Doctor Who Christmas specials: the real blockbusters?

Feature Mark Harrison 14 Dec 2012 - 07:30

Mark reflects on the changing nature of the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and their growing role as the true festive blockbusters...

Christmas is approaching, and it's heartening to know that some are still taking their red pens to television listings magazines and planning their viewing. With the festive season comes The Snowmen, a new Doctor Who special, and the sixth episode of the seventh series, airing in its traditional Christmas evening slot. 

Amongst the film premieres appearing on the BBC over the festive period are such recent hits as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol, and animated favourites like Up and How to Train Your Dragon. As usual, most of the films appearing on the big channels for the first time are getting on for the three year anniversary of their release in the cinema. 

By contrast, the digital movie channels typically offer a more recent range of films this Christmas, even though they regularly premiere very recent releases throughout the year. If you haven't seen Up on a digital channel, you'll either have seen it on DVD or Blu-ray, seen it in the cinema first time around, or you simply don't want to see it. 

The home entertainment market has long since changed the former excitement of movie scheduling on terrestrial television. Readers as young as myself won't remember when BBC One attracted 17.5 million viewers with its premiere of E.T. on Christmas Day 1990, or the annual ritual of Bond movie premieres on ITV. I've been told about both by parents and grandparents, after unwrapping a Blu-ray of a film I only saw in the cinema a few months prior. 

What does this have to do with Doctor Who's annual Christmas special? Since the 2005 revival, the special has become a fixture in BBC One's Christmas Day schedule. I can still remember the year that The Christmas Invasion aired, and how I spent the day, and the week leading up to it, excited about seeing what the Tenth Doctor was going to be all about. 

The big Christmas afternoon movie premieres on BBC One in 2005 were 1999's Toy Story 2 and 2001's Shrek, both films that I owned on VHS or DVD, and had seen many times before that day. I still watched them, sure, but Doctor Who was event viewing. 

Even in this age of television being available on demand, Doctor Who is appointment viewing all year around, but at Christmas, it's often designed to be even bigger. And crucially, unlike the films, some of which you might even have been gifted with on DVD up to several Christmases before they land on telly, you can guarantee that you haven't seen the Doctor Who Christmas special yet. 

In the Russell T. Davies era in particular, you can see how they've been designed as the kind of mini-blockbuster that Steven Moffat now wants to create every week in the regular series. The Christmas Invasion, as mentioned, was the first full episode to feature David Tennant's Tenth Doctor, and it takes place against the backdrop of another full-scale invasion of present-day Earth. 

Even the title feels like a big movie concept. Subsequent specials actually nicked titles from movies themselves, like The Runaway Bride (which was mercifully very different to the Richard Gere-Julia Roberts romcom vehicle) and Voyage of the Damned. The Runaway Bride also delighted in having a big guest star, in the form of future companion Catherine Tate, and big setpieces, such as the TARDIS chase and the draining of the Thames. 

The latter of those would actually be rehashed in the following summer's Fantastic Four sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, so aside from outshining some of the big movie coups in the Christmas TV schedules, Doctor Who Christmas specials have actually jumped the gun on films that haven't even been released! 

For my money, the best Christmas special thus far is 2007's Voyage of the Damned. And I mean the best special, if not the best episode. Davies tackles the disaster movie genre with gusto, and creates a ripping, action-packed adventure that also boils down to one audacious logline; “the Titanic, in space!” 

It's got a huge guest star, in the form of the surprisingly good Kylie Minogue, and it evokes memories of The Poseidon Adventure in all the right ways. It's an episode that comes in for quite a bit of undue flak, considering how it perfectly sums up the idea of these episodes being so big as to rival the movie premieres. If you think it's too cheesy, you're not looking at how cheesy Doctor Who can be during the rest of the year! 

2008's outing, The Next Doctor, was the first of the specials leading up to David Tennant's exit from the show, with another following in 2009. With lots of publicity friendly speculation about David Morrissey, and that title, there was as much anticipation brewing as for any contemporary blockbuster. Still, the bombastic spectacle of Cybermen and giant robots was tempered by the truth behind Morrissey's character Jackson Lake, and the mental fugue into which he had lapsed. 

I would see The Next Doctor as the exception that proves the rule of Doctor Who Christmas specials. One of Davies' main talents as a writer and producer on Doctor Who was to make the massive, yet potentially distant sci-fi elements integral to a relatable human relationship, and in his Christmas episodes, he usually pulled out all of the stops. That was certainly the case in the following year's Christmas/New Year twofer, The End of Time, Parts One and Two

Just as David Tennant's Doctor had arrived on Christmas Day, he reached the end of his adventures around the same time, coinciding with the same massive ident campaign that honoured Wallace and Gromit for A Matter of Loaf and Death, in 2008. For better or worse, nobody watching BBC One that Christmas could fail to notice that Doctor Who was the main attraction in the channel's schedule. 

With the transition from Davies to Moffat in the writer's chair transpiring just as Matt Smith materialised in Tennant's suit and trainers in The End of Time, Part Two, so began a transition in style, especially where the Christmas specials were concerned. Moffat's first Christmas episode was his warmly received take on A Christmas Carol, which drew on his own short story Continuity Errors, by showing the Doctor changing a miser's personal history, and future, in order to save the day, at Christmas. 

This year's first showing of Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol reminds us, if any reminder is needed, that we've seen many versions of Charles Dickens' classic Christmas tale, which has arguably become as iconic a festive story as that of the Nativity. Couple 2010's A Christmas Carol with 2011's The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe, and the blockbuster trend that we can discern from Moffat's Christmas specials is actually that of adaptations and remakes. 

Doctor Who is no stranger to creatively borrowing from other sources, but perhaps the disappointment with last year's outing comes down to the fact that it doesn't feel like a big deal. It feels ordinary, or as ordinary as Doctor Who can ever feel. The reference to Narnia doesn't really go much further than the title, and the story itself doesn't feel particularly special, featuring a lot the familiar character and plot tropes. 

While you can't always guarantee that the Doctor Who Christmas specials will be the most stunningly original episodes you'll see, you can at least be sure that you haven't seen them yet, amidst a schedule of repeats and slightly late Christmas movie premieres. 

If Moffat's efforts have disappointed some viewers thus far, then don't forget how Davies structured his specials around landmark events that would go on to affect the series proper. While The Snowmen (a title that's surely only a hop and a skip away from being borrowed from another festive film) is bringing back characters we've already seen, and the snowmen are slightly reminiscent of other monsters, it will also mark the proper arrival of Jenna Louise Coleman as the Doctor's companion. Now, there's a premiere for you.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

This is a fairly toothless article unfortunately. You don't actually seem to 'consider' anything, merely stating what happened in a few of the stories. In general, DoG has been getting better at this, but occasionally there's the odd article which just seems to have absolutely no point.

There should be a throughline, a very basic thing that you're asking about the topic you're discussing, and then addressing the elements. For example, 'What makes a Doctor Who Christmas Special', or 'What should it be' or 'which is the best' or 'what can they do next' or 'where did it go wrong' or 'why Christmas anyway?'. Some of those would be interesting, since you've acknowledged that last year's was met with some disappointment, and that Voyage of the Damned received some flak too. But others get barely a mention; you mention elements of A Christmas Carol, but you don't actually comment on its success. The Next Doctor gets a single, incredibly vague, sentence to define it!! What's the question of this article? Because you certainly don't have an answer by the end.

I'm not sure the article is intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Doctor Who's Christmas specials so far but it does make the point that new Doctor Who at Christmas is event television,creatively comparable with genre movies with more money and time afforded to their production .Recently,i rewatched last years special and while i agree that the story wasn't of the standard that Moffat usually produces as it has nowhere near enough action set pieces and a plot that defies credibility,i actually enjoyed it and feel it's sort of important to acknowledge how difficult Christmas can be for families greiving after loss and it was entirely appropriate considering the recent deaths of people involved in Doctor Who's production.The thing about the story that works for me is that the Doctor realises after what happens how important it is ,that he let's Amy and Rory know at Christmas that things aren't as they appear and he isn't dead.As a character piece and a Christmas story,i do like it but it wasn't good Doctor Who.

hehehheheh which is best, what can they do next, where did it go wrong, or why christmas anyway....
Reminded me of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Who is God, Where God Went Wrong, and Who is this God person anyway....
Anyway if your not riffing from Hitchhikers, sorry and all valid points. For my money all the Christmas Specials have been pretty poor, apart from the Christmas Invasion. And that hardly has the Doctor in it, until about 15 minutes from the end.
Looking at the stuff on the Snowmen, I am hoping this year will be the best one yet as it has a new companion, and a new Tardis interior and they are keeping the shoe horning in of Christmas in the back ground for the most part.
Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men / women, Daleks and Timelords....

I agree with Raymond Adamson , DW Christmas Specials should align themselves with the THEMES of Christmas, rather than just the basic tropes, like sleighbells in the theme or something. Christmas, despite all the commercialism that we inevitably contribute to, bears a lot of meaning to a lot of people. It's a holy and festive time, where people take a good look at their relationships and personal sense of good. The Doctor is trying to do good ALL YEAR LONG, so why not reflect the spirit of Christmas in the special, instead of "shoe-horning" the practices themselves

Great article, though!

I wasn't, but good call.

Actually I really disliked The Christmas Invasion for various reasons. My favourite Tennant ones were probably The End of Time Part One and (despite Catherine Tate) The Runaway Bride, as RTD's oversentimentality seemed fairly well diluted in them. But beating them by a mile for me was A Christmas Carol, as it had an exciting plot, a fascinating character arc (admittedly lifted from Dickens, but beautifully realised) and some truly spectacular twists on one of the greatest novels of all time. And it felt just so very Christmassy in style, without needing Santa Clauses or angels or anything.

I too am excited about this year's. Definitely looking forward to the new TARDIS interior, although I'm a bit skeptical about the companion (not that she's not a very good actress, but if she's anything like she was in Asylum of the Daleks she'll be a very typical Moffat female lead, like River, (to an extent Amy) and a whole host of one-off characters before her. Fast talking, consistently flirty, almost infallible, and very smug.

As long as I NEVER have to witness a flying shark again...

Voyage of the Damned..

The Doctor lies everyone dies.

There are actually significant differences character ~wise between River Song and her mother.River is much less altruistic than Amy and the Doctor going from the lack of care and consideration to Miss Evangelista in the library.She was well aware how stupid she was and how much danger they were in but she just left her to die.I suppose that lack of interest in helping the helpless has a lot to do with what happened to her as a child.River is always portrayed as a femme fatale when she appears and always comes with trouble and her own agenda.She's slightly selfish but the Doctor loves her anyway because she's so mysterious and he knows how much she loves him.I think a few of the female characters Moffat has written like Nancy,Sally Sparrow ,Donna Noble and even Amy sometimes have also had a quality of vulnerability,at least to me.Moffat has a bit of an obligation to ensure that the female lead is a bit of a role model for young girls and women watching the programme now,so ,to a certain extent she's got to be as intelligent ,curious and brave as the Doctor.

I almost considered giving up on Doctor Who after Voyage of the Damned. Some semi-decent bits but way too much corny stuff. I notice there aren't many RTD-era references in Doctor Who nowadays, and after a spaceship built to look like a replica of the Titanic almost crashing into Buckingham Palace it's not hard to see why.

"Christmas Invasion" is top on my list of the specials. This is perhaps a good place to comment on a commercial that is playing here in the states. It's for the Target Department Stores. A little girl is sneaking a look at wrapped gifts in a Target bag in her parents closet. She accidentally tips the bag over and the gifts fall out. She looks into the bag and then crawls through it into a wondrous wintry, Christmasy world of Target merchandise. I can't help but wonder if someone at Target's ad agency is a Doctor Who fan!

I cant say that any of the Christmas Specials has really grabbed me. The abomination last year was a waste of an hour I ll never get back whilst the year before was nice to look at but like most of the specials, hollow and vacuous. I went to the press screening of A Christmas Carol and sat next to an ex DG of the BBC. At the end he muttered "Yet another shite Doctor Who Christmas episode" which pretty much summed it up for me.

When the show is on top form it gives us marvellous episodes and yet December 25th seems to be an excuse for twee and in some ways insulting stories. WHY does a Christmas Special have to be set at Christmas EVERY BLOODY YEAR??? Why not a really good episode that just happens to go out on that day? Other shows do, I know but some don't (Only Fools and Horses rarely set their specials on or around Dec 25 and got huge audiences)

allow me: it was a glorified advert for The Snowmen - don't watch the other films and the specials weren't that bad

why is VOTD ribbed? Doc Who isn't meant to be realistic!

It's meant to walk a fine line that lets you suspend disbelief for 45mins/ an hour. Realistic or not, the show is better when it walks that line. Also VOTD was terrible

i dont mean to rip on doctor who but they are really killing this show, before you had things on other planets, time lords, aliens, cool creatures. Now its all on earth and too unrealistic to have that shred of beliefe that you need with this show,

i mean come on writers. the universe is MASSIVE, mess with our imagination a bit maby do something with the 2012 theories like planet nyburu comes into our solar system and it turns out the planet has actually fallen from a parallel universe......not talking snow men! -.-

Disappointed that you aren't enjoying the programme as much as i am,Gianni.Most of Moffat's stories have tended to include visits to alien planets.Amy and River went to Alfava Metraxis with the Doctor in Time of Angels.The Doctor and Amy visited Planet One in The Pandorica Opens and the electric chess contest in The Wedding of River Song happened on another planet,i think.I don't think the Maldovarium was on Earth either.Sardicktown in A Christmas Carol was a different planet too.There was also Skaro and the Asylum last year. There is an entire story set on an alien planet next year. Have to disagree with your opinion that Doctor Who could be improved with more time lords.

Mark: you must be either ebenezer scrooge, or a muslim.

I cant help it. I just dont enjoy doctor who as much as I use to. I dont know whats changed for me, I almost gave up on Steven moffat until I saw how brilliant "Sherlock" is. I just feel that although Doctor who is mainly a childs show, they are making it to obviously for children. When RD use to write it, I could sit down and the whole family could watch it. Now it just seems a bit silly (Like the dinosaurs on the spaceship, what was THAT about?) The only episode i truly enjoyed of the last series was the finale where Amy and Rory left, and I only enjoyed that as much because of River. I know i sound moany and people will just say that Doctor Who is targeted for children so what do you expect, but i just dont look forward to watching it as much as i use to.

You should really enjoy the Christmas special though as Moffat is replacing Benedict Cumberbatch with a silurian and her lesbian maid because he's gone off to make a couple of films.He'll be moaning about it all next year because of the indignity.

I take it you are a dick then?

Sponsored Links