5 great geek TV Christmas Specials

Odd List Juliette Harrisson 18 Dec 2012 - 07:23

Juliette revisits five of the best geek TV Christmas Specials, with help from Community, Blackadder, The X-Files, and more...

This feature contains spoilers.

Like Halloween episodes, Christmas episodes tend to be restricted to contemporary settings (though I should add a shout-out to 1980s British drama sequel Another Flip for Dominick, follow-up to The Flipside of Dominick Hyde, which actually problematized the lack of Christmas in the future). Also like Halloween episodes, they tend to be comedies, horrors, or comedy-horrors. And so, Season’s Greetings from a collection of ghosts, pagan gods and people trying and failing to get through Christmas without getting embroiled in hilarious hi-jinks. 

5. The Big Bang Theory, The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis 

Which Christmas is this? Sheldon complains that he chooses not to celebrate the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but everyone ignores him and gets on with celebrating the secular side of Christmas.

There’s always a fairy… Penny has bought Sheldon and Leonard presents, forcing Sheldon to reciprocate. We probably shouldn’t let the fact she brings them over before Dave Underhill turns up, but gives Leonard a present relevant to his accident with Underhill’s motorbike, worry us.

And there’s always a Grinch. Sheldon has no interest in Christmas or presents, until he sees what Penny brought for him.

The true meaning of Christmas is… Presents! Really great presents. The DNA of Leonard Nimoy and a whole lotta bath stuff.

Happy Christmas! As a complete episode, season three’s Christmas instalment, The Maternal Congruence, is actually a better and more satisfying twenty minutes. But it’s the few minutes at the end of The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis, otherwise a relatively forgettable story about Leonard and Penny fighting over a guy, that make it so memorable and that make it a better Christmas episode. Sheldon is not a big fan of the pagan festival of Saturnalia and he’s even less keen on reciprocal gift arrangements, but when Penny gives him the DNA of Leonard Nimoy, Sheldon is so overwhelmed that he gives her half the bath shop… and he hugs her. It’s a sign of his character’s slow development that he realises that the hug (which also costs him more) will mean more to her than all the bath stuff.

Quotable: Sheldon: Do you realize what this means? All I need is a healthy ovum and I could grow my own Leonard Nimoy!

Penny: Okay, all I'm giving you is the napkin, Sheldon. 

4. Supernatural, A Very Supernatural Christmas 

Which Christmas is this? A festival of ‘pagan gods’ – the show is irritatingly unspecific concerning which particular group of pagans these ‘anti-Santa’ gods belong to. They’re not Greek or Roman, I can tell you that much.

There’s always a fairy… Dean keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to get Sam into the Christmas spirit.

And there’s always a Grinch. Sam’s not getting into the Christmas spirit at all. But his attitude pales in comparison with the anti-Santa who comes down the chimney to murder parental figures, or the scariest character in the episode, the spectacularly creepy human Santa who should never be allowed anywhere near children, ever.

The true meaning of Christmas is… death, pain, blood, mutilation and family tragedy.

Happy Christmas! A Christmas episode is the perfect setting to explore the moment Sam Winchester lost his childhood innocence and found out what his father was really out doing, and how his mother died. Since our culture has developed a slightly peculiar tradition of lying to small children and telling them that a fat man in red comes down the chimney and leaves them presents every year, only to have to reveal the truth when they get old enough to realise they don’t have a chimney, Christmas is, for most of us, associated with the loss of childhood innocence; with the moment we realised the world isn’t quite as magical as we hoped it was. Add to that Dean’s desire to celebrate Christmas one last time before his impending death, and you have all the ingredients for a moving and thematically rich Christmas episode.

Quotable: Dean (having been rebuked for swearing by the Pleasantville-style pagan goddess): You fudgin’ touch me again, I'll fudgin’ kill you! 

3. Community, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas 

Which Christmas is this? The secular side of Western Christian Christmas, but with the addition of Menorah Mountain and Jehovah’s Witness Bay.

There’s always a fairy… Troy’s friendship for Abed is such that he’ll throw himself into a magical Christmas journey even though, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But it’s Pierce, who’s also missing his mum, who makes it all the way to the end. For friendship, and for cookies.

And there’s always a Grinch. Duncan just wants to get a publication out of Abed’s case (he’s get on well with Leonard Hofstadter’s mother). The Dean is trying to be completely secular and ensure that no sentiment attached to any particular religion sneaks its way into the celebration of a Christian festival, but lets it all go at the end with a relieved cry of ‘Merry Christmas!’

The true meaning of Christmas is… the idea that Christmas has meaning. Also, lack of payoff, as symbolised by a DVD boxset of the first season of Lost.

Happy Christmas! All three of Community’s Christmas episodes are great, but this one is particularly memorable, partly for the beautifully done stop-motion animation. As viewers, we ignore the fact that Abed seems to be experiencing a pretty severe psychosis, because we know it’s all just an excuse to get everyone stop-motion animated. The animation really does feel Christmassy; once again, our Western association of the festival of Christmas with childhood, and our separate association (rightly or wrongly) of animation with childhood means this is a perfect marriage of message and medium (even more so for anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s specials being homaged here). Plus, everyone gets to go on a gorgeously elaborate magical Christmas journey, complete with a Cave of Frozen Memories that looks distinctly like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. 

Even more importantly, this episode also gets to the heart of the meaning of TV-Christmas. If we take the secular elements of Western Christmas away from any religious meaning (relating to Jesus, the Roman god Saturn, the god Mithras or any other deity) what are we left with? Thanks in part to Charles Dickens, we tend to focus on kindness, charity and goodwill to all men. Christmas is also thought of as a time for family, especially over here in Europe where we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. But ultimately, if you take out the religion, what we’re left with is that the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has any deeper ‘meaning’ at all. Thanks Lost.

Quotable: Abed (singing): Sad quick Christmas song, sad quick Christmas snowman, tragic day gone wrong, sad quick Christmas song. 

2. The X-Files, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas 

Which Christmas is this? Christian (Catholic variety) presumably, since Scully seems to be the only person in a hurry to celebrate it.

There’s always a fairy… Scully keeps protesting that she wants to go and celebrate Christmas with her family, but she makes time to exchange presents with Mulder as well.

And there’s always a Grinch. The titular ghosts, of course, who like to drive young couples to murder each other on Christmas Eve. There’s no discernible reason why they do this: they just seem to get a kick out of it.

The true meaning of Christmas is… True love. Your own, possibly at the expense of other people’s.

Happy Christmas! There’s a tradition – probably dating back, like ninety percent of our modern Christmas traditions, to Charles Dickens – of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Christmas is even darker, on a literal level, than Halloween and softly lit houses, warmth against the cold, good food and plenty of time to spare offers the perfect opportunity to share some spooky tales. And so, this season six episode of The X-Files offers a Christmas-themed traditional haunted house story. It’s a shame that Scully has to turn into a screaming, fainting stereotype (the woman’s been abducted by aliens but screams like a little girl at the sight of a ghost?) but it’s a fun episode. There’s no real reason the ghosts, who died young, should have aged either, but somehow their age emphasises the eternity of their love in a way no amount of fresh-faced moping in vampire fiction has ever managed. 

The ghosts choose Christmas to finish off any couple unfortunate enough to move into their house not just because it’s the anniversary of their own murder-suicide, but because it’s the loneliest, most miserable time of year. As a result, poor Mulder is the perfect target for them. It takes Scully the length of the episode to realise that Mulder’s family has been disintegrating at an even faster rate than hers over the course of the series, and he has no one to spend Christmas with but her – which, of course, he’s too proud to say, instead stealing her car keys so she’s forced to explore the house with him. Ultimately, it’s the sweet scenes between Mulder and Scully that really make the episode – they’re pretty simple, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but done well and with heart.

Quotable: Lydia (to Mulder): I don’t show my hole to just anyone. 

1. Blackadder, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol 

Which Christmas is this? The traditional Victorian Christmas, though focused on the more secular aspects of it – Prince George feels that the story of Jesus is too much of a downer and spoils the Xmas atmos.

There’s always a fairy… Ebenezer Blackadder opens the episode full of the joy of Christmas. Prince Albert is also a fan, particularly of surprise presents. And of spoiling them and burying his face in his wife’s ample bosom in remorse.

And there’s always a Grinch. Baldrick has nothing against Christmas, but observes that theirs is, once again, going to be pretty miserable. Meanwhile, generations of Blackadders simply use the festive season to steal from their colleagues, punch their colleagues and in extreme cases have their colleagues’ heads chopped off.

The true meaning of Christmas is… Bad guys have all the fun. To get ahead, it’s best to be as mean, callous and sneaky as possible. Unless Queen Victoria turns up on your doorstep.

Happy Christmas! The number of A Christmas Carol rip-offs that pop up in television series of all genres is countless. Like that other holiday favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life, the story has been adapted and re-adapted until we all know every beat of every version off by heart. The trouble with A Christmas Carol is that, whereas It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t have to take place at Christmas and can be adapted to suit the circumstances of each character in each show (since they all have completely different life stories and inhabit different worlds), A Christmas Carol is basically the same story over and over and over again. Sure, sometimes the financial aspect gets left out in favour of general cold-heartedness, but the story of a (nearly always male) miserable old meanie who’s reminded of the meaning of Christmas by references to his past, present and future is just repeated and repeated in slightly different contexts, ad infinitum. 

Not so on Blackadder. Only Blackadder could get away with a complete inversion of A Christmas Carol, in which a kindly and generous man who loves Christmas learns, via examples from his ancestors and descendants, that actually it’s the mean, the ruthless and the greedy who get ahead in life (which is probably true – after all, Scrooge changed in the hopes of reaping spiritual rewards, not material ones). Granted, Ebenezer Blackadder isn’t just kind, he is, as Baldrick puts it, a ‘gullible prat,’ and he would have been fine if he’d stuck to just helping those genuinely in need, rather than giving his all his money to Mrs Scratchit so she can feed Tiny Tom, who’s ‘fifteen stone and built like a brick privy.’ But still, the reversal of the old, tired tale is very refreshing. 

Of course, the other thing that lifts this version is the use of Blackadder’s ancestors, i.e. the characters from Blackadders II and III, in place of his own youth. It’s the perfect way to incorporate both the more successful series into the special (which predates Blackadder Goes Forth; a shame, as they could have covered the 1914 Christmas truce). And then it’s all topped off with a gloriously 1980s-style future that looks like the love child of Classic Doctor Who and the TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which, thanks to Ebenezer’s change of heart, Blackadder finally starts moving up in the world, instead of down (each series as we went forward in time, he moved down the social scale, until the final special Back and Forth). Ebenezer may miss out on being given a fortune by Queen Victoria, but thanks to him, his descendant realises the Blackadder line’s collective dream of becoming ruler of the universe.

Quotable: Prince George: I mean, for heaven's sake! What can I possibly do with a girl that I can't do with you, eh?

Blackadder: I cannot conceive. 

Bubbling under: All the Doctor Who Christmas specials, because, in my opinion, they’re all a bit pants. The Runaway Bride is okay, and A Christmas Carol might be if it wasn’t a) yet another remake of A Christmas Carol and didn’t b) feature a flying shark. The best Christmas episode of New Who is actually The Unquiet Dead, which, according to a reference in the later The Unicorn and the Wasp, takes place at Christmas-time. In other shows, the most recent episode of The Vampire Diaries, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, features a rather wonderfully done heart-ripping murder sequence that will ensure you can never hear O Holy Night in the same way ever again, but otherwise fails really to make use of the Christmas setting beyond it being yet another fancy social occasion in Mystic Falls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Amends, on the other hand, goes a bit too far and uses a Christmas miracle to cover up the lack of a proper explanation for some of season three’s major plot developments. Naughty Whedon, no biscuit! 

Happy Saturnalia everyone!

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Those are terrible reasons to dismiss a Christmas Carol!

2 of my favourite Christmas specials in recent years were Eureka (the one where they all turned into animated characters and puppets) and Warehouse 13 (the Its a Wonderful Life story). Both of these managed to feel like actual episodes of the show rather than the more common result with these things of the actors dressing up in Christmas fancy dress and mucking about for an episode.

The real one or the Doctor Who version?! My favourite real one is the Muppets' version. The Doctor Who one was fun, but I've seen the story too many times, and flying sharks are just a step too far for me I'm afraid!

I was gonna mention Warehouse 13 too!

I really liked the DW ACC but I'm with Juliette on this one - the flying fish seemed terribly out of place!

The Real Ghostbusters did a lovely (and different) take on A Christmas Carol, by accidentally busting the three ghosts and showing what would happen if Scrooge went on being a miser (and not just, you know, dying).

I absolutely LOVE the Doctor Who Christmas Carol, it's by far the best christmas episode. I also like Voyage of the Damned though. The problem with most of them is that they tend to have pretty much NOTHING to do with Christmas.

Humbug. Humbug! Humbug, Mr Baldrick?

Aaaaactually there are two meanings behind Christmas in Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas. Most people only take away the 'Lack of pay-off' one, but it is also later said that Christmas is 'What you make of it yourself' as well.

Damon Lindelof initially jumped at Dan Harmon before Harmon revealed his love of Lost and reinfoced the double meaning.

I'm not usually a psycho on the internet, but where the quality of Lost is challenged, there I shall be, on the rooftops ready to strike any who dare harm it.

My personal favorite - "Midnight of the Century" - the Christmas episode of season 2 of MILLENNIUM, with a great performance by Lance Henriksen as he grimly tries to get through a Christmas with no Millennium Project cases, but only the prospect of a Christmas without his now-separated wife and daughter. Great touches of bizarre humor enliven the downbeat proceedings (with a chilly soundtrack from Tchaikovsky), including condescending toy store clerks, and Frank's always enjoyable, sometimes-sidekick uber-geek Roedecker offering him an unexpected (and unreciprocated) gift of a set of Christmas slasher films. This episode is a great bookend to the same season's Halloween episode, "The Curse of Frank Black," in which Frank's Blakeian visions of demons and ghosts tempted him to despair in the face of loneliness and past and current misfortunes.

In "Midnight of the Century," Frank's attempts to deal with the collapse of his marriage, his childhood memories of his mother's suicide, his daughter's emerging psychic gifts, and meetings in churchyards with angels and revenant ghosts finally lead him to a reconciliation with his long-estranged father, another wonderful performance by Darren McGavin.

I would say the idea that Christmas has meaning, i.e. that it is what you make of it yourself, is by far the more important of the two in this episode - which is why I mentioned it first.

The Doctor who version of a Christmas Carol would be okay without a) the fact it's a remake of 'A Christmas Carol' and B) the flying shark?
I hope you're being sarcastic, because thats essentialy the episode in a nutshell. Without it it would be an hour of the Doctor changing the bulb on the TARDIS!

How the Ghost Stole Christmas is probably in my bottom ten episodes from the nine seasons - in fact no, bottom five - no dammit its the worst one ever. Awful.

Out of place in the realistic kitchen sink drama that is Dr Who...

"The best Christmas episode of New Who is actually The Unquiet Dead, which, according to a reference in the later The Unicorn and the Wasp, takes place at Christmas-time."

I would like to point out that there is a simpler way to know that The Unquiet Dead takes place on Christmas. The episode flat out tells you in the beginning.

No - out of place in a pseudo Victorian steampunk world. Like, one might say, a fish out of water.

They are, but the flying fish are really secondary to the story and serve no real purpose. They are naff but inoffensive.

Indeed - hence me still liking the episode despite this - not worth getting worked up about

Doctor Who *thrives* on putting things out of place, indeed that is it's raison d'etre. Put something ancient into a modern setting or vice versa, aliens on to earth or earthlings onto alien planets.
As for Juliette, yes, the Doctor Who one which was a great twist on the tale, very different emphasis, and the sharks were entirely secondary (I take issue with no effort being made to make them appear more bird like, and with the sleigh ride, but they were a secondary element to the episode and there was nothing wrong with the idea).
#3 I would have put at #2, and the then bottom 3 I wouldn't have been very fussed about removing entirely.

I enjoyed the Supernatural Christmas episode all the more because it seemed to go against the grain of most of the other CW shows. Instead of rich, materialistic, overprivileged twentysomethings, you had two financially strapped brothers exchanging gifts like candy bars and motor oil. That was such a sweet episode.

Hey Mister. For a moment there, I was thinking that I must have a special one-of-a-kind DVD version of "Unquiet Dead". That mine mentions Christmas while no one else has a version that does. Then there's my memory of the mention during the initial telecast of the episode. (Did anyone else see the built-up snow on the TARDIS float away when the ship dematerialized? Was that a wonderful special effect - or was I the only one who saw it?)

The episode title as well wouldn't have made much sense if it didn't have anything to do with A Christmas Carol!

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