Some TV shows go on hiatus at Christmas. Others embrace the hell out of the season. Sitcoms are well-tailored for shenanigans involving gift exchanges gone awry; it gets a little trickier when it comes to scifi and fantasy shows. Still, some shows nail it. Here are our holiday-themed favorites.
1) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Amends”
Amid bits involving Willow and Oz reconciling, and Buffy inviting Faith to Christmas dinner, Angel is haunted by the ghosts of vampire-victims past that urge him to kill you-know-who. Turns out it’s mindfuckery launched his way by an ancient cabal that would just love to be rid of Buffy. Tormented, he tries to commit suicide by sunlight, but it miraculously snows in Sunnydale at the exact right moment to save him from the rays.
2) The Dead Zone, “A Very Dead Zone Christmas”
Johnny and his psychic buddy Alex work together to unravel the mysterious identity of an old man (who just happens to be wearing a Santa hat) after he’s mugged on the street. They also end up helping the kids who robbed the old man, because nothing goes better with Christmas than orphans... and ESP.
3) Quantum Leap, “A Little Miracle”
Sam leaps into the 1960s body of a portly, mustachioed personal valet right as his cranky douchebag of a boss (Charles Rocket, the dad from Hocus Pocus) is requiring assistance with his underpants. (“Oh, boy.”) And this Grinch-meets-Scrooge fellow doesn’t just have a bad personality—he’s also an evil NYC developer, determined to tear down a Salvation Army mission that’s a lifeline for all the poor people in the neighborhood. It’s Sam’s task to save the guy’s rotting soul, so he and a very hammy Al come up with a variation on the ol’ Christmas Carol routine to make him see the light.
4) Wonder Woman, “The Deadly Toys”
Diana meets a sinister toymaker played by Frank “the Riddler” Gorshin, who has crafted an amazingly lifelike Wonder Woman robot with crime on his mind. Naturally, this leads to a Wonder Woman-on-Wonder Woman throwdown in the middle of the doll workshop, a place filled with flailing wind-up monkeys that would give Stephen King nightmares.
Triumphant in the last scene, she uses a bit of spray-on snow on the toy shop window to spread cheer and her initials.
5) Futurama, “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular”
Futurama actually had multiple holiday episodes—a not-uncommon phenomenon for long-running shows, as we’ll see—but it was difficult to pick a favorite since the show took such a delightful view of Christmas, or what Christmas has become in the 31st century (three words: “Robot Santa Claus”; six words: “Santa Claus Is Gunning You Down”). However, we’re going with “Holiday Spectacular” because it does an excellent job of embracing all the major winter holidays: Xmas, Kwanzaa, and of course Robanukah.
6) The X-Files, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”
In this monster-of-the-week episode, Mulder drags a weary Scully to investigate a mist-shrouded mansion that’s said to be cursed haunted by ghosts who only appear on Christmas Eve. But this is no simple spirit quest—the house is a puzzle box, and the inhabitants are all too eager to add to the home’s holiday body count.
Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin play the episode’s only two other characters: the manipulative, hallucination-inducing, and yet somehow maddeningly adorable spirits. After sharing the weirdest Christmas Eve of their lives together, Scully and Mulder exchange gifts, but the camera pulls away before we can see what they got for each other.
7) The Six Million Dollar Man, “A Bionic Christmas Carol”
Another variation on the Scrooge story, this episode sees Col. Steve Austin completing a very special Christmas mission in the form of Horton Budge (My Favorite Martian’s Ray Walston)—the miserly, holiday-hating head honcho of an OSI contractor. Seems the company’s been turning out shoddy life-support equipment for astronauts, and if that weren’t bad and lawsuit-beckoning enough, Budge is also a jerk to his nephew/chauffeur (Bewitched’s Dick Sargent), a genuinely nice family man who’s fallen on financial hard times. While our hero sets out to change Budge’s mind about safety precautions and the importance of family, “A Bionic Christmas Carol” also sees Steve use his super-strength to uproot a Christmas tree (who needs a chainsaw?), as well as shop for toys in a store that has a Six Million Dollar Man doll visible on the shelf behind him. Just the way Dickens wrote it.
8) Doctor Who, “The Christmas Invasion”
“The Christmas Invasion” gets the edge over “Voyage of the Damned” very slightly in the realm of Doctor Who Christmas specials, mostly because it’s the first Christmas special, as well as the first full episode featuring David Tennant’s freshly regenerated Tenth Doctor. As the title suggests, the holiday heralds a most unwelcome posse of alien invaders in London, which the Doctor fends off—despite his weakened state, and the fact that he spends most of the episode wearing a bathrobe. He also handily neutralizes a vicious Christmas tree, as one does:
9) The Man from U.N.C.L.E., “The Jingle Bells Affair”
Technically, this is more of a Thanksgiving episode, but it involves a Santa Claus suit used as a disguise, so we’re going with it anyway.
When a big-shot Russian official visits New York on Thanksgiving, Solo and Kuryakin are tasked with protecting him from giant parade balloons and assassination attempts. To everyone’s surprise, the communist dignitary—who’s modeled on Nikita Khrushchev; timely, since the episode aired in 1966—becomes fascinated with Christmas shopping and specifically Macy’s Santa Claus, so much that he dons the outfit himself and can’t help but soak up some holiday spirit.
10) Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, “I’m Dreaming of a White Ranger”
Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd both get to shriek “Bah humbug!” in this Christmas spectacular, in which Santa Claus and his elves are taken hostage and forced to make spinning tops that will hypnotize the children of the world into being Zedd-serving soldiers of destruction. Rangers to the rescue, but there’s a catch: their powers won’t work at the North Pole because... magic reasons. Fortunately, this means the bad guys’ powers don’t work either, so everybody resorts to lo-fi fighting tactics, including snowballs. There’s also a spine-tingling subplot about whether or not Kimberly will get to smooch the right guy under the mistletoe.
11) The Twilight Zone, “The Night of the Meek”
The Twilight Zone did a few Christmas episodes over the years, including the existential “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” But the poignant and uncharacteristically optimistic “The Night of the Meek” is our favorite.
It stars Art Carney (The Honeymooners) as a booze-soaked department-store Santa who goes from zero to hero when he makes two magical wishes that change his life—and the lives of everyone around him.
12) Pinky and the Brain, “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas”
Obviously, the plot revolves around a plan to take over the world. This time, Brain infiltrates Santa’s workshop (“the most productive manufacturing facility in the world!”) to make certain there’ll be mass distribution of Noodle Noggin, a Brain-lookalike doll with hypnotic powers. (Shades of Lord Zedd’s spinning tops; apparently mind control was especially big in 1995.)
Eventually, the Brain’s cold, tiny heart grows three sizes when he finally reads Pinky’s selfless letter to Santa, and he abandons the scheme in the name of Christmas and friendship... this time.