Doctor Who: The Most Christmassy Christmas Specials

Christmas Day! That’s what it is today…the big day, which represents the incarnation, peace on earth and good will, family, generosity, hope and joy, and so many thing…

(Daily Doctor Who #32)

It also used to represent a bit of Doctor Who–every year in fact from 2005 to 2017. An unbroken run until Chris Chibnall seemed to decide they weren’t his jam.

What makes a Christmas special? …Other than the fact that it aired on Christmas Day? …And the fact that it probably takes place on Christmas Day (or nearly)? …And the fact that it is an episode of Doctor Who, with as much chance as any other of being a good one?

Well, one thing they they pretty much always included was some sort of holiday-themed spectacle, usually involving some Christmas imagery either deftly (or awkwardly) incorporated into the plot. Sometimes it has been great, but many times these moments have been a burden on the backs of the stories…something we had to put up with because it was a Christmas special, but often kind of stupid, frankly.

Which were the best? Which were the worst? Here we go, counting down to the Doctor Who Christmas Special that did the best job at incorporating Christmas imagery into its story…

Remember, this is not a list of worst to best Christmas specials. This is a list of worst to best at incorporating Christmas imagery / themes into its story. As such, there are definitely instances where “less is more”.

13. The Return of Dr. Mysterio (2016)

The Christmas elements of this story are nearly non-existent. The whole opening sequence of the Doctor meeting Grant takes place on Christmas Eve, and there is talk of the Doctor’s device looking like a Christmas tree. And…that’s basically it. In some later cases, I’d argue that “fewer Christmas elements” is better than “lots of Christmas elements’ if those elements are stupid. But in this case, I can’t get the story that concession. I like Dr. Mysterio, but from a Christmas point of view it’s barely trying.

12. The Snowmen (2012)

Well, certainly there’s a lot of snow everywhere. But as a resident of Australia I can confirm that Christmas doesn’t have to come with snow. Of course, this story also takes place at Christmas, but the imagery invoked is more to do with Sherlock Holmes and Mary Poppins then anything specifically Christmas-related. It scores above Dr. Mysterio simply for its preponderance of snow and ice-themed concepts.

11. The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Compared to some that are rated even more highly, this one has quite a lot of Christmas stuff in it. But this countdown isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality. I like this episode, but man, that spinning killer Christmas tree just might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, maybe second to those alien Santa Claus’s with machine guns in their brass instruments. Why on earth would alien scavengers adopt such personas? No reason, except that we’ve got to have some sort of Christmas imagery in the story. Ugh.

10. The Runaway Bride (2006)

The robotic Santas are back, because why not? But instead of a murderous Christmas tree, this time we have a murderous spaceship which just happens to be star-shaped. It ranks a bit higher than The Christmas Invasion simply because it integrates this slightly better into its story.

9. The Husbands of River Song (2015)

The Christmas elements of this story are pretty slight, but they are there. The story starts and ends on two different Christmas Days, there is a reference to carolers, and the Doctor briefly wears a pair of antlers. However, these few elements are still preferable to the egregious irritation of the previous two entries on this countdown, so it scores a bit higher here.

8. The End of Time part 1 (2009)

Like the previous story, there is very little actual Christmas here. Wilf does his Christmas shopping and people are getting ready for their Christmas dinners…and that’s about it. However, like last time, none of it is annoying, and it probably has a bit more screen time than The Husbands of River Song, so it scores just a little higher on this list.

7. The Next Doctor (2008)

The Next Doctor doesn’t have much Christmassy stuff taking place either, aside from being set around the holiday, but it beats out The End of Time for two main reasons. First, a wintry Victorian era story automatically brings to mind images of Christmas thanks to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The other reason is the touching scene between the Doctor and Jackson Lake at the end of the episode, when Jackson insists the Doctor join him for Christmas dinner in remembrance to all who have been lost, and the Doctor accepts. automatically associated a bit

6. Twice Upon a Time (2017)

And the last Christmas special (so far) falls close to the middle of the pack. Again, like many of the later specials, the story doesn’t take too much time worrying about incorporating many Christmas images…but when it does, it packs a wallop. A confrontation near the start of the story takes place on Christmas Day in 1914. At the end, the Doctor plays a bit of friendly havoc with the time stream and pushes the confrontation so that it is taking place just as the famous Christmas truce gets underway, when soldiers on both sides of the trenches ceased fighting for a few hours to celebrate the day. It’s a powerful and emotional climax to the story and I’m rating relatively high here.

5. Voyage of the Damned (2007)

This is far from my favorite Christmas special but it does a much better job at incorporating the Christmas elements than its two predecessors. In this case, the main imagery comes in the form of the Host, malfunctioning and murderous robotic angels which are supposed to be providing hospitality on the Starship Titanic, but instead wipe out the survivors of a disaster. The whole story is about alien tourists visiting earth to observe the holidays, and this is accompanied by a hilariously mangled impression of earth traditions actually are by the tour guide character.

4. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)

Like another story on this list, this special deliberately brings to mind another famous Christmas-related tale–C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In this adventure, the Doctor visits a bereaved family on Christmas Eve during World War II, and ends up transported with the children to an apparently magical, snow-filled world by passing through a portal contained in a present under the Christmas tree, where they encounter a giant living king and queen made of wood! At the end of the story, in a touching moment a bit reminiscent of The Next Doctor, the Doctor visits Amy and Rory, whom he had not expected to see again, and enters their home to enjoy a Christmas dinner together.

3. The Time of the Doctor (2013)

Matt Smith’s last Christmas special uses the holiday in a way that had never been done before. The story takes place in two parallel time frames–one is over a Christmas dinner that Clara is attempting to prepare in the present day, while the other happens over the course of centuries all in a town called Christmas on the planet Trenzalore. Thus for the first time, Christmas is not just a setting but a place. Beyond that the story focuses greatly on the Doctor giving up everything in order to toil endlessly to save Christmas over multiple generations from alien attack. It’s not stated directly, but there’s something reminiscent of both the Christian gospel story and the story of St. Nicholas in the image of an aged Doctor pulling out miracle after miracle to save the children of Christmas from potential doom.

2. Last Christmas (2014)

How do we make things more Christmassy than a town called Christmas? Simple…bring in Santa Claus. And not just Santa, but some funny elves, Rudolph, a sleigh and a bunch of toys. Of course, there is a Doctor Who-style explanation for it: Santa Claus is a manifestation of the characters’ shared dream world, and an indicator that something is not right. However, even though Santa is not supposed to be “really there”, he plays a key role in helping the Doctor and his friends overcome their predicament. This is an idea which could have been terrible (like the killer Santas from up above) but the writing here is clever and the direction strong, making for a successful episode which does a good job incorporating its more fantastical Christmas imagery. Beyond Santa himself, this included lots of time in a flying sleigh, a Christmas pop-song, and several extended dream scenes of Clara celebrating Christmas in different ways.

1. A Christmas Carol (2010)

Steven Moffat’s first Christmas story is perhaps the most Christmassy of them all. Kazran Sardick is a decidedly Ebenezer Scrooge-type figure, and the whole story is openly inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the Doctor modeling his whole strategy after the classic piece of literature. The story includes the Doctor visiting Kazran over multiple Christmas Eves through his youth, spending special time with the love of his, whose time is approaching the end. At the story’s conclusion, Kazaran and Abigail spend her last day together–Christmas Day.

Oh, also there’s a sleigh pulled by flying sharks.

There you go–A Christmas Carol, not my favorite Christmas episode, but none before or since have celebrated Christmas with as much holiday gusto.

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