So, we’re approaching Christmas, which can mean only one thing – a Christmas special. This year’s marks a major milestone for the show, as Peter Capaldi departs the TARDIS to be replaced by the first female incarnation of the Doctor, as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker. The show will undergo changes behind the scenes too, as Chris Chibnall takes over showrunner responsibilities, as series stalwarts such as composer Murray Gold will be departing. Christmas specials have, of course, marked changes in the show before, normally coming just after a companion departure or regeneration, or including regenerations themselves.
So, before we reach the meeting of the First and Twelfth Doctor, a ranking of all the Christmas specials we’ve had so far, from worst to best.
12 – The Voyage of the Damned (2007)
The end of David Tennant’s second season in the role, this episode is most notable for the appearance of Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop star. However, this tends to the be the episode’s downfall – it seems to be far too obsessed with saying ‘Oooh, look, it’s Kylie Minogue in Doctor Who. Kylie Minogue. On the Titanic. In Space! Isn’t this bonkers?!?’ rather than actually constructing a proper story regardless of who has been cast. On top of that, Clive Swift’s Mr Copper is possibly the most irritating guest star that has graced modern Doctor Who.
Max Capricorn isn’t really much hat as the villain either – I appreciate that it’s a Christmas special and they’re supposed to be light and fluffy, but would it be too much to ask for a villain with a bit more menace? All in all, it adds up to an episode that’s really disappointing. And the fact that I have ranked it beneath the next two is really saying something.
11 – The End of Time (Parts 1 and 2) (Christmas Day 2009/New Years’ Day 2010)
Now, I know this is cheating, as The End of Time, Part 2 went out on New Years’ Day, rather than on Christmas Day, but for ease, I am grouping it together. This episode marked the end of David Tennant’s era on the show, and, unfortunately for me, when I look back, it does taint his era a fair bit. I was a massive fan of David Tennant – he is what would be referred to as my Doctor – but The End of Time left a bad taste in my mouth.
Much of my dislike of this two-parter has to do with the elongated goodbye to past companions, much of which feels unnecessary, and the characterisation of the Master, who they’ve essentially tried to make into Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. It took me until I watched World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls to realise that I actually like John Simm’s incarnation of the Master. Equally, when I go and rewatch Tennant’s episodes, I remember how much I like that era as a whole, but this just lets it down, especially after the strong finish of The Waters of Mars.
That said, that café scene with Wilf is superb!
10 – The Runaway Bride (2006)
I’ve got to be completely honest – when it was announced that Catherine Tate would be returning for Series 4 of Doctor Who, it filled me with dread. This was partially down to The Runaway Bride, in which Donna is so loud and unlikeable. It is perhaps a sign of the strength of the writing on Series 4 that allows the audience to be invested in her journey and progression from this episode to the end of Journey’s End.
Additionally to the problems with Donna’s characterisation, the Racnoss are such a pantomime villain – fitting for a Christmas episode, but utterly forgettable.
9 – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
Easily the weakest of the Moffat Christmas specials, this one seems like a case of a good idea wasted – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is one of those classic winter’s stories, and seems almost ripe for a kind of adaptation here, but something just doesn’t quite work – it might be the two kids, who are not really engaging, or perhaps to do with the boring ‘villains’ of the piece, the Wooden King and Queen (thanks TARDIS wikia for that piece of information!) Equally, the appearances of comic talents Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir seems wasted.
It’s not all bad though – Madge Arwell is a good, strong female character, and it is a shame that we didn’t see Claire Skinner return briefly in series 7 in some capacity. The ending scene, where the Doctor visits the Ponds does also save this one slightly.
8 – The Next Doctor (2008)
This might be ranked this low in my head because of the teasing title. Cast your mind back to December 2008. David Tennant has relatively recently announced that he will be leaving the TARDIS following the conclusion of four specials, starting with The Next Doctor. David Morrissey has been touted by bookmakers as being a likely successor and he’s been cast in the upcoming Christmas special. Surely, you think to yourself, this will see the Tenth Doctor meet his next incarnation, which in itself would be pretty monumental for the show – we still haven’t seen the incumbent Doctor play opposite his immediate successor…
Then there’s the rug pull. Morrissey isn’t the Doctor.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a superb rug pull. But the fan in me will always be a bit disappointed by it. Then there are also the Cybus Cybermen, the Cyber King and Mercy Hartigan which also turn it into a bit of a damp squib. David Morrissey is great, and I would love to one day see him play the Doctor, and moments like the reveal of Jackson Lake’s TARDIS being a hot air balloon are great. Like Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe, it feels like an opportunity missed. Put in context with events going on behind the scenes, with Russell T Davies going too, you can see why David Morrissey couldn’t possibly be the 11th Doctor. But wouldn’t it be great?
7 – The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
I think The Return of Doctor Mysterio has a lot of pressure on it’s shoulders before it even starts. It was the first and only episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2016, the audience last seeing the Twelfth Doctor enjoying his last night with River Song on Darillium on Christmas Day 2015, and although we didn’t know it at the time, it would kickstart Peter Capaldi’s final series as the Doctor.
It is a fun romp around superheroes, featuring the Doctor. For me, somebody who loves superheroes and Doctor Who, this is fantastic! One of my favourite moments comes at the beginning where the Doctor is picking holes in comic book superheroes (“Why do they call him Spider-Man? Do they not like him?”), before inadvertently causing the creation of a superhero himself. The plot does owe a lot to the Christopher Reeve Superman films and there is an overt comparison between the relationship between Grant and Lucy and Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
The biggest criticism I can throw at it is that it is a bit lightweight and the villains are a bit forgettable, but really, after the spin-off Class, which took itself far too seriously, a bit of throwaway Christmas fun is exactly what the Doctor ordered. It also helps wipe the slate clean after Darillium and sets us up for Series 10 nicely.
6 – The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Matt Smith’s regeneration episode is very plot heavy and is stuffed just like a Christmas turkey. At worst, it can seem a bit rushed – the departure of Smith seems to have taken everyone by surprise, and suddenly, some plot arcs of previous series need to be resolved – they could have taken their time and made another series to wrap up the loose ends. However, what we see here are explanations in a couple of lines of dialogue, for instance, why the TARDIS blew up at the end of series 5, which actually works really well.
It’s also nice to see what the Eleventh Doctor, who always has trouble physically staying still, stuck in one place for an elongated period of time. I also like Handles, the disembodied Cyber head, as I am a fan of seeing a foe of the Doctor subverted like this, a bit like Strax or Vastra. Another aspect of this story I love is that the physical change from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi is quite quick, which is a nice shock to the system after seeing Eccleston and Tennant’s actual regeneration sequence show the physical change taking longer.
All in all, it is perhaps overpacked, but a thoroughly enjoyable episode nonetheless.
5 – Last Christmas (2014)
To be brutally honest, I think Clara should have left here. If Jenna Coleman had decided to leave at Christmas, I think I would rate this episode slightly higher, as I love the scene at the very end with the elderly Clara and the Doctor – it has parallels with Time of the Doctor, especially with the lovely moment of the Twelfth Doctor helping Clara with the cracker.
This Christmas special is still amongst my favourites despite this, though. The Dream Crabs are quite a dark idea for a monster and in light of some weaker villains lower down the list, are good fun for a good Doctor Who episode, which just so happens to be at Christmas. The supporting cast is strong, especially Nick Frost as Santa Claus, and personally, the return of Danny Pink works for me and was part of the reason on first viewing that I thought that Clara would leave at the end of the story.
4 – The Snowmen (2012)
The Snowmen is perhaps a Christmas episode that I would have again ranked higher perhaps a couple of years ago but is still one that I really have a strong affection for. As I alluded to earlier on in the list, I like the Paternoster Gang, especially Madame Vastra, so seeing them in this is great. I also really enjoy the premise of the Doctor retiring due to his grief at losing the Ponds as well as the joking and knowing nods to Sherlock Holmes. Richard E Grant is a good villain as Doctor Simeon and having Ian McKellen voice the Great Intelligence is fantastic, even if they are slightly underused.
The only downside that I can find in this is that Victorian Clara is more interesting than the one we get for the remainder of series seven, and the time spent building up her character feels a bit wasted when this version of her is killed off at the end of the episode. However, all in all, it is a strong episode, and is a good reintroduction of a foe who had not been seen since 1968, and features some great visuals – such as the TARDIS on the clouds and that smooth shot that goes from the exterior of the TARDIS to the interior to reveal the new console room design. I’m getting goosebumps just typing about that. Phwoar.
3 – The Husbands of River Song (2015)
The Husbands of River Song can feel like an episode of two halves – there is the more fun, caper type part at the beginning featuring Greg Davies as Hydroflax, then there is the more sweet and romantic part towards the end. Speaking of Davies, I have moaned about weak villains before in this list, and Hydroflax will never go down as a classic. However, I don’t feel that this episode needs a strong villain as it is more driven by relationship between River Song and the Doctor, and boy, do Kingston and Capaldi deliver here.
It is fantastic seeing Kingston and Capaldi act opposite each other, and it is a shame that we never got more time with these two together – but the conclusion to their story completely makes sense. Again, I remember watching it for the first time and getting chills when there’s the mention of Darillium – I had thought that they were probably going to end River’s story in this episode, but it’s different when you finally see it realised on screen. This episode also features one of my favourite moments, River’s speech about the Doctor – “you don’t expect a sunset to admire you back!” – is one of my favourite lines, and River’s realisation that her husband has been standing beside her all through the story is played beautifully.
2 – The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The first new series Christmas special is still one of the strongest, and it doesn’t really feature the new Doctor all that much – David Tennant is unconscious for most of the story, and in pyjamas for the bit he’s awake for, but he’s still capable of saving the world. This also marks a change in the portrayal of Mickey, which would further be developed in series 2.
The episode is really well designed to help you through the first regeneration of the new series – you had spent nearly thirteen hours with Christopher Eccleston, and then boom, suddenly, he’s David Tennant. Though Rose doesn’t seem to be complaining too much by the end…(I’m not a massive fan of Rose, just by the by). The screen time that David Tennant does have shows an enormous amount of what we could expect from his Doctor, the enthusiasm, the bubbly personality, but also the core of darkness that we could see in him in later episodes, especially the Family of Blood two-parter. By the end of the episode, you are thoroughly convinced that this is the same man who warded off the Daleks at the end of the last series, and you’re ready to go off into time and space again with him. Shame about the majority of series 2, though, eh?
1 – A Christmas Carol (2010)
Matt Smith’s first Christmas special is a firm favourite – I have regularly watched it every December since it was first broadcast. As stated earlier, when talking about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Charles Dickens’ story about festive repentance is ripe for a Doctor Who adaptation, and it is done to perfection here. The Scrooge character here (Kazran Sardick) is played by Michael Gambon, which is a superb piece of casting, and the ideas of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come is fantastically done.
This is a really fantastic Christmas episode, which I really love to pieces. It has that fantastic series five fairytale feel to it too, which is no bad thing. I honestly can’t find anything to fault it on.
That’s my ranking of the Christmas specials from 2005 to the present day. What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments below.