Doctor Who: Christmas Specials from Best to Worst

FC and his elves arrive 2 pix watercolor

The Doctor Who Christmas special “Last Christmas” will show at 6:15pm on BBC One and 9:00pm ET on BBC America on December 25. It will mark the 10th anniversary of the Doctor Who Christmas special. The convention of having a episode on Christmas Day was started in 2005, with the new series of Doctor Who, and has grown increasingly popular. They are set during the holidays, always involve snow, and, unless the Doctor has just regenerated, they often end with the Doctor standing outside the TARDIS being asked to come to Christmas dinner.

We have enjoyed all of the Doctor Who Christmas episodes so far, but we have certainly enjoyed some more than others. Part of ranking these specials is to understand they are not just regular episodes. They are watched on Christmas Day, with family and friends, to a larger than normal audience. On such a day we expect the Doctor to do more than be heroic, clever, and funny—he should also make us more merry. The storyline, performance, and engagement are important considerations, but holiday spirit is key when ranking the Doctor Who Christmas specials.

1. A Christmas Carol (2010)
The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill)

a christmas carol pix wcYou don’t get any more Christmassy than creating a take on Charles Dickens’ classic tale of redemption—with Christmas crackers, no less. Setting the scene outside of Victorian London, with sharks and fish that swim through the sky, provides a fun and unique context. This was Matt Smith’s first Christmas special as the Doctor and the first written by Steven Moffat. Where David Tennant’s Doctor strikes fear in the hearts of his enemies, Matt Smith’s Doctor wins them over with his joie de vivre. “A Christmas Carol” brings out the best of Matt Smith and we see that his version of the Doctor is fun, kind, and a bit awkward.

Rory and Amy are on their honeymoon and find themselves in a ship about to crash. Naturally, they call the Doctor for help. Michael Gambon plays Karzan Sardick, the Scrooge-like character who controls the skies and refuses to let the failing ship land. When the Doctor is unable to convince him to change his mind, he takes a Ghost-of-Christmas-Past approach by visiting Karzan when he is a young boy. Their interactions are enchanting and we watch with interest to see how Karzan is impacted in the present—a man who hates Christmas, grows up loving an ill young woman, Abigail, who only comes out of her frozen state on Christmas Eve.

The guest actors in this episode are outstanding. Michael Gambon carries the episode and Matt Smith carefully stands back and lets him. Katherine Jenkins, who plays Abigail is very warm and we like her right away. The strong performance of Laurence Belcher as young Karzan helps us to understand him as an adult and the young actor connects well with Matt Smith.

“A Christmas Carol” transforms classic literature into classic Doctor Who. It allows Matt Smith to do what he does best— to act alongside children in a way that reflects his character’s childlike nature, while resolving crises in a nonchalant and sometimes bumbling manner. An excellent Christmas story, great acting, and Rory and Amy dressed up for their honeymoon—who could ask for more?

2. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and companion/mother Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner)

wardrobe pix wcWe could not have been more excited when the title of this episode was announced, due to our childhood love for the Narnia series. The Christmas special connects to the classic children’s tale The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by providing some magic in the lives of children living in war-torn England. A country manor all spruced up for Christmas, a wardrobe that takes you to a magical snowy forest, Matt Smith interacting with children, and a guest appearance by comedian Bill Bailey—count us in! Some may describe the ending as saccharine, but hey, it’s Christmas!

Matt Smith has a gift for acting with children, which we see when his character interacts with the young Arwells. Most of the Doctors in the series, with the notable exception of 4th Doctor Tom Baker, don’t exhibit the degree of warmth and connectedness that Matt Smith brings when children are on the show. The manner in which the 11th Doctor’s childlike nature and expressions of joy mask his wisdom and pain, makes him a good friend and companion to children. A great asset in a family television show.

Mothers never come off well in Doctor Who. The writers must have unresolved mommy issues. During the first five minutes of “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” we love Madge Arwell, but she quickly becomes the shrill and irrational mother we have come to expect in Doctor Who. She does recover as her portrayal improves later in the episode.

The team who is harvesting the forest is headed by Droxil, played by Bill Bailey. Bailey is a very funny actor and he does not disappoint here. The hilarious team is a highlight of the episode. Though Steven Moffat struggled to show Madge as quietly powerful throughout the episode, she is at her best when dealing with the three foresters and taking control.

We were able to overcome the shortcomings of “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” by way of those aspects that truly appealed to us—the fantastical nature of the forest, the wardrobe portal, and the holiday spirit.

3. The Next Doctor (2008)
The 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Rosita Farisi (Velili Tshabalala)

the next doctor pix wcThere was tremendous expectation surrounding “The Next Doctor.” There were rumors the title was literal and David Morrissey was going to become the 11th Doctor after it was announced David Tennant would be stepping down from the role. David Morrissey is known to many today as The Governor from The Walking Dead, but at that time Morrissey was known for his work in period pieces, making him a good fit for a Doctor Who episode set in Victorian London.

When the Doctor arrives in London he quickly meets Morrissey’s character, who introduces himself as the Doctor, and his companion Rosita. Chaos ensures, and the Doctors save the day. The story of this “next Doctor” is engaging and touching. Morrissey plays his role with bravado and bluster, becoming increasingly vulnerable as he learns who he is. Morrissey, and his collaboration with David Tennant, is the heart of this episode.

In terms of villains, the writers threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Despite having a well performed human anti-hero in Miss Hartigan, played by Dirvla Kirwan, and the fantastic Cybershades (we would love to see them again), the world domination story had too many characters and too many moving parts. They even managed to include children being forced into a Dickensian workhouse.

In terms of holiday spirit, “The Next Doctor” was subtle. Events did occur on Christmas, and snowy Victorian England always reminds us of Ebenezer Scrooge. Clearly we need to read a greater variety of Victorian literature. Though we prefer our Christmas special a bit more Christmassy, we can appreciate that the holiday connection wasn’t forced.

Though the writers gave us a bit more evil intrigue than we needed, “The Next Doctor” was very strong in terms of Christmas specials due to its interesting human characters and moving story. If you loved David Morrissey as The Governor in The Walking Dead, appreciate self-referential drama, or just enjoy stories set in Victorian England, you will be entertained by “The Next Doctor.”

4. The Snowmen (2012)
The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman)

evil snowmen in front of window pix cwThe Snowmen” finds the Doctor in Victorian London once more, isolated and dejected after losing the Ponds. Though he is keeping to himself, the Doctor is befriended by Strax, Jenny Flint, and Madame Vastra—characters previously seen in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Clara Oswald is reintroduced to us after her brief introduction as Oswin Oswald in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Richard E. Grant plays Dr. Simeon, who is involved with a sinister plot involving killer snowmen. The Doctor is not easily persuaded to return to a life of saving the world, but he takes a liking to Clara. Though it is disappointing that there is so little reference to Christmas in this episode, the focus on snow helps to get us into the holiday spirit.

This Christmas special brought out some big guns with Richard E. Grant and a voiceover by Ian McKellen. We are big fans of Richard E. Grant, as Withnail and I is one of our all-time favorite movies. Though we liked his performance in this episode, the plot was a bit unconvincing – what is the benefit of having carnivorous snowmen rule the world? We are in agreement with the Doctor, who when told of the plan responded, “Oh yes, and what a plan. A world full of living ice people. Oh dear me, how very Victorian of you.”

The mystery around Clara was a much more interesting aspect of this episode than the plans to take over the world, though we do like the use of ice and snow to create scary monsters. It gives the episode a bit more holiday spirit somehow, even if the snowmen are evil. There were some aspects of Clara’s arrival that we didn’t care for – no funny business with the Doctor unless your first name is a body of water. Besides the questions about Clara, another strength of “The Snowmen” is the involvement of Strax, Jenny, and Madame Vastra as the Doctor’s supporting team. We especially enjoy Strax and his habit of referring to humans as the wrong gender. On rewatch “The Snowmen” holds up well, particularly after we have become increasingly fond of Clara Oswald.

5. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper)

christmas invasion pix wcIn “The Christmas Invasion,” the Doctor faces a challenging regeneration that leaves him at partial strength. Companion Rose Tyler has to deal with evil robot Santa bands, spinning Christmas trees, and alien invasions with limited help from the Doctor. What works in this episode is the focus on Rose in order to provide continuity for the series as David Tennant takes over from Christopher Eccleston as the new Doctor. It takes a bit of time for the audience to adjust to a new actor in the role of the Doctor. Having a new Doctor appear for the Christmas special isn’t ideal because you want something comforting for the holidays. Though Rose Tyler isn’t one of our favorite companions, Billie Piper shows some acting chops in expressing her distress when Rose thinks she has lost her Doctor. The negative aspect of focusing so much on Rose is that the interaction between Mickey and Rose is often quite depressing, and though the interactions between Rose and her mother can sometimes be humorous and touching, Jackie Tyler more often comes off as simply annoying.

The presence of Prime Minister Harriet Jones helps this episode along. She’s clever, funny, and earnest while still being in charge. Though the Torchwood Institute was first mentioned in “Bad Wolf,” it’s not until “The Christmas Invasion” we start to realize that Torchwood is meant to deal with alien threats. We are left with mixed feelings about Harriet Jones, who was so charming in “World War Three” after learning in this episode that she can be rather unforgiving.

By the time the Doctor truly arrives to defend the earth from the Sycorax, David Tennant shines (“Am I…ginger?”) and brings Doctor Who back to its usual funny, scary, and exciting form. We find that this new Doctor can be quite threatening (“It is defended”) and has the tendency to be unforgiving as well (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”). The 10th Doctor quickly takes his place in our hearts while establishing a Christmas special tradition.

6. The Runaway Bride (2006)
The 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate)

Donna arrives in wedding dress pix wcDonna Noble appears in the TARDIS on her wedding day, leading to a whole series of unexpected events. Donna is much too concerned about getting back to her wedding to be awestruck by the TARDIS. The way in which she is unimpressed by the Doctor and doesn’t let him tell her what to do reflects the refreshing way Donna will interact with the Doctor when she does eventually become a regular companion. (Full disclosure: Donna Noble is our favorite companion in the new series.) Catherine Tate as Donna Noble is hilarious and has amazing chemistry and comedic timing with David Tennant right from the start. How many other companions can say they slapped the Doctor in their first episode?

The Runaway Bride” leaves us thinking more about traumatic weddings we have attended than Christmas nightmares. Though there is an attempt to pull the themes together through the music we get to enjoy during the wedding reception, which we love. It’s too bad Doctor Who doesn’t use more non-orchestral music in the series on a regular basis. We have an evil robotic Santa band and spinning Christmas trees similar to “The Christmas Invasion,” to help get us into the holiday spirit, though more of an unique emphasis on Christmas would have made the episode a better Christmas day special.

The spidery Racnoss Empress in “The Runaway Bride” is much creepier than the Sycorax aliens from “The Christmas Invasion.” Catherine Tate’s heartbreaking portrayal of Donna Noble on a wedding day gone wrong makes us hate the ancient arachnoid much more than the evil plans the Racnoss Empress has for the earth ever could. “The Runaway Bride” is weaker than most other Christmas specials in terms of holiday spirit, but at least it snows at the end. The Christmas present that this episode provided for the audience, and Russell T. Davies, was showing what a great combination Catherine Tate and David Tennant can be.

7. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman)

doctor at xmas dinner 2 pix wcThe Time of the Doctor” takes place after the Doctor has made his peace with the War Doctor and has realized that Gallifrey has not been destroyed. A mysterious message emanating from an unassuming planet draws thousands of ships from across the universe to investigate, including the Doctor. Many of the Doctor’s old nemeses are also concerned—the Silence, the Cybermen, the Daleks, and Weeping Angels.
We meet Tasha Lem, Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe, an interesting character who has a history of the Doctor. She is both friend and foe, going to war with him while also protecting him. Another character with a lot of screen time is “Handles,” who is the head of the Cybermen. You wouldn’t think this creature could engender such emotion in both the Doctor and the audience, but there it is. The Doctor remains on the planet, in a town called Christmas, for a long time in order to protect them and protect his own people. He develops a close relationship with the people of Christmas, particularly the children.

“The Time of the Doctor” provides a fairly uneventful end to Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. The interaction between the Doctor and Clara is nice, but we expected more of an emotional punch from the regeneration. It was not fault of the actors, who gave strong performances, but the weak storyline. It was fun to see the crack from Amy’s wall reappear, giving Matt Smith’s time on Doctor Who a certain kind of continuity.

8. The End of Time, Part 1 (2009)
The 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbin)

wllfred sees churchIn “The End of Time,” the Doctor has been traveling alone, making his rounds after the prediction of his death by the Ood. The Doctor faces his old enemy the Master, who had been cremated, apparently unsuccessfully, by the Doctor in “Last of the Time Lords.” There are aspects of this episode we love, including John Simm returning as the Master, the Doctor’s pairing with Donna Noble’s grandfather Wilfred Mott, and the presence of holiday spirit, but being the first of two-part series “The End of Time” doesn’t work very well as Christmas Day episode.

In order to make the return of the Master scarier, they make him very hungry. We think that John Simm, who plays the Master in his Harold Saxon incarnation, is pretty terrifying without devouring people down to their bones. John Simm is excellent at playing a smart, funny, and frightening lunatic.

“The End of Time” takes place on Christmas Day, making it quite merry, at least at first. It starts with Wilfred in a church with a choir singing holiday songs. We see Donna and her mother opening presents as Wilfred prepares for the Queen’s speech.

Wilfred has been looking for the Doctor out of his concern for Donna since the Doctor erased her memory. The Doctor realizes there is some connection between himself and Wilfred. Meanwhile, Wilfred keeps getting messages from a mysterious woman encouraging him to help the Doctor. We get some interesting aliens in the Vinvocci, who bring create a noteworthy side plot that adds some humor. We could do without the billionaire Naismith family who find and capture the Master in order to rebuild the immortality gate. It would have made more sense if the Master’s disciples who resurrected him had the immortality gate, which might have simplified the story enough to make it one episode.

Though this is a good episode overall, it’s not necessarily strong when you think of it in terms of what makes a successful Christmas special. The biggest downfall of this episode as a Christmas special is that it is the first part of a two-part series. The Christmas special works best when we are provided closure after our Christmas dinner. Despite this, there are several parts to this episode that make it stand out. Wilfred as a companion works very well and grounds the Doctor by connecting him to characters who care about him and whom the viewer is already invested in. The writers did well providing the Doctor a caring older figure to help him through this episode and the next. Another reason to watch, or rewatch, this Christmas special is John Simm as the Master. He is an outstanding actor who can entertain us and scare us at the same time. “The End of Time” not only gives us the Master, but also gives us a glimpse of other Time Lords trapped in the time lock. Though the old series had a fair amount of interaction with other Time Lords, we have missed the arrogant and larger-than-life personalities of the Time Lords since the Doctor locked Gallifrey in the time lock to stop the Time War. If you were just introduced to the Master via Missy in Season 8, going back to watch Harold Saxon in “The Sound of the Drums,” “The Last of the Time Lords,” and the two-part series “The End of Time” sounds like a good way to spend Christmas to us.

9. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
The 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Astrid Peth (Kylie Minogue)

Angel Host and doctor pix wcVoyage of the Damned” was teased at the end of the mini-episode “Time Crash” when the TARDIS crashed into the spaceship Titanic. It was much anticipated because of guest star Kylie Minogue. This episode helped solidify Doctor Who as part of the Christmas Day tradition in Britain. Astrid Peth, played by Kylie Minogue, is only seen in this episode, making her a one-off companion, yet clearly a companion nonetheless as she tries to help the Doctor on this “sinking” ship. Though there is no sign of Donna Noble, who will become the Doctor’s companion for the fourth series, we do get a sneak peek of her grandfather Wilfred Mott when the Doctor and Astrid take a teleport trip to the earth for some sightseeing.

There are other characters we get to know in this episode besides Astrid, including Midshipman Frame, the Van Hoffs, Rickston Slade, Mr. Copper, and Bannakaffalatta. This episode has drama, but it may be a bit too serious. The funniest characters in “Voyage of the Damned” are the robot Angel Hosts. One responds to an inquiry for information by replying, “Information. You are all going to die.” The Robot Angel Hosts also say things like, “Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Information. Kill” and “Information. Now you will die.” They are pretty hilarious. The angels, and the fact the Titanic is visiting the earth to allow tourists to experience Christmas, increase the holiday spirit of this episode. It takes a while of dealing with the Angel Hosts before we actually meet the true culprit behind the impending crash, which ends up being a bit of a letdown. “Voyage of the Damned” establishes the Doctor Who Christmas special tradition of using a lot of action sequences to engage the larger-than-normal audience.

On a side note, “Voyage of the Damned” is dedicated to Verity Lambert Obe, who died a month prior to its broadcast. She had been the founding producer of Doctor Who, overseeing the first two seasons of the show. The producer’s pioneering style was one of the reasons Doctor Who became such a success.

In all its seriousness, “Voyage of the Damned” does have one of the best earnest Doctor lines: “I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old, and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?” The Doctor loses more lives than we normally come to expect in a Doctor Who episode, and he is left brokenhearted once more. The good news is that one of our characters gets a Christmas wish, and it’s snowing at the end of the episode.

Your Favorite Christmas Special

Everyone has their own individual criteria for which of the Christmas specials has the most appeal. What’s your favorite Doctor Who Christmas special? Tell us in the comments below which specials you like the best.

10 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Christmas Specials from Best to Worst

  1. Nick Frost was pretty funny and having an actual Santa character certainly provides Christmas spirit. The Doctor and Clara’s reunion seemed a bit rushed initially. Going to have a rewatch and think on it more, but overall it made me more merry. 🙂 How about you?


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