The last decade has given us not only countless episodes of new Doctor Who but also eleven (soon to be twelve) Christmas specials.
It just wouldn’t seem right to have a Christmas go by without a seasonal Who story. It’s the perfect visual dessert after a belly full of roast turkey and all the trimmings. There’s been a real mixture of wintry tales, from Doctor debuts to emotional regenerations. So, before we see The Return of Doctor Mysterio, let’s look back at the episodes of Christmas past that have made for the happiest holidays of all…
5. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Serving as Matt Smith’s first foray into the festivities is this an emotional rollercoaster of love and loss. As far as guest casting goes (another stalwart of the Christmas specials), you certainly can’t go wrong with Michael Gambon as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick. Katherine Jenkins also lends her acting and vocal talents as the love interest, Abigail. Oh, and there’s a flying shark in it, too. Merry Fishmas!
The entire conceit is a clever play on Dickens’ classic story. In order to save Amy and Rory from crashing into oblivion, The Doctor must thaw the icy heart of the miserable Kazran.. To do so, he travels back in time to manipulate the young Kazran’s past. He shows him the many wonders of the universe and gifts him a blossoming romance with Abigail. His memories change and so do his feelings. But Abigail holds a terrible secret which Kazran cannot bear, leading to some unexpected twists and a real sense of tension at the climax.
It’s not a perfect tale, and if you’re a bit too merry from all the sherry, the time-altering plot might go over your head. But give it a chance to mull like wine and it should perk up even the scroogiest Scrooge. If nothing else, it’s got the iconic scene of Matt Smith coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Ho-ho-who!
4. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The very first Christmas special isn’t actually that Christmassy at all. In fact, The Christmas Invasion felt more like a proper Episode 1 of Series 2. It serves as David Tennant’s debut as The Tenth Doctor, and for that reason alone it stands out as one of the more memorable specials.
Christmas is very much just going on in the background which means there’s a surprising amount of darkness going on instead. The Doctor is still recovering from post-regenerative trauma and out of action for most of the story. This leaves the deadly Sycorax to give humanity its first real contact with alien life and generally scare the pants off everybody in the meantime. The stakes are high and the scale is global. The Doctor’s (eventual) introduction cleverly involves the TARDIS translation circuits, and David Tennant completely convinces as The Tenth Doctor, winning over Rose and the viewers alike. Allons-y!
There have been better specials since, but for a first attempt, The Christmas Invasion is about as valiant as you can get. Pitching the action and humour just right, the original stands the test of time as one of the best.
3. The End of Time, Part One (2009)
From the beginning to the end…
On paper, Part Two of David Tennant’s swansong is the better story – but technically that’s a New Year’s Day special, so we’ll opt for the next best thing. That’s not to discredit the first half of The End of Time, though. This episode had a huge amount of expectations. Not only would begin David Tennant’s exit from the show, it was also Russell T Davies’ final script as showrunner. Thankfully, for the most part, it delivers. The epic scale is there in abundance and the pace never lets up for a second. If anything, it all flies by too quickly.
Best moments? Everything on the Ood Sphere is a feast for the eyes. The Master turning into Skeletor to devour two tramps in a scrapyard is properly disturbing. But the highlight of the piece has to be The Doctor and Wilf contemplating old age and death in the café. David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins make a perfect pair. We can’t imagine a better companion to see The Tenth Doctor off to his regeneration (a bit more literally than we expected…). And of course, it has two preposterously huge cliffhangers. Everyone in the world is John Simm! And the Time Lords are returning! What, what, what?!
While it pales in comparison to its explosive second half, The End of Time, Part One is an ambitious and exciting story. And, at the very least, it stacks up better than Matt Smith’s Christmas regeneration, The Time of The Doctor.
2. The Snowmen (2012)
Now this is a Christmas special done right.
Set in snowy Victorian London, The Doctor is reeling from losing Amy and Rory. He has vowed to stop saving the universe once and for all. Except, of course, he changes his mind. The show must go on, after all! But, it’s only after an enigmatic new character captures his interest…
The Snowmen is an interesting episode for many reasons. For the first time, it’s a Christmas special bridging one-half of a series to another. It also introduces a new companion, Clara Oswald. Oh wait, no, it doesn’t. But it sort of does. Or did Asylum of the Daleks already do that…? Either way, it handles it all very well. The episode has solid writing, charm, and wit. In particular, the scene with Strax and the memory worm will have you laughing out loud. The Snowmen also holds the world record for the most times the question “Doctor Who?” is asked in an hour of television. Well, okay, that might not be true. But they certainly do their best to milk the joke for all it’s worth.
The absolute star on top of the Christmas tree though is Jenna Coleman. Right from the get-go, she makes an impact as the funny and feisty Clara. She plays both sides of her double-life well and she more than gives The Doctor a run for his money. She’s even gifted one of the most memorable companion introductions: the sequence with Clara on top of the cloud is artistic in its brilliance. It’s just a shame she ends up dying at the end. There’s a part of us that wonders what it would have been like to have Victorian Clara instead of 21st Century Clara. Oh well. At least Jenna could put the practice to good use as Queen Victoria for ITV!
There are niggles, though. The icy governess and Dr Simeon/The Great Intelligence don’t quite stack up as truly iconic villains. And, similarly to A Christmas Carol, the plot might be lost on a tipsy Christmas Day audience. But as far as magical atmosphere and performances go, this one is hard to beat.
1. Last Christmas (2014)
Weirdly, Last Christmas is our top pick because it feels least like a Christmas special. Which is even funnier when you consider it has Santa Claus as one of its main characters.
At its core, Last Christmas feels more like a traditional episode of Doctor Who. It’s got all the classic elements: a base under siege, a clever premise, lots and lots of scares. For a special that went out on Christmas Day, it’s surprisingly terrifying. It keeps up Series 8’s darker tone and is more akin to Listen than a holly jolly jamboree. Now, the narrative takes inspiration from other media and makes no attempt to hide it. Seriously, there’s literally a list shown on screen towards the end. But when it all wraps up together like a perfectly packaged present, what’s not to like? The Dream Crabs, too, are an aesthetically stunning and conceptually horrifying new monster. Hopefully, we’ll see them return for more dreamy-weemy action sometime.
At the heart of it all though is The Doctor and Clara’s relationship. Picking up from Death in Heaven, the two have some mistakes to amend. Originally written as Clara’s (second) departure story, this is another occasion where Jenna Coleman takes centre stage and steals the spotlight. She especially nails the older version of Clara 62 years in her future. It was so good in fact that the final revelation (it was all a dream!) came as an incredible shocker. In a way, it would have been a lovely (if bittersweet) send-off for her. But, to have her back for another series was a merry Christmas treat indeed. A second chance and a happy ending, what could be better?
The guest cast also deserve praise. Faye Marsay shone as Shona dancing to Slade. Plus, Nick Frost gave us an excellent Santa Claus – just the right amount of whimsy and attitude! The twists with his character were also neatly handled. Even though he came to represent the impossibility of dreams, his existence is left inconclusive. Not that it matters, because of course Santa’s real, right kids?
With just the right amount of Christmas and just the right amount of Doctor Who, Last Christmas stands tall as Steven Moffat’s finest festive special. This one isn’t just for Christmas – strip away the razzle-dazzle and it could easily be enjoyed on its own merits all year round.