The Christmas Specials 2005 - 2017
From 2005 to 2017, Doctor Who held pride of place in the BBC Christmas Day schedules. Following the first series phenomenally successful revival, David Tennant took over as the Doctor for The Christmas Invasion, the first official Christmas special in the programme’s history. (William Hartnell had an episode on Christmas Day 1965, “The Feast of Steven,” and Christopher Eccleston had the very festive “The Unquiet Dead” as his third episode, but that aired in April. Neither can be considered a Christmas special.)
This first Christmas special began a new tradition, with annual Christmas-themed escapades following, starring Tennant and his successors Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi. However, following Jodie Whittaker’s first series in 2018, there was no Christmas episode, with the show instead mixing things up with a New Year’s Day special. It was an interesting move and by that point, the Christmas angle was getting a little stale, but the New Year’s Day episodes of the Whittaker era never quite captured the imagination the same way.
Now, with Russell T. Davies revamping the programme for the second time, the Christmas Special is back (one can easily imagine him insisting upon it as a condition of his return). To mark the occasion, let’s have a quick rundown of all thirteen festive stories so far, rating them on their most essential qualities: story strength and Christmassy-ness.
2005: The Christmas Invasion
The first Doctor Who Christmas special had the difficult job of following the successful first series starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, while recasting his role with the fresh-faced David Tennant. However, the success of the first series was just as much down to Billie Piper’s performance as the Doctor’s companion Rose. The first regeneration of the modern series was seen through Rose’s eyes, along with those of her mother Jackie (Camille Coduri) and ex-boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke). Penelope Wilton returns as Harriet Jones, now Prime Minister, overseeing the UK’s response to a Christmas Day alien attack without the Doctor to back her up. Davies’s script cannily keeps the Doctor sidelined for most of its runtime, dropping him into the narrative for the final act so that he can step in, take ownership of the show and defeat the unpleasant alien Sycorax. He returns to the TARDIS to pick out his new look to the tune of Murray Gold’s “Song for Ten,” which established its own tradition of a festive song written for the special.
This would have been enough for a winning episode, but Davies made sure that he made the most of the Christmas setting. Before the skeletal Sycorax arrive in force, they are prefigured by robotic alien “pilot fish,” scavengers who camouflage themselves according to their environment. Rose and co. are menaced by cybernetic Santas, before a jolly Christmas tree, delivered to Jackie’s flat, comes to life and starts attacking them with killer baubles. It just might be the most Doctor Who way to celebrate Christmas.
2006: The Runaway Bride
The second Christmas special might have had an even harder job. Piper left at the end of the second series, taken from the Doctor and stranded in a parallel universe. The show now had to continue without any of its initial cast, a tough job that the modern series still had to prove it could handle.
Davies employed a reliable technique to maintain audience engagement between each series and its following special: ending with a shock reveal that would be picked up in the next episode. The second series ended with a mysterious bride, played by comedy great Catherine Tate as Donna, materialising inside the TARDIS without warning. Christmas then saw the Doctor trying to get Donna to her wedding on time, before solving the mystery of just what had dragged her from her fiancé Lance (Don Gilet).
The Runaway Bride was originally planned for the middle of series two, before the Christmas specials were assured and Davies kept it back for the festive season. The Christmas-theme is a little more forced, with the Doctor pointing out the strangeness of having a wedding on Christmas Eve. The spider-like Racnoss (Sarah Parrish) controls a star-shaped starship, and has taken control of the Santa Roboforms from the previous special. While that side of things is a little more contrived, it’s a storming episode, giving us Tate’s wonderful Donna Noble, for which we must all be grateful. It was only a matter of time before she came back. Plus, we get The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon singing on the soundtrack with the catchy “Love Don’t Roam.”
2007: Voyage of the Damned
Going in a different direction for his third special, Davies created a miniature disaster movie in the vein of classics like The Poseidon Adventure. More important than the script, though, was securing his dream guest star: Aussie pop princess Kylie Minogue. Davies was determined to make it the biggest thing on television, and he succeeded: Voyage of the Damned received 13.31 million viewers, the biggest audience of the modern series. Davies waited until Minogue’s casting was confirmed to begin work on the script, writing the character of Astrid for her.
The third series ended with the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS. Voyage of the Damned revealed that this was the Starship Titanic, a perfect replica in space, on a voyage from the planet Sto to show tourists the Earth festival of Christmas. With the Titanic inevitably scuppered, the Doctor teams up with Astrid and a bunch of survivors in a mission to escape to safety. This episode features some of the best guest actors, including Debbie Chazen and Clive Rowe as the Van Hoffs, Clive Swift as alleged Earthologist Mr. Copper and Russell Tovey as Midshipman Alonso Frame.
However, the story is a bit of a mess and the central villain, Max Capricorn (George Costigan) is a joke character lacking the threat needed to warrant his inclusion. The Host, angelic robots turned killers, make a great visual though. The special hangs on the chemistry between Minogue and Tennant (it must have been his best Christmas ever). It could have been even more star-studded though: Dennis Hopper, apparently a fan, was in talks to appear as either Mr. Copper or Max, but unfortunately his schedule couldn’t meet the production’s. At least Bernard Cribbins was available.
2008: The Next Doctor
It’s hard, if you’re watching the episode for the first time now, to appreciate the context of The Next Doctor. Tennant, having become synonymous with Doctor Who by this point, had announced he was leaving the role, after a run of specials set to follow series four. Davies, never one to let a media frenzy go to waste, capitalised on this with a Christmas special that teased at revealing his replacement. Tennant’s Blackpool co-star David Morrissey was cast as the supposed next Doctor (Davies had wanted to call the episode The Two Doctors, but they’d already used that title in 1985.)
Morrissey is perfect in his role, having studied Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Tom Baker to create a more old-fashioned version of the Doctor. It’s no surprise when it’s revealed to be a fake-out, with Morrissey’s amnesiac Doctor being someone else altogether, but his screen presence and rapport with Tennant make him a successful pseudo-Doctor. He’s ably supported by Velille Tshabalala as his own companion, Rosita, probably smarter and more capable than either domineering Doctor. Against them is Dervla Kirwan giving an arch but intense performance as the villainous Miss Hartigan, twisted by a downtrodden life in the 19th century.
With a setting in snowy Victorian London, The Next Doctor just feels Christmassy throughout, in spite of some heavy subject matter and subtext. The use of the Cybermen as the story’s monsters makes for a clever juxtaposition, with the high-tech soldiers clashing with the traditional setting, before they wheel out their giant steampunk ultimate weapon. Altogether this is a cracking Christmas episode that’s largely underrated.
2009: The End of Time
The End of Time was a landmark event, marking the end of an era for Doctor Who. It was the last story to star David Tennant as the Doctor, the last to be written by Russell T. Davies and his last as showrunner. At least, at the time it was: now both of them have returned, with Davies continuing as showrunner until at least the end of 2025. Still, the significance was not lost on the audience at the time, nor the BBC, who peppered their Christmas schedules with festive Doctor Who idents featuring Tennant.
Unusually, The End of Time is a two-part story, acting as both the fifth Christmas special and the very first New Year’s Day special. Acting as a finale for the era, it brought back John Simm as the Master, who had been the Big Bad of series three; Catherine Tate as Donna, albeit unable to actually meet the Doctor after her memory was wiped at the end of series four; and Bernard Cribbins as her granddad Wilfred Mott, taking the companion role for the first time since 1966 (when he played Tom in the Aaru movie Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD opposite Peter Cushing).
Unfortunately, Part One is a godawful mess. It’s a nadir for Davies, delivering hokey dialogue and incoherent plotting as he rushes to put the pieces in place for his grand finale. The Master’s resurrection at the hands of a cult of female prison officers is bad enough, before David Harewood is wasted as evil millionaire Joshua Naismith, an entirely pointless character. There’s also a lot of mysterious stuff concerning the alien Ood, which goes nowhere, and some embarrassing material with Wilf’s gang of old troublemakers. Everyone’s phoning in their performance except for Simm, Tennant and Cribbins, who give it their all.
Thankfully, Part Two is much better. Wilf and the Doctor get some touching scenes together, and we get Timothy Dalton giving a powerful performance as the corrupt Time Lord President, Rassilon. The cliffhanger ending to Part One saw everyone on Earth turned into a duplicate of the Master, an utterly absurd set-up for the finale but one that works because everyone is just going with it. By the time we get to the inevitable face-off between three antagonistic Time Lords, tensions are high; but it's poor Wilf, at the sidelines, who seals the Doctor’s fate. Both Tennant and Davies are milking it with the Tenth Doctor’s farewell tour, complete with cameos from pretty much every major character since the series returned, but it works, and the Doctor’s final moments are carefully calculated to wring tears from every eye watching.
2010: A Christmas Carol
2010 saw the changing of the guard, with Steven Moffat taking over as showrunner for the fifth series and Matt Smith cast as the new Eleventh Doctor. Finally getting the chance to write a Christmas special, Moffat declared he would make it the most Christmassy special ever, and did he ever deliver. Dickens’ classic already has a Who-ish vibe to it, what with all the time travelling ghosts and the triumph of goodwill over greed and cruelty, and it’s a perfect choice for the Doctor Who treatment.
The episode is set on another planet in the distant future, but it’s a distinctly Victorian-styled planet, a snowy pseudo-London on another world that keeps the episode feeling distinctly festive throughout. It’s Doctor Who though, so there are also giant flying sharks. The late Michael Gambon is perfectly cast as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick, the ruler of the colony who is refusing to clear a deadly cloud layer and allow a crashing starship to land safely. Both an acclaimed actor and a well-known figure to kids thanks to the Harry Potter films, he brings the depth the part needs: loathsome when he needs to be, sympathetic when his history is explored.
The Doctor takes it upon himself to act as the Ghost of Christmas Past, interfering in Sardick’s personal history to make him into a better man. Matt Smith is born for this kind of whimsical, kid-friendly yet hard-hitting role, and adds another dose of magic to an already magical script. While Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, as Amy and Rory, are officially the companions, they’re trapped on the ship and kept largely to the sidelines. Instead, the companion role is filled by the younger Kazran (Laurence Belcher as a nipper and Danny Horn as a teen) and mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins in her first acting role as the tragic Abigail. Both Kazran actors are excellent, and while Jenkins isn’t really an actor, she holds her own. She’s mainly there to sing though, and no one could do it more beautifully.
A Christmas Carol is an astonishing triumph of a story, from Smith’s soot-covered entrance down the chimney to the gut-punch reveal of the Ghost of Christmas Future. Heartbreaking yet affirming, it’s simply the best Christmas special in Doctor Who’s run so far.
2011: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
A sadly underrated story, this C.S. Lewis-inspired story is a festive treat. While it’s high on whimsy and gets a bit saccharine at times, there’s no problem with that at Christmastime. Moffat does deliver some dodgy dialogue in this one (“Humany-wumany” should be struck from the record) but there’s an unmistakable sweetness to this story that makes it hard not to love.
Having separated himself from Amy and Rory, the Doctor is travelling alone and reaching out for companionship. After crashing to Earth in pre-war England, he is rescued by Madge Arwell (Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner), and decides to say thank you by saving Christmas for her in 1941. Her husband (Alexander Armstrong) has been lost over the Channel, and she hasn’t broken the news to her children, Lily and Cyril. Skinner’s no nonsense performance makes her a perfect foil to Smith’s increasingly childish and whimsical Doctor, while Holly Earl (nineteen but playing much younger) really impresses as Lily, taking charge almost as much as her screen mum. Maurice Cole, the youngest Doctor Who companion ever at only nine, is rather adorable as the precocious Cyril.
Why the Doctor thought that wrapping up a space/time portal to a distant planet was a wise and safe idea for a present we can only guess. What a planet it is, though, filled with a vast forest of naturally-occurring Christmas trees ruled by a wooden king and queen. There are no villains here, unusually, with the threat instead coming from an inept corporate crew. Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Paul Bazely are all poorly served, sadly, but the production as a whole is a beautiful piece of work, with some gorgeous direction from Farren Blackburn.
2012: The Snowmen
Series seven was split across two years, with the 2012 Christmas special sitting in the middle. The first half of the season had ended with the Doctor losing Amy and Rory to time, and by the time Christmas had rolled round, it seemed that he and River had parted ways as well. We met a Doctor who was depressed, lonely and isolated, having settled down in Victorian London and parked his TARDIS on a cloud (because even when he’s depressed, the Eleventh Doctor is extra-whimsical). Having retired from saving planets, the Doctor’s only connection with the world was the Paternoster Gang: Silurian lizard-woman Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife/maid/ninja sidekick Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and Sontaran warrior/nurse/butler Strax (Dan Starkey).
The special’s job was to introduce two important new characters: the new companion and a new recurring threat. Jenna Coleman had already made a surprise appearance in series seven’s opening episode as Oswin Oswald in the far future, and now she was introduced again as Clara, the Victorian barmaid moonlighting as a governess. Coleman is an immediate hit as the unstoppable and hugely likeable Clara, and it’s easy to see why she’s the one who brings the Doctor out of his self-imposed exile. She can’t last though, and is killed off at the end in order to create the mystery around her third introduction in the second half of the season. It’s a shame, because Victorian Clara is the best of the bunch.
Richard E. Grant chews the scenery as the sinister Dr. Simeon, with Ian McKellan making less of an impact as the disembodied voice of the Great Intelligence (one expects he literally phoned it in). Keeping the identity of the villain, who had once faced Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, secret was a fun game for fans, but for most watching, the excitement was due to his army of razor-toothed snowmen and the creepy governess carved from ice. By the end of the episode, the Doctor is revitalised and on a mission to find Clara and solve the mystery of her mixed-up lives, while the Intelligence (now embodied by Grant) is waiting for a rematch. It’s an efficient episode that can set up the rest of the season while also providing a captivating mix of horror and wintry magic.
2013: The Time of The Doctor
One year later, series seven had finished, the mystery of Clara had been resolved, and Doctor Who’s fiftieth-anniversary celebrations were over. The Time of The Doctor marks Matt Smith’s farewell to the programme and has a lot of work to do. Moffat had left himself with a vast amount of dangling plot threads throughout Smith’s time-twisting, not least his inevitable end on the planet Trenzalore. If that wasn’t enough, he decided to deal with the looming issue of the Doctor’s regenerations running out by bringing it forward and deliver a festive special all in one go.
While Clara is mostly concerned with cooking the turkey for Christmas dinner for her fairly dreadful family, the Doctor is on the trail of a mysterious signal emanating from a planet in the far future - along with a bizarre futuristic church and the space fleets of pretty much every major alien race in the programme’s history. The episode might be described, if we’re being generous, as a bit busy.
With the signal revealed to be the voice of the Time Lords themselves, the Doctor settles down in the town called Christmas, seemingly the only settlement on the planet Trenzalore, to defend it from all his enemies and stop the Time War starting all over. Said enemies include the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, and the Church, run by Tasha Lem (an incredibly sexy Orla Brady), seemingly his former lover.
Way too much happens in this episode, the plot makes little sense and some of the decisions are downright bizarre (the Doctor walking around naked for much of the first act, occasionally wearing holographic clothes, stands out). Yet there are some truly beautiful moments. The Doctor’s most loyal companion turns out to be the disembodied Cyberman head, Handles (a remarkably touching voice performance by Kayvan Novak), while Clara refuses to be sent home by him, repeatedly finding her way back to him even though centuries have passed on Trenzalore. The Doctor’s last moments, ancient and forgetful, while Clara helps him to pull a cracker before he faces the Daleks one last time, is a truly touching scene. In the end, the plot is not so much resolved as switched off: Clara asks the Time Lords to give the Doctor more regenerations; they do, then leave, making the entire siege rather pointless. The Doctor’s regeneration is so violent it does more damage than the Daleks. At the last, though, Smith is permitted a simple, quiet and rather beautiful farewell scene.
2014: Last Christmas
For the end of Peter Capaldi’s first series, Moffat brought back a Doctor Who tradition: ending the episode with a shock reveal to lead into the Christmas special. This time, after the Doctor and Clara have lied to each other about how they’re doing and parted company, Father Christmas, played by the beloved Nick Frost, barges into the TARDIS.
Nothing could be more Christmassy than Santa Claus himself crashing the proceedings. He is, after all, a rather Doctorish character in himself, a figure of childhood folklore who sidesteps the laws of physics to bring fun to kids worldwide. Frost is born to play him (even his name is perfect for it), combining an everyman persona with the mystical and slightly sinister otherworldliness of the character. Backed by his two elves (Nathan McMullen and Dan Starkey, the latter out of Sontaran make-up for once), he dominates the episode.
What Moffat remembers, though, is that Christmas also has a tradition of ghost stories and sinister tales, and an inescapable undercurrent of sadness. Loss and loneliness are heightened at Christmas, and these are major themes of the episode, with Clara mourning her boyfriend Danny (Samuel Anderson) and the Doctor still separated from his people. The guest characters, stranded in the Arctic on a scientific expedition, are a lonely lot as well, and that’s before they faced the threat of the Alien-esque dream crabs.
Last Christmas combines an Inception-like existential horror with the magic of a child’s Christmas - there’s never been a moment that combines Christmas and Doctor Who’s charms as well as Santa storming to the rescue at the North Pole. The script continually sends up its own concept, all but shouting at us that everything we are seeing is unreal. The almost-final scene between the Doctor and Clara, reunited in her old age, is beautiful, and reflects the similar but reversed scene in The Time of the Doctor. It would have made a perfect goodbye for the character… except that Coleman changed her mind at the last minute and stayed on, robbing it of its point and impact. It also means that we only got one episode of Faye Marsay, on the cusp of becoming a huge deal, as would-be companion Shona, instead of a whole series. So points off for that.
2015: The Husbands of River Song
Series nine ended with Clara finally leaving the TARDIS for good, the Doctor robbed of his memories of her, and once again lost and lonely. This made it the right time for him to run into his wife, crashing into the middle of her adventure while he was just trying to have a quiet Christmas on another wintry planet. Alex Kingston’s performance as the irrepressible River Song is one of the best things of Moffat’s Doctor Who and bringing her back for one last escapade was a must. She and Capaldi share wonderful chemistry, very different than she had with Matt Smith. Keeping River in the dark as to the Doctor’s identity for much of the episode (not for want of trying on his part) makes this a bit of a farce, something Moffat excels at, with the eventual reveal being Doctor Who’s most romantic moment.
For the most part the episode is a daft runaround, with some incredibly broad performances by Greg Davies as the evil King Hydroflax and Matt Lucas as River’s assistant Nardole (the latter, like Catherine Tate before him, would return as a full-time companion with a rather more restrained performance). Harmony Shoal, the head-slicing alien threat introduced at the last minute, are unsettling but don't have much clout. It’s all worth it, though, for that reveal, and the truly beautiful ending, with the Doctor and River finally settling down to live their lives together. While it’s one of the weaker specials, for that reason alone it remains a favourite.
2016: The Return of Doctor Mysterio
There was no series of Doctor Who in 2016, with a full year between episodes as it returned on Christmas Day. The script reflected this, with the Doctor, now accompanied by Nardole, having spent twenty-four years away from adventuring while he lived with River, before she left to meet her fate.
Capitalising on the huge popularity of superhero movies in the 2010s, Moffat decided to crash Doctor Who into the genre. The show had taken on many different film and TV genres over the years, so it was about time it did superheroes. It’s a bit of an awkward mix but just about works, although Moffat riffs heavily on the 70s/80s Superman films rather than channelling the modern blockbusters. The mournful Doctor is nicknamed Doctor Mysterio by young American Grant Gordon, this actually being the name for the programme in Mexico, something which tickled Capaldi.
There’s not much of Christmas in this one, largely confined to the opening scenes with the young Grant (Logan Hoffman) when he is accidentally granted superpowers by the Doctor’s carelessness. It’s clearly the case that coming up with a Christmassy setting each year was getting difficult for Moffat. Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield are likeable as the adult Grant and his Lois Lane-like love interest Lucy, with Aleksandar Jovanovic doing a decent job as the generic German villain Dr. Sim. Bringing Harmony Shoal back as the alien threat was a poor idea, though. While it provides continuity with the previous episode, the brain-swapping monsters just aren’t all that memorable.
2017: Twice Upon a Time
The final episode for both Capaldi and Moffat, and the last Christmas special of what we might now describe as Doctor Who’s middle era. Twice Upon a Time was born out of necessity; both Capaldi and Moffat were originally to leave in the last episode of series ten, The Doctor Falls, but with Chris Chibnall unavailable to take over as showrunner until 2018, Moffat stayed on for one last special to ensure the programme wouldn’t lose it Christmas Day slot. (In the end, it did anyway.)
The Doctor Falls ended with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor refusing to regenerate, only to land at the South Pole and encounter the First Doctor, now played by David Bradley. Twice Upon a Time saw both Doctors refusing to regenerate, causing terrible problems for time and space. Unexpectedly a First World War Captain (long-time writer and occasional guest star Mark Gatiss) is swept from the Western Front to the Antarctic. Mysterious glass-like beings are behind this and bring back the Doctor’s companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) for a final farewell.
It’s an unusual story with no real villain, and like much of Capaldi’s run, is steeped in grief and loss. Yet it’s also ultimately hopeful, with both Doctors embracing a new chance at life in spite of their losses. It’s not the most Christmassy of stories, in spite of the snow everywhere, but it does end with that most astonishing event of wartime history, the 1914 Christmas Truce. Given that the episode only really exists as padding, it’s a remarkably strong story and Doctor Who would be poorer without it.
Doctor Who returns to the Christmas Day schedules in 2023 with Ncuti Gatwa’s first full episode, The Church on Ruby Road.