For the past 13 years—well, apparently not this year—Doctor Who has been an integral part of Christmas TV with its annual Christmas special. Now that it’s taking a year off, we decided it was the perfect time to look back at its prior festive adventures in Time and Space, and judge them not by their quality, but their Christmas spirit.
Although the story begins at Christmas—with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor encountering (and accidentally superpowering) the young Grant on a Christmas Eve—most of it is wrapped up in a transparent pastiche of Superman. Not a bad thing, per se, but not exactly a Christmassy thing, either.
You’re going to notice a running theme with these lower-ranked entries: They’re mostly Christmas-adjacent despite being set around the holidays. Christmas is practically an afterthought to David Tennant’s swan song as the Doctor; even though the episode is set around the period, it’s more interested in John Simm’s returning Master becoming an Emperor Palpatine knockoff before, well, putting his face on literally everyone on the planet.
It’s bonkers and grand and, like all good Christmas TV, rather camp, but the festive season isn’t exactly intrinsic to the story—you could get away with running it at any time of year and it wouldn’t really change the story. It should almost get points off for having a second part air on New Year’s Day, but that would be unfair.
Killer snow is an excellent idea for a Christmas episode, frankly—but even with that, and being set on Christmas Eve, this entry is surprisingly light on specifically festive elements. Still, lots of snow and period drama help you remember that it’s a Christmas special, even if the primary mystery is in the killer Snowmen and Clara’s timey-wimey “return.”
A beautiful end to the journey of River Song—who had plenty of ups and downs since her time-twisting introduction/death way back in 2008—but once again that aspect of the story becomes the focus, rather than anything particularly festive. At least it’s set on Christmas Day, even if the motif of the season is mostly an afterthought.
As utterly bonkers as this story ends up being—a giant steampunk Cyberman menaces Victorian London!—Christmas is once again pretty ancillary to the proceedings, even if its presence is amped up by a bit of festive Victoriana. There’s plenty of snow, and it even concludes with the Doctor going off to share a Christmas dinner with his new friend, Jackson Lake. But it’s more concerned with the bait-and-switch that Jackson is purportedly a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor than it is anything particularly festive.
As another regeneration story—Doctor Who has basically turned the holiday season into the deadliest time of year for its lead character—Matt Smith’s final episode as the Doctor is primarily concerned with wrapping up plotlines from across Smith’s entire tenure. But, it manages to do that while also being rather Christmassy in the process. Not only does it open with the Doctor and Clara actually (or at least attempting) to cook Christmas dinner for the Oswald family, most of it is literally set in a town called Christmas!
Sure it’s on an alien world and the Doctor spends centuries defending it from alien attack, but it’s the Doctor, defending Christmas. That’s pretty festive. Technically.
You might be surprised by the fact that “The Runaway Bride” is fairly low on this list, given that it is smeared in Christmas imagery. Killer Christmas trees, robot Santas, the Doctor basically saving the day with explosive tree decorations, only for a giant spaceship shaped like the star of Bethlehem to be promptly blown up by the British army.
But it’s also an entry in which the episode’s titular character is desperately trying to escape Christmas. Donna is only getting married on Christmas Eve because she wants to honeymoon in Morocco, as far away from the festivities as she can be. Donna hates Christmas, even as it tortures her with robot Santa kidnappings, deadly decorations, and, well, her Christmas wedding being ruined by a giant spider. It’s one of Who’s most visually festive Christmas specials, but it’s also one that’s kind of anti-Christmas, too, at least from Donna’s point of view. Also, it’s very obviously filmed in the middle of the summer, making you feel bad for every poor extra wrapped up in winter clothing.
The Twelfth Doctor’s swan song is a paradoxical Christmas special. It is almost completely devoid of the imagery you’d expect from a Christmas special, being far more concerned with dingy alien locations, TARDIS interiors, and even the battlefields of World War I. And thematically, of course, it’s less concerned with Christmas than it is the impending end of Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who.
And yet its emotional climax comes at one of the most poignantly festive moments: Witnessing one of the several unofficial ceasefires in hostility that would become known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, both the First and 12th Doctors resolve that they are ready to let their bodies go, and regenerate. It might not have any tinsel or Christmas carols, but it’s a beautifully touching moment that uses the spirit of Christmas in a more subtle manner.
Glitz! Glamor! Kylie Minogue! “Voyage” might be “Titanic in Space,” but it does a better job of integrating its festivity into the plot than many of Who’s other not-really-Christmassy Christmas specials. The whole reason the Titanic is visiting Earth is to see humanity celebrate Christmas, and the aliens from Sto immerse themselves in the visual ephemera of it all, even though a) they don’t particularly understand it; and b) most of it gets blown up when things start going wrong. Hell, it even plays with the metajoke of bad things happening to Doctor Who’s London at Christmas, with the city apparently being left deserted over the festive period. It’s Doctor Who’s Die Hard: It’s a disaster movie set at Christmas.
Plus, at one point the Doctor is raised into the air in a Christlike manner by two robots who look like angels. Not exactly your ho-ho-ho sort of Christmas (Russell T Davies did love himself a bit of Christian imagery, didn’t he?), but it sort of goes along with the spiritual aspect of the holiday?
Another episode that uses Christmas in a less typical manner, it’s nonetheless actually pretty festive, and would be even without the random trip to another planet of perpetual snow and fir trees. “Wardrobe” finds its festivity in the familiar bonds championed over the holiday season.
First it’s in a heartwrenching manner, as Madge tries to hide from her children that their father is missing, potentially dead, in order to avoid ruining Christmas for the young ones. But then it utilizes it in a more hopeful manner, one portal to an alien world later, when Madge uses the power of her desire to bring her family together for Christmas to both reunite her with her missing husband and to transport the Doctor and her children home from a soon-to-be-destroyed world. It’s a bit sappy, sure. But so’s Christmas, really.
Sure, a lot of this episode is basically an homage to Alien, except with a bunch of familiar Steven Moffat Who tricks about dreams and perception. But Santa Goddamn Claus is also a primary character (played by Nick Frost!) for the vast majority of it. It’s a spectacularly silly combo, even if it does ultimately rely on acknowledging that said Santa Claus isn’t actually real, but a dreamed personification of the Father Christmas mythos to save the Doctor and his friends from death by brain-munching dream crabs.
But hey. Santa arrives on a sleigh and rescues the Doctor and Clara from certain doom. If that’s not worth a few festive points, I don’t know what is.
I mean, come on: It’s in the name. This episode is basically Steven Moffat doing his own take on the Dickens classic, that just happens to be of a more sci-fi bent. There’s all the trappings of a Dickensian Christmas, to boot, even if it’s ostensibly set on an alien world with a bunch of flying sharks in its cloud belt. But it’s the fact that the story is basically a new take on Scrooge’s own arc in Dickens’ beloved novel, a tale of redemption and moving on from past regrets, that really makes this one of Doctor Who’s Christmassy-est adventures yet.
It’s unsurprising that modern Who’s first Christmas special is perhaps its most festive; after all, this is the first time the show got to actually go all out with the spirit of the season. It includes iconic elements that would appear in other specials, like the Santa-disguised “pilot fish” robots and the joke of Christmas snowfall that isn’t really snowfall (here it’s ash from the disintegrating Sycorax ship, lovely). Plus, the newly-regenerated Tenth Doctor even gets to sit down to Christmas dinner, complete with crackers and paper hats.
But what really seals it—if Jackie Tyler squealing “I’m gonna get killed by a Christmas tree!” as Jingle Bells plays in the background hadn’t already—is that the Doctor basically saves the day in the most weirdly Christmassy manner possible: finding a satsuma orange, the stocking stuffer of traditional repute, in the pocket of his borrowed bathrobe to slay the Sycorax’s leader. Perhaps the most badass a satsuma has ever been on television, honestly.
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