10 best Ducky-centric NCIS episodes

“Everything Starts Somewhere” – Flashbacks reveal the murder case that first introduced young Gibbs (Sean Harmon) to NCIS and his introduction to young, new-to-America Ducky (Adam Campbell), on the 400th episode of NCIS, Tuesday, Nov. 24 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: David McCallum as Medical Examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
“Everything Starts Somewhere” – Flashbacks reveal the murder case that first introduced young Gibbs (Sean Harmon) to NCIS and his introduction to young, new-to-America Ducky (Adam Campbell), on the 400th episode of NCIS, Tuesday, Nov. 24 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: David McCallum as Medical Examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard. Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

It’s a sad moment NCIS fans always hoped they’d never see. David McCallum, who played Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard for all 20 seasons of the hit drama, passed away on September 25 at the age of 90. That he died on “NCIS Day” seems a fitting irony for the actor and his role.

From the start, Ducky was a highlight of the series as the medical examiner showed his wry sense of humor, seemingly never-ending knowledge of trivia, and ready to advise Gibbs and the rest of the team. His wonderful persona always highlighted any Ducky appearance, even when he left as a full-time cast member. It’s sad his cameo in the Season 20 finale will now be his final appearance, but he left so many memories behind.

Narrowing down the best Ducky episodes is tough, but these ten stand out as showcasing him at his best, exploring his past and what made him so important. As a tribute to both Ducky and McCallum, these 10 NCIS episodes are a must-watch for any fans of what made Ducky a great character.

Honorable Mention: Tribes, Thirst, Detour, Silent Service 

Lt. Jane Doe (NCIS Season 2, Episode 4)

While Ducky had some good scenes in the first season, this was the first episode to really focus on him. Everyone is taken aback when Ducky is quite testy on the autopsy of a female Jane Doe, even snapping at Palmer and Abby. It turned out the woman was the victim of a serial killer, the one case that had long haunted Ducky.

He helps the team catch the killer for justice to be done, even if he can’t identify that victim. It showed Ducky’s determination to avenge a victim, no matter how long it took, yet it was striking to see how this rough case could push the usually jovial medical examiner into a darker mood.

The Meat Puzzle (NCIS Season 2, Episode 13)

Ducky and his mom had a unique relationship that became serious in this episode. Ducky realizes a “jigsaw puzzle” of various body parts stitched together is made up of the judge, DA, and jury foreman of a serial killer’s trial. Ducky had testified against the guy, so the team figured the killer was coming after Ducky next.

That has Kate protecting Ducky and his mother, who suffers from dementia, which brought some fun humor. Of course, it gets dangerous with Ducky abducted and the team racing to find him. It got Ducky in the midst of danger yet he handled it with his usual jovial attitude.

Blowback (NCIS Season 4, Episode 14)

Ducky was usually a guy stuck in the morgue, but this gave him a great chance in the field. When an arms dealer is killed, Gibbs hits on the idea of Ducky posing as the guy to figure out what he was after.

Seeing Ducky outside his comfort zone is daring, and it’s fun how his font of knowledge actually helps him in the role. The team is openly impressed how well Ducky pulls it off as he’s in the midst of a deal gone bad. It nearly goes south, but Ducky handles it like a pro in an episode that allowed McCallum to use the old The Man From UNCLE spy skills again.

Broken Bird (NCIS Season 6, Episode 13)

Ducky’s past came up big time in this episode. What seems an open-and-shut case of a Naval officer killed by his crazed ex is complicated when a woman rushes out of the crowd and stabs Ducky through the hand. That has Palmer taking over the morgue for the first time while Ducky is more shaken by the reasons for the attack. The woman blamed Ducky for the death of her brother, who was supposedly tortured in Afghanistan.

As it happens, Ducky was trying to simply treat the guy and was appalled at the way he and others were treated, only to mercy-kill the guy. The ending is a great scene of David McCallum showing some of the demons Ducky carried under his seemingly jovial persona.

Recruited (NCIS Season 8, Episode 12)

TV legend Bob Newhart turned in a fantastic guest star appearance as Ducky’s old mentor Dr. Magnus, who helps on a case. The banter between them is terrific, as it’s clear the guy influenced Ducky’s own style of storytelling and caring for the victims.

It comes out that Dr. Magnus is suffering from Alzheimer’s and wants to see Ducky while he can still remember him. It’s jarring for Ducky to see his own age and issues in the guy and try to help him. The acting between McCallum and Newhart is magnificent to elevate this episode and shows how Ducky turned out the way he did.

Phoenix (NCIS Season 10, Episode 3)

Even when he was supposed to be on medical leave after a heart attack, Ducky can’t stop working. In this case, he gets a body exhumed without authorization as he’d done the autopsy on the man years earlier but is now worried he missed something. So Gibbs invokes “Rule 38” to let Ducky take the lead, and seeing him bossing around the team is glorious.

He cuts through Tony and Ziva’s banter, takes part in interrogations, and even puts Gibbs in his place. Of course, they bust the crook with Ducky happy going back to the morgue, but seeing him take the lead on things for a change was great.

So It Goes (NCIS Season 12, Episode 3)

This is another personal case for Ducky as the victim, blown up by a rocket launcher, was his best friend, only to find it may not be the same guy. This leads to flashbacks of a younger and angrier Ducky (played by Adam Campbell), showing how he had to temper his attitude and even where he got his love for bowties. There’s also a woman from his past playing into this case, which also involves the betrayal of a friend.

It’s a beautiful showcase for Ducky and his past, explaining what made him into the man we know today, and McCallum sells it all wonderfully, especially the ending of Ducky realizing the life he could have had.

Spinning Wheel (NCIS Season 13 Episode 11)

When the team finds Ducky tied up in a van, they know this case will be unusual. Ducky was lured into a trap by someone claiming his beloved brother was still alive. More flashbacks abound, showing their bond and how Ducky hated their separation and doing anything to get him back.

The case has turns, but the final scene is beautiful as the team helps Ducky find his now Alzheimer-ridden brother in a nursing home. Despite the man not remembering him, Ducky gives him the toy truck he had as a kid for one of the most emotional NCIS endings ever.

The Tie That Binds (NCIS Season 14, Episode 10)

The case here may have been predictable, but it still made for a fantastic episode. Once more, Adam Campbell is the young Ducky who awkwardly walks in on his mother in bed with a man. This leads to the present, as that same guy is a con artist tied into a new case. This leads to the great idea of Campbell as the younger Ducky interacting with McCallum (even complimenting him on looking so good for his age).

It shows Ducky tried to protect her mother from what he thought was a crook, only to realize she truly loved him. It’s another fine Christmas episode with Ducky realizing the team is now his family.

Everything Starts Somewhere (NCIS Season 18, Episode 2)

Fittingly, one of the final episodes of McCallum as a full cast member was the story everyone wanted to see. For NCIS’s landmark 400th episode, fans finally got to see just how Gibbs and Ducky first met. We see just how Ducky, feeling a bit lost in life, and Gibbs, still an angry young man, were tossed together on a case and slowly tempering each other. That same case now haunts them in the present and shows the amazing bond the pair have.

Ducky made more appearances afterward, but this could be seen as a send-off to him as a full-timer and a reminder of why fans loved him so much.

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