[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]
On Christmas Day, at 6.15pm on BBC1, you can watch this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special. To help get you in the mood, we’ve reviewed and scored all of the past specials, starting with the worst.
The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe (2011)
Looking at the title and concept for this special, the second of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor, one gets the distinct impression that Moffat just couldn’t be bothered.
Like the problematic A Christmas Carol, this episode is beautifully shot and acted, and wonderfully festive, but seems to lack coherent plot and character driving it along. A woman who has just lost her husband to WW2 determines to keep their father’s death a secret from her young children, to give them one last good Christmas; the Doctor decides to help them out as repayment for their mother’s aid (several years before he miraculously survived a fall from a spaceship with her help), delivering a Christmas wonderland to their house and keeping their mother’s secret, then leading them through an alien forest where the trees are alive and objecting to being cut down (by a team including Bill Bailey, in the now-mandatory celebrity cameo), fighting off a wooden King and Queen who have been unconvincingly animated. The day is saved by The Power Of A Mother’s Love. Oh, and the dead husband turns out not to be dead because he is also saved by The Power Of Love. The Doctor appears to be entirely incidental, and the characters are left free of any suggestion of personality. Gone, it would seem, are the days when the Special was able to stand as a decent episode in its own right, asking tough questions or providing entertainment that wasn’t so sugary you’d vomit. 3/10
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Another slightly messy episode rounds out Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, taking him and Clara to a planet besieged by the worst monsters that the Galaxy holds. Interrupting Clara’s family Christmas to drag her with him, the two end up in a town called, improbably, Christmas. That’s right; the Doctor must save Christmas. Subtlety has never been Moffat’s forte, and this is no exception.
Awkward and bizarre moments pepper this episode, such as the “holographic clothes” meaning that Clara and the Doctor are actually naked (really?) and introducing him as her boyfriend to an incredulous family. Frankly, the entire plot here seems to be something of a mess, although it’s beautifully shot and acted by Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. So much for sending the Doctor out in style. 4/10
A Christmas Carol (2010)
Marking Steven Moffat’s first season as showrunner, and his apparent determination to avoid any original storylines for Christmas specials, this somewhat bizarre episode features flying sharks and a crashing spaceship, as well as celebrity appearances from Katherine Jenkins as Abigail, the dying singer frozen in ice, and Michael Gambon as Sardick, aka Scrooge. Ending with a flying sledge pulled by sharks, this somewhat schmaltzy episode felt directionless and underplotted, although visually beautiful, with much of it feeling like Christmas cheer had just been piled in with a snowshovel. The beautiful carol sung by Abigail redeemed it a little – if only there’d been a plot to demand it – and foreshadowed the next season’s big bads, the Silence. (If you caught that, good for you.) 4/10
Voyage of the Damned (2007)
The Titanic (an alien spaceship staffed by robotic angels) crashes into the TARDIS, and then nearly crashes into Buckingham Palace. Let’s be honest, this one’s a bit weird.
Falling in-between companions (Martha Jones left in the Season 3 finale, and Donna Noble takes up the role at the start of Season 4), this episode has a feeling of filler about it. A celebrity cameo from Kylie Minogue as Astrid is the main draw in this glitzy Christmas mess, which also featured in the Season 4 episode Turn Left (in which, in a parallel universe without the Doctor’s presence, the Titanic landed on London and wiped out most of South England in a nuclear apocalypse). 5/10
The Snowmen (2012)
Despite the shakiness of 11’s first two Specials, this episode stands rather more strongly. Moffat seems to have struggled to find his feet as showrunner, and here is where he starts to get a grip.
Clara Oswald, last seen dying as a Dalek in the Dalek Asylum, is now a governess with a secret life as a barmaid. Quick-witted and curious, she keeps up well with the mercurial and melancholy Doctor, mourning the loss of the Ponds, in an episode keeping up the fine tradition of making everything terrifying by creating a monster that is, literally, snow.
This episode also sees the reappearance of Jenny and Madame Vastra, and Strax the Sontaran nurse, which provides some much-needed relief from the Doctor’s angst. It also brings us one of the most beautiful sequences Doctor Who has ever produced, in which Clara climbs up a spiral staircase from a snowy park into frosty skies strewn with stars, through a thick and fluffy cloud to where the TARDIS stands, in visuals which are beautifully fairytale and wonderfully Christmas, to the accompaniment of Murray Gold’s whimsical theme The Impossible Girl.
As well as bringing us Richard E. Grant as the Great Intelligence (a monster last seen in the Third Doctor’s time, using Yetis to attack Earth via the London Underground), who would prove to be the big bad for the next season, this episode gave us another piece of the Clara puzzle, making it interesting as well as festive. 6/10
The Next Doctor (2008)
Another companionless episode, this Dickensian Christmas brought us Victorian London in a beautifully traditional state of snow, street urchins, and – uh – a giant Cyber-robot stamping through the East End. Which apparently nobody noticed or remembered.
Aside from that bizarre plot hole, this episode brought us some classic Cyberman moves and the first appearance of the Cybermats since the classic series, as the Doctor teamed up with Jackson Lake (aka “the Doctor”, played by David Morrisey) and Rosita, his “companion”(Velile Tshabalala). Highlights include “the TARDIS” (a hot air balloon) and the “sonic screwdriver” (a regular screwdriver, which, as Lake points out, does make a noise when tapped against a door and is technically therefore sonic). 6/10
The End of Time (2009)
David Tennant’s last ever appearance as the Doctor was broadcast in two parts, and was only technically a Christmas special, with some token trees and Christmas music in the background. Festive, but still plot driven, it avoids the Christmas-for-the-sake-of-Christmas feel of some later Specials.
With the return of the Master, now more unhinged than ever, and the unsettling sight of everyone on the planet being turned into a clone of him, this two-parter feels overstuffed before we even get to the return of Gallifrey. David Tennant infuses this special with his classic hair-wobbling overacting (and we love him for it), while other favourites like Wilf (Donna’s granddad, the ever-excellent Bernard Cribbins) and Donna herself make reappearances. Not very festive, but a massively overdone farewell to the Tenth Doctor (who, after all, defined the show for a generation of children). 6/10
The Runaway Bride (2006)
Introducing: Donna Noble. Let’s be honest, Donna is everyone’s favourite.
A light-hearted festive storyline made a refreshing change from the drama-heavy season 2 finale (Doomsday, if you’ve somehow blocked out the emotional trauma). Donna (Catherine Tate) made the perfect companion to 10, taking us through more robot alien Santas (still a thing) and giant alien spider-queens (if you hate spiders, this is maybe not the best thing to be watching. No, wait, it is. Trust us. Watch it anyway) with composure, common sense and a lot of sarcasm. Showcasing the darker side of the Tenth Doctor, as well as the serious acting abilities of Catherine Tate (who tends to be relegated to comedy London accents), this episode is well worth watching for its own sake, not simply as festive entertainment. 8/10
The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The first Christmas Special ever, this episode sees the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), recovering from his regeneration gone wrong, take on the Sycorax. With the introduction of the Torchwood sub-plot that would dominate the next season, and the Doctor’s lost hand (which was instrumental in the Season 4 finale), this episode is important viewing as well as wonderfully festive – with deadly Christmas trees and robotic alien Santas (yes, really) proving once again that Doctor Who can make anything terrifying. Also bringing back Harriet Jones, first seen in Aliens of London, and Jackie Tyler and Micky Smith, this is a strong ensemble piece as well as a fantastic introduction for David Tennant. A strong start to a brand-new British tradition, yet to be beaten for sheer good writing. If you’re new to Doctor Who, this is a pretty good place to start at Christmas (although you really should watch Season One. No, really). 9/10.
So basically – we’re psyched for tomorrow! This year’s Special, Last Christmas (BBC1, 6.15), features Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, lots of other movies with Simon Pegg) – always a good thing – and is also the first Special with the Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi (best known for The Thick of It). The previews show a bearded Nick Frost in a Santa suit facing off with the stern-faced Doctor, and the classically snowy London (we wish!), as well as hinting at some scary sheet-covered monsters and some classic Moffat mind-messing. Let’s hope it’s a Christmas cracker, not a festive flop!
(We’re sorry. We’re so sorry.)