Doctor Who Christmas specials: the real blockbusters?

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. 

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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! 

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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. 

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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.

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