The week between Christmas and New Years is a time of weird, unspoken traditions: returning unwanted gifts, throwing out near-dead trees, stockpiling eggnog before it vanishes for another year. And for some of us, it's a time to go on the internet debate the quality of the latest yuletide adventure of that charming alien in the blue box. Watching the annual Who special has been my Christmas evening ritual for almost a decade now. Another popular year-end ritual: making list-based internet articles where we rank pieces of popular fiction. Yeah, we're doing this.
It's the perfect time, too: this year's adventure brings the total number of specials to ten (yes, it has been that long, and yes, you are getting old.) Five were written by original showrunner Russel T. Davies, and the other five by current honcho Steven Moffat. So let's do this now, before another year passes and we end up with six Moffat specials to Davies' five, destabilizing everything and leading to utter chaos. Here, then, is my ranking of the specials from worst to best, with bonus notes on how much each one actually commits to the Christmas setting.
10) The Runaway Bride - Donna Noble is a treasure and nothing will convince me otherwise. Catherine Tate's chemistry with David Tennant and her biting sense of wit made series four the best of the revived series so far. But in her first appearance, very little of that cleverness is there, and instead Donna is just shrill, angry, and screamy. And can I just point out that introducing Donna as a stereotypical Bridezilla is kind of sexist? 'Cause it is. Maybe hindsight has ruined this one for me, but the story feels like a first draft of material – the 10th Doctor's occasional megalomania, Donna's entire character – which will be refined and explored with much more skill in later seasons. But in this episode, it just feels like we're watching two jerks fight a giant bug. One shouts constantly, the other has a god complex! What sort of hijinks will Loudy and Proudy get into next?
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? Christmas is barely a part of this thing, but the space spiders did shape their death-ship like a Christmas star. Festive! In series three the Master names their ship, "the Christmas star that came to kill." That sounds like the name of a really downbeat children's book, which I would read.
9) The Snowmen – There was a lot of hype leading up to this one, and with good reason: It's the dynamic debut of new companion Clara Oswald! Oops, never mind, she's dead. It turns out that the Doctor doesn't actually meet Clara until the following episode, and this is actually another Clara from the 19th century. That could have set up the mystery of how the same woman can exist in multiple time periods, except the Doctor already met a Clara in Asylum of the Daleks, and she died too. That kind of makes this special feel like a big waste of time, and it probably doesn't help that it spends way too long giving the villain a tragic but boring backstory. By the time we finally get to see the Doctor yell at a criminally underused Ian Mckelleon, it's hard to care anymore, and not even Matt Smith's Sherlock Holmes impression can save this mess.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? A little. There were snowmen who came to life, like Frosty! But then they killed people, like Frosty's no-good brother Lorne.
8) The End of Time – There's a reason why the part everyone remembers from this story is the Tenth Doctor's death scene. First because it's absolutely perfect, with Tennant giving a devastating performance, breaking our hearts with five little words. Second, because almost everything leading up to that moment is ridiculous. Russel T. Davies' tendency to go huge with his finales finally boiled over in this one, so we've got like five different season ending plots smooshed together here. The Master comes back to life, and now he's a lightning skeleton, and there's this evil rich guy with big plans that don't really go anywhere. Then the Time Lords come back, but so does Wilfred Mott, who is absolutely wonderful and who makes the insanity of the rest of the story bearable. Davies pulling out all the stops can be terrific when it's done right (as we'll see down the list) but everyone is taken way too seriously here, and the result is just exhausting. But once the whole mess is sorted, we get a terrific final few minutes where the Doctor rages against his own mortality before taking the time to visit old friends, and finally passing on, fighting until the end. More of that would have been nice.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT?: I'm pretty sure Davies forgot this was even a holiday episode until his final draft. We don't get much beside a tree shoved in the background at bad guy headquarters. Then at the end of part one, James Bond does a voiceover where he reminds us, "BY THE WAY THIS IS HAPPENING ON CHRISTMAS."
7) The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe:- The Doctor takes some kids to a dimension that feels like Narnia, but is less copyrighted. Their mom is grumpy because their dad exploded in the war, but her grumpiness is motivated by love, which naturally brings the dad back to life. Also, there are magic tree kings and some sort of environmental message. Honestly, it's hard to remember, because this is one of the most boring Doctor Who episodes, with a few fun moments at the start (mostly when the Doctor Willy Wonkas up the house the family is staying in) giving way to a big, long slog in the middle. It's 20 minutes worth of plot in a 60 minute special, and boy does it show. That said, the sequence at the end, where the Doctor joins Amy and Rory for a Christmas dinner he didn't realize he was invited to, is perhaps the most touching moment in any of these specials.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT?: Very. I mean, the story is literally about a magic present that leads to Planet Pretty Snowflakes.
6) The Next Doctor: Despite airing months after each season finale, the Christmas special is technically the last episode of each season, which means that major cast changes tend to happen in these. This can lead to a lot of hype, but what does the BBC hype machine do on years when no cast changes are actually happening? Fake it, yo. This episode relied on rumors that David Tennant was about to leave the show (in reality, he would stick around for another year) and the series was going to shake things up by introducing his replacement early. David Morrissey makes for a fantastic Doctor, full of old-world bravado and energy. So it breaks your heart a little when he turns out to just be a guy whose brain was altered to make him think he's the Doctor. From then on, the episode isn't quite sure what to do with itself, so suddenly there's an arbitrary giant robot stomping around, like we just wandered into the last five minutes of a Power Rangers episode.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT?: The story doesn't have much to do with the holiday, but it takes place in Victorian London, which thanks to Dickens is automatically more Christmasy than any other location in history that does not include a manger. Victorian London in the middle of July is probably more Christmasy than your house on December 25th. Sorry, that was mean, I'm sure your decorations were lovely.
5) The Time of the Doctor: I can't believe we've gone this long without the Doctor making a quip about how he always seems to die on Christmas. Anyway, here we get an emotional, if convoluted, story of the 11th Doctor spending like a thousand years living in a little town on some planet while waves of bad guys constantly attack. Yeah, because the Cybermen didn't feel embarrassingly weak enough before, so let's have the Doctor spend a millennium holding them off with bottle rockets. All the business with the prophecy revolving around the "Doctor Who" question feels forced, the product Moffat taking a second stab at the storyline after the disastrously bad Name of the Doctor seven months earlier. But Smith's performance is absolutely transcendent, giving the aging Doctor changing mannerisms and nuanced body language as the years pass by. The idea of letting this Doctor pass away of old age, a privilege only the 1st Doctor had before him, makes for a beautiful and moving core to an otherwise overstuffed story.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? - This episode sets an all-time record for tacking the holiday on when it decides to strand the Doctor for a thousand years in an alien town coincidentally named Christmas. Suddenly RTD'S tree-in-the-background approach doesn't look so bad, huh?
4) Last Christmas (SPOILERS) – A year from now, while discussing the 2015 special, you will be tempted to make a joke about how "Last Christmas" aired last Christmas. Well, now you can't without knowing that I did it first. So! A story headlined by a snarky Santa Claus could easily have been the most obnoxious thing ever, but instead, Nick Frost's performance is some kind of little miracle. He's sarcastic and dismissive but in a way that still screams Santa, and his interplay with the 12th Doctor is priceless. The script is full of clever jokes and quotable one-liners, spicing up what seems at first to be a standard base-under-siege story. Turns out it's actually A Very Inception Christmas, and it's capped off with a terrific fake-out where we think Moffat is going to age Clara to death like he did Amy, Rory, and Eleven...but nope, that's a dream, too, and so we've got Clara Oswald to kick around for at least another year. Considering how much nuance she's developed over the last season, that's a gift I'm quite glad to receive.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? - It has a guy named FROST playing SANTA CLAUS. To be any more Christmasy it would need to include the line "Doctor, my blood's been replaced with eggnog!" Attention BBC, I have a script for you.
3) The Christmas Invasion – The very first Christmas special had some heavy lifting to do, as it had to introduce viewers to their second new Doctor in less than a year. Luckily David Tennant's charisma and a smart script make for a great introduction. We get to see the 10th Doctor show his heroic side by saving the Earth, and his darker, more controlling side by destroying the career of an honest politician who got along famously with his previous self. It's the best introductory episode any new series Doctor has gotten, but it also gets points for having Rose play audience surrogate and needing time to warm up to the new guy.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? – The Doctor swordfights an alien, and when he gets his hand cut off he just laughs and grows a new one. This counts because the true meaning of Christmas is swords.
2) Voyage of the Damned – Davies often packed his scripts with weird little ideas that sounded like they could fill up whole episodes but instead just got a passing mention. It spoke to how fertile his imagination was, and never was that displayed better than here, where he takes every wild idea that pops into his head and makes it a part of the story. The result could have been nonsense, but David Tennant sells every new idea so masterfully that all the craziness feels earned. A Christmas cruise in space modeled after the Titanic and run by aliens who don't actually know what the Titanic was? Sure, why not? The episode dances on the line between audacious and campy without once crossing it, even when things reach Peak British with the appearance of a faux Queen Elizabeth and her royal corgis. This is what happens when a creative team at the top of their game decide to abandon all pretense and just have a good time.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT? It's about as yuletide as you'd expect a Christmas cruise to be, which means the holiday isn't the point of the excursion, it's the excuse. Also, the Doctor fights some angels, figures which have been known to sit atop our nation's more boring Christmas trees.
1) A Christmas Carol – There are few things more overdone in television than taking a long-running franchise and having it go through the motions of a Christmas Carol adaption. So how the hell did Doctor Who manage to pull off one of its most magical episodes ever while doing just that? Part of the answer is that Who is uniquely suited to the task of adapting Dickens' classic: A Christmas Carol is, when you get down to it, a time travel story, about a man who resolves to "live in the past, the present, and the future" in order to atone for past misdeeds. The Doctor has more in common with the classic Scrooge than he'd probably care to admit, and if this were a 12th Doctor story he'd probably be cast in that role. But Eleven could never be anything but one of the ghosts, or in this case all three, in this beautifully realized story where time travel becomes the device by which a miserable old man comes to terms with an abusive childhood and learns to feel empathy again. Rather than ape the tone of Dickens' classic, this episode goes for its own compelling mood and themes (the highlight: the wonderfully inclusive idea that all midwinter holidays are a celebration of making it "halfway out of the dark.") Everything about the production, from the sky fish to the subdued color palette, has a dreamlike quality that helps emphasize the storybook feel of the 11th Doctor's era. These touches make the old tale feel remarkably new, anchored by some amazing, heartfelt performances and one of Moffat's all-time best scripts. Even though it's based on a century-old book, this Christmas Carol feels like it could only be a Doctor Who story.
HOW CHRISTMASY WAS IT?: The final shot has an Ebeneezer Scrooge analogue riding in a magical flying sleigh. So, more of a Hannakuh image, really.
HONORABLE MENTION THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN NEAR THE TOP IF IT WERE A REAL EPISODE: The absolutely charming, fan-made Doctor Puppet special.
What about you guys? Anyone else have a list?