The Doctor Who Christmas Special has become as much a part of Christmas tradition since the show’s return in 2005 as mince pies, the Top of the Pops 2 Christmas Compilation, and the panicked last minute dash to the shops on Christmas Eve.
With the latest seasonal offering Last Christmas imminent, here is a look at its festive predecessors.
11. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
To be fair, the line between homage and ripping off is a rather fine one, and unfortunately The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe falls on just the wrong side of that line in its references to C. S. Lewis‘ best known Narnia book. Add to this a genuinely maudlin story about magical trees attempting to (literally) save their souls from destruction, and the whole thing becomes nigh on impossible to take seriously, in spite of the tragedy at the episode’s heart. No denying that it looks pretty, though.
10. The Feast of Steven (1965)
The first ever Doctor Who Christmas special landed slap-bang in the middle of the 12 part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan. Sadly, instead of an action-packed struggle with his arch foes, the story instead took a break from the A-Plot and instead focused on a very mildly amusing runaround in a London Police Station and a silent movie set in 1920s Hollywood respectively.
Depending on your point of view, William Hartnell’s first Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish viewers a merry Christmas is either the episode’s saving grace or the coup de grâce.
9. The Runaway Bride (2006)
The story is passable… sort of, and the giant, spider-like Racnoss is an impressive monster, but the whole thing is somewhat undermined by the fact that the character of Donna is written as a parody version of the persona Catherine Tate exerts in her comedy routines (itself, obviously, a parody).
Donna would go on to become one of New Who’s best companions, thanks in no small part to Tate’s outstanding performance, but her first outing is by no means her finest hour.
8. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
In this episode Steven Moffat attempts to tie up all the loose ends he’s left for himself over the preceding three years with nothing more than an hour’s worth of throwaway dialogue. One can’t help but feel that he should have devoted a little more time and thought into integrating this into the story, instead of forcing it into the gaps in a story about an invasion by every monster and their dog ever.
It’s saved, however, by Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman giving the performance of their careers as the Doctor and Clara.
7. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
Overlong running gags about wacky aliens not understanding what Christmas is all about aside, this is a pleasingly dark adventure, in which nearly all of the supporting cast is killed off by the end. However, the grim disastrous tone of the episode doesn’t always sit well with the chintzy jokiness of parts of the episode or with its menagerie of over-the-top characters.
Kylie Minogue as temporary companion Astrid Peth, though, is a very well judged performance and part.
6. The Snowmen (2012)
A rather nice story about Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor regaining his mojo with the help of Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald after the departure of Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). It has a very nice, seasonal setting, a cast of very likeable protagonists, and a pair of great villains in the shape of Richard E. Grant as Walter Simeon and (the voice of) Sir Ian McKellen as the Great Intelligence (an unexpected fan-pleaser of a return baddie, and no mistake).
It’s slightly let down by the fact that the titular monsters are… well, almost completely ineffectual throughout, but it succeeds in most other areas.
5. The Next Doctor (2008)
The trailers for this one gave the impression that it would be a spooky offering in the vein of the classic BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas. What we got instead was a pantomime-like adventure in the mould of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which the Cybermen round up children to power their giant, steam-powered war machine.
Rather taken aback by this, at first I wasn’t all that taken with the story. However, once I began to appreciate it for what it was, I found it infinitely more enjoyable, with two great guest-turns from David Morrissey as the titular “Next Doctor” (spoilers) and Dervla Kirwan as the villainous Miss Hartigan.
The aforementioned giant, steam-powered war machine very publicly laying waste to Victorian London is, I think, a liberty too far, though.
4. The End of Time (2009 and 2010)
People’s enjoyment of this one seems to depend on whether they view David Tennant’s final outing as the Tenth Doctor as a moving swansong for a beloved hero or an exercise bombast on the part of outgoing showrunner Russell T. Davies.
I fall somewhere in the middle on that score, but what I won’t deny is that The End of Time is a rather spectacular finale to Tennant’s and Davies’ time on the show, featuring a very enjoyable, over-the-top turn by John Simm, reprising his role as the Master, and the awesomely imposing presence of Timothy Dalton as Rassilon; Lord President of the Time Lords.
For my money, Tennant’s Tenth Doctor spends far too much time over the course of this two-parter navel-gazing (I know it’s a story about a man going to meet his fat, but there is a difference between heroic, if melancholy, resignation and moping). If it were not for that, though, I’d be all too happy to call it excellent.
3. The Unquiet Dead (2005)
Yes. I’m cheating… But with good reason. If any Doctor Who story is a worthy successor to the grand BBC tradition of the Ghost Story for Christmas, it’s this offering by Mark Gatiss from Series One of the revived show.
It’s a frightening and funny in equal measure, and features some brilliant interplay between Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, Billie Piper’s Rose (still the best TARDIS crew we’ve had since 2005) and guest star Simon Callow as Charles Dickens.
April air-date be damned. What is more Christmassy than a ghost story featuring the author that – for many – codified what the ideal Christmas ought to be?
2. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
Possibly the most Doctor Who-ish of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials, The Christmas Invasion tells a straightforward story of an alien invasion of Earth over the holiday.
David Tennant gets off to a good start as the Tenth Doctor and the Sycorax are one of New Who’s best (and most under-appreciated) monsters. It could be argued, however, that the Christmas elements of the story feel like gimmicky add-ons rather than integral to the story, and a lot of people may see this as a minus point.
Not me though. I like a good, solid, old fashioned story told well. If anything, I’d have cut the Christmas trappings altogether, but I don’t think the story is any the worse off for their presence.
1. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Steven Moffat promised “the most Christmassy Christmas special ever” in the run-up to A Christmas Carol, and he definitely succeeded on that score.
It perfectly succeeds in capturing the frosty Victoriana so many associate with Christmas, without having to literally set the story in Victorian England, and boasts a clever twist on a story with which we’re all familiar, as well as making inventive use of the concept of time travel.
The overly literal depictions of flying fish are a touch too much, but overall it looks beautiful, the guest stars excel in their roles (Michael Gambon as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick and Katherine Jenkins as the angelic Abigail), the story is clever and poignant, and it even ends with a nice song (for those that like that sort of thing) that, by rights, ought to be just as popular as Walking in the Air by now.
It is, by quite a way, the best Doctor Who Christmas special there has been.