Another Yueltide is upon us – and a Doctor Who special on December 25 is now as much part of the festive furniture as sprouts, stockings and awkward exchanges with relatives.
But how do the 11 hour-long episodes we’ve been served up each year for the past decade-and-a-bit measure up? Which are sitting pretty at the top of the tree – and which are utter Christmas catastrophes?
Here’s our ranking – beginning with an adventure that most certainly requires a few sherries for optimum ‘enjoyment’…
11. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
Perhaps the only out-and-out stinker that Doctor Who‘s ever offered us on Christmas Day – this Narnia-inspired escape is one of the weakest offerings the show’s produced since 2005.
A game cast gives its all, but this saccharine and none too subtle episode is a waste of their talents – particularly high-profile comic guest stars Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir. And, in “Humany wumany!”, it delivers what may very well be the worst line in Doctor Who history. Yes, worse even than, “I know so little about tele-biogenesis.”
10. Voyage of the Damned
…a.k.a. The One with Kylie – and actually the most-watched Doctor Who episode of the modern era, with 13.3 million of us tuning in.
It’s not a bad effort – the Princess of Pop actually puts in a decent performance as tragic Astrid Peth (she did used to be an actress, y’know) and the Angel Hosts make for an effectively chilling monster.
But the whole thing rather falls apart in the final act, with an underwhelming reveal of the episode’s Big Bad. Not perfect, then – though still better than any episode about a space Titanic has any business being.
9. The Time of the Doctor
The first of the not-quite-Christmas specials in our list: Matt Smith’s swansong went out on December 25, 2013, but is quite rightly more concerned with writing out its leading man than it is with frothy festive larks.
Unfortunately, it’s doesn’t entirely work as either a Christmas episode or as a sign-off for the Eleventh Doctor – telling a timey-timey tale that somehow manages to feel both repetitive and rushed.
Still, Smith’s superlative performance carries it – and only a Weeping Angel could be left unmoved by his emotional final farewell.
8. The Runaway Bride
“I’m not… I’m not… I’m not from Mars!” – after splitting up the Doctor and Rose and tearing our hearts out in the process, it was absolutely the right decision for Doctor Who to deliver a knockabout romp for Christmas 2006.
There’s much fun to be had with Ten and Donna’s zippy repartee – even if Catherine Tate’s future companion, yet to blossom into the character we know and love, proves a little grating at times – and the TARDIS on the motorway sequence is a whole lot of outrageous fun.
‘The Runaway Bride’ might not top many fans’ Best Of lists, but it was certainly a solid stab at proving that the series could survive without its beloved Billie Piper – which, 10 years ago, wasn’t necessarily a sure thing.
7. The Husbands of River Song
“Capaldi and Kingston – it’s a sex storm!” – alright, so last year’s special didn’t quite live up to that amazing little piece of Russell T Davies hyperbole. But there was a wonderful spark between River and Twelve that carried ‘The Husbands of River Song’ even when the plot lagged.
The final sequence is utterly gorgeous, too – with the Doctor finally taking his wife to the singing towers of Darillium, perfectly wrapping up a story set into motion eight years prior.
6. The Next Doctor
Perhaps the show’s most underrated Christmas adventure, ‘The Next Doctor’ manages to be both rip-roaring fun – with a spirited performance from David Morrissey as Jackson Lake – and supremely poignant.
The episode’s title was a wonderful bit of trolling from RTD – with David Tennant having announced his departure from Doctor Who just two months before. But the tragic explanation behind why Jackson believes he’s a Time Lord is a real gut-punch, as is the Doctor’s final admission about why he’s chosen to travel alone.
Plus, there’s a gigantic Cyberman stalking the streets of Victorian London. What’s not to like?
5. The Snowmen
This 2012 offering features not just a chilling threat – pun intended – in the form of the Great Intelligence and its animated snowmen, but also some of the most magical sequences in Doctor Who’s history – Victorian Clara’s ascent up the TARDIS staircase into the clouds is particularly beautiful.
Again, Matt Smith absolutely storms it – he’s clearly having a ball as Moffat’s script lets him veer from grumpy Scrooge figure to awkward lad to hopeless romantic. And the whole thing ends on an unexpected and daring note – one that followed ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ in effectively setting up the arc of the Impossible Girl…
4. The End of Time
Alright, so ‘The End of Time’ is a bit of a mess. Tonally, it’s all over the place and tries to do far too much at once, with RTD throwing absolutely everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.
But, y’know what? It’s still one of the most powerful and heartbreaking stories that the show’s produced in its 53-year history, with stellar performances from David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins in particular.
Wilf breaking down as he begs the Doctor not to die, Ten’s raging against the dying of the light as he discovers what those four knocks really mean, and – of course – “I don’t wanna go”… all utterly devastating. Damn you for making us sob at Christmas, Doctor Who.
3. The Christmas Invasion
There’s just something irresistibly charming about Doctor Who‘s first proper stab at a Christmas special – well, its first since 1965 oddity ‘The Feast of Steven’ anyway.
The series was launching into bold new territory and without its established lead at the helm – Christopher Eccleston having regenerated six months previously. The BBC’s top bods must’ve been concerned that their hit revival was about to flatline all over again… but they needn’t have worried.
While it has its flaws, it’s impossible not be swept up by the unfiltered festive fun of ‘The Christmas Invasion’ – with David Tennant offering up a supremely confident debut, slipping into the familiar trappings of ’05 Who as if he’d been there all along.
Oh, and ‘Song for Ten’ is one of the best Christmas songs never to have troubled the charts.
2. Last Christmas
Going big and broad and fun and fluffy is all well and good, but for his fifth special, Moffat chose to embrace the more macabre side of this holiday, offering something more akin to a Christmas ghost story.
You’d never have guessed it from the news that Nick Frost was playing Santa Claus – yes, theSanta Claus – but ‘Last Christmas’ is actually a festive fright-fest that lands somewhere between Inception and Alien.
It’s almost a pity that the episode didn’t serve as Jenna Coleman’s exit, as was originally intended, though perhaps an elderly Clara saying an emotional goodbye to her Doctor might’ve been a bit much for a sleepy British public still recovering from a Christmas lunch.
1. A Christmas Carol
Doctor Who was at an all-time high in December 2010 – Matt Smith and Steven Moffat had accomplished a task that many had thought impossible, not only stepping into Tennant and RTD’s sizeable shoes but also producing arguably the best single run of episodes to date.
To top it all off, they also delivered the show’s most accomplished Christmas special on their first go. It was once suggested that Doctor Who is really all about “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism” and ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about as pure an example of that as you can imagine.
Romantic, sweeping, optimistic, yet tinged with a hint of melancholy so as to never become sickly sweet, this triumphant sci-fi take on the Dickens classic is perfect Christmas Day fodder, with a touching turn from Michael Gambon and Matt Smith on absolute fire.
If Moffat’s latest – superhero caper ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ – is even half as good this year, we’ll be more than happy.