From its 2005 revival to the last days of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor in 2017, fans of Doctor Who always knew there was a gift waiting for them on the TV set on Christmas Day. The Doctor Who Christmas special was a long-lasting tradition that didn’t exactly begin with Russel T. Davies’ “The Christmas Invasion:” during the original run of the show, the special episode “The Feast of Steven” was aired with William Hartnell as the First Doctor. However, it was only during what fans frequently refer to as New Who that the Doctor’s Christmas adventures became a regular, yearly thing. The streak ended when Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner in 2018, replacing the Christmas episodes with New Year specials. Still, stories like “A Christmas Carol” and “The Runaway Bride” live on in the hearts and minds of fans all over the world. However, not all Doctor Who Christmas specials are cut from the same cloth. Some have way more holiday spirit in them than others. As December 25 draws near, here’s a list of Doctor Who Christmas specials, ranked from least to most Christmas-y.
13. “The Next Doctor” (Tenth Doctor, 2008)
The 2008 Christmas episode was the first of the five David Tennant specials that aired before Davies stepped down as showrunner. The story follows the Doctor in a fight against a Cybermen invasion in 1850s London. He’s aided by a man who proclaims himself the Doctor (David Morrissey) and his companion, Rosita (Velile Tshabalala). Initially believing the alleged Doctor to be one of his next incarnations, the real Doctor soon finds out he is a man called Jackson Lake that lost his wife to the Cybermen. Having blocked the memories of the encounter, the man gained the Doctor’s memories after coming in contact with a Cyber device containing information about the Time Lord.
“The Next Doctor” is a very middle-of-the-road Doctor Who episode. It’s entertaining to watch, but not exactly memorable. It’s also the least Christmas-y of all the Christmas specials. Apart from taking place on Christmas, there’s nothing about the episode’s plot or visuals that brings forth that jolly holiday spirit, nor any kind of criticism. It’s an adventure that could take place in any other time of the year, and, as a matter of fact, in any year and on any planet. It just happens to take place at an 1800s Christmas.
12. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (Twelfth Doctor, 2016)
Doctor Who’s penultimate Christmas special is a superhero story that begins with the Doctor meeting a young boy called Grant (Logan Hoffman) in 1990s New York. After swallowing a special gemstone, Grant develops superpowers. Decades later, the Doctor and Grant meet once more, but now the boy has grown into a man that leads a double life as a nanny and a superpowerful vigilante known as the Ghost (Justin Chatwin). Both Time Lord and superhero have a foe in common: the Shoal of the Winter Harmony, an alien species that wishes to take over the bodies of all earthlings.
Much like “The Next Doctor,” “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” doesn’t have much working for it on a Christmas level. It’s a superhero tale, not a holiday one. However, due to its first scene, in which the Doctor is mistaken for Santa by young Grant and is invited in for some milk and cookies, it ranks higher than the 2008 special.
11. “The Runaway Bride” (Tenth Doctor, 2006)
Introducing future companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), “The Runaway Bride” was Tennant’s second Christmas special. Accidentally kidnapped by the TARDIS on the day of her Christmas wedding, office temp Donna has to deal with the fact that aliens exist and with the discovery that her family, friends, and husband-to-be (Don Gilet) don’t really care that much about her, all on the same day. Needless to say she’s not having a good time. Things only take a turn for the worse when she finds out her beloved fiancé had been microdosing her with Huon particles in order to feed her to the Racnoss, an ancient race of arachnid aliens.
Donna Noble isn’t big on Christmas, and this disdain for the holiday is felt all throughout the episode, even if Davies loves his murderous Santas and Christmas trees just as much as Donna hates Christmas in general. In reality, “The Runaway Bride” was supposed to be a Season 2 episode, but, upon finding out the BBC wanted a new Christmas special for 2006, Davies decided to revamp the episode, replacing it in the regular programming with “Tooth and Claw.” This explains why the Christmas aspects of “The Runaway Bride” feel so much like an afterthought, making the episode one of the least holiday-specific of its kind.
10. “The End of Time, Part One” (Tenth Doctor, 2009)
The penultimate of the Tennant specials was followed by a sequel episode that introduced the concept of the New Year’s special Chibnall would later adopt. “The End of Time” sees the return of John Simm’s Master and of Donna’s grandfather, Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins). Narrated by a man we will later find out to be Gallifrey’s President Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), “The End of Time” begins with the Doctor returning to Earth after receiving an ominous warning from the Ood. With Wilfred’s help, he finds out the Master has been brought back to life and is currently being held captive by billionaire Joshua Naismith (David Harewood), who plans to use a device called the Immortality Gate to give his daughter, Abigail (Tracy Ifeachor), the gift of eternal life. Part One ends with the Master jumping in the Gate and transforming everyone on Earth into himself.
Davies’ and Simm’s version of the Master is arguably the wackiest of the evil Time Lord’s incarnations, and, as long as you are able to get on board with the madness, “The End of Time” can be an extremely fun adventure. Wilfred is also a great companion, and it’s a pity he didn’t get to interact more with the Doctor. However, there isn’t much Christmas-ness to “The End of Time, Part One”. Sure, the Noble family exchanges gifts, and Wilfred dons his fan-favorite reindeer antlers, but that’s about it. Unfortunately, Wilfred’s iconic line, “No, I shan’t, it’s Christmas,” in response to his daughter demanding he takes off his antlers, isn’t from this episode, but from Season 4’s “Turn Left.” Still, just the sight of Donna’s grandfather with his beloved Christmas hat is already more festive than anything this lists’ previous episodes have to offer.
9. “The Snowmen” (Eleventh Doctor, 2012)
The second piece of the mysterious puzzle that is companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), “The Snowmen” is another Victorian Christmas adventure. With the help of an 1890s version of Clara, Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), the Doctor (Matt Smith) investigates the sudden appearance of numerous snowmen throughout London and a sentient icy alien form trying to take over the human race with the help of grumpy Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant).
There’s a certain Christmas Carol vibe to “The Snowmen,” with the grouchy, cruel rich man that needs to come in touch with his inner child, but that’s all it is: a vibe. The 2012 special has snow as its main holiday element, and as far as Christmas symbols go, snow is certainly among the weakest. But at least the story told in the episode is specific to a certain time of the year, so “The Snowmen” gets at least a few extra points with Santa to guarantee its spot on the nice list.
8. “The Husbands of River Song” (Twelfth Doctor, 2015)
“The Husbands of River Song” is a heartfelt, beautifully told love story that is more of a River Song (Alex Kingston) adventure than a proper Doctor Who one. Mistaken for a surgeon, the Doctor is tasked with removing a diamond from the head of one of River’s husbands, King Hydroflax (Greg Davies). Without her knowing his true identity, the Doctor learns about River’s life without him and the many men and women she has been involved with. The story takes a sad turn when the couple realizes that River’s journal is reaching its final page.
Christmas is all over “The Husbands of River Song,” from the sign saying “carolers will be criticised” at River’s door to the gift the Doctor gives his wife at their final, 24-year-long dinner before the Singing Towers of Darillium. The story, however, isn’t that Christmas inclined. The most important thing is the message at the end about spending time with the people you really love (even if you don’t admit it) before it’s too late.
7. “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” (Eleventh Doctor, 2011)
This Narnia-inspired episode tells the story of a recently widowed woman trying to protect her two children from the pain of death. During World War II, Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner), her daughter Lily (Holly Earl), and son Cyril (Maurice Cole) trade London for a house in the country during the holiday season. They are greeted by the Doctor pretending to be the property’s caretaker in a secret attempt to pay back Madge for helping him in the past. But the Arwell’s new house hides a secret: a portal to a future alien forest of Christmas trees just about to be destroyed.
“The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is an emotional episode, even if its plot is sometimes quite flimsy. Direct Christmas references stop with the trees both at the Arwell’s new home and at the Androzani forest. However, Madge acting as a shooting star that guides her husband away from danger fits perfectly with the Christmas mythos, as does the theme of reuniting with the ones we lost. At the end, the Arwells have Christmas together once more, and the Doctor finds his way back to his estranged friends.
6. “The Time of the Doctor” (Eleventh Doctor, 2013)
The final chapter of Matt Smith’s run presents the Doctor with a whole new regeneration cycle and offers a conclusion to the whole “name of the Doctor” plot. In a town called Christmas, on the planet of Trenzalore, a crack in reality draws the attention of multiple alien species by broadcasting a message across the stars: “Doctor who?” While Cybermen, Daleks, and various other enemies of the Time Lords try to stop the return of Gallifrey to our universe, the Doctor proclaims himself the protector of Christmas, remaining in the town until old age.
Despite the whole “protecting Christmas” thing, the Christmas-ier part of “The Time of the Doctor” isn’t the main plot, but Clara’s subplot having her parents and grandmother for dinner. Afraid of their constant criticism, Clara asks the Doctor to pretend to be her boyfriend and has a turkey cooking beneath the TARDIS’ console. Only one of these plans works out, and that just helps to bring out the Christmas-ness of the story. After all, what’s more in the spirit of the holiday than having your judgmental family over and disappointing them with your love life?
5. “The Christmas Invasion” (Tenth Doctor, 2005)
The first Doctor Who Christmas special since the show’s 2005 revival, “The Christmas Invasion” aired on Christmas Day of that same year and was David Tennant’s first full episode after Christopher Eccleston’s departure. On Christmas Eve, Rose (Billie Piper) arrives at her London home accompanied by an unconscious Doctor. What is a puzzling inconvenience at first becomes a full-blown problem when it is revealed that Earth is being threatened by a Sycorax ship wishing to sell humanity into slavery.
“The Christmas Invasion” doesn’t have a very Christmas-y plot. However, Davies’ beloved flame-throwing Santas and killer Christmas trees – seen here for the first time – make for a more than festive addition to the story. Just like Wilfred’s refusal to remove his antlers, Jackie’s (Camille Coduri) “I’m going to get killed by a Christmas tree!” is basically a Christmas carol for Doctor Who fans. In the end, we also get a nice peek at the Doctor enjoying a rare carefree moment, having Christmas dinner with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey (Noel Clarke).
4. “Voyage of the Damned” (Tenth Doctor, 2007)
Before Donna took the position of full-time companion left open by Martha (Freema Agyeman), the Doctor invited another woman to travel the universe with him: Astrid Perth (Kylie Minogue), a waitress aboard the spaceship Titanic. Hovering over Earth on Christmas Eve, the cruise ship offers various attractions to its wealthy guests, including a guided tour of the city of London with an expert on Earth history. Unbeknownst to the passengers and most of the crew, however, cruise line owner Max Capricorn (George Costigan) plans to crash the ship in order to get back at the company’s board.
If not for the explosions, the dying, and the sadness, “Voyage of the Damned” could be up for the title of most Christmas-y Doctor Who Christmas special. The original Doctor Who killing angels, the Titanic’s Host manage to strike fans’ hearts with fear and that jolly holiday spirit at the same time. The ship’s historian, Mr. Copper’s (Clive Swift) version of Christmas, in which the god Santa Claus is married to the Virgin Mary and the UK goes into war against Turkey every year for the right to eat its citizens, is also something to be remembered. To top it off, “Voyage of the Damned” is also the first time Doctor Who Christmas icon Wilfred appeared on the show, facing the possibility of a new alien invasion all by himself in a nearly empty London.
3. “Twice Upon a Time” (Twelfth Doctor, 2017)
Moffat and Capaldi’s farewell to Doctor Who, and the show’s last Christmas special so far, brings back the very first Doctor for a story about learning to accept death. The character is portrayed by David Bradley, who had already played Hartnell in the 2013 TV film An Adventure in Space and Time. The story takes place on Christmas Day, 1914 – more or less. Alongside a captain of the British Expeditionary Force, the two Doctors are taken to a spaceship called Testimony, in which a mysterious entity offers to bring Bill (Pearl Mackie) back from the dead in exchange for the soldier’s life.
“Twice Upon a Time” is an extremely heartfelt goodbye episode, as well as a beautiful tribute to Hartnell’s Doctor. But the reason it’s ranked so high on this list is its use of one of the most bittersweet events of human history: the spontaneous Christmas truce between German, French, and British soldiers during World War I. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, soldiers from both sides of the war fraternized, exchanged gifts, and buried their dead without a single shot being fired. It might not sound very Christmas-y at first, but few things are more in the spirit of charity and solidarity than recognizing the humanity of your own enemies. The event also fits perfectly with the theme of the episode: as the Doctor needs to accept that his war is over and it’s time for him to go, the captain gets to live another day, but remains in the battlefield.
2. “A Christmas Carol” (Eleventh Doctor, 2010)
Moffat’s – and Smith’s – very first special is a version of one of the most well-known Christmas stories ever, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge is replaced by Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), a wealthy loan shark that takes his customers’ living family members as collateral, locking them in a frozen vault. Inside the vault is Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a woman he’s fallen in love with and whom he won’t allow to spend Christmas with her family for fear that she will die out of the room. Since Sardick also owns a machine that can control the sky, allowing the ship in which Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillan) are trapped to land safely, the Doctor and his companions have to act as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to try and soften his heart.
Even though not all of his specials are infused with the same holiday spirit, it’s safe to say that, as a showrunner, Moffat was a lot more Christmas-friendly than Davies. All top three episodes in this list come from his era, and they have earned theses places fair and square. “A Christmas Carol” might have its issues, particularly regarding the development of Abigail, but it’s a touching, sweet tale that warns of the dangers of avarice and the benefits of sharing – just like Dickens intended.
1. “Last Christmas” (Twelfth Doctor, 2014)
Capaldi’s first Christmas special begins with Clara waking up to find Santa Claus (Nick Frost) and his elves atop her roof. The problem is Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and Clara knows that very well. Meanwhile, at a research facility at the North Pole, the crew faces an attack by terrifying, face-hugging dream crabs, creatures that put their victims to sleep and slowly kill them. It’s up for the Doctor, Clara, and Santa to save the day.
Let’s face it, how do you top a Christmas episode starring Santa Claus himself? Destined to play Santa from the day his parents settled on his name, Nick Frost is delightful in the role, delivering quip after quip in what is arguably the funniest Doctor Who episode of the last decade. Frost’s chemistry with Capaldi is undeniable, and angry elves Ian (Dan Starkey) and Wolf (Nathan McMullen) deserve just the same amount of praise. The episode’s message is just as Christmas-y as its true hero: enjoy every Christmas with the people you love as if it was the last, because, someday, it will be. It’s a sad note with which to end an entry about an episode in which Santa threatens a woman with the words “My Little Pony,” but that’s “Last Christmas” for you.