The last decade has given us not only countless episodes of new Doctor Who, but also ten (soon to be eleven) Christmas specials. Nowadays it just wouldn’t seem right to have a Christmas Day go by without a seasonal story of Doctor Who on BBC One, providing the perfect visual dessert after a belly full of roast turkey and all the trimmings. There’s been a real mixture of wintry tales over the years too – from Doctor debuts to emotional regenerations and everything in between, the Doctor Who Christmas specials have had it all. So, before we meet The Husbands of River Song and say goodbye to 2015, let’s look back at the episodes of Christmas past that have made for the happiest holidays of all…
5. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Michael Gambon, Katherine Jenkins
If I’d done this list a few years ago, Steven Moffat’s first Christmas script probably wouldn’t have made the cut. But it’s a grower, and grown on me it has. Serving also as Matt Smith’s first foray into the festivities of a Doctor Who Christmas special, A Christmas Carol is an emotional rollercoaster of love and loss that spans decades but plays out almost in real time thanks to a lot of wibbly wobbly timey wimey… stuff. As far as guest casting goes (another stalwart of the Doctor Who Christmas specials), you certainly can’t go wrong with Michael Gambon as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick, and Katherine Jenkins lends both her acting and vocal talents as 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 (and a whole spaceship’s worth of passengers) from crashing into oblivion, The Doctor has to thaw the icy heart of the miserable Kazran, the only man in town who can avert the disaster. To do so, he travels back in time to manipulate a young Kazran’s past, showing him the many wonders of the universe and also gifting him a blossoming romance with Abigail. His memories change and so do his feelings – all seems to be going to plan. But Abigail holds a terrible secret which Kazran cannot bear, leading to some unexpected twists in the climax and a real sense of tension to see how The Doctor manages to save the day.
It’s not a perfect tale and if you’re a bit too merry from all the sherry when you watch it, a lot of the time-altering plot might well go over your head. But give it a chance to mull like wine (or maybe a second viewing) and this is one special that should perk up even the scroogiest Scrooge. And 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)
Written by Russell T Davies
Starring David Tennant, Billie Piper, Noel Clarke, Camille Coduri
The very first Christmas special of the revived series isn’t actually that Christmassy at all. Whereas the seasonal episodes now tend to act as codas to the 12 or 13 episodes preceding them, or just as standalone festive fluff (*cough*The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe*cough*), The Christmas Invasion felt more like a proper Episode 1 of Series 2 – it serves as David Tennant’s debut outing as The Tenth Doctor, and for that reason alone it stands out as one of the more memorable stories to air on 25th December.
Christmas is very much just going on in the background (aside from a murderous tree and some robot Santas, it’s surprisingly drab) which means there’s a surprising amount of darkness and tension going on in this 60 minute escapade. The Doctor, still recovering from post-regenerative trauma, is out of action for most of the story – which leaves the deadly Sycorax to give humanity its first real contact with alien life, threaten to slaughter a third of the population, and generally scare the pants off everybody in the meantime. The stakes are high and the scale is global, something which Russell T Davies excelled at during his time as showrunner. There’s a clever introduction involving the TARDIS translation circuits for when The Doctor finally does wake up, and in only the time it takes to dispense of the Sycorax leader (in a rather exciting swordfight atop a rocky spaceship) David Tennant completely convinces as The Tenth Doctor, winning over Rose and the viewers alike. Allons-y!
There’s been better specials since, but for a first attempt, The Christmas Invasion is about as valiant as you can get. Unexpectedly dark for Christmas Day but pitching the action and humour more or less spot-on, the original still stands the test of time as one of the best.
3. The End of Time, Part One (2009)
Written by Russell T Davies
Starring David Tennant, Bernard Cribbins, John Simm
From the beginning to the end…
If I were to choose between Part One and Part Two of David Tennant’s swansong as The Tenth Doctor, I’d probably opt for the latter – but technically that was a New Year’s Day special, so let’s opt for the next best thing. Not that Christmas is really the focal point here either, but hey, it went out on Christmas Day so it counts!
That’s not to discredit the first half of The End of Time though, oh no. This episode had a huge amount of expectations to meet, with all the anticipation of a series finale despite going a year without a proper series. Not only would it be the start of David Tennant’s exit from the show, but also the final story that showrunner Russell T Davies would write for Doctor Who. And for the most part, it delivers. The epic scale is definitely there in abundance – it’s got the return of The Master, for crying out loud! – and the pace never lets up for a second. If anything, it all flies by too quickly. Even at the extended 60 minute run time compared to a normal episode of the show, things in The End of Time, Part One still feel a bit rushed. If only there was another 75 minute episode after this one to really give the story the breathing room it deserved… oh wait, there is!
Best moments? Everything on the Ood Sphere is a feast for the eyes, and 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, and I can’t imagine a better companion to see The Tenth Doctor off to his inevitable regeneration (a bit more literally than we might expect, as it happens…). And of course, it has two preposterously huge cliffhangers – everyone in the world is John Simm! And the Time Lords are returning for the first time since the revival! What, what, what?!
While it pales in comparison to its explosive second half, The End of Time, Part One is a worthy beginning to an ambitious story that left me with smiles aplenty on Christmas Day 2009. At the very least, it certainly stacks up better than Matt Smith’s Christmas regeneration story, The Time of The Doctor, which was just one 900 year long mess…
2. The Snowmen (2012)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman
Now this is a Christmas special done right.
Set in snowy Victorian London, The Doctor is still reeling from losing Amy and Rory in The Angels Take Manhattan and 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… and my interest as a viewer as well.
The Snowmen is an interesting episode because, for the first time ever, it’s a Christmas special that acts as a bridge between one half of a series and another. It also has the task of introducing a new companion in the form of Clara Oswald. Oh wait, no, it doesn’t, that’s The Bells of Saint John. But it sort of does. Or did Asylum of the Daleks already do that? Oh Impossible Girl, you make my head hurt…! Either way, it handles it all very well, giving us an episode that’s got 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?” can be asked in an hour of television. Okay, that last one might not be true, but they certainly do their best to milk the joke here for all it’s worth.
The absolute star on top of the Christmas tree though is Jenna Coleman, making an impact right from the get-go as the funny and feisty Clara. She plays both sides of her double-life brilliantly, be it a working class waitress or a well spoken governess, and she more than gives The Doctor a run for his money in the intelligence stakes. She’s even gifted one of the most memorable companion introductions from the new series – the sequence where Clara discovers the TARDIS on top of a cloud is almost artistic in its brilliance. Really, it’s a shame she ends up dying at the end. For as great as 21st Century Clara has been, there’s always a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to have Victorian Clara aboard the TARDIS these past few years instead. At least Jenna can put the practice to good use in her upcoming role as Queen Victoria for ITV!
But with all this praise, why is The Snowmen not my number one? Well, the icy governess and Dr Simeon/The Great Intelligence don’t quite stack up as truly iconic villains in my eyes – at least compared to my top pick – and, similarly to A Christmas Carol, a few intricacies of the plot might be lost on a typically tipsy Christmas Day audience. But as far as magical atmosphere and performances go, this one is hard to beat.
1. Last Christmas (2014)
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Nick Frost
Funnily enough, Last Christmas is my favourite Doctor Who Christmas special because it’s one of the one that feels least like a Christmas special – which is hilariously ironic when you consider it stars Santa Claus himself as one of the main characters.
Instead, at its core, Last Christmas feels much more like a traditional episode of Doctor Who, just with a wintry backdrop and festive trimmings sprinkled on top. It’s got all the classic elements – a base under siege, an incredibly clever premise, and lots and lots of scares. Seriously, for a special that went out on Christmas Day, this is one of the most terrifying stories we’ve had in a long time, keeping up Series 8’s darker tone and having more in common with something like Listen than the holly jolly jamboree you might expect. The narrative takes plenty of cues from other places and makes no attempt to hide it – there’s a hilarious line about the Alien movies, and there’s literally a list of inspirations shown on screen towards the end. But when it all wraps up together this nicely like a perfectly packaged present, what’s not to like? The Dream Crabs, too, are an aesthetically stunning and conceptually horrifying new monster and I hope to see them return for more dreamy-weemy action in a future series.
At the heart of it all though is The Doctor and Clara’s relationship, wonderfully portrayed by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman respectively. Picking up where they left off in Death in Heaven, the two have some mistakes to amend – to see them part ways on lies about Danny Pink’s fate and the return of Gallifrey would have been unnecessarily stubborn, and it’s good to see it explored and resolved. Originally written as Clara’s (second) departure story, this is very much another occasion for Jenna Coleman to take centre stage and steal the spotlight, and she especially nails the older version of Clara 62 years in her future. It was so good in fact that the final revelation, that it had all still been a dream and that Clara was still her normal young self, came as an incredible shocker – in a way, it would have been a lovely (if bittersweet) send-off for The Doctor’s companion, but to have her back on board the TARDIS for another series ahead was a very merry Christmas Day treat indeed. A second chance and a happy ending, what could be better? Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman still believed they had plenty more to give – and luckily, Series 9 certainly proved that they made the right decision to carry on together.
The guest cast also deserve praise – Faye Marsay shone as Shona dancing to Slade, and Nick Frost gave us an excellent Santa Claus, giving just the right amount of whimsy and attitude to keep things fresh while staying true to the familiar. The twists connected with his character were also neatly handled, and even though he came to represent the impossible nature of dreams, it’s still left fairly inconclusive as to whether he really exists or not… 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 contribution to the series so far. This one isn’t just for Christmas – strip away all the razzle and dazzle and it could still easily be enjoyed on its own merits all the year round.