Doctor Who Christmas Specials: are they getting nerdier?

Are Steven Moffat's Doctor Who Christmas Specials more complex and continuity-filled than those of the Russell T Davies era?

This festive season, friends of Den of Geek have laid further troubles on our already tired minds.

‘What did you think of Doctor Who?’ we asked them.

‘Oh it was really good,’ they said. ‘Capaldi was ace.’

‘No, he was the Doctor.’

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‘What?’

‘Never mind. So are you looking forward to the Christmas one then?’

‘Nah. It got a bit too nerdy last year.’

Still, it’s not like people didn’t warn us about the whole friendship thing.

By ‘nerdier’, we assume they mean that The Time Of The Doctor involved multiple plot strands from previous series and episodes, and was not made with casual viewers in mind. With the action flowing from season finale to seasonal spectacular, the Doctor Who Christmas specials have never been entirely free from continuity, but they’ve never involved quite as dense a conveyance of information as last year’s Matt Smith swan song. Do our friends have a point? Is it likely that Last Christmas will also require nerd-like focus?

Possibly, but we’d suspect not. There are two reasons for The Time Of The Doctor‘s relative complexity.

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One is that audiences are changing. Doctor Who has traditionally picked up passionate fans who soak up the mythology and storylines, and now it’s easier than ever to watch the show multiple times with on-demand services, improved recording technology and regular repeats before the DVD is even released. All you needed to watch The Time Of The Doctor again immediately was an internet connection and a computer. Steven Moffat has, for series 6 and 7, written stories that not only invite rewatching, but almost require it. You’d be forgiven for thinking the Christmas Specials would go in a similar direction.

However, the other reason for The Time Of The Doctor being packed full of continuity, is that Matt Smith was leaving, and for whatever reason they only had one episode in which to tie up the loose ends of his era. Any other year, they probably could have stretched to a two-parter and eased the burden on the casual viewer (The End Of Time wasn’t especially forgiving on them either, but it at least had time to spread out its exposition), but in the 50th anniversary year, perhaps it had to be this way. Maybe the budget was spent. In hindsight, another single 75 minute episode might well have been more suitable than a two-parter anyway.

Previously, Christmas Specials were more accommodating to their situation. Yes, they followed plot strands from previous episodes, but they also acknowledged the audience’s tendency to be somewhat bloated on Merlot and sprouts. As a result, the specials tended to err towards superficial entertainment. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s entirely sensible given the circumstances to go for big visuals and broad gags. Anyway, it’s not like the previous entries were depth-free. The Christmas Specials do have a reputation, though: they’re on the silly side, gleefully so, full of spectacle and sealed in their own little logic universes.

As a first of its kind, The Christmas Invasion stands out slightly. As a new Doctor tale, it has to set up the Tenth Doctor and so doesn’t tell what would become the more traditional style of delirious dark romp. It does, though, carry on from Series 1’s finale and features returning characters and organisations from Aliens Of London/World War Three. Already, the show is referencing itself, and so the longer it goes on, the more it can do so (see the eighties for details). The references are, as the series goes on, getting more nerdy, because there’s an expectation that the audience will either get it or ignore it.

The Christmas Specials also became the time to reveal more mythology to new viewers, with Gallifrey being mentioned for the first time in The Runaway Bride in a dramatic and well-earned moment towards the end, and Kasterborous being mentioned for the first time in Voyage Of The Damned in a gratuitous and for-the-hell-of-it moment near the start. For both of these, the previous episode leads into the story, but the Special doesn’t hinge the viewer having watched it. Once the credits rolled for Voyage Of The Damned we knew that this was the way things would be: a standalone finale imbued with pantomime spirit, and an interesting glimpse of what Doctor Who probably looks like to everyone else.

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A Christmas Carol – Steven Moffat’s first festive special – continued Russell T. Davies’ trend of big stars with an incursion of the odd into a Christmassy backdrop. First they came for present day London, and we said nothing. Then they came for Victorian London, and we complained because surely someone would write this down? Then they came for hyper-real fairy tale settings, and we said ‘Bill Bailey was underused.’ He was, though.

Last Christmas seems likely to continue (and possibly finish) Clara’s adventures. Given everything she’s been through, there’s scope for an in-depth examination of her time on board on TARDIS. Things could get intricate. However, our friend’s fears seem unfounded despite last year. The Time Of The Doctor had a mixed reception, even on its own terms. It wasn’t trying to be accessible, and it was going to be hard to wrap up the plot strands Steven Moffat wanted to in a simple way while also incorporating Christmas. It’s unlikely that such a finale will be compressed into one episode when two episodes are available, as with The End Of Time.

Imagine, for whatever reason, The End Of Time needed to be an hour long. This was, like The Time Of The Doctor, the end of an era, and one that had been a success. So, it wasn’t really one to watch without your Dad asking questions, but it was never going to be. These episodes are anomalous in many ways, and mostly the Doctor Who Christmas specials have been consistent in their approach.

Besides, Series 8 saw the series becoming character-driven, with the plots still carried over being simple ones. It’d be surprising to change this for one of the show’s most widely watched episodes of the year, especially when there is no pressing need to cram continuity exposition into place.

If anything, we’d anticipate Last Christmas to be more akin to The Snowmen – something that carries on plot strands, but can be viewed in isolation through a haze of red booze and dead bird ingestion. So, have a Merry Christmas, get some more booze, and stand down from Wikipedia duty.