Doctor Who: revisiting Russell T. Davies’ Christmas specials

With Doctor Who's festive episode moving to New Year's Day, we look back at the show's previous Christmas specials...

2018 marks the end of a modern festive tradition, as Doctor Who swaps its Christmas special for a New Year’s Day edition instead. Up until now, we’ve only had one Doctor Who story that dealt with the New Year and that was the 1996 TV movie, which premiered on BBC One in May!

On the other hand, there’s an entire season’s worth of Christmas specials to watch and while it’s ridiculous to suggest that the show has simply run out of festive ideas, the change might be friendlier for binge-watching in, say, July, when you don’t have an adventure with killer Santas or wintry vistas every 13 episodes or so.

Even if some of us will miss having new Who to watch on Christmas Day, the new series has given us plenty of specials to revisit. Barring William Hartnell’s iconic, fourth-wall-breaking moment from the end of the accidental Christmas episode The Feast Of Steven, the founder of the feast is Russell T. Davies, who set the tone for these specials as he did for so many others.

From the very first special that was commissioned, they’re never throwaway bits of festive frippery. It’s partly due to most of them resolving direct cliffhangers from the preceding series, but his specials often feature significant story landmarks while still welcoming everyone from the odd casual viewer to the most devoted fans.

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In this first part of our look back at Doctor Who’s Christmas specials to date, we’ll revisit each of Davies’ flagship episodes (and a few other seasonal highlights) to see what each one brings to the table, what you should watch out for, and which one you might want to pick to watch on iPlayer on the 25th, instead of Michael McIntyre.

Honourable mention: The Unquiet Dead (2005)

Timey-wimey stuff being what it is, we start with an episode that didn’t actually air on the 25th of December. The first proper Christmas special was commissioned after the first series became a huge hit, which means that Christopher Eccleston never got to star in a festive edition of the revived programme. However, his third trip back in time took him to Cardiff in 1869 for a brush with Charles Dickens and the ghostly Gelth.

Perhaps the best of Mark Gatiss’ new series’ scripts, The Unquiet Dead is a nice bit of phantasmagoria, introducing a spookier and darker element into the series at a crucial early stage in its revival. While famous characters are more central in the later “celebrity historical” episodes, Simon Callow’s Dickens is more of an enjoyable tagalong in what turns out to be the genesis of Torchwood, introducing Eve Myles and a rift in time and space under the Welsh capital.

All ties to later episodes aside, it’s a suitably modern version of a familiar genre from the classic series. As part of the regular run, it follows that this one can be watched at any time of year, but if you like your Christmas specials a little more gothic and violent than others, give this one another look while you’re scoffing mince pies.

Better watch out: The Ninth Doctor is something of a Dickens hipster, citing The Signal-Man as the author’s best Christmas ghost story rather than A Christmas Carol. First published in 1866, the short story was previously adapted for the screen as part of the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas, a series that was also revived in 2005 and continues this Christmas Eve with Gatiss’ The Dead Room.

The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Doctor Who’s first-ever specially produced Christmas special had a lot on its plate. More than just being a festive outing, it also has to introduce David Tennant’s Doctor, as well as the implications of regeneration to an audience that only just got to know Eccleston as the Time Lord. Some more familiar faces ease the transition and Rose’s prominence in the first series really pays off, as she effectively takes the lead while the Doctor sleeps off his time vortex hangover.

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What’s impressive is that there’s no sense of it being any lighter than any other Doctor Who episode, especially when the Sycorax’s M.O. is to drive a third of the world’s population to perch themselves on the roofs of tall buildings, apparently ready to kill themselves on command. Despite the jeopardy leading up to the ending, the dark-edged jollity comes from Davies’ typically marvellous script (“Have we heard from the royal family? Oh, they’re on the roof”) rather than the setting.

Right up to Harriet Jones’ Belgrano-esque folly, it’s a proper sci-fi thriller, designed for primetime BBC One on the biggest day, and it’s a brilliant end to Doctor Who’s first year back on the air. It even makes time to start a nice Christmas tradition of Murray Gold writing original songs for the specials, as Tim Phillips warbles Song For Ten over the Doctor’s Christmas evening with the Tylers (which is clearly where he got his “best Christmas Walford’s ever had” reference in The Impossible Planet, by the way).

Better watch out: The highlight of the 2016 anthology book The 12 Doctors Of Christmas is Jacqueline Rayner’s The Christmas Inversion, in which the Third Doctor picks up Harriet Jones’ Christmas Day address and mistakes it for a distress call from the future. Landing on the Powell Estate in 2005, he’s flummoxed when Jackie Tyler barges in with tea and sandwiches. It’s exactly as brilliant as it sounds.

Attack Of The Graske (2005)

The Tenth Doctor’s second episode was released the same night as his first. Written by Gareth Roberts, this 15-minute “interactive episode” debuted on the BBC’s red button service right after The Christmas Invasion was broadcast. Bringing the viewer into the Doctor’s latest pursuit, the story asks you to help track down a body-snatcher who’s meddling in Christmases past, present, and (if they get their way) yet to come.

Played by Jimmy Vee, the Graske have some traits in common with the Zygons, such as replacing other people with duplicates and keeping the real person alive in stasis. After tracking the Graske back to their home planet through a series of puzzles, the choose-your-own-adventure story leaves it up to the viewer to decide how the story ends.

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For those who played this on Christmas night, Attack Of The Graske cements Tennant’s charismatic portrayal of the Doctor. The game was previously available to play on the BBC website but seems to have been taken down (possibly because of a certain disgraced recording artist’s Another Rock And Roll Christmas featuring in the happy ending?). If you don’t mind missing out on the interactive element, there are plenty of playthroughs available to watch online.

Better watch out: Roberts brought his monster back in The Sarah Jane Adventures, where a Graske called Krislok serves as the unwilling henchman of the series’ Big Bad, the Trickster. You can also spot a Graske among the assorted alien punters of the bar that Captain Jack Harkness visits in The End Of Time Part 2, which is the only other New Year’s Day special.

The Runaway Bride (2006)

The Doctor first meets Donna Noble as a cliffhanger at the end of Doomsday. Popping into the TARDIS on her wedding day, she arrives at just the right time to stop him getting too mopey about Rose and also, as we later learned in Turn Left, to prevent him from going too far in foiling the monster of the week.

Just like The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride follows the departure of one of the leads but given the emphasis on the companion as a co-lead, it’s a bigger deal this time. Davies handles it deftly, throwing the Doctor into a new action-packed adventure. Happily, the Tracy and Hepburn-like chemistry between Tennant and Catherine Tate is obvious from the beginning and it’s no surprise that Donna was eventually brought back as a full-time companion.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was always planned this way. Donna arrives as fully formed as any of RTD’s characters and brings a screwball comedy element that makes this a lighter story than the Sycorax’s shenanigans. All that and some more robot Santas, a fearsomely made-up Sarah Parish playing a giant spider, and the new series’ first ever mention of Gallifrey.

Better watch out: This year’s original song by Murray Gold features during Donna’s wedding reception, as the Doctor is reminded of Rose while watching Donna dance with Lance. Neil Hannon sings the Al Wilson-alike Love Don’t Roam, which featured on the new series’ first soundtrack release. Fans campaigned to get the song into the UK single download chart after the rules changed in 2007, but it didn’t crack the top 40.

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Voyage Of The Damned (2007)

In every sense, Voyage Of The Damned is the Doctor Who Christmas Day blockbuster. From its execution to its audience reception, this extended jaunt with Kylie Minogue on the Starship Titanic is constantly ambitious and adventurous. It’s RTD taking big swings and casting big stars, at a point in time where the BBC’s big terrestrial film premiere was more likely to be a Pixar animation than an Indiana Jones.

In terms of film premieres from times gone by, Davies’ objective here is to make The Poseidon Adventure in space. He clearly has more of a sense of the disaster movie genre than the Doctor, whose repeated promises that no more of the obviously doomed ensemble of alien tourists are going to die become slightly hilarious. All in all, it’s a big part of its charm.

Even if it’s rarely vaunted among the very best seasonal offerings, it’s an absolute blast and there’s a bit more to it than the Hollywood gloss it so successfully mimics. As in the Irwin Allen movies that inspired it, there’d be little point in the spectacle if we weren’t invested in the characters. And frankly, Doctor Who wouldn’t be Doctor Who if at least one of those characters wasn’t a conker-headed cyborg.

Better watch out: The mighty Bernard Cribbins makes his debut as Wilfred Mott in this story. Originally intended as a one-off character, Cribbins had a lovely time and was brought back as Donna’s grandad in Partners In Crime, after the late Howard Attfield retired from his role as Donna’s dad due to illness. A couple of Christmases later, this turns out to be the most important cameo in the universe…

The Next Doctor (2008)

After deciding against a similarly high-concept idea like “Cheryl Cole on the Hindenburg” as a follow-up, Doctor Who’s greatest showman lined up a different sort of attraction. With Tennant having announced his departure live at November’s National Television Awards, the announcement that David Morrissey would star in an episode called The Next Doctor had the desired effect in terms of publicity.

It has some of the blockbuster trappings of the previous instalment, but it’s a darker story than it’s often given credit for. Aside from foreshadowing the specials arc by confronting Tennant’s incarnation with a possible future Doctor, the eventual reveal of Morrissey’s Jackson Lake and his tragic backstory is weighty stuff for Christmas Day.

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Mind you, it’s wrapped up in one of the more out-there plots involving the Cybermen and their off-brand Cybermats, the doggo-like shades. It wraps up with a giant Cyber-King stomping all over 19th century London, a detail that was explained away a year and a half later by the incoming showrunner’s cracks in time.

Better watch out: Journey’s End originally ended with a cliffhanger featuring the Cybermen inside the TARDIS, prompting the then-traditional “What? WHAT? … what?” ending. This scene was shot and features in the extras of the Series 4 boxset as a deleted scene. Davies was persuaded to cut the scene by Doctor Who Magazine writer Benjamin Cook, creating some distance between the downer ending of the finale and this special.

The End Of Time (2009-2010)

RTD’s final Christmas special is the one that has had the most influence on the format since. The Tenth Doctor was kind of born on Christmas Day, and he would kind of die around the same time. Notably, Davies pushed for a two-part finale to the specials year, so that they wouldn’t have to do a regeneration episode on Christmas Day. Featuring Part 1 and Part 2 in their titles for the first time since the classic era, The End Of Time two-parter was an epic event.

Set on and around the big day, the first part is festively foreboding, as Cribbins salutes the Queen’s speech, John Simm’s Master tucks into homeless people like they’re roast turkey, and Timothy Dalton issues silky-voiced, spittle-flecked narration about Christmas Day being the final day of planet Earth. If the casual audience wasn’t already a bit lost, then it ends with the ferociously surreal cliffhanger of everyone except a select few people turning into duplicates of the Master.

The Tenth Doctor’s era actually came on New Year’s Day, which must have been nice for parents with hangovers. After a showdown with the Time Lords that closes the entire Time War arc (for the moment), the climax brings the fatal four knocks and then a victory lap for both Davies and Tennant. There are tears, but because it’s Christmas, there are more conker-heads, in the form of the visiting Vinvocci.

Taking in the entire regular cast since 2005, it’s the final bow on a bombastic finale. Just to bring Tennant’s Christmas specials full circle, Gold even sneaks in an instrumental reprise of Song For Ten, shortly before Matt Smith’s Doctor explodes onto the screen.

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Better watch out: Echoing the blanket promotion of Wallace & Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf & Death the previous Christmas, The End Of Time’s status as BBC One’s jewel in the crown was affirmed by Tennant’s place in the channel’s Christmas ident. Coupled with Tennant’s press tour, panel show bookings, and appearances in other comedies and dramas, it felt like he, if not the Doctor, was absolutely everywhere. But more importantly, is the reindeer thing canon?

Come back next week for our look at the rest of Doctor Who’s festive episodes.