Even on years when Whovians don’t get a full new series of Doctor Who, we get a special episode at Christmas. Christmas and The Doctor have been linked from the very beginning of the show. The first thing on my “winning the lottery” list is the various Christmas short stories collections in the Short Trips series.
This year we can look forward to “Twice Upon a Time,” an adventure uniting the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi in his final episode) and the First Doctor (David Bradley, semi-reprising his role in An Adventure in Space and Time and weaving his way into the larger canon). The two Doctors meet in a frozen moment near the end of their respective lives, and at its conclusion we’re expecting the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). I expect it will all be very sad, since it appears showrunner Steven Moffat plans to portray not only the death of the Twelfth Doctor, but also re-film the death of the First. If you’re keeping score at home, that means since 2010 Moffat has gotten to kill FIVE Doctors.
BBC America isn’t doing one of their Christmas episode marathons this year, so I thought I’d do it for them. Between the opening of presents and the pulling of Christmas crackers and the consumption of your vittles, there are a lot of hours to fill before 8 p.m. local time. So, here are the five Doctor Who Christmas specials you can enjoy in the meantime.
5. The Unquiet Dead
I’m not sure why this episode gets forgotten so much considering it’s 1. The Ninth Doctor’s sole Christmas outing and 2. It has Charles Dickens in it. The effects have not aged well, but overall it remains a tight Christmas ghost story that manages some honestly terrifying moments. Christopher Eccleston is at his absolute best, and it’s the adventure where I feel Billie Piper really hit her stride as Rose Tyler. The Gelth are just another in a long line of Who villains that use possession so the BBC doesn’t have to pay for a new creature costume, but the mundane setting makes them far more terrifying than, say, the zombie suits in “Oxygen.” I also rank this as the second-best interaction between a Doctor and a famous historical personage in the revved series, only behind Eleven and Van Gogh.
4. The Next Doctor
This list is going to lean heavily Victorian England. Sorry about that if that’s not your bag.
This episode has some problems. The giant Cyberking thing was always sort of ridiculous, and definitely an indication that Russell T Davies never really knew when to scale things down a bit. Miss Hartigan feels more like a weird suffragette parody than a character sometimes.
That said, the main hero trio is one of the best teams in the history of Who. David Tennant’s underplayed Tenth Doctor holds the whole thing together, and David Morrissey as the man who thinks he’s The Doctor and Velile Tshabalala as his companion Rosita are so wonderful and effulgent I wish that Big Finish would give them their own mini-series of audio plays set during Morrisey’s delusion of hero-status. It’s not like England is ever hurting for monsters for them to oppose in this universe. The final payoff is also terribly sweet.
3. The Chimes of Midnight
If you only ever listen to one Doctor Who radio play, make it “The Chimes of Midnight.” To my mind it’s the single greatest Who Christmas story, and the only reason I’m ranking it so low is that it’s the hardest one to jump in and out of with no background. I’ll provide that now.
The Eighth Doctor saved Edwardian adventuress Charley Pollard from a doomed airship, where her death was a fixed point in time. This created a vast paradox that leads to all sorts of nastiness it would take all day to explain, but the point is that her death/survival is the nexus point of a lot of wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey.
With that set up, The Doctor and Charley land in a manor house on Christmas where a small cast of servants endlessly play out a series of grisly murders every time the hour chimes. It starts off as a weirdly banal drama about domestic workers and then careens headlong into a complete nightmare. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of humor and a happy ending, but the journey there is very dark.
2. Last Christmas
Back when I was doing episodic reviews of Doctor Who, I made no secret of my dislike for Peter Capaldi’s first season. I just think the writing wasn’t there, and it ranks my least-liked of the post-2005 seasons.
“Last Christmas” turned all that around. It was this story where Capaldi finally eased into the amazing Doctor he would become. The Doctor and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) find themselves in an alien infested scientific research base on Christmas, and Father Christmas himself has to come get them out of their predicament. Nick Frost eats all the scenery as Santa, but even he is outshone by Faye Marsay as Shona McCullough. How Shona never got the upgrade to companion will forever be beyond me. I mean, who wouldn’t want a season full of this!?
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1. The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe
This special is my own family’s traditional holiday viewing. It is in essence both the perfect winter fairytale and the perfect Doctor Who story.
Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) is a World War II widow hiding her husband’s recent death from her children so as to not ruin their Christmas at a relative’s country house. The Doctor, who Arwell had done a favor for in the past, shows up with the intent to make this Christmas the best one ever for the family as a repayment. Of course, his plans go awry, put everyone in danger, and in the end, everyone lives. I legit ugly cry every time I watch this, and I am avidly looking forward to doing it again this year.
So, Happy Christmas, all my friends in time and space. If you need me, I’ll be behind the sofa.