Doctor Who is all about change, about comings and goings. And few things mark the passage of time more than the holidays. Each year since the show relaunched in 2005, Who has done a Christmas special. These episodes tend to be big, dramatic and more than a little silly. They’ve also become the time each actor playing the Doctor bows out from the role. This year’s upcoming special is no different, with Peter Capaldi saying his farewells.
Now seems like a good time to look back and offer up my choices for the five best holiday specials. There were some difficult decisions here, but the five episodes selected highlight the many wonderful (and weird) aspects of Doctor Who.
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
An imperfect episode that gives Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor a fitting sendoff, The Time of the Doctor attempts to end a three-season story arc, tell a charming Christmas story and say goodbye to Smith in 60 minutes. It’s far too much for a single episode.
The premise, while confusing, is a good one. The Doctor is trapped on an alien world in a town called Christmas (a bit on the nose, yeah), which holds a secret that all of Who’s classic baddies want. Thanks to some sci-fi nonsense, a force field (mostly) keeps the monsters out, but it means the Doctor can never leave or tell a lie. The Doctor is forced to live out his own personal hell of putting down roots and living an honest life.
The Doctor resigns himself to fighting the last battle of what he believes is his last life. Of course, that doesn’t happen, but there are some surprises – and Matt Smith is particularly good throughout. Time works best when viewed immediately after the far better 50th anniversary special. Together, the two episodes celebrate the show’s history while setting up its future.
The Runaway Bride (2006)
The Runaway Bride makes the list for two reasons. One, it’s the first time David Tennant and Catherine Tate share the screen as the Doctor and Donna Noble (the runaway bride in the title) – arguably the best pairing of a Doctor and companion this century. Second and more importantly, this episode is just fun.
Well, mostly fun. There are a few bittersweet moments, along with hints of the darker stories that would end Tennant’s run. But this episode is so full of energy, humor and just the right kind of silliness. From robotic Santa assassins, to killer Christmas trees with exploding ornaments, to a car chase involving the TARDIS, this episode felt big and revelatory for fans back in the day.
But what fans really latched onto was Tennant and Tate’s easy chemistry together. Even if their characters didn’t hit it off immediately, the actors playing them did from the start. It’s a brilliant introduction to Donna and her family (more about them below), leading to one of the best seasons of Doctor Who when Tate joined the show in earnest.
The End of Time (2009)
In 2009, Doctor Who took somewhat of a break. Instead of a full season, the show did several holiday specials throughout the year, leading to The End of Time, the Christmas special where David Tennant and much of the behind the scenes talent left Doctor Who. Judging by The End of Time, everyone was ready to go but couldn’t stand leaving.
That overwrought, conflicted feeling runs throughout The End of Time – a downbeat ending to the Tenth Doctor’s run. Like Matt Smith’s final episode, the plot is a mess. What starts as another scheme by the Master (the Doctor’s archenemy) turns into something far grander. And like The Time of the Doctor, it feels like a season-long story arc with huge repercussions for the series crammed into one story.
Still, Tennant’s farewell ranks higher on my list because The End of Time has time to breathe, thanks to being a two-parter. And the real treat is seeing the Doctor share this story with Donna Noble’s grandfather (played beautifully by Bernard Cribbins). It’s one of the rare times Who has paired the impossibly old Doctor with an older character actually played by an older actor. Their scenes together, full of melancholy and warmth, are among my favorites in the show’s history.
Last Christmas (2014)
Imagine the movies Alien, The Thing and Inception got together around the holidays and decided during an eggnog-fueled binge to make a Christmas special and you’ve about got Last Christmas.
Oh, and Santa shows up. It’s that nutty.
In fact, Alien and The Thing are directly referenced in the episode. The plot is intended to feel familiar, for reasons that slowly unfold. Set at a research base located at the North Pole, the Doctor, Clara (his companion) and a group of scientists are attacked by brain-eating creatures resembling the facehuggers from Alien. The monsters put their victims to sleep and create dreams within dreams – to confuse their victims about what is real, so they won’t wake up and defend themselves.
All the craziness and movie references work because the episode builds on the recent tragedies Clara and the Doctor had experienced, and their dreams allow them to each explore their grief and anxieties. Few holiday specials acknowledge how unhappy or lonely this time of year is for many of us. And whether they’re happy or sad times, Last Christmas reminds us that we all get so many Christmases.
A Christmas Carol (2010)
The best of the best, hands down.
On an alien – and decidedly Victorian looking – world, a Scrooge-like character (played by the great Michael Gambon) is doing Scrooge-like things, prompting the Doctor to travel back and forth through time and create his own versions of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The “Scrooge” we meet at the beginning of the episode is slowly changed for the better as the Doctor alters his timeline.
This is one of the best of showrunner Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” episodes, and he makes some head-spinning leaps in logic seem effortless. Since Moffat is following the structure of a classic story everyone knows, the plot’s always clear and never feels clever for the sake of being clever. The way the story bounces around in time is still astounding on repeat viewings (the Ghost of Christmas Future is particularly devastating).
Of all the episodes on this list, this one has the best balance of bitter and sweet. And even with all the liberties it takes, it’s a great adaptation of the real Christmas Carol.
Thanks for reading. What’s your favorite Christmas episode of Doctor Who?
Jeremy is the Promotions Assistant at HPB Corporate