It’s the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and the Twelfth Doctor has recently starred in the Twelfth of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials…
…therefore it’s time to rank them from Worst to Best. Note a longer review for Specials 2005—2014 can be read by clicking on each title-link.
First, some context, the bigger picture of the whole Christmas Specials thing. Once 21st Century Doctor Who had managed to be a ratings triumph it was only natural for the BBC to commision a Christmas Special.
The idea of a “Christmas Special” used to be associated with Light Entertainment comedies like The Two Ronnies; for Doctor Who, unlike say a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, there is a larger narrative to consider – though like a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special a guest-star is often centre-stage.
It’s easier for an always-on Continuing Drama like EastEnders to absorb a Christmas tale as part of its narrative than it is for Doctor Who; situation comedies like Only Fools and Horses have an unchanging status quo, while Doctor Who has to choose whether each Special is a companion-interregnum, a launchpad for a new Doctor, the finale of an era, or something else entirely.
12. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
The third of these Specials, what it shares with the previous Christmas Day is the Doctor is paired without his “regular” companion, giving it the air of filling-in time before the “proper” longer story starts. (The season-run of thirteen episodes starting that Spring.)
It intends to be “The Poseidon Adventure in Space” and it succeeds at that but the magic – that had made Doctor Who so popular over the past three years – isn’t quite there despite Kylie’s starpower.
11. The Runaway Bride (2006)
Another Special with the Tenth Doctor paired with a not-companion between seasons, its 2006 “so-what”-ness is ironic considering the iconic duo of 2008, the Doctor & Donna.
10. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
It’s fun and riffs on the very-fashionable genre of Superheroes excellently, but again the question is can it be properly brilliant Doctor Who without the Doctor and his companion? And yes Nardole is going to be a companion (apparently) but the now-whole-again character doesn’t seem fully sketched yet beyond being now-wise instead of daft.
9. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
This Special shows that 60 minutes of Christmas without a “proper” Doctor Who companion can actually be great. Great stirringly heartwarming stuff, and much Christmas fun can be had debating how “sexist” Moffat is when he says women are emotionally stronger than men.
8. The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Capaldi! Kingston! Together at last – and it’s as breezily delightful as you’d expect.
7. The Next Doctor (2008)
The forward narrative momentum is kept up even with a “guest companion” meaning a much more satisfying Tenth Doctor Yuletide yarn than either 2006 or 2007, especially with the metacommentary of the title and concept of the story. The Victorians invented the traditional Christmas so it’s only logical that this 21st Century tradition (for this time-travel show) should mine Victoriana for its 60 minutes on the big day.
6. The Snowmen (2012)
Linking together two halves of one season, (“Series Pond” and “Series Clara”), this Christmas Special is structually unique. A redesigned TARDIS plus the air of a New Era starting means this is a Big Deal. More Victoriana.
5. Last Christmas (2014)
What could be tedious (dreams) is actually some of Moffat’s cleverest plotting and some of the best cinematic Doctor Who since 2005.
4. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
They said it couldn’t be done – entertain a Christmas BBC One audience whilst wrapping up four years of complex plotlines? – but they were wrong.
3. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Moffat use of time-travel across the guest-star’s timeline has never been so elegantly realised onscreen, with the sequence of older Kazran watching his own past as the Doctor literally steps back through that vista one magnificent scene of a whole Special full of them.
2. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
Why is this #2, above ten other Specials? Three words – “Song for Ten”.
Oh okay then more words. It has to do a lot of things, this 60 minutes, not least of which is to be an entertaining Christmassy treat. That the Doctor sits down to Christmas Dinner by its end is very satisfying for that aspect, but this is after a thrilling mystery resolved, that of “Who is this person now that Eccleston is no longer the star?” Luckily Doctor Who had established equal billing for the other star, Rose (Piper) and her emotional quandry is great drama, only topped by Tennant’s superb pajama-clad debut as The Doctor.
1. The End of Time Part One (2009)
Want cheese and chips
and meat and gravy
and cream and beer
and pork and beef and fat
and great big chunks of hot wet red – so says John Simm’s Master, a disturbing festive feast of a performance as he returns as Doctor Who’s nemesis. That return by itself would be Event Television, but also this is the start of the End for the Tenth Doctor – who’d actually been saying Goodbye for four Specials now, (Christmas, Easter, Autumn now Christmas again). It is suitably epic. The fact that this ends on a cliffhanger, the story to be resolved with Part Two doesn’t detract from this being the Best Christmas Special.