll take a look at the rich library of Classic Who soon, and the many, many shock unveilings of the Master in his various guises…
5) The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People
On the face of it, this pair of Doctor Who episodes weren’t going to be game-changers; we still had the Series Six mid season finale to look forward to (and indeed we’ve included it on this list – see below.) But ‘The Rebel Flesh’ and ‘The Almost People’ were all about clones – or gangers – and this should immediately raise a red flag. Is everyone who they claim to be? Who is real and who is copied? And if someone is copied, does that mean they’re not real? Etc.
And whilst this story raises some interesting moral questions, it is the shock cliffhanger at the end of ‘The Almost People’ which is best remembered. The Doctor’s companion Amy Pond is revealed to be a clone and, moreover, the Doctor has known for a while, and has no compunction with disintegrating her with his sonic. The real Amy is lost elsewhere in the universe, and the Time Lord must rescue her.
But did anyone suspect this plot twist before it happened? Possibly (there’s always someone) but it was a shock nonetheless, and one that led perfectly into the events of the mid season finale ‘A Good Man Goes to War,’ which you can read about below.
4) Spyfall – parts one and two
Next we have another pair of Doctor Who episodes, this time from 2020 and a cliffhanger ending from Chris Chibnall. Traditionally, the revelation that a certain character was the Master in disguise would fool no one but the Doctor, even when the production team went to the effort of removing the actor’s name from the Radio Times listings, as was the practice in the 1980s.
But in the case of ‘Spyfall’ parts one and two, this ‘masterful’ plot twist caught many people off guard. For one thing, this was a brand new incarnation of the Master who hadn’t been seen before; he didn’t need to hide behind anagrams or questionable face masks. In these Doctor Who episodes, he’s pretending to be an old secret agent friend of the Doctor’s, and it turns out he’s stolen (and shrunk!) the real man’s body and taken his place.
As such, the scene on the plane where Sacha Dhawan tells Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor that he is the undisputed “spy master” is a memorable one – almost iconic, in fact – with Dhawan debuting with one of the coldest, craziest performances in the Whoniverse.
3) Dark Water and Death in Heaven
Another pair of Doctor Who episodes, and another shock revelation about the Master’s identity. But before you click away, yawning, it’s worth pointing out that the final scene of ‘Dark Water’ is quite special in the history of Who. Yes it involves another occasion where it is shockingly revealed that “it was the Master all along,” but on this occasion the setup is different. Not only is the Master back, but this time he’s a she – Missy, to be specific.
Now, it might not seem internet-meltingly surprising in 2023 that Time Lords can change gender, but this was a first for the Doctor Who canon, save for a throwaway comment made in ‘The Doctor’s Wife.’ And the production team went to great lengths to keep the secret safe, even going so far as to record alternate dialogue in which Michelle Gomez unveiled herself as the Rani.
And yet, bizarrely, this moment went unspotted by Doctor Who fans – which is surprising, given that the scene was filmed outside St Paul’s Cathedral at the height of summer!
2) A Good Man Goes to War
Some Doctor Who episodes have changed the Whoniverse as we know it, and this was certainly true for 2011’s ‘A Good Man Goes to War.’ The identity of the mysterious River Song had long been a mystery – a 3 year mystery, in fact, and this mid season finale promised to unmask her true identity.
But as we all know, maintaining the secrecy of Doctor Who episodes isn’t always easy, and the truth about River Song did leak onto the internet in the weeks before the transmission of ‘A Good Man Goes to War.’ So the revelation that she was actually Melody Pond (Amy Pond’s daughter) didn’t quite shock everyone, but it was still a surprise, and certainly a game-changer.
And suddenly, all the clues that had been planted in the other Doctor Who episodes of Series Six started to make sense, including the equally dramatic scene of the regenerating child in ‘Day of the Moon.’ Now, fans would have to work out how Melody Pond fit into the much larger story of the Impossible Astronaut, why she ended up in jail, and how she ended up as the outer space archaeologist we met in ‘Silence in the Library’…
1) The Timeless Children
Of all the Doctor Who episodes on this list, ‘The Timeless Children‘ has to contain the biggest plot twist of all time owing to the seismic effect it had on fandom, and Doctor Who canon. Indeed, some people who watched this episode vowed never to watch the series again. Others applauded it for its boldness and for the new possibilities it opened up for the Time Lord.
Simply put, ‘The Timeless Children’ attests that the Doctor was never really from Gallifrey but was instrumental in the rise of the Time Lord race after being experimented on by a scientist-cum-explorer named Tecteun. It was this scientist who gave the Time Lords their ability to regenerate, having extracted the secret from the Doctor’s DNA – DNA that was taken when the Doctor was merely a child.
Moreover, it was revealed that the Doctor had started life as a little girl, and had regenerated countless times prior to the William Hartnell incarnation. Indeed, it was posited that the Doctor may have regenerated thousands of times throughout history, suggesting that there were many more ‘forgotten’ incarnations roaming the cosmos.
And as Doctor Who episodes go, ‘The Timeless Children’ didn’t just change the game – it pulverised it. Love it or hate it, the plot twist of ‘The Timeless Children’ has to be one of the biggest in the history of the show. Will it ever be superceeded?
In the meantime, tell us – which are your favourite Doctor Who episodes from this list? And which do you think are the biggest plot twists of all time? Let us know in the comments below.