It’s become a proud Christmas tradition: people wake up, open their gifts under the tree, have dinner with their families, and then watch an alien with a British accent save the world. The Doctor Who Christmas Specials have become an annual showcase for the series’ trademark mix of propulsive sci-fi action and heart on its sleeve emotion.
For over a decade, through three Doctors and two showrunners, the Christmas Specials have usually served dual purposes. They tend to signify turning points in the show’s narrative, either a coda to what’s come before or a hint of what’s to come. They also tend to serve as an excuse for the show to take classic holiday tropes and subvert them in bizarre, sometimes hilarious ways. Occasionally the show has gone a little too far off the Christmastime rails for its own good, but it more often has struck the perfect balance between genre oddity and holiday heart.
These are the 15 Best And Weirdest Moments From The Doctor Who Christmas Specials.
15. The First Doctor Breaks The Fourth Wall
Before the show’s 2005 revival, Doctor Who didn’t have dedicated Christmas Specials. One of the few acknowledgments of the holiday during the show’s original one came during the show’s third season, still featuring the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell. It was… strange, to say the least, and not in the way the other entries on this list are strange.
During the seventh episode of the twelve-part serial “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” as the Doctor and his companions are able to take a breather from fighting the evil pepper pots, the Doctor fetches some refreshments for his friends, who toast the holiday together. Then, amazingly, the Doctor turns to the camera and wishes everyone watching at home a Merry Christmas.
There’s some debate about whether the fourth wall-breaking acknowledgment was actually in the script or a savvy ad lib by Hartnell, realizing the episode was running short (television editing was a bit different 50 years ago on a BBC budget). Sadly, due to the BBC’s shortsighted practice of wiping their master tapes until the late ’70s, no actual footage of this baffling moment still exists. However, the audio is still readily available, and it’s every bit as jarring as one would imagine the video was.
14. The Doctor Thinks He Meets His Future Self in Victorian England
Traveling alone for the first time in several years, the Doctor finds himself in Victorian London on Christmas Eve in “The Next Doctor.” He quickly encounters a man (played by David Morrissey) chasing down Cybermen with a screwdriver and a companion named Rosina. He identifies himself as “The Doctor,” and the genuine article quickly assumes he’s inadvertently encountered a future regeneration of himself.
Things start to seem a little fishy when this new “Doctor” presents a gas balloon as his TARDIS and can’t remember many concrete details of his past. The Doctor eventually figures out the man is really Jackson Lake, who through the trauma of his wife’s death and an encounter with Cyberman infostamps genuinely believes himself to be the Time Lord. The Doctor ends up helping Jackson save his son, stopping a giant Cyberman from smashing London, and enjoying Christmas with some new friends.
It’s a fairly serviceable Christmas story with one caveat: it’s hard not to imagine Morrissey in the actual role after seeing the episode. He had an incredibly attractive mix of joyful swashbuckler and tragic romantic that would have fit the Doctor perfectly. One finds it pretty easy to share the Doctor’s mild disappointment that this man wasn’t the real deal.
13. The Doctor Rewrites A Man’s Entire Life To Make A Point (And Save His Friends)
In “A Christmas Carol,” as companions Amy and Rory spend their honeymoon on a spaceliner, the ship begins crashing (of course) toward an inhabited planet. The Doctor finds that the cause of the crash is a spire at the centre of the planet’s largest city that is affecting the atmosphere in strange ways. The man who controls the device, Kazran (played by Michael Gambon) is a nasty old jerk who has no particular interest in helping the Doctor’s friends or the other 4,000 people onboard the crashing ship. This leads the Doctor to undergo one of the most morally questionable adventures he’s ever undertaken.
Rather than try to change Kazran’s mind, the Doctor alters several major events of his life in an effort to make him a better man. He takes young Kazran on annual Christmas adventures with a terminally ill cryo-frozen woman, Abigial, who Kazran falls in love with. Through some trials and tribulations and daddy issue manipulation, the Doctor eventually succeeds, and Kazran saves the ship.
Despite being one of the more overtly holiday themed episodes (it is an unabashed homage to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) full of trademark ridiculousness (sharks in clouds who love opera singers!), this is one of several episodes where the Doctor showcases unchecked, nearly omnipotent power with a click of his heels and a shake of his bowtie. More often than not it gets him in serious trouble… but not on Christmas.
12. The Master Turns All Of Humanity Into… The Master
The Master is, to borrow from another Steven Moffat interest, the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock. Like the Doctor, he evolves through each regeneration: he’s been a sly schemer, a cartoonishly evil mustache-twirler, a physically decaying monster, an unpredictable Time Lady, and… well, Eric Roberts. As played by John Simm, the Master was pretty easily defined: he was a stark raving lunatic.
After seemingly dying in a failed attempt to wipe out most of humanity and conquer Earth, the Master is revived in “The End of Time” by a cult dedicated to him. He’s quickly entangled in a scheme by a billionaire named Joshua Naismith involving immortality and alien tech that is, frankly, kind of ridiculous. The Master soon ramps up the goofball quotient by commandeering Naismith’s plan for one of his own: rewriting the DNA of everyone on Earth so that they become copies of the Master himself.
“The End of Time,” which was the swan song for both star David Tennant and showrunner Russell T. Davies, actually has a lot of strengths as a story. It has some insightful things to say about the way we grapple with mortality, and Tennant gives a performance for the ages. Still, the utterly bizarre image of a room full of cackling Masters is one that tends to stick with you.
11. The Newly Regenerated 10th Doctor Sword Fights In His PJs
“The Christmas Invasion” has borderline inhuman patience. Following his regeneration in the previous episode, the Doctor spends the overwhelming majority of this episode unconscious in bed. His companion Rose, along with her boyfriend Mickey and the new British Prime Minister Harriet Jones, are left to deal with a hostile planetary invasion by a race called the Sycorax, who somehow have a sizable portion of the planet’s population ready to jump off rooftops through some sort of mind control.
The Doctor springs into action at the last possible moment, simultaneously saving the world and charming all the viewers at home, many of whom had never experienced a regeneration and were unsure of what to make of the show without previous star Christopher Eccleston. David Tennant immediately makes the part his own, as he monologues about the color of his hair, blood control, and The Lion King, and engages the Sycorax leader in a swordfight to the death for the fate of the Earth, all while wearing another man’s pajamas. One of the best Christmas gifts the show ever delivered was confirming the modern show could endure– even prosper– with a new actor in the leading role.
10. Donna Noble Crashes The TARDIS On Her Christmas Wedding Day
Having just moments earlier been forced to leave Rose trapped in an alternate dimension, likely never to see her again, the Doctor’s grief is unexpectedly interrupted by a shrieking woman in a wedding dress who suddenly appears in the TARDIS control room.
It’s safe to say the Doctor never had a companion quite like Donna Noble. “The Runaway Bride,”, their first adventure together, largely set the tone for the relationship they’d both eventually enjoy. The pair navigates killer Santa robots, a treacherous husband to be, an endangered race of evil space spider people, and, perhaps most intimidating of all, Donna’s mother.
Interestingly, the episode ends with Donna declining the Doctor’s offer to travel with him, overwhelmed by the peek into the strange world the Time Lord inhabits. Her apprehension wouldn’t stick, as the two would reconnect a year later, Donna having spent the intervening time investigating unusual occurrences, hoping to run into the Doctor. She’d come a long way from the hysterical Christmas bride.
9. The Doctor Battles Evil Snowmen & Meets An Impossible Girl
Mourning the loss of his companions Amy and Rory, the Doctor retreats to 1842 England, where he’s parked the TARDIS in the clouds above London, withdrawing from life with the help of his friends Vastra, Strax, and Jenny (a Silurian, a Sontaran, and the Silurian’s human wife, respectively). The Doctor is stirred from his exile simultaneously by the menacing threat of living, murderous snowmen, and a young woman named Clara, who he’s drawn to for reasons he can’t quite explain.
“The Snowmen” is one of those episodes where the show manages to capture some genuine magic. The sequence where Clara climbs into the clouds to find the TARDIS is as close as the show gets to visual poetry, and the score by composer Murray Gold (who’s long been the show’s secret weapon) is genuinely stirring stuff. Despite being voiced by Ian McKellen, The Great Intelligence never comes off as a particularly menacing villain, though that’s largely beside the point. The episode is about the Doctor rediscovering his purpose through the never ending mystery and beauty the universe has always offered him.
8. The Doctor Flirts With Kylie Minogue As The Spaceship Titanic Falls Toward Earth
“Voyage of the Damned” is the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who on steroids. Ostensibly a riff on The Poseiden Adventure, it is a kitchen sink affair. The Doctor finds himself on a starliner called the RMS Titanic, where he meets a motley assortment of stowaways, contest winners, universal royalty, and professional jerks. The ship (as all ships eventually do on Doctor Who, even those not named after the actual Titanic) begins crashing toward Earth after the captain’s intentional sabotage. The Doctor has to not only save himself and his newfound friends, but also prevent the ship from crashing and killing a sizable chunk of the Earth’s inhabitants. The plot behind the ship’s sabotage is hilariously convoluted, even by Doctor Who standards.
The most notable aspect of the episode is probably the inclusion of pop star Kylie Minogue as Astrid Peth, clearly framed as a potential new companion for the newly unattached Doctor. Minogue and Tennant have undeniable chemistry, but it’s not meant to be: Astrid sacrifices herself killing a maniacal cyborg businessman, and the Doctor releases her digital ghost into space. A tale as old as time.
7. The Doctor Takes Down The Prime Minister With Six Words
As the newly regenerated Tenth Doctor celebrated his victory over the fleeing Sycorax, Prime Minister Harriet Jones made a crucial error in judgment. Fearing that Earth will be seen as an easy target for further alien invasions if the Sycorax are allowed relatively scot-free, she orders the mysterious government entity Torchwood to destroy the departing alien ship, killing all on board.
The Doctor, ever the moral absolutist when it comes to anyone but himself, is furious at Jones. Jones unapologetically admonishes the Doctor for not always being around to save the planet. The people of Earth must learn to defend themselves. After a thinly veiled threat from the head of the British government, the Doctor arrogantly snarls that he can end her reign with six words. Despite her skepticism, the Doctor whispers “don’t you think she looks tired?” to Jones’ top aide, and her downfall begins in earnest. It’s a cold, dark reminder that despite the pajama jokes and general genial nature, the Doctor can be vicious when the mood strikes him.
6. The Doctor And Santa Claus Battle Alien Dream Crabs
Of the four modern era Doctors, Peter Capaldi is easily the one that most against the grain of what the show’s audience has come to expect. His Doctor is physically older, stranger, and wholly uninterested in social niceties or romance (with maybe one exception). It’s only fitting that his Christmas specials would be a little darker and unsettling, and his first, “Last Christmas,” certainly fits that bill.
The Doctor and Clara travel to the North Pole where they battle Dream Crabs, which create layered, Inception-like dream worlds where it’s nearly impossible for the victims to tell what’s real and what’s a dream. They’re aided in this battle, seemingly, by Santa Claus (played with gruff gusto by Nick Frost).
The show keeps Santa’s true nature at a playful distance to the very end, but real or not, seeing the Doctor dress down old St. Nick as they fight brain-sucking dream crabs from space is a genuine, singular delight.
5. The Doctor Wipes Out An Entire Species Of Evil Spider Babies
One of the reasons Donna initially decided not to travel with the Doctor at the end of “The Runaway Bride” was that she got a glimpse of his dark side. Facing down the Empress of the Racnoss, a violent race of spider people wiped out eons ago, the Doctor offers her an ultimatum. Having seeded her race once again on Earth with the intent of initiating universal conquest on the bones of humanity, the Doctor offers to take the Empress and her people to an uninhabited planet where they can live in peace, or be destroyed. The Empress, naturally, is undaunted, and refuses the Doctor’s offer.
The Doctor reveals himself as a Time Lord to the Empress, and we learn that the Time Lords themselves wiped out the Racnoss, a reminder of the amoral society from which the Doctor hails. The Doctor destroys the pit where the Racnoss are beginning to emerge, repeating the genocidal history of his people. There’s a look in the Doctor’s eye that Donna, nor the audience, had ever seen before. It foretold a darkness that would shape the remainder of the Tenth Doctor’s time in the TARDIS.
4. The Doctor Keeps a Christmastime Promise To A Widow & Her Children
Falling to Earth from an exploding spaceship in a spacesuit he has on backwards (which on Doctor Who is known as “Tuesday”), the Doctor lands in 1938, where a nice woman named Madge unassumingly helps him from his crater to the TARDIS. The Doctor promises to repay her kindness somebody, and does he ever keep that promise.
“The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” largely takes place three years later, during World War II, where Madge is trying to navigate Christmas with her children as she fears her husband has been killed in battle. The Doctor (whose face Madge never saw) serves a “the caretaker” of the children, attempting to brighten their spirits during a sad period.
Through a fairytale chain of events that includes Christmas gifts that time portals, surly alien miners, acid rain, and feminist wood people, the Doctor ends up making the family’s Christmas more special than he could have imagined. It’s not the most cutting edge or memorable Christmas special in the show’s history, but it is probably the most kind-hearted, which is something.
3. The Tenth Doctor’s Song Ends
The Tenth Doctor had some issues. After beginning his regeneration as a boyish, charming adventurer, he slowly morphed into an arrogant, lonely, obsessive man who was terrified to look behind him at the chaos he was constantly leaving in his wake. He projected an air of superiority, yet we wondered if he even particularly liked himself by the end.
After saving all of existence from an insane Master and the unhinged members of Gallifrey’s high council, the Doctor could only savor his victory for a moment. Wilfred Mott, Donna Noble’s lovable grandfather, was trapped in a machine that would bombard him with deadly radiation. Despite Wilf’s protests that he was an insignificant old man, and the Doctor’s own volatile lamentations that he still had so much more to do, there was no choice in the matter: the Doctor sacrificed himself to save Wilf. While he did grant himself a self-indulgent (though mostly sweet) farewell tour of his loved ones, in the end, the life of one good man was worth more to the Doctor than his own cascading self-importance. Truly, a Christmas miracle.
2. The Doctor and River Song Have Their Final Date
The Doctor and River are often lovers going in opposite directions, both literally and figuratively. To say their relationship is complicated would be a biblical understatement: the Doctor met her on the day she died, after all. The outline of their relationship seemed largely defined by the end of the Eleventh Doctor’s run, and in some ways their story felt complete.
And yet it turned out to be the aloof, alien Twelfth Doctor who got to spend that final date with River in “The Husbands of River Song.” Ironically, River is unfamiliar with this regeneration of the Doctor, a nice mirror of their first chronological meeting from the Doctor’s perspective. The Doctor anonymously helps River in her (admittedly lightweight) scheme to steal a diamond from her current cyborg husband, before they finally embrace fate and begin their final date together on Darillium…where it turns out that one night lasts for twenty-four years.
1. The Eleventh Doctor Says Goodbye In A Town Called Christmas
Drawn to a mysterious planet where thousands of alien ships are attempting to decipher a coded message, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in the town of Christmas, a place where no one can lie. The Doctor and Clara quickly find the source of the mysterious message: a crack in the wall, just like the one the Eleventh Doctor encountered in his first moments in Amelia Pond’s bedroom. The message is quickly discovered to be Gallifreyan, and the message itself simple and haunting: “Doctor who?” The Time Lords have found their way back.
Realizing he cannot let the Time Lords return, lest he restart the Time War, the Doctor sends Clara away and defends the planet for centuries. Out of regenerations and nearing the end of his final life cycle, the aging Doctor fends off all the alien invaders, leaving only the Daleks in his path.
Clara, having found her way back to the planet, implores the Time Lords to help the Doctor, who has given up so much for them. Not only does the crack close, but the Doctor is granted a new regeneration cycle.
The Eleventh Doctor’s final moments are some of the most emotional in the show’s history. In direct contrast to his immediate predecessor, the Eleventh Doctor faces his end with characteristic dignity, and a brief, heart wrenching vision of the first face his face ever saw, Amy Pond, compelling him to move on. Before we know what’s hit us, Peter Capaldi and his attack eyebrows are in the TARDIS, displeased with the color of his kidneys. The adventure continues. Here’s to next Christmas.
The new Doctor Who Christmas Special, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio,” airs Christmas Day worldwide.
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