Since its return in 2005 (how many times I have started an article with that sentence?), Doctor Who and Christmas have gone together like eggs and nogs. Without fail, for the last nine years, there has been an episode of Doctor Who on television on December the 25th. Whether the specials themselves were overly “Christmassy” is another matter, but you definitely have to give them credit for consistency in programming. The Time Lord in his TARDIS has become as familiar on Christmas as scenes of snow and trees with blinking lights. Interestingly, though, Christmas was not a staple of Doctor Who in its original 26-year stint, with one very obvious and weird exception. So, friends, as Peter Capaldi’s first Yuletide space-time jaunt draws ever-nearer, let’s take a look at the previous Christmas episodes and grade them on how much cheer they spread.
1965 – “The Feast of Steven”
During the show’s third season, with William Hartnell still firmly entrenched as the Doctor, Christmas fell on a Saturday. In the middle of the massive, twelve-episode arc story known as “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” the Doctor and his crew (Steven and Sara) have a nearly-unconnected comedic jaunt in contemporary London. At the end of the episode, as was inexplicably the custom back in those days, the Doctor turns to camera to wish the audience a very merry Christmas. That moment was not, apparently, in the script, but it was in director Douglas Camfield’s plans, so either it appears to have been cooked up by Hartnell, Camfield, or both. Being Christmas, the ratings were about 2 million people less than the average for the storyline, but those who did were treated to maybe the least Doctor Who-ish episode in history. Like all but three of the episodes in the story, “The Feast of Steven” is missing, with only stills and fragments of clips left in the archives. A bit of a shame, as the episode sounds totally bonkers.
Believe it or not, that was the one and only time that they allowed an episode of the show to fall on Christmas Day for the rest of the Classic Series, most likely so they wouldn’t have to chance a repeat of the “Feast of Steven” debacle. It’s like the series went out of its way not to acknowledge the holidays, even during the Earthbound UNIT years. Curious.
2005 – “The Christmas Invasion”
This episode brands itself right in the title. It takes place on Christmas and Christmas is in the name. Boom. Seems Russell T. Davies was a huge proponent of the merger of Doctor Who’s brand of science fiction and the Yuletide. His first Christmas episode is easily the most full of holiday spirit and, of course, that makes it terrifying. With the newly-regenerated Doctor stuck in bed, weird things begin occurring, Christmas trees become homicidal, and 1/3 of the population looks like they might kill themselves. So, you know, Christmas. For being the first episode to feature a Doctor, David Tennant sure spends a lot of his time not doing anything. This is really a Rose Tyler and family drama with a bit of human subjugation thrown in for good measure. It gets very dark as it goes on, with Harriet Jones, Prime Minister, willingly destroying a fleeing enemy, and the Doctor then making everyone doubt the woman’s mental and emotional health. That’s not very charitable in either case. Still, it ends with snow (really ash from the exploded Sycorax ship) and some colorful lights, and that’s about all it really needed.
2006 – “The Runaway Bride”
In contrast to “The Christmas Invasion,” the following year gave us arguably one of the least Christmassy Christmas specials. First, it was shot in the summer, and that’s pretty obvious all the way through. Second, it follows Donna Noble (before she was more than an irritating person) as she tries to get back to her wedding. Who gets married on Christmas? Further, who barely mentions that they’re getting married on Christmas? Thirdly, there’s a car chase with the TARDIS as one of the cars. Fourthly, it lets the Doctor get very dark indeed, as he pretty much decides to destroy the last of a species and wants to watch the Empress suffer. Good thing Donna was around to tell him that’s a bad idea. Really the only thing that would signify it as being a Christmas special, aside from the day on which it was broadcast, are the robot Santas and Christmas trees that were seen the year previous. Lance is a phenomenal a-hole, too. It’s a pretty good episode, but not particularly in keeping with the season.
2007 – “Voyage of the Damned”
Slightly more Christmassy, slightly less good. This episode is a science fiction take on The Poseidon Adventure in which the Doctor delivers a number of big speeches and almost nobody gets out alive. The episode does introduce Wilfred, who in this is just a newspaper seller but who turns out to be Donna’s grandpa. Interesting that two consecutive Christmas specials introduce main characters for the following series, but that certainly wasn’t the plan. My real problem with “Voyage of the Damned” is how ridiculously arch the whole thing is. Everything’s pitched at such a high level that it outstays its welcome really fast. Not all bad, but definitely not one of my favorites.
2008 – “The Next Doctor”
The first Christmas special not to be set on contemporary Earth, this one finds the Doctor in Victorian London meeting the Doctor… kind of. The man who would go on to be the Governor on The Walking Dead, David Morrissey, plays a guy with amnesia who believes himself to be the Doctor. There are also Cybermen walking around with things called “Cybershades,” which are sort of like Cyber ape-dogs. The first 20-25 minutes of this one are pretty darn good. It’s got a lot of references to the Doctor’s past (it even shows all 9 previous Doctors onscreen) and the costumes and sets are really cool. It looks VERY Christmassy. The downfall with it is that it becomes incredibly stupid by the end. A giant Cyberman trampling the city? Only a hot air balloon can save the day? DUMB! Such a good premise, so very wasted.
2009 – “The End of Time part 1”
Not Christmassy. Pile of garbage. All of it is dumb, except one scene in the diner with Wilf. Hate, hate, hate. “The Day of the Doctor,” thankfully, allowed for a bit of retribution, so my abiding memory of Tennant isn’t this crud.
2010 – “A Christmas Carol”
When Steven Moffat took over from RTD, the Christmas specials all were set period, or in a future that looks period. This first one is far and away the best Christmas episode of the lot. In a way only Moffat could, he turns a Charles Dickens classic into a timey-wimey melancholy drama about a mean old man who maybe doesn’t have to be. The look of it is gorgeous and for the first time ever, really, Steampunk makes its way into Doctor Who. Yes, the shark is a bit silly, but it’s a lot less silly than some of the Christmas specials’ features. Also, it’s got Michael Gambon in it, and that is never a bad thing. As much as I hate “The End of Time” is how much I love “A Christmas Carol.”
2011 – “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”
Upon first watch, this story is a fine, if sappy, episode about a mother and her children, but further viewings bring more of its shortcomings to the surface. There’s really not a whole lot of conflict, the solution is far too simplistic, and the finale is far too blatant a heartstring tug. There’s good stuff to be had, though, especially in the first act: The Doctor playing caretaker and creating a perfect house for children is enough to give you a smile. It’s as good as the ol’ bear and duvet. Nice, if brief and unnecessary, reference to “The Caves of Androzani” as well.
2012 – “The Snowmen”
This special marks the one and only time a Christmas episode came in the middle of the series, which was due to some clever fiscal-year shifting on the production team’s part. As such, “The Snowmen” had to work both as a holiday special and as a continuation of the overall storyline. It totally does, though it’s not especially Christmas-themed. Wintery, yes. In it, the Doctor has been hiding out in Victorian London trying not to get involved while Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax do their level best to solve mysteries and things. However, the Doctor springs back to action when he meets a barmaid/governess named Clara and the snow and ice start to come alive. I really, really loved this episode, and was surprised at how much it actually did further the plot, perhaps the most that’s happened since “The Christmas Invasion.”
2013 – “The Time of the Doctor”
And finally, we come to last year’s emotional, and weirdly divisive, special, which saw the end of the Eleventh Doctor in a pretty heartbreaking fashion following the relentlessly triumphant 50th Anniversary Special a month prior. The Doctor is forced to live out hundreds of years without a TARDIS on the planet Trenzalore in the town called Christmas defending the innocent people from Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, and basically every other bad and nasty thing ever on the series who are trying to get at Gallifrey which is hidden in the crack in the universe there. He even cast his companion, Clara, to the curb in order to keep her from having to see him grow old and die, but he does anyway, and the Time Lords, through the crack, bestow upon him a new set of regenerations and the cycle begins anew. Not the most Christmassy episode, but certainly full of holiday malaise.
Which brings us to this year. No idea what’s going to happen when the Doctor, Clara, and Santa Claus (Nick Frost) get together, but surely it’ll be something joyful and triumphant. But also scary, because of those grotty-mouthed whatever-they-ares we see in the trailer. Will Jenna Coleman actually leave the show? Will the Doctor’s apparent obsession with orange fruits ever be addressed? Come back here to after you’ve seen the episode, entitled “Last Christmas,” airing at 9:00pm ET on BBC America, to read my review and we’ll get to the bottom of everything.