Well, it’s Christmas time, and one of the traditions of Doctor Who, ever since the end of series 1, is to have a special episode that is aired on Christmas day. Even when the show is more or less on hiatus (2010), they still made a Christmas special. All of these episodes have at least some Christmas theme, and trend toward a family-friendly, feel-good atmosphere, and so how much you enjoy them sometimes depends directly on your ability to tolerate schmaltz. Here is my list of favorite Christmas Specials, listed from least favorite to most favorite.
“The Time of the Doctor”
The list of Christmas specials includes two regeneration episodes and one Doctor-introduction episode, and in a way, I’m not sure it’s fair to compare them to the other Christmas specials because they have different emphases. However, they are what they are, so “The Time of the Doctor” must appear on this list. It was meant to depict the heroic sacrifice of the Doctor at the end of his thirteenth incarnation, but ended up a mess of completely linear and yet inconsistent plotting, forgettable guest characters, every major enemy he’d faced shoehorned in, and cheap emotional shots. The regeneration scene – meaning everything after the main conflict was resolved – was beautiful, but the rest was disappointing at best.
Favorite scene: The Doctor’s goodbye to Amy, despite the terrible wigs they were both wearing.
“The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”
Another victim of a completely linear plot (literally: boy wanders off in a straight line, Doctor follows him, mother arrives and saves the day), it’s weighed down by its theme of “women are innately better nurturers than men”. The first part, where the kids are first introduced to the Doctor as the Caretaker, captures the whimsical feel of the Eleventh Doctor quite well, but the rest of the episode pretty much falls flat.
Favorite scene: The Doctor showing the children around the house.
“Voyage of the Damned”
This is the point in the list in which the episodes are good enough. “Voyage of the Damned” isn’t a great episode, but it’s fun enough to watch. It was meant to be a TV version of a disaster movie, and that part’s just fine. Having Astrid fall in love with the Doctor was its big mistake (we’re just coming off series 3, and we’re tired of Rose and Martha’s doey-eyed looks), so her send-off can be irritating. Some people dislike the religious imagery in this episode; I guess I’m rather oblivious, because I didn’t notice it at all.
Favorite scene: The Doctor saving the ship, only because of the look on his face when he sees where it’s about to crash.
“The Christmas Invasion”
I really should rank this higher, but every special from here on up is great. This is the introduction of the Tenth Doctor, and it’s done so well. The first 2/3 of the episode sets up the alien conflict, and it demonstrates how difficult it is for humanity, at its stage in its history, to cope with alien threats. Then the Doctor wakes up and launches into what amounts to a twenty-minute soliloquy that reveals exactly who he is, from his gob to his fascination with exploration to hints about his eventual downfall. This episode is fun and enlightening.
Favorite scene: Can I count the string from “Did you miss me?” to “I’m that sort of a man” as a single scene?
Coming off the loss of the Ponds, the Doctor is lost in his grief and has retreated from the universe. A single woman is able to bring him out of his shell and convince him to save the world once again. The conflict with the Great Intelligence was again simple and linear, but well-handled and interesting against the bigger backdrop of the Doctor starting to heal from his loss. And then he finds out who this woman is, at the moment he loses her, and this spurs him into his next season-long story.
Favorite scene: The Doctor putting on his bowtie again. I love power-up sequences, and this was beautifully understated.
“The End of Time”
A regeneration episode, it’s rocky in many ways, but I love it anyway. Both the Last Great Time War and the Doctor/Master dynamic are explored here, as well as the Doctor’s inner conflict between what he would like for himself vs. what he knows everyone else needs. It’s the same conflict he faced in “The Waters of Mars”, but he chooses differently this time.
Favorite scene: Wilf knocks four times. People say that the Doctor was uncharacteristically emo here, but I disagree. For once, he voices his doubts and fears out loud, and the fact that he has them makes him more of a hero than ever.
“The Next Doctor”
A controversial choice, I know, but I simply love this episode. Both Jackson Lake’s story and Miss Hartigan’s stories are beautifully tragic, but in different ways. The blending of them, plus the Doctor’s tragedy of being alone again, into one episode was not seamless, but I still love it.
Favorite scene: The reveal of Jackson Lake’s history. David Morrissey is spectacular.
“A Christmas Carol”
Objectively, this is probably the best of the Christmas specials. It took the base story of the Dickens tale, added a clever temporal twist to it, and then built up a love story. But the Doctor doesn’t succeed in his purpose: his meddling only angers his target, and the outcome is still the same, and he must resort to even more temporal tampering (and basically breaking the First Law of Time) to effect the change he wanted. Sardick still must make his final sacrifice to save the doomed spaceship, though, providing the story with its perfect, bittersweet ending.
Favorite scene: The Doctor’s initial jump into Kazran Sardick’s childhood, and then his later attempt to return again and Sardick’s refusal to acknowledge him.
“The Runaway Bride”
I did say this was a list of “favorites”, not a list of “bests”. I think that if Donna hadn’t become the Doctor’s companion a series later, this special would be down around “Voyage of the Damned”, ranked as a fun adventure but nothing particularly special. However, the further character development of Donna makes this episode brilliant. Donna starts as shallow, demanding, and unlikable, but even the brief contact she has with the Doctor here matures her, and that’s developed more when she joins him as a true companion. This beautiful core story is presented in a wrapper of a zany adventure, very befitting the two personalities at its heart.
Favorite scene: The scene in downtown Chiswick, where Donna is trying to get to the wedding but still trying to make sense of this alien who’s brought her back to Earth.