Be warned: this is a bah-humbug list. With a trio of exceptions, Doctor Who Christmas specials have been mainstream attempts to indulgence the worst aspects of the new series. And it’s criminal that the holiday season has become an essential ingredient for regenerations. The Christmas Invasion was a fine introduction to the tenth Doctor, but The End of Time and The Time of the Doctor were horrible send-offs. Regenerations are too important to be ruined by cheap holiday redundancies.
That being said, three of the Christmas specials are very good, and I suppose they are enough to justify the tradition. That leaves seven stinkers, though Moffat’s (4-6) are slightly less offensive than Davies’ (7-10). Moffat struck gold twice (1-2) and Davies managed to do right by his first effort (3).
1. A Christmas Carol. 5 jelly babies. This is a masterpiece, and I do mean flawless. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as the tormented Scrooge character is one of the best guest performances of the new series. The Doctor’s unethically manipulations in trying to save his soul remind of the seventh Doctor: there’s no reason he couldn’t have gone back in time to prevent the Starliner from taking off in the first place instead of jumping through hoops to rewrite a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind. He seems to be getting off on using people as pawns, rewriting their lives — as the Scrooge character rightly charges — “to suit himself”. The ending shows that Moffat can actually discipline himself, for a change, so that not “everyone lives”. Abigail must die, and her final sky-ride marks a perfect closing.
2. Last Christmas. 5 jelly babies. I consider this one a masterpiece as well, and it’s easily one of the most terrifying stories of the new series. You would never predict that from the first fifteen minutes: Santa Claus in Doctor Who?? Talk about jumping the shark. So of course, this had better be a goddamn dream — and the trope works, because as in Inception, the nightmares impact reality in deadly earnest. You can die in these dreams, age monstrously, or never wake up. The dream crabs are the scariest aliens seen since the weeping angels, and in this case you should look away from them and blink, and stop thinking about them altogether. They are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as the crabs feed on the host’s brain. When everyone’s subconscious fights back, it comes in the form of Santa Claus, and the juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with the worst horror imaginable is what makes this episode so against-the-odds utterly compelling.
3. The Christmas Invasion. 4 jelly babies. The first and only good Christmas special penned by Russell Davies. It’s a solid introduction to the tenth Doctor, and the worn out invasion-of-earth formula works for rather than against it. Even ludicrous elements like the killer-Christmas trees gel in a good way. The dramatic tension builds well in the first half due to the Doctor being out of commission as he recovers from regenerating, and when he finally emerges from those TARDIS doors, we almost want to clap like kids. He gets in a good sword fight with the alien-king before banishing his race from earth, and the best scene is his hand getting chopped off then immediately regenerating. And the “Song for Ten” at the end is perfect. The Christmas Invasion is a lot like The Eleventh Hour: a pedestrian story done really, really well.
4. The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe. 2 jelly babies. This one could have been terrific and should have been. It looks gorgeous and spins off a great classic. By rights it should have been another Christmas Carol, but Moffat forsook subdued artistry, not to mention tragedy, in favor of cheap kiddie tales, with the outrageous (but unfortunately predictable) ending of the mother using her emotional pain as a beacon to call back the father from death. If A Christmas Carol was written for sincere Doctor Who fans, this story was tailored for the everyday kid tuning into any Christmas special on TV. Still, I have to applaud the beautiful aesthetics — the wintry forests and the tree house — and the idea of the tree souls had great potential if delivering somewhat hollow results.
5. The Snowmen. 2 jelly babies. By this point in the series, Doctor Who was running on empty, but for reasons that puzzle me, The Snowmen is widely regarded as one of the best Christmas specials. It was praised at the time for being scary (I disagree) and for picking up on the arc of the new companion Clara begun in Asylum of the Daleks (which was frankly a bad episode). The series-seven Clara was atrocious, and nothing about her series-eight awesomeness can erase that. Another strike against this story is the trio of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, whom I could never warm to. I admitthat I liked the smoke-fashioned staircase straight out of Mary Poppins, with the Doctor’s new Tardis floating above town on a bed of ultra-dense water vapor. And a few other supplements. But this is easily the most overrated Christmas special.
6. The Time of the Doctor. 2 jelly babies. This one is especially disappointing when judged by what preceded it. The Day of the Doctor was the home-run anniversary special that scored in all the right ways, and even the resets worked. The two episodes surrounding it, on the other hand — The Name of the Doctor and this Christmas special — show Moffat being devoured by himself. His cleverness, surplus of narrative debts, and hollow character and plotting throughout series seven end in a crash, leaving us with window dressing of past successes — weeping angels, fish fingers and custard, the crack in the wall, the Silence falling (whose mystery was never even resolved) — and nothing original. The Time of the Doctor was the capstone of a horrible season that showed the need for a new producer, and definitely a new companion. (I was proved wrong on both counts, but that’s another story…)
7. The Runaway Bride. 1 jelly baby. After the unassailable series two (it remains the best of the new series, in my opinion), and Rose’s wonderful closure, we get kicked in the teeth with this dross. It dumps a screeching bride inside the TARDIS and a pantload of nonsense that’s supposed to serve as a Christmas special, but the only thing special is an all-time low for Doctor Who — easily the worst story up to this point in the series. (The Dalek double-bill in Manhattan would soon rectify this.) The bride has been infected with a strange energy (that whisked her to the TARDIS) as part of an alien plan to take over earth, and that’s only the start of the silliness. It was impossible to predict how good Donna would turn out in series four based on her abysmal performance here, and The Runaway Bride has only gotten worse with age.
8. The Voyage of the Damned. 1 jelly baby. Damned in every sense, this one offends like The Runaway Bride but twice as garishly. The Doctor finds himself on a floating spaceship, caught between corporate greed, sabotage, and robotic angels armed with killer halos. It sounds impressive but it’s entirely not: there’s comedy in every line, but nothing funny; noise and action in every other sequence, but no excitement. It’s a sign of how bad a story is when the body count is so commendably high (as in classic Who) but you just don’t care about who dies. Ironically, we have this episode to thank for Midnight, the inverse story in which Davies wrote this one all over again but did everything right for a change. Was he making fun of himself and produced a work of art by accident?
9. The Next Doctor. 1 jelly baby. The Cyberking may be badass, but this story is still a steaming pile of manure. Just as the Daleks were used abominably in the series-four finale, the Cybermen are abused in a horrendous follow-up, as if Davies were determined to ruin every single aspect of Doctor Who before turning the reins over to Moffat. Let alone that it makes no sense that the Cybermen are able to unleash their own King Kong when they’ve been stuck in the Void. That’s a triviality compared to the preposterous handling of the story’s deeper theme about loss and what happens to the mind when it tries to cope with it. Applied to a traumatized guy who thinks he’s the Doctor (with his own sonic screwdriver and all) just doesn’t work, and indeed “The Next Doctor” served purely as a cheap ploy at the time to make viewers think that Tennant’s regeneration would happen in this story.
10. The End of Time. 1 jelly baby. I don’t even like talking about this one. David Tennant did a great job as the Doctor and deserved better than an excremental swan song that not only brings back a comic-book Master, but also resurrects the Time Lords in a cheap plot, while making sure to plumb the worst aspects of kitchen-sink opera with Donna and her family. Payoffs are abysmal and the trappings are as bad as they get in a Davies script, from a medical fix-it machine, to silly cactus-people, to the Master flying with his bare hands, to a climax which can barely be called that — just the three leads talking to each other in a ballroom. Things get even worse in the long and saccharine denouement, as the Doctor revisits all his previous companions before he regenerates, and while Davies is obviously trying to honor Tennant, the result is way too self-indulgent. It’s a horrible, horrible end to the era of the tenth Doctor.