Ranking Doctor Who’s Christmas specials

Doctor Who was a staple of BBC’s festive lineup from 2005 – 2017, featuring some of the best and some of the worst in Christmas-themed entertainment

There was a time, in the not so distant past, when Doctor Who was a highlight of BBC’s festive output. It regularly performed well, generally only being beaten by either Strictly Come Dancing or Eastenders. The perfect thing to recline in front of, lost in the giddy haze of being surrounded by family, with a stack of freshly unwrapped gifts at your feet and far too much food resting heavy in your stomach. From 2005 to 2017, Doctor Who’s Christmas specials were also notable for introducing new companions and writing out current Doctors, though are massively variable in their quality.

With the advent of Chris Chibnall as showrunner following Steven Moffat’s departure in “Twice Upon a Time” on Christmas Day 2017, festive specials were removed from the agenda, though we have been reliably entertained with instalments around the festive period, with “Resolution” on New Year’s Day 2019, and “Spyfall” starting Series 12, and 2020, with a bang. While generally devoid of much relevance to the festive period, there are still something for us Whovians to look forward to, and with another new episode coming on January 1st, promising the departure of fan-favourite current companions Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), as well as the return of the Daleks and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the tradition is far from over. In the meantime, in the interests of getting into the festive spirit, and just in case you want to binge watch all of Doctor Who’s festive specials, here they are, listed from worst to best (excluding “Spyfall”, as it’s not technically a special, but rather a series opener).

14. The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Doctor Who was off air for the year in between previous festive special “The Husbands of River Song” and 2016’s “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, allowing for Moffat to provide us with Capaldi’s swan song. Ultimately, however, none of Capaldi’s festive specials are that worth the watch. It’s stylistically interesting, for sure, and the closest that any of Capaldi’s episodes come from just being confusing nonsense. Ultimately, it’s a love story to the superhero genre, and it’s horrendously well done, but it’s not a terribly good Doctor Who tale in itself. The Doctor could actually be lifted from the story with minimal impact, and really the only thing that it serves is to bring the Doctor out of his post-River funk. Though, considering that concept was also introduced in this episode, it would hardly have been missed if it hadn’t been included.

13. A Christmas Carol

Matt Smith’s first Christmas special is, unfortunately, his worst. Separated from companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), they spend the episode mostly out of sight, trapped on a space liner for their honeymoon, which is caught in a cloud belt. The only man who can control it, however, a miserly Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), refuses to help, forcing the Doctor to use time travel to alter his past to craft him into a kinder person. Along the way, we are also introduced to love interest Abigail, portrayed by Katherine Jenkins, who is mainly there to sing a little song about Christmas or something.

Ultimately, it is quite a romantic and whimsical story, which looks absolutely fantastic and suitably Dickensian. It’s certainly appropriate for festive television, though it did remove Amy and Rory from the action too much, while it would have been nice to see the TARDIS team face a Christmas threat united. There are many fascinating things within the plot, including fish that swim through the air, but it does also break the Doctor’s principle rule in the process: not to meddle in time. Surely there could have been a more practical way to control the cloud belt rather than altering the fabric of the universe and the show?

12. The Husbands of River Song

Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston? Sharing the screen? What’s not to like? Well, the plot would be the main thing in this case. Starring not only Matt Lucas but also Greg Davies just to make the episode seem as ludicrous as possible, the episode also has a decapitated, hulking, bright red robot that chases River around all because she was attempting to steal a diamond from him. While it does provide some closure and a nice resolution to the Doctor and River’s story, and Capaldi and Kingston’s chemistry is off the charts, her characterisation isn’t quite in keeping with what we’ve known of her before, which is more than slightly jarring. Ultimately, the emotional stakes aren’t enough to elevate this special in a particularly notable way.

11. The Next Doctor

“The Next Doctor” started 2009’s offerings of specials that ultimately wrote out David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. As a title, it captured the nation’s imagination, promising something never before seen on Doctor Who: a multi-Doctor story, with our Time Lord meeting a future incarnation, instead of a previous one. What with everybody looking towards the future at a life after David Tennant, there was a lot of intrigue generated before Christmas Day even arrived. Lots of fans assumed that, since there had been very few rumours that David Morrisey was to actually be the next Doctor, that some sort of fake-out would be at play; something that really could have been solved by BBC leaking such a rumour themselves.

Ultimately, the “Doctor”’s identity as Jackson Lake is revealed far too soon into this episode, and though the story of him accidentally having his memory altered by a Cybermen infostamp was compelling and vaguely tragic, the episode fails to take off from there. Even Dervla Kirwan striding around Victorian London in a blood red dress surrounded by nothing but snow doesn’t erase the ludicrousness of a giant, steampunk Cyberman rampaging towards the Thames.

10. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

It’s remarkable how many of these Doctor Who specials are homages to other films and well known stories. Of course, this one is a spin on the classic “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and is, unfortunately, fairly ridiculous. It is, however, at its heart, the story of a family at Christmas time, and all about how Christmas is about being together with those that you love. Despite the strangeness of the trees that are the enemy, it does make this episode strangely watchable. Matt Smith is on fine form as his goofy Eleventh Doctor, and Claire Skinner is massively likeable as matriarch Madge who is desperately trying to look after her children while mourning the loss of her husband.

9. Twice Upon a Time

“Twice Upon a Time” simply has no business to exist. With Chris Chibnall passing on the opportunity to begin his tenure with a Christmas special, Steven Moffat wrote a final addendum to his and Peter Capaldi’s reign. The proper, triumphant end of the Twelfth Doctor should have come at the end of “The Doctor Falls”, as we see him carried by ex-companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) back to his TARDIS after he died destroying the Cybermen. The TARDIS deposits him in the path of his past self, the first incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by David Bradley. Strictly, this episode is nothing but filler. There are many things to enjoy here, but the overt sexism of the First Doctor that simply was not verbalised within the series is uncomfortable to say the least. Not only is it an unflattering depiction of a character whose attitudes shouldn’t really reflect that of the era that he was written in, it could have been done in a far subtler way to have more impact. On the plus side, at least it isn’t rammed full of complicated paradoxes that usually populate Moffat’s scripts. It does, however, have the presence of Mark Gatiss (when was the last time he was cast in something without knowing somebody on the production team?) as an apparent ancestor to the Brigadier. Why? Who can say.

8. The Time of the Doctor

All of the different hanging plot elements of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure make his narrative somewhat of a tightly wound ball. There was an awful lot left to sift through before giving a satisfactory departure to the Doctor who, as it turns out, was also the final in the Doctor’s regeneration cycle. Elements of the Silence needed to be included, as well as just what was so terrible that was awaiting the Doctor at Trenzalore, which had necessitated multiple attempts against his life within the past few seasons.

The episode is tonally in keeping with many of the aspects of the Eleventh Doctor’s tale, keeping all of the whimsy and fairytale that he is characteristic of, but it does stop quite a few of the elements feeling real and having the appropriate gravity. The Eleventh Doctor spends quite a lot of the special as an old man, and some of the moments, such as appearing naked in front of Clara are more than slightly inappropriate. The high emotion of Clara’s pleas to extend his life, as well as his triumphant send-off of all of his enemies makes this a suitable end to perhaps the messiest Doctor Who era in existence. Tie in a surprise appearance by Karen Gillan and so many fan favourite returns, it truly is a fitting end to Matt Smith’s tenure.

7. The Runaway Bride

David Tennant’s first proper Christmas special as Doctor saw him paired with Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, while he mourned the loss of previous companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). As the first companion of Doctor Who since its revival, Rose’s departure was one that was massively felt by the viewers, and Donna was massively tonally different. Her brash demeanour, and her tendency to contradict and argue with the Doctor, while grating, was a source of much amusement and demonstrated that much of the appeal of Doctor Who stems from the interaction between the regulars in contrast to the specifics of the plot. Add in a wonderful sequence of the TARDIS flying after a taxi down a motorway, constant protestations that wedding dresses don’t come equipped with pockets, and some robotic Santas with Christmas-themed weapons, and this is inoffensive festive fun to the extreme.

6. Last Christmas

A cross between Alien and Inception, “Last Christmas” is probably the most Christmassy that Doctor Who has ever become, with even Santa Claus and his sleigh materialising. While this may seem frankly absurd, at least it’s ultimately rooted within a credible plot point of Dream Crabs that produce powerful, realistic hallucinations. This alien siege storyline gives the episode a sense of urgency, and there’s also some emotional resolution to Danny’s exit at the end of Series 8. Even though there are multiple moments where it looks like Clara is going to leave, only for it to be reversed (likely due to last minute rewrites by Steven Moffat), it’s hugely entertaining, engaging and emotional with a superb guest cast and brilliant performances from the series leads.

5. Resolution

While airing on New Year’s Day, “Resolution” is less a festive special, and more a handy send off to Jodie Whittaker’s first outing as the Doctor that just so conveniently happened to air on an important day. It’s the first time that Whittaker faces a major global threat, and it truly feels like an epic blockbuster. The Daleks are used in a way that we haven’t seen before, and their presence within the episode was kept until a suitably tense moment. What’s more, Chibnall did well not to introduce a major army, and really hype up the menace of a lone Dalek for our gang to confront. Coupled with Ryan’s confrontation with his estranged father, this episode does well to balance all of its regulars and give a tense episode that was a major step up from the series that preceded it.

4. The Christmas Invasion

There’s something so incredibly endearing about Doctor Who’s first festive special. Full to the brim with festive cheer, with Christmas trees, carols and robotic Santas, this episode really helped the audience feel at ease with the new Doctor by bridging the gap with Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), mother Jackie (Camille Coduri) and boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), not to mention Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton), the now-Prime Minister. BBC executives were probably concerned that the audience wouldn’t take to David Tennant as the revived series’ first new Doctor, but with hindsight they needn’t have worried. The Doctor’s final appearance really elevates the episode, and the new dynamic that he enjoys with Rose is characteristic of the winning pairing that would carry through the show’s second series. The Doctor immediately comes across as wholly different to Christopher Eccleston’s gruff northern persona, emerging from the TARDIS with a boyish glee, quoting song lyrics and being just a tiny bit sexy.

3. The End of Time

Much as David Tennant’s debut came at Christmas, so too came his departure, with two part adventure “The End of Time” that aired over Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. A true blockbuster, this epic tale saw the first return of Gallifrey in the new series (it soon became old hat), as well as John Simm returning as the Master. The storyline was suitably universe busting, with the Doctor zipping around in his TARDIS to try to prevent the Master being resurrected, to then the Master using a device to change the entire of the human race into copies of himself. Once all of the epic stuff was out of the way, the show still delivered an emotional end to David Tennant’s Doctor as he passionately raged against the dying of the light. The final sequence, while slightly indulgent, was just sentimental enough to give an adequate send off to the fan favourite Doctor and his brilliant companions. There’s nothing quite like event TV.

2. Voyage of the Damned

“Voyage of the Damned” is Doctor Who’s attempt at a disaster movie. Finding himself on a replica of the Titanic, the Doctor soon finds himself crashing and having to survive when they are hit by asteroids. Kylie Minogue is glorious as temporary companion Astrid Peth, perfectly embodying all of the admirable qualities that we would expect in a friend of the Doctor’s. Her chemistry with David Tennant is also incredible, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that the pair enjoyed a romance off screen during the filming of this adventure. Add into the mix some robotic angels that use their halos as weapons, and the result is high action and, at its climax, hugely emotional. Unfortunately, the villain never really comes across as credible, but rather one from Austin Powers. However, that is a minor grumble for what is otherwise a massively enjoyable tale.

1. The Snowmen

Topping the list is 2012’s “The Snowmen”. Recovering from the loss of his best friends Amy and Rory, Matt Smith’s Doctor has slipped into a complete funk, until new companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) appears. Reintroducing Strax, Vastra and Jenny who had previously appeared in Series 6’s “A Good Man Goes to War”, the episode saw Clara reignite the Doctor’s love of adventure. Throughout the adventure, she is magnetic with her wit, charm and incredible intelligence. She is more than enough of a match for the Doctor in spirit and mind, and definitely presents as a character out of her time. The episode also features some delightfully magical sequences, such as Clara climbing the staircase to find the TARDIS parked on a cloud. Though the villain is not particularly well fleshed out, there’s nothing quite like discovering a new Doctor Who companion and this episode delivered this in spades. It’s still a crying shame that this version of Clara wasn’t ultimately the companion that we ended up with, but Coleman’s performance here really cements it as the best Doctor Who Christmas special to date.

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