Ranking the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Specials: Worst to Best

It’s Christmas, and it means one thing to Whovians: the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Since 2005 it has been an annual event, and it is usually one of the highest rated shows in the UK on Christmas Day. They have been thirteen specials of various quality, entertainment and bringing in some sort of Christmas element. So we at Monkeys Fighting Robots are ranking them all.

13. Last Christmas

Five words that can ruin a story are ‘it was all a dream.’ That was the case for the 2014 Christmas Special, capping off the worst season of the modern Doctor Who. The episode opens with Clara meeting Father Christmas, (Nick Frost) on top of her roof which leads to an adventure with The Doctor on Arctic base in the future plagued with creatures trap their victims in their dreams.

“Last Christmas” was apparently trying to do a Doctor Who version of Inception as The Doctor, Clara and the scientists in the base get trapped in dreams within dreams and trying to figure out what is real and fake. The episode ends with the reveal that the adventure in The North Pole was all a dream, undercutting any investment audience had with the story.

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A funny reference in retrospect was seeing Shona’s (Faye Marsay) Christmas to do list which included a “Thrones” marathon. Marsay later appeared in Game of Thrones as The Waif.

12. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

As the title suggests “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is a homage to the C.S. Lewis children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the episode, The Doctor helps a mother (Claire Skinner) and her children who have lost their husband/father during the War and somehow go through a time portal to a forest planet.

“The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is the most forgettable Christmas special. Its key selling point was the casting of Claire Skinner, famous for her role in the sitcom Outnumbered. She was solid enough in the lead role, and the episode had some beautiful scenery and costumes, but it is a mediocre offering.

11. The Runaway Bride

Your enjoyment of “The Runaway Bride” depends on your tolerates of Catherine Tate. The second Christmas adventures sees The Doctor meeting Donna Noble for the first time as a bride who somehow ended up in the TARDIS. It’s up to The Doctor to figure out why Donna ended up in his time machine and find out there is a great threat under the Thames Barrier.

“The Runaway Bride” was made at the height of Tate’s fame on her self-titled sketch show. It was a show that gave birth to the characters of the foul-mouthed Nan and Lauren, the schoolgirl, popularizing the catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” Tate played Donna broad and loud: the worst aspects of her comedy. Tate improved a lot when Donna Noble was reintroduced in the fourth season because the character was written to have more range. But “The Runaway Bride” was a bad introduction.

“The Runaway Bride” was an average Doctor Who story but it suffered from having to shoehorn in the Christmas elements like the robot Santa pilot fish and the villain’s spaceship being the Northern Star.

10. The Return of Doctor Mysterio

After a yearlong absence Doctor Who returned in 2016 with a superhero Christmas adventure. In the episode, The Doctor meets a young boy and accidentally gives him superpowers. Years later The Doctor returns to New York and finds the boy has grown up to become the superhero known as The Ghost and together they have to stop a human scientist working with an alien who wants to take over the world: standard Doctor Who/superhero fare.

“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was met with a mixed critical reception, but I personally enjoyed it as a pastiche of the superhero genre. The Ghost and his alter-ego are like Clark Kent and Superman: one is mild-mannered and unassuming, the other being a highly confidence projection. Besides from the parallels with Superman the episode makes references to other DC and Marvel heroes and as a whole “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is a fun Doctor Who story.

9. Twice Upon a Time

“Twice Upon a Time” is the most recent Christmas special and Peter Capaldi’s last episode as the Twelve Doctor. “Twice Upon a Time” continues upon two Doctor Who episodes: the season 10 finale “The Doctor Fall” and the First Doctor “The Tenth Planet.”

After defeating the Cybermen in “The Doctor Fall” The Doctor lands on the South Pole and refuses to regenerate where meets his first iteration (David Bradley taking on Peter Harding’s role). It was the only other time The Doctor refuses to regenerate. Together they encounter a race from the distance future known as The Testimony and they make the Doctor an offer: if he returns a World War One officer (Mark Gatiss) to his point of death they would resurrect Bill Potts.

Compared to Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith’s final episodes Peter Capaldi’s was a low-key and thoughtful story. It is more a reflective episode as The Twelve Doctor questioned why The First Doctor did not want to regenerate and both must accept they have to change. While “The Doctor Falls” was a better sent off as The Twelve Doctor went down fighting his monologue about what the Doctor should have the necessary impact especially his final words: ‘be kind.’

The episode suffers from weak comedy between the Doctors, not help by the ‘comedic’ music, and as an episode, it is a middling Doctor Who offering.

8. The Next Doctor

“The Next Doctor” kicked off a collection of episodes known as The Specials, stories that acted as David Tennant’s final season. “The Next Doctor” sees the Tenth Doctor in London in 1851 and meets another man (David Morrisey) claiming to be The Doctor and the two team up to stop the Cyberman who are a threat to the city and the world.

Before “The Next Doctor” was broadcast the British press speculated that Morrisey was set to become the Eleventh Doctor and he would have been a solid choice to play the famous role. He was quirky, quick-witted and serious as a man with a tragedy in his past. It was also a great ‘what if’ scenario. It acts as a reinterpretation of Doctor Who with the Sonic Screwdriver being a regular screwdriver (but it still makes noise, which is sonic) and the TARDIS being a hot air balloon.

The strength of “The Next Doctor” was it acted as a continuation of the Series 2 finale where the Cybermen and Daleks were trapped in the void between universes. The Cybermen steal Dalek technology to escape. It also acted as a swashbuckling adventure with the Doctor arming himself with a cutlass to fight off two Cybermen and uses the blade as a means of escape.

Despite some wintery set dressing and a reference to Christmas Eve “The Next Doctor” was not really a Christmas episode.

7. Voyage of the Damned

“Voyage of the Damned” is the first Christmas episode that is set in a surprisingly popular location for Doctor Who Christmas specials: interstellar cruise ships. “Voyage of the Damned” sees The Doctor on a space liner based on the Titanic, and he must stop the ship crashing into London. The episode featured the pint-sized Aussie pop-star Kylie Minogue, and she was a fun presence as a one-off companion – her best moments were standing on a box to kiss The Doctor and her character saving the day by driving a forklift into a cyborg. On the whole “Voyage of the Damned” is a decent Doctor Who story that has a solid amount of action and special effects.

6. The End of Time

“The End of Time” was a two-part special that capped off David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor. In “The End of Time” the Doctor’s greatest nemesis, The Master (John Simm) is resurrected with the Doctor Who sci-fi-fantasy mumbo-jumbo and planned to be used by the billionaire Joshua Naismith (David Harewood). But The Master is someone who cannot be controlled. The specials also sees the return of Time Lords with the leader, Rassilon (Timothy Dalton) attempting to break out of the Time War lock.

Being a two-parter “The End of Time” was an epic end to David Tennant tenure as The Doctor, giving fans hope of a more permeant return of the Time Lords. He has an emotional send with his long goodbye, visiting all his previous companions and allies, even meeting Rose before she met him as The Ninth Doctor. It was a powerful moment when the Doctor says “I don’t want to go” before regenerating into Matt Smith, destructing the TARDIS in the process.

5. The Snowmen

Programme Name: Doctor Who – TX: n/a – Episode: n/a (No. n/a) – Embargoed for publication until: 27/11/2012 – Picture Shows: **STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:00:01 27th DECEMBER 2012** Clara (JENNA-LOUISE COLEMAN), The Doctor (MATT SMITH) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Adrian Rogers

“The Snowmen” is a unique Christmas special because it broadcast during a mid-series break. Following the events of “The Angels Take Manhattan” the Doctor has fallen into a deep depression after Amy and Rory get stuck in fixed time. However, he is forced back into action when he meets Clara, a Victorian governess who moonlights as a Cockney barmaid and the pair have to face a global threat in the form of intelligent snow.

“The Snowmen” marked Jenna Coleman’s second appearance as Clara, The Impossible Girl and this version of the character had plenty of spunk as she searched for the Doctor and showed she was an incredibly bright individual. The episode also provided the first appearance of the Paternoster Gang, featuring the Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Sontaran butler Strax (Dan Starkey).

“The Snowmen” also saw Ian McKellen voice The Great Intelligence and Richard E. Grant as his human vassal who uses the intelligence snow as an army. It was a suitable villain for a story set at Christmas. “The Snowmen” was a surprisingly somber Christmas special and in retrospect shows why Clara was special.

4. The Christmas Invasion

“The Christmas Invasion” was the first Christmas special of the modern era and David Tennant’s first appearance as The Doctor. “The Christmas Invasion” does exactly what it says on the tin, showing an alien race invading Earth on Christmas Day and holds a third of the world hostage. However, the Doctor is incapacitated by his recent regeneration, so it’s up to the Doctor’s allies to try and stop the save the world.

“The Christmas Invasion” is a simple and entertaining Doctor Who story and shows how the Doctor’s allies and companions use all their experience in the Doctor’s absence: it gives them a chance to shine. When The Tenth Doctor was finally in action, he was quite a badass, getting into a saw fight with a warrior alien and showed he had a ruthless streak.

The episode also had some solid special effect, particularly model work when the Sycorax’s ship hovers over London and scatters the grass on many buildings, including the Gherkin.

3. A Christmas Carol

Set on a planet similar to Victorian England “A Christmas Carol” sees a space liner is stuck in an electrical storm. The Doctor is unable to land on the ship so goes to the source of the storm and discovers the only way to save the passengers and crew is to change the past of a bitter old man, Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon).

“A Christmas Carol” is inspired by the Charles Dickens novella of the same name and has The Doctor acting as The Ghost of Christmas Past, Amy Pond was Ghost of Christmas Present and the older version of Sardick being his own Ghost of Christmas Future. It was a solid reimagining of a classic Christmas tale, mixing the Christmas setting and the time traveling storytelling that Doctor Who is known for. This episode was special because was actually a Doctor Who Christmas story and not just a Doctor Who story set at Christmas.

It was considered a big coup for Doctor Who to cast Michael Gambon in the Ebenezer Scrooge role, and it gave classical singer Katherine Jenkins her first major acting role. Obviously, Gambon was intense in his role, and Jenkins was okay: her casting was really an excuse for her to sing.

2. The Husbands of River Song

Photo : Copyright © Simon Ridgway, 2015 |www.simonridgway.com |pictures@simonridgway.com | 07973 442527 | Caption : 25.09.15, Doctor Who Series 9 Xmas Special.

“The Husbands of River Song” was the only Doctor Who episode that saw The Twelve Doctor and River Song together and beautifully ties up the relationship between The Doctor and his wife. In the episode, River does not recognize the Twelve Doctor as her time-traveling husband and is married to King Hydroflax (Greg Davies). The Doctor tags along as River plans a heist and knowing trouble follows wherever she goes.

“The Husbands of River Song” works as a conclusion to River Song storyline and how it links into her first appearance in “Silence in the Library.” It also had an emotional speech from River Song about how she loves The Doctor, but The Doctor doesn’t love her back with The Doctor revealing himself with the words ‘Hello sweetie.’

“The Husbands of River Song” combines the best aspects of Doctor Who, humor and emotion and it stands as one of Peter Capaldi’s best episodes. It is however a case of a Doctor Who story being set at Christmas rather than being a Christmas Doctor Who story.

1. The Time of the Doctor

Topping this list is “The Time of the Doctor”, Matt Smith’s final appearance as The Doctor and it would have acted a great end to Steven Moffat’s run if he had chosen to step down as showrunner at that point.

A message from Trenzalore has drawn all the Doctor’s enemies: The Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels and the Silence. With the planet under threat from all these foes and held under siege by the Papal Mainframe (Church of Silence) the Doctor spends 300 hundred years protecting the town of Christmas. In the town is the last reminding crack from the TARDIS explosion in Season 5 and the Time Lords are trying to re-emerge into the universe but by doing so would restart the Time War.

“The Time of the Doctor” is a beautiful wrap of The Eleventh Doctor’s arc as he shows his devotion to protecting a town into old age and tied up all his storylines. It was also an action-packed episode as the Doctor fights off Daleks, Weeping Angels and Cybermen attempt to penetrate the Doctor’s defenses. There was an emotional ending because the Doctor sees Amy Pond before he peacefully regenerates in Peter Capaldi.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.