With the Christmas season upon us once more, there is always something to look forward to, be it homemade eggnog, fruit cakes, presents opening, tree trimming, or the rare winter weather in places that are generally hot all year round. However, Doctor Who fans look forward to Christmas for yet another reason. Just as sure as peppermint mochas, mulled wine and mince pies, there is a special, one-off episode of “Doctor Who” that gets played every year on Christmas Day. This year’s Christmas Special stars Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor.
In this list, we’ll be going back over the past Christmas specials, ranking them from worst to best according to both popularity and story content.
12. The Feast of Steven (1965)
The only Christmas Special to come out of what fans consider “Old Who” (the original era of “Doctor Who” before its 2005 revival) was “The Feast of Steven,” an episode of “Doctor Who” that was part of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” arc (a story arc that brought about many ‘firsts’ for the Doctor Who series, including the death of a companion), but also it did the one thing that the show has not done again since. As was customary for most BBC shows at the time, the characters broke the fourth wall to wish their viewers a merry Christmas.
“The Feast of Steven” is marked last not because of its era or quality, but because so few Doctor Who fans have seen it and because it’s actually part of a series of episodes rather than its own standalone special. Due to its nature as a Christmas special, it wasn’t offered for sale to overseas markets; thus following a BBC archive purge, “The Feast of Steven” was the first “Doctor Who” episode to be presumed to be lost forever.
11. The Runaway Bride (2006)
This is the second Christmas Special aired during David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor. It’s notable for introducing Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who would become a companion later on in the series. It also took place literally back-to-back with the heart-wrenching ending scene in which the first companion of the revival, Rose Tyler, got stuck in a dimension that the Doctor can’t visit.
After appearing in the Doctor’s space-time ship, the TARDIS (an acronym for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”), on her wedding day, Donna is dragged along on an adventure with a sinister plot developing right under their noses. By the end of the episode, Donna has lost her fiancé, and although the Doctor does invite her to travel along with him, she declines.
“The Runaway Bride” isn’t a bad episode per se (the part where the Doctor is drowning the Racnoss is particularly poignant), but because it seemed to many fans like the Doctor was spending more time calming Donna down and being slapped rather than provide viewers with more action and mystery like the non-Christmas episodes tend to explore.
10. The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Peter Capaldi’s second Christmas Special as the Doctor, “The Husbands of River Song,” sees the Time Lord in the year 5343, this time meeting up with his wife who, for once, does not recognise this incarnation of him. A crashed spaceship reaches out for help from the Doctor, and thus he gets thrust onto River Song’s team, tossed around from place to place on an adventure through the galaxy. And at the end, comes a scene that fans of the Doctor/River pairing have come to know and dread. He takes her to the Singing Towers of Darillium, which any fan knows is the last time the Doctor will see his wife before she dies. Because their meetings are occurring in reverse directions along their personal timelines, the remaining times she will encounter him will be when he’s younger and doesn’t know her yet.
9. The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011)
This special sees Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor engage with a family (the Digbys) during the Christmas periods of the late 1930s and early 1940s including a mother, Madge, and her two children, Lily and Cyril, whose father has just been killed in the Second World War. The Doctor gives them a gift, which turns out to be a time portal to another world. This other realm is a very “Chronicles of Narnia“-esque world (hence the episode’s title) covered in snow.
Very heartwarming (and at times sad) like most of the Christmas specials, this one included the typical amount of humour and craziness that Matt Smith’s Doctor was so revered for. However excellent, amusing, and well-received this episode was, there was nothing all that impressive about it as an entire story and many fans have mentioned that it was rather unmemorable – or, at least, less memorable than some of the other entries on this list.
8. Last Christmas (2014)
The first Christmas special starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, the story of this episode focuses largely on his companion at the time, Clara Oswald. She has an unbelievable run-in with Santa Claus and it sees the most recent return of the song that’s famously appeared in many of Doctor Who’s Christmas Specials: Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody.” Clara wakes up in a dream world, finding that she’s living with her at-the-moment very alive boyfriend, Danny, who had actually died not too long before “Last Christmas” takes place.
It’s a very “Inception”-esque storyline, confusing as far as whether they were awake, in a dream, or in a dream within another dream. And while the episode itself was one that’s barely remembered, it perfectly captured what some feel is most annoying about the height of Steven Moffat’s writing, which is perhaps why this episode did not gain a better spot than number eight.
7. The Snowmen (2012)
This Christmas special marked the first episode of Matt Smith’s Doctor not to involve Rory Williams and Amy Pond as central characters and companions to the Eleventh Doctor. The last time the Doctor had been seen, he had lost them to the Weeping Angels. And now, many years later, in Victorian England, he’s almost a myth, living up on a cloud. He then meets a young woman of that era, who curiously has the same name as another young woman he had met on an adventure in the past: Clara Oswin Oswald. They solve a mystery together (with a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”), but Clara dies before he can take her on as a proper companion.
This episode was particularly memorable because it led to the various versions of Clara Oswald being debated heavily amongst fans, some believing her to be the long-lost daughter of Rose Tyler (the companion of the Tenth Doctor), others believing her to be a Time Lady, on top of many more conspiracies. And while the episode was beautifully presented and gave much in the way of the Doctor’s character development, the story of the episode, the monsters, and the villains, were fundamentally weaker than usual.
6. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
The conclusion to Matt Smith’s time as the Eleventh Doctor was portrayed in great detail in this special. He has spent lifetimes living on a planet simply known as Christmas, growing old as well as he can. He’s found one last crack in time (referencing a story arc from Series 5, which was the first season to feature Matt Smith as the Doctor), and through it, even as he dies, come more lifetimes from Time Lords that are not quite as dead as he had thought (the idea of Gallifrey having survived the war was touched upon and confirmed in the 50th Anniversary Special that had aired in November of that same year). He sees Amy Pond one last time before he regenerates in front of current companion, Clara Oswald, and becomes the Twelfth Doctor.
While a regeneration episode is expected to be emotional, there was considerably less emotion to this one than there seemed to be for David Tennant’s. However, the episode is surely more emotional and tear-jerking than the other specials listed above.
5. The Next Doctor (2008)
David Tennant’s penultimate Christmas special, “The Next Doctor” chronicles not only the story of the Doctor himself, but of a man who calls himself the Doctor (played by David Morrissey, who would later go on to be The Governor in “The Walking Dead”) because the Cybermen had unintentionally messed up his memory with an info-stamp. He turns out to be a man named Jackson Lake, whose wife had been killed and whose son had been captured. The Doctor manages to rescue Lake’s son and they end up having a Christmas dinner together, along with Lake’s companion, Rosita.
The episode is heart-wrenching, especially during the moments where Lake realises that he is not, after all, the Doctor, as well as at the end, when the Doctor initially turns down Lake’s offer of a Christmas dinner. Before the truth of Lake’s identity was revealed the story also made fans wonder if perhaps he was actually a future incarnation of the Doctor.
4. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The first Christmas special since 1965’s “The Feast of Steven,” this was David Tennant’s first full episode in which he took on the role of the character previously portrayed by Christopher Eccleston. On Christmas Day, Rose Tyler returns with the TARDIS and the Doctor, who has just regenerated and is in more or less of a coma in order to fully heal from the regeneration process. The very same day, Earth is invaded by a species called the Sycorax. While Rose and the British Government (including Harriet Jones) try to save the world on their own, the Doctor heals and is eventually well enough to challenge the Sycorax leader to a duel for the planet. The episode itself was beautifully written as an introduction not only to who David Tennant’s Doctor would be, but also an explanation of what the regeneration process is to viewers who would be unfamiliar with the original series.
It ends on a high note, with the Doctor celebrating Christmas with Rose and her family, featuring a song (“Song for Ten”), that if you listen to carefully enough, tells the story of the second series as a whole – including spoilers! Although “The Christmas Invasion” is very respected and well-loved, there are a few others that are even more so.
3. A Christmas Carol (2010)
This was the first Christmas Special of the rebooted Doctor Who series not to be written by Russell T. Davies or to star David Tennant. The story, which stars Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, focuses on a man named Kazran Sardick who is not unlike Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. The Doctor visits a young Kazran and takes him on an adventure and, every year, on Christmas, they would wake up a woman named Abigail. As Kazran grows, Abigail ends up becoming attracted to him. Despite the troubles they face off against in the special, the story has a relatively happy ending and is sprinkled with humour brought in by the Doctor’s honeymooning companions, Amy and Rory.
One of the more well-loved “Doctor Who” specials, “A Christmas Carol” is easy to follow, and the character of Kazran easily captures the heart of viewers in true Doctor Who spirit. It has easily earned the title of Matt Smith’s highest-ranked Christmas special.
2. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
Between series’ three and four of Doctor Who, right at the height of David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor is when “Voyage of the Damned” takes place. A spacecraft named after the Titanic hovers above Earth, and the Doctor realises that it’s a luxury cruise ship. Of course, he gets caught up in a devious scheme unraveled by the man who owned the cruiseline – a man who had gone bankrupt. The Doctor tries his best to save those on board, as many as he can, but of course he loses a few – including a serving woman, Astrid (played by Kylie Minogue), who he had intended to take on as a companion after they had gotten safely to the ground.
“Voyage of the Damned” is both emotional and powerful, features a compelling story and brilliantly diverse characters from all walks of life – even a cyborg character. David Tennant gives a spectacular performance, both heart-wrenching and brilliant.
1. The End of Time, Parts 1 and 2 (2009, 2010)
We’re taking a little bit of a leap here, because if we’re being technical, “The End of Time, Part 2” was a New Year’s Special, not a Christmas special, but because it is a two-part episode continuing the previous week’s Christmas special, we’re lumping them together. David Tennant’s final performance as the Tenth Doctor is possibly his best performance as the character (only perhaps outranked by the hugely popular episode, ‘The Waters of Mars’). The story involves Rassilon, The Master, and a character that is even widely considered to be the Doctor’s Gallifreyan mother. His companion for these two episodes is Wilfred Mott, the grandfather of former companion, Donna Noble, and a dear friend to the Doctor.
David Tennant’s performance during the regeneration has reduced many to tears, with his final words not being something uplifting, cheeky or funny, but specifically “I don’t want to go” while he cries, leaving any fan of his wracked with sobs. Tearful and emotional, and very painful for those who aren’t expecting it, it is easily the most powerful of all the Christmas Specials, and certainly the most memorable of the 12.
Which do you think is the best Doctor Who Christmas Special? Be sure to let us know in the comments.
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