‘Tis the season for holiday specials and no one does it better (and by better I mean MORE) than Doctor Who; we get one pretty much every year. They were greatest in the Tennant era and have been on the decline since. Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to watch them all this year, I started to rank them, so I could decide which ones to make time for. (I skipped right over “The End of Time,” because just airing at Christmas time doesn’t automatically make you a Christmas special.) Behold, here are my picks for the rest of them in order.
10. “Last Christmas” – Dream crabs? Are you kidding me? Fuck off, Doctor Who. Bonus points for Nick Frost as Santa, but not that many. This whole episode is basically a big 180 to get Jenna Coleman back on the show after her emotional departure at the end of season 8, only to have her leave again at the end of season 9 in a pretty big F you to the fandom. That’s not this episode’s fault entirely, but on this list it takes the blame and therefore lands squarely at the bottom.
9. “The Next Doctor” – David Tennant and David Morrissey are fantastic together, but this giant cyberman thing is a load of CRAP. The ridiculously named Mercy Hartigan is a bonkers villain, even for this show, and her plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some of Jackson Lake’s antics as the Doctor are pretty great, others (having a sidekick named Rosita) seem like a lame attempt at fan service. Morrissey’s performance when he realizes what’s happened to him and his family is heartbreaking. But that’s not really what Christmas is all about, is it? This special probably feels so off because it aired in July, in the midst of the infamous off year, when the show released four specials instead of a proper season. It’s better than dream crabs, but not by much.
8. “The Husbands of River Song” – I want to like this one so much more than I do. The story is not very Christmassy and the ending is wonderful but heartbreaking. I absolutely love 12 and River’s banter, and it’s great to get a chance to see Capaldi and Kingston play off each other before we kiss this character goodbye. As Doctor Who episodes go, it’s actually a pretty good one, but as judging it as a Christmas special, it’s not so great.
7. “The Time of the Doctor” – It’s 11’s regeneration story and it’s so poignant, especially the scene at the end when 11 calls future Clara and begs her to accept 12. It also represents a game-changing moment in the show’s arc, with Clara pleading with the Time Lords to grant the Doctor a new series of regenerations, ensuring the show can go on as long as there are good actors to play him and good stories to tell. While the overall concept of the battle on Trenzalore is endearing, the actual nonsense of the Time Lords coming back kind of falls flat. And again, just because it airs at Christmas and the town it takes place in is also called Christmas, does not a great Christmas special make.
6. “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe” – This episode falls as high as it does thanks to 2 things. The first is the “Caretaker” and his reimagining of the house with lemonade taps and whatnot. Sometimes the Doctor is at his best when he’s trying to make kids happy and that moment when he and Madge discuss the importance of making kids happy because they’ll be sad later carries so much weight; it’s really beautiful. The other thing to its credit is the writing when the crew of the spaceship on the wintry/acid rain planet encounters Madge, for the idea alone that their scanners cannot tell the difference between wool and sidearms. Bonus points for the reunion with the Ponds at the end that makes me cry every time. All these help this special partially overcome the massive stack of crap that is the plot about the trees having souls that need a mother to guide them home.
5. “The Snowmen” – This episode is mostly great, but gets dinged for its ending. The 2nd appearance of Clara was so fun, with the audience trying to figure out how this woman was connected to the woman in “Asylum of the Daleks.” It was really enjoyable to see a classic series villain brought back in the Great Intelligence. You’re always in for good comedy when a lady flirts with the Doctor and his scenes with Clara delivered on that score. The first appearance of the Pater Noster gang alone bumped this episode up two slots as I was doing the initial ranking. But when the snowmen are defeated by children crying over the death of their governess? I can’t with that.
4. “The Runaway Bride” – This one also features the debut of a recurring character, and as companions go, it doesn’t get much better than Donna Noble. The story is just a really fun adventure which gets bonus points for occurring at Christmas time and integrates that setting into the story a bit better than some of the other specials have. The car chase scene where Donna has to jump into the TARDIS with kids in neighboring car cheering her on is classic. This also marks the first usage of David Tennant’s WHAT?!? reaction. It’s almost hard to see this ranked this low on the list, but the specials that rank higher found ways to be better.
3. “Voyage of the Damned” – Now we’re starting to get into the really Christmassy stories and when you combine that with a fun adventure, it makes a great Doctor Who Christmas special. Kylie Minogue’s Astrid comes as close to being a companion while remaining a one-off character as you can get. The motley crew of characters we meet on this adventure all bring their own special something to the mix. We also get a nice quick amusing scene with Wilf setting up a pretty great moment when they cross paths again in season 4. Bonus points here for the Doctor evacuating the Queen from the palace and for “Allons-y, Alonso!” It doesn’t get much better than this.
2. “A Christmas Carol” – This is the best interpretation of a classic Christmas story in the Doctor Who canon. The use of time travel to change the heart of an old miser. The fun twist that the machine no longer recognizes Kazran after his change of heart. The scenes with Kazran and the Doctor hiding from the shark in the closet. The Doctor’s mad, improvised solution. It’s all quintessential Doctor Who. And on top of that, it marks an important event in the series, conception of River Song. Top notch.
1. “The Christmas Invasion” – This is the ultimate combination of good story, good Doctor Who story, and good Christmas story. It’s the first regeneration story and therefore doesn’t contain much of the Doctor, but what we do get gives us an irrevocable good feeling that the new guy is going to work out just fine. It also puts the companions center stage, as they have to figure out how to deal with an alien threat without the Doctor’s help, which ends up showing off Rose’s resourceful side and good instincts and Harriet Jones’s sinister side and bad instincts. There are so many iconic moments from this episode, chief among them Jackie Tyler squealing that she’s gonna be “killed by a Christmas tree!” It sets up the series’ first spinoff with the introduction of the idea of Torchwood. But you could take all that away and just leave behind the speech in this clip and it would still be a merry Christmas.
I get chills every time.
If you have time to watch them all and infinite money, there’s a very nice box set that includes all of these except “The Husbands of River Song” (and gives you “The End of Time” parts 1 and 2 in its place). Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and tune in to BBCAmerica on Christmas Day to see where “The Return of Dr. Mysterio” falls.