Wahey, it’s Christmas. Time to celebrate by ranking television designed to air when everyone is drunk or angry or asleep or all three. This is exactly what Jesus would have wanted.
The Doctor Who Festive Specials have been part of the BBC’s Christmas and New Year’s Day line-up since 2005 – times when there’s something of a captive audience who might not normally watch the show. Unlike the 1965 Christmas Day episode, the hope is that they’ll attract a broader audience. Some episodes are more forgiving for casual viewers than others. Some episodes will garner the ultimate praise from your father-in-law: complete silence for the duration followed by ‘That was rather good’. Some episodes make absolutely no sense to anyone who only watches at Christmas.
Including Chris Chibnall’s three New Year specials (but not ‘Spyfall’ because it’s a series opener rather than a one-off special episode) brings us to 16 stories, five by Russell T. Davies and eight by Steven Moffat. Broadly speaking, Chibnall does a shoot ‘em up with Daleks, Davies grounds things somewhere recognisable, and Moffat looks to the stories that surround Christmas. The latter two approaches, despite their differences, nag at a fundamental truth: Everyone that you love is one day going to die.
Perfect Christmas telly.
16. The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Farren Blackburn.
Here’s a story that simultaneously tries to attempt too much while not a lot actually happens. The opening third is quite amiable, with the Doctor meeting Claire Skinner’s Madge Arwell just before World War Two and Madge calmly dealing with the Doctor’s ridiculousness in a kind and patient way. The scenes of the Doctor trying to salvage Christmas after Madge’s husband dies (and she hasn’t told her children) are bittersweet, with the potential for wonder as the children discover a snow-covered forest out of European folklore. The contrast between the Doctor as someone who installs lemonade taps and the man who delivers the line ‘Because they’ll be sad later’ is extremely effective.
However, it takes a long time to arrive at the crisis point of the story, when Madge follows her children and the Doctor into a forest about to be doused in acid, and the forest itself attempts to escape and needs a host to do so. The resolution is poor, with Madge ultimately becoming the forest’s host (there’s a fair bit of ‘The Forest of the Night’ about this one).
Moffat perhaps felt that he was writing a salute to mothers, praising them for unthanked and difficult work, but doesn’t challenge why this happens, and reduces women to their capacity to reproduce (the hosting interface refuses to accept the Doctor or Madge’s son, but will accept Madge and her daughter because they are ‘strong’, i.e., fertile). There are other kinds of strength, essentially, and no matter how well-intentioned the message, it’s at best uncomfortable. Coupled with Madge’s husband wooing her by following her home repeatedly, then you have a five-minute burst of red flags that sour the ending. It’s an already uneven episode due to a crescendo being reached, obscuring the conflicting emotions, so the children learning that their father is dead – and then isn’t – is lost in the mix.
This one’s certainly not without its positives, and you can see how some of the ideas here could combine well, but unlike Madge’s husband, it doesn’t stick the landing.
15. Revolution of the Daleks (2021)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Lee Haven Jones.
This is an episode of Doctor Who. It passes the time. There’s a neat resolution with the Doctor tricking the Daleks into the spare TARDIS from the previous story and activating the self-destruct. It briefly presents some ideas that you could engage with in your spare time, if you want. Ryan and Graham leave as Ryan has been spooked by his TARDIS travels and wants to dedicate himself to activism, although they seem more like they’re going to be Torchwood on a budget. Speaking of which Captain Jack is technically in it. That’s about it really. It’s fine.
14. Resolution (2019)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Wayne Yip.
This one’s a visually impressive episode that relies heavily on pyrotechnics: if you want to see a Dalek blow up some army vehicles and kill soldiers then this is the story for you. Unlike 2005’s ‘Dalek’ – another story using a lone Dalek to reintroduce them to the series – these deaths have no emotional impact, the Doctor isn’t present or made to feel them. The Thirteenth Doctor also meets a Dalek for the first time, and it lacks that spark you’d hope for (she’s much better talking to Ryan’s Dad). There’s also the issue of the entire story kicking off because a Dalek is destroyed in Medieval England and it’s decided, rather than putting it in the massive fire that’s blazing behind everybody, to cut it up into three parts and distribute it around the globe.
Nonetheless, it’s diverting enough. The first half is promising, despite the inciting incident. The visuals of the Dalek mutant possessing Charlotte Richie are lifted right out of ‘Planet of the Spiders’, but it’s the most effective part of the story because we’re given a reason to care about Richie’s character and she plays the awareness of being possessed very well.
13. The Next Doctor (2008)
Written by Russell T. Davies. Directed by Andy Goddard.
Without the publicity over David Morrissey potentially being the next Doctor that surrounded it at the time, it’s easier to appreciate what works in this story without that distraction. What we get is a decent but insubstantial adventure for most of its run time, and then an underwhelming ending.
Morrissey is suitably Doctor-ish in his decoy mode, with Dervla Kirwan providing a memorable one-off villain (delivering a joke about erections with the level of skill required in a family show featuring attempted infanticide). The Cybermen, meanwhile, are here as spectacle rather than substance, but no-one has come close to giving them dialogue as funny as Russell T. Davies’. Does the ending work? No, but at least it doesn’t work quickly.
12. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
Written by Russell T. Davies. Directed by James Strong.
Thanks to Doctor Who being an unstoppable juggernaut at this stage, the most popular Doctor in decades was joined by actual Kylie Minogue for this Christmas Special riffing on disaster movies. The star wattage brought high viewing figures, and while ‘Voyage of the Damned’ pushed the show into as blockbuster-a-shape as possible at the time, it feels best enjoyed now as a ridiculous horror. Davies, as ever, delights in the dynamic shifts between tones, blurring the joins, so we get a swanky Cruise Liner and colourful characters, boo-hiss villains and plucky youngsters with stars in their eyes, and then most of them die horribly because Geoffrey Palmer has done a gravitas.
To be fair, a very significant portion of the audience enjoy David Tennant reading the Doctor’s Wikipedia bio in slow motion while sparks fly behind him, or David Tennant being carried on high by robotic angels, or David Tennant looking distraught as Kylie Minogue turns into stardust. You can take it seriously or acknowledge that the villain turning out to be just a businessman’s head on the Cyber Controller’s old seat – gurning as Kylie pushes his industrial wheelchair off a precipice in a forklift – is camp as balls. This is before we’ve even got to the Doctor flying a spaceship version of the Titanic away from Buckingham Palace as the Queen shouts thanks to him. Just typing this is making me feel drunk, and as a big Christmas Day slice of nonsense this is heady, heady stuff.
11. Eve of the Daleks (2022)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Annetta Laufer.
Chris Chibnall’s first two New Year Specials went for impressive visuals but were largely hollow beneath the spectacle. Here, with a smaller cast and enclosed location, the constraints work to the story’s benefit: we have a focussed Dalek threat, and the reactions of their victims remind you that they can be weird and scary rather than a known quantity. Using the decaying time loop maintains the story and there’s a strong sense of unease about how everyone will get out of this one. Not for the first time in Doctor Who there’s a romance subplot going on which has a number of red flags being raised, and if we’re being honest probably not for the last time either.
10. The Snowmen (2012)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Saul Metzstein.
Another Moffat-era special that’s very endearing and fantastical to begin with, but struggles with its ending. There are also the minor quibbles of Clara’s barmaid accent, which has a faint whiff of Adam Buxton doing Bob Hoskins in The Adam and Joe Show, and the finale being so saccharine it’s like mainlining Drumstick lollies. The Paternoster Gang’s dialogue also varies drastically in quality, from Strax’s one-note Boy’s Own militarism to the enjoyably stupid Chekhov’s Memory Worm gag, to the God-tier ‘I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife.’ Essentially they’re not as funny as the show thinks they are, but occasionally they come close.
What this episode does have going for it is the marvellous central image of the Doctor, and his new (best-ever) TARDIS control room, living on a cloud. The origins of the Great Intelligence, never seen onscreen and attached to the Lovecraft mythos in spin-off novels, coming from the loneliness and rage of an isolated and unhappy child is interesting. It feels like a monster coming from the same emotional place as the worst fan entitlement (which has certainly aged well as a concept).
9. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Jamie Payne.
There’s a lovely story in here, and it emerges quite often, but also it doesn’t quite land as satisfyingly as it should. The idea of the Doctor staying in one town to defend it forever til he dies of old age is another ‘Doctor Who in a microcosm’ moment that Steven Moffat does so well (as with ‘The Husbands of River Song’ the character can do this when pushed, moving them on from Ten and Rose joking about getting a house together in ‘The Impossible Planet’).
Nearly everything on the planet Trenzalore is great, but we also have the contrast of Clara’s family Christmas – with characters we don’t know and who are barely sketched. That section doesn’t work, and indeed the opening third of the story is quite weak. For a story that has to – due to the confluence of the 50th anniversary year and Matt Smith’s departure – wrap up a lot of ongoing threads, it’s another quite slow, whimsical traipse into the actual story. As a Christmas special, it’s damn near impenetrable to anyone who only watches once a year, but when the regeneration story kicks into gear it’s very strong.
8. The End of Time (2009/2010)
Written by Russell T. Davies. Directed by Euros Lyn.
On the one hand, this clearly worked for a lot of people and marked the end of one of the show’s most – if not the most – successful eras, but on the other hand I don’t really like Part One very much and I’m writing this list, so here we are.
It has to be said, though, that there’s a lot of this episode that just straightforwardly works: the Doctor and the Master’s relationship, once they’ve calmed down and the Master’s stopped firing lasers out of his skeleton, is not far from where Steven Moffat would take it in the Capaldi era. There are glimpses of that deeper friendship in there. Ending David Tennant’s first tenure as the Doctor with a deliberately ugly note, as he berates Wilf for getting him into this fine mess, is a brave choice. Making Bernard Cribbins as the companion for these two stories is a masterstroke. The quieter scenes between him and Tennant are brilliant. Though the walkdown sequence initially consists of the Doctor glaring at people, the scenes with Donna and Rose are bittersweet payoffs.
Yes, the whole thing creaks a bit, but there’s enough in there to remind you why this remains so popular.
7. The Runaway Bride (2006)
Written by Russell T. Davies. Directed by Euros Lyn.
After writing ‘The Christmas Invasion’ as a story of delayed gratification, letting the Doctor’s eventual appearance be a cause for celebration, Russell T. Davies elected to spend the following Christmas making the Doctor really, really unnerving for the whole episode.
Donna having arrived in the TARDIS at the end of ‘Doomsday’, the Doctor is confronted by a loud and understandably confused woman in a white dress, who has just disappeared from her own wedding. Donna’s reaction to the TARDIS’ dimensions is one of terror. Her husband-to-be betrays her and dismisses her interests. It feels like quite a pointed moment, perhaps with Davies addressing the snobbery of some fans to his first two series (complaints that the Doctor wasn’t the main character, that we didn’t need to see this much of the companion’s life, and that things were getting soapy) by having a character represent this viewpoint turn out to be so horrible even the villain thinks he’s a bit much.
Sarah Parish, as said villain, is having an absolute ball playing a giant cackling spider whose abdomen doesn’t move. I would not say she’s overacting. I’d say she’s acting exactly as the story requires. David Tennant also has a very good episode, seemingly effortless in his shifts between detached problem-solving and impassive rage. Though the ending pulls its punches (possibly because Donna actually screaming in fear at the Doctor would be a bit much at Christmas), the scene of the Doctor and Donna in the snow after the former has just committed some fairly intense genocide feels like a concise summary of the Tenth Doctor’s entire run: here’s this ridiculous man, and Donna oscillates between awed fear and inviting him round for Christmas dinner.
6. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Ed Bazalgette.
A remarkably standalone story, on broadcast this was the first episode since the previous year’s Christmas Special and felt disappointingly slight to some – whereas for people who just wanted some fun on Christmas Day without having to remember the past twelve episodes it hit the spot. It’s a fun episode that riffs on the 1978 Superman film, moving Doctor Who forward from ‘The Husbands of River Song’ towards Series 10 while being quietly effective at both. Grant’s dual nanny/Superhero being an example of a different kind of strength is also an improvement on the messages of say, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.
Another plus is that this episode features the Twelfth Doctor crashing a spaceship. It is always entertaining watching the Twelfth Doctor crashing something. The absolute highlight of ‘The Lie of the Land’ is the Doctor’s face when he’s about to plough a ship into a dock. Capaldi knows how to fire up that mad glint in his eye. If he does make a surprise return for the Sixtieth anniversary specials I very much hope he gets to crash something.
5. Twice Upon a Time (2017)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Rachel Talalay.
There’s a lovely story in here, and it emerges quite often, but also it doesn’t quite land as satisfyingly as it should: David Bradley’s First Doctor doesn’t get enough time devoted to his fear of regeneration, and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor explains his unwillingness to regenerate at the story’s end before this decision is very quickly reversed. It’s like a jigsaw with one piece missing.
However the pieces we can see give this story power and a sense of its ideal shape: moments like ‘I’ve lost the idea of dying’, the Twelfth Doctor’s last villain actually being a benign and even good force, the ‘Doctor of War’, and ‘To be fair they cut out all the jokes’ are all superb.
The scene with the First Doctor and Bill where he reasons ‘By any analysis, Evil should always win…so why does good prevail?’ is exceptional, summarising the show in its fairy tale guise, and the appeal of the Doctor as an anti-hero too blinkered to realise his own importance. It’s very right for Capaldi – the Doctor who highlights the difference between the man and his ideals – to go out on a story where the Doctor’s heroism is both highlighted and countered. Like a jigsaw with one piece missing indeed.
4. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
Written by Russell T. Davies. Directed by James Hawes.
This is the original, and one that it’s hard to separate from the rush of nostalgia (that came with the excitement of seeing the Series 2 trailer in particular). This is both a fun watch and a fascinating transition. David Tennant’s debut story was about, as with ‘Power of the Daleks’, getting the audience to accept the concept of regeneration and change. Davies used Rose, as that story used Ben and Polly, as the key. Keeping the Doctor asleep for most of the story means Rose is both out of her depth during an alien invasion and unable to process what just happened to the Doctor.
This is also, being a Christmas Day episode, a step up in scale. Sure, we just had Daleks melting Australia in the previous story, but we saw that as a line drawing on a screen. Here we actually have the colossal spaceship over London – with the unusual rocky design – combined with the presence of possessed people standing on the edge of roofs. Give or take a bit of dated CGI, it’s an impressive and harrowing gambit. The scale of this episode is perfect for when it was broadcast, and when it worked it surely made the production team bolder.
We also get the show starting to use its own recent mythology by revisiting Harriet Jones. Combined with the involvement of UNIT there’s a sense of the show building its own legacy, the kind of thing that will result in the pop culture saturation point of the end of the Tennant era. Laying strong story foundations is rarely this fun to watch.
3. Last Christmas (2014)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Paul Wilmshurst.
Alien meets Inception with a little bit of The Thing thrown in for good measure. This episode is slightly complicated by being originally written as Jenna Coleman’s final story as Clara (with Faye Marsay’s Shona lined up as a potential replacement), only for Coleman to be persuaded back very late in the day This means that we have one extra reveal late in the episode, when the storyline was already pushing it in terms of ‘Is this still a dream?’ twists.
For a Christmas special, this one is both consistent with Moffat’s interest in stories associated with Christmas (Santa, his elves) and the solstice (halfway out of the dark, a gradual thawing) but combined with Capaldi’s wintery incarnation, we find ourselves in a 12-rated horror where the Doctor is initially as cold as the weather. This part of the episode is almost entirely successful.
The Dream Crabs are a satisfyingly terrifying creation as something that could simply drop out of the ceiling absolutely anywhere, and you wouldn’t be able to tell if they were killing you. Nick Frost’s casting as Santa is similarly inspired, Frost’s likeable screen presence is able to combine the patronising blokeyness, Ho Ho Ho-ing, and entertaining petty bickering with Capaldi.
Once the action shifts from the North Pole Base, two important things happen: firstly Capaldi’s Doctor noticeably thaws from his curmudgeon position, driving Santa’s sleigh drawing genuinely childlike wonder from him, and secondly Clara realises she’d rather stay somewhere dreamlike than in the real world, culminating in the final ‘It was all a dream’ reveals where the Doctor is able to actually say how he feels. True to Capaldi’s intent for the character, this feels like a victory but also something of a warning. Once you’ve seen Series 9 it certainly lands differently.
2. A Christmas Carol (2011)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Toby Haynes.
Well, it’s clearly the second-best Christmas special isn’t it?
Here Moffat takes on A Christmas Carol, a very familiar tale but lacking in flying sharks up until this point. There is a lot to like about this story. It shares the infectious confidence of ‘The Eleventh Hour’, but now they know Matt Smith better as a performer. It’s as ostentatiously clever, witty and silly as you’d hope for from Moffat, but also sets up a theme he’ll return to across several of his stories: death and rebirth (from the word ‘Yule’, which originates from a word roughly meaning ‘circle’). Obviously you have regeneration stories, but Moffat also has two of his companions die only for the Doctor to take the hit and transfer the loss onto himself. To get a Doctor Who story, usually, something bad has to happen to someone first. This can feel worse when, as with Amy’s pregnancy storyline, there ultimately isn’t a reversal through sacrifice and it doesn’t feel like we get the victim’s perspective.
This all ties in to the character of Abigail, played by Katherine Jenkins, whose incurable illness turns Kazran Sardick (the Scrooge character, played by Michael Gambon, Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn) into the unfeeling monster who refuses to help rescue a crashing spaceship. However, Abigail proves that Kazran is capable of love and therefore salvation. There is a little depth to her – she isn’t just a straightforwardly wholesome innocent – but the story focuses on Kazran. Abigail and her family are there to contribute to the story’s message of choosing life while it lasts.
Here an actual refrigeration unit is keeping Abigail alive, stored away by Sardick because he doesn’t want to let her out and lose her. Moffat, who can try to write a ‘Aren’t Mums great?’ story and turn it into biological essentialism, at least ensures that leaving to spend time with her loved ones, and ultimately dying, is her choice, and that Sardick keeping her in the fridge is a selfish act on his part when she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Nonetheless, it’s still essentially fridging, using her imminent death for someone else’s character motivation.
And so we come to yet another of Moffat’s Doctor Who In Microcosm moments: death is everywhere, but so is the future. How, then, do you accept the inevitability of loss?
1. The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon.
This is the culmination of Moffat’s death-fixated treatises: a big daft comedy featuring the severed heads of popular comedians. Moffat considered this a potential final episode as showrunner, letting his successor start with a blank slate and bringing the River Song storyline to an end. Hollaback Yule, it’s time to meditate on death some more.
Instead of writing an epic, Moffat does what he frequently does with finales and goes small. After destroying the universe he sets an episode in a museum. After returning to Gallifrey he leaves it as quickly as possible and finishes ‘Hell Bent’ in a diner.
‘The Husbands of River Song’ is about River being on a heist/con with the tone set firmly to romp, rather than some epic of universal jeopardy. It is consistently very, very funny and also very accessible: there are a lot of in-jokes and references (‘I’m going to need a bigger flowchart’) but the story doesn’t rely on them. The only thing it’s trying to close up is River Song’s story, and the zip was most of the way up on that one anyway.
Personally, I’ve never been especially fussed about River Song and only really been sold on her relationship with the Doctor in ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’ and ‘Name of the Doctor’. And perhaps this is because River, like Abigail, is principally a guest in another person’s show. This story, though, switches the roles around so that the Doctor is the guest in River’s adventure, culminating in a ludicrously romantic ending: River’s flippant front melting with lines like ‘You can’t expect a monolith to love you back’, the Doctor calling back to ‘every Christmas is last Christmas’: a last night together but a commitment to stay with each other in the same place for over two decades. The Doctor gives up something that defines him, doing something that he nervously joked about with Rose. Capaldi and Alex Kingston look at each other with such tenderness. I absolutely buy this relationship.
This potentially final Steven Moffat story finds a way to do the death/rebirth story while investing time in what the female characters feel and want, another example of Moffat returning to ideas and honing them over his time on the show. It’s not perfect, it’s a story about the Twelfth Doctor learning to be ‘that small or that ordinary’ – and we have seen a lot of flawed men achieving catharsis over the years – but for what it is it’s as good as it gets. Merry Christmas.
The Doctor Who Christmas Specials are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.