The Doctor Who Christmas Specials, Ranked

Max Borg
Max Borg
Dec 26, 2020 · 7 min read

All the Doctor Who Christmas Specials (2005–2017), from worst to best.

Credit: BBC

From 2005 to 2017, December 25 (or a few days later, depending on where you live) was guaranteed to make fans of Doctor Who happy, as that is when the annual Christmas Special — a tradition shared with other successful British shows — would air on television. This went on for the duration of Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat’s tenures, before being retired under the current creative leadership of Chris Chibnall, who has instead opted for New Year’s Specials.

As we await the return of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, who will be facing the Daleks once again, here is my ranking of all thirteen Christmas Specials, hoping the tradition will resume at some point in the near future. To quote the Tenth Doctor, allons-y!

Having tackled Dickens in his first Christmas outing, Steven Moffat decided to give C.S Lewis a try a year later. The result, while amusing and cheerfully festive, with a terrific ending, is not quite as accomplished, mainly because the source material is not as Christmas-heavy and therefore requires a more loose adaptation, despite the title suggesting a more direct riff on Lewis’ work. Also, who casts Bill Bailey as a comedic guest character and gives him very little to do?

Much like his successor Moffat, Russell T. Davies did his “worst” (the episode itself is very enjoyable) with his second Christmas Special, which has a so-so plot about, you guessed it, an alien invasion. What makes the whole thing work is David Tennant’s chemistry with Catherine Tate, who lends a delightfully silly air to proceedings as potential new companion Donna Noble (she joined the show full time a year later). Also noteworthy from a mythology point of view, as this is the first episode of the new series to mention the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey by name.

This is another dash of Yuletide silliness by Davies, this time aboard a spaceship version of the Titanic. It is perhaps best remembered for select moments that have become popular with fans (most notably the lines “Take me to your leader” and “Allons-y, Alonzo!”), rather than its actual plot or characters (Kylie Minogue is not the most memorable companion, despite a competent performance). Extra points for the introduction of Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), who became a valuable addition during the final two years of Davies’ tenure.

Given that Doctor Who is, in its own way, a superhero story, why not do an actual superhero episode? Thus we get this fun piece of holiday adventures, complete with an American guest star (Justin Chatwin, whose previous foray into similar territory was the simply disastrous Dragon Ball Evolution). Moffat’s writing cleverly homages and lampoons the genre, while also throwing shade at the show’s own tropes: the Doctor remarks that aliens usually invade Earth around Christmas. In an amusing twist of fate, Peter Capaldi will soon appear in an actual superhero movie, DC’s The Suicide Squad, playing the Thinker.

Moffat’s fourth Christmas Special is also his most controversial, primarily because, unlike most other festive outings, it makes little sense if you’re a casual viewer (some fans also took issue with how he addressed the regeneration limit, even though he was right about Tennant using a loophole the first time). Then again, given that this was the year of the show’s fiftieth anniversary, it was the perfect opportunity to do something more intricate for a change, and this swansong for Matt Smith’s Doctor is a touching love letter to his tenure and acting style, an ideal blend of quiet and bombastic.

Having dispatched with Amy and Rory at the end of the first half of season 7, Moffat used the Special — an interlude between the two halves — to introduce Clara Oswald, and what a lovely introduction it is, against a London backdrop that is equal parts enchanting and sinister. And has there ever been a more inspired casting choice for the show than having both Richard E. Grant and Ian McKellen as the Great Intelligence? Plus, there’s the Paternoster Gang, and more specifically Strax. We can never have enough Strax.

Nick Frost as Santa Claus: that, in and of itself, is brilliant enough. But the episode goes beyond that simple conceit, finding a way to cleverly integrate the real Santa into the Doctor’s world (one line suggests he might have access to Time Lord technology) and craft a heartfelt adventure set within an alien-induced dreamscape. It also features one of the most hilarious explanations for why Earth keeps getting invaded: it’s tad offensive to call a horror movie Alien

The longest-running storyline of the new series comes to a head as Moffat closes the book on the Doctor’s relationship with River Song, a non-linear romance that has intrigued viewers since she first appeared in 2008 (where her final encounter with the Doctor from her perspective was actually the first for him). At once thrilling, funny, and heartbreaking, the story plays wonderfully with the Peter Capaldi’s gruff exterior, peeling away the layers gradually as he gets to interact with Alex Kingston. It’s simply wonderful all around.

For the purposes of this article, I am only counting the first part, as the second is technically a New Year’s episode. And while the second half contains the actual emotional payoff, the first is just as admirable for setting up just how much it’s going to hurt: the scene where the Doctor describes regeneration as sort of being like death is some of David Tennant’s finest acting in the series. And the cliffhanger, which makes great use of Timothy Dalton, remains a wonderfully chilling and thrilling moment.

Marking the departure of four key people associated with the series at that point (Peter Capaldi, Steven Moffat, writer/actor Mark Gatiss and composer Murray Gold), the show’s final Christmas Special — which only came about because Chibnall didn’t want to begin his tenure with one, thus forcing Moffat to alter his plans — is a touching meditation on the nature of change, embodied by the interactions between the First Doctor and the Twelfth. The latter’s eventual regeneration is an emotionally earned highpoint, with some of Capaldi’s best acting, especially as he injects bits of himself into the script: the bit about children being able to understand the Doctor’s real name was originally his response to a young fan’s question.

Due to the show’s production schedule, it is virtually impossible to keep the new Doctor’s identity a secret prior to broadcast (Tennant’s debut was meant to be a surprise, but the BBC jumped the gun and announced Christopher Eccleston’s departure ahead of time). Russell T. Davies took advantage of this when the gap between seasons 4 and 5 was filled by a few Specials, the first of which was scheduled to air before the official announcement of Tennant’s replacement.

Hence a suitably self-aware adventure that knowingly addresses and gently mocks fan expectations, with a wonderfully game performance by David Morrissey as the amnesiac Jackson Lake, who thinks he is the Doctor in order to cope with trauma (Morrissey has since admitted that when the episode’s title was first announced, he had to keep up the ruse with his own children).

David Tennant’s first proper showcase as the Doctor is one of his best, even though the main character is unconscious for large chunks of the episode. With Rose Tyler handling most of the plot requirements, it is a good reminder of how valuable the companions are, while also showing how much they — and we — need the Doctor. Which is why, when he finally makes his triumphant entrance to save the day, it is an earned triumph and a sublime Christmas present. Also, given Tennant’s subsequent stints in Disney-owned projects, most notably DuckTales, it is quite amusing that one of his Doctor’s first speeches is a Lion King reference.

Moffat’s first and best Special is arguably the most Christmassy of the bunch, mainly due to the choice to adapt Dickens’ celebrated ghost story. As Dickens himself had previously appeared as a character during the Eccleston days (and later popped up again a few months after this episode), it seemed quite appropriate for the show to do its own spin on one of the quintessential Christmas-centric works of fiction.

And what a spin it is, with Michael Gambon as a terrific Scrooge character and the perfect foil for Matt Smith’s more outlandish antics. It is a clever adaptation that covers the necessary bases while leaving ample room for surprises, and the ideal Special for Moffat’s tenure, his first season as showrunner having a “dark fairy tale” vibe that is very much in synch with Dickens’ sensibilities. Moreover, there is genuine affection for the holidays: when Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond says, “It’s Christmas” right before the opening credits, we wholeheartedly believe her.

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Max Borg

Written by

Max Borg

Freelance entertainment journalist, specializing in comic books, film, TV and streaming.

FanFare

FanFare

pop culture conversations

Max Borg

Written by

Max Borg

Freelance entertainment journalist, specializing in comic books, film, TV and streaming.

FanFare

FanFare

pop culture conversations

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