On Christmas Day at 9/8c, BBC America will air the tenth annual Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas”. It seems almost unthinkable that a decade ago, the idea of a special Doctor Who festive episode had yet to even be conceived of; but now, they are an integral part of the television landscape, particularly in the U.K.
But what is it—aside from their extended length—that makes these specials so … well, special? How does the show adapt itself to fit being shown on this unique day, and what (if anything) do the specials have to say about the holiday itself? Join us as we take a nostalgic trip through nine timey-wimey Christmases past…
The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The first ever Christmas special was mostly concerned with introducing David Tennant to an audience largely unfamiliar with him as an actor—as well as coping with the shock of his replacing Christopher Eccleston after just one season. But there was also a conscious effort to make the episode a piece of “event” television, appropriate for Christmas Day. And as it was the first time since 1965 (“The Feast of Steven”, part seven of “The Daleks’ Master Plan”) that an episode had been shown on December 25, the show made sure to go all out with the festive imagery, throwing in killer Christmas trees, murderous Santa robots, and a healthy sprinkling of snow across London. The theme, particularly in the closing scenes, was very much one of family togetherness, as Rose and the new Doctor began to get to know one-another for the first time.
The Runaway Bride (2006)
Something that the Who specials have always had to bear in mind is that they attract far larger audiences in the U.K., by virtue of their scheduling on prime time Christmas Day, than a regular season episode. As such, they have to be appealing to the more casual viewer without disappointing fans. “The Runaway Bride” took advantage of the popularity of Catherine Tate—then best known as a hugely successful comedy actress—by temporarily (at the time) casting her in the role of companion. The fact that the story took place after the departure of Rose in “Doomsday” meant that it could be a self-contained, brand new adventure, rather than relying on past continuity. One way in which this special did suffer, however, was by being filmed in July 2006: right at the height of one of Britain’s brightest and hottest summers in recent memory, it unfortunately meant that it was stretching credibility a little to believe that the outdoor scenes took place in December!
Voyage of the Damned (2007)
For the third special, writer Russell T. Davies drew on another aspect of British Christmas television tradition: the mid-afternoon screenings of movies which, particularly in the era before digital television, would often attract some of the highest ratings of the day. Classic disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure—despite or perhaps because of their apparently dark subject matter!—were especially popular for several years, and “Voyage of the Damned” is a direct homage to both the genre in general, and that film in particular. In addition, surrounding the Doctor with characters who are just visiting Earth, rather than actually from it, means the episode can look at Christmas tradition and custom from an outsider’s perspective.
The Next Doctor (2008)
The first of the specials to take place in a non-contemporary time period, “The Next Doctor” instead looked to a more classical, Victorian version of Christmas. The most obvious influence on this special, of course, is that of Charles Dickens (not for the last time!), even down to an early riff on A Christmas Carol‘s famous “You there, boy, what day is this?” line. Of course, in the second half of the episode the Christmassy feel gets somewhat lost amid a tale of rampaging Cybermen, but once again the theme of family is expressed as Jackson Lake regains his courage and rescues his son, before inviting the Doctor to join them for Christmas dinner.
The End of Time (2009)
Almost certainly the least Christmassy special so far, but it is rather more concerned with telling the story of the return of the Master and the Time Lords, and finally the Tenth Doctor’s last stand and regeneration. Davies even agonized while writing this episode that the first part might be far too dark for a Christmas Day family show, as recounted in his bestselling memoir The Writer’s Tale, but he trusted in the viewership to understand that this was the culmination of a four-year-long story arc for David Tennant’s hugely beloved incarnation. And in the story’s second part, shown on New Year’s Day 2010, the Doctor’s last tour around his companions does slightly call to mind the tradition of visiting one’s relatives …
A Christmas Carol (2010)
For his first Christmas special after taking over as showrunner, Steven Moffat (who declared that he wanted the episode to be “really Christmassy”) once again looked to the classics: and once again, in fact, to Dickens. There’s more than just the title of the 1843 novella influencing this episode, however: the story, too, is a deliberate parallel with the tale of Scrooge. Of course, the actual details of the tale differ greatly, but there’s a very similar theme at its core, the idea of a bitter miser being won around by the Christmas spirit. It’s just that in the Doctor’s case, he’s able to literally time travel in order to show Kazran visions of his past, present and future.
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
Another classic book title is invoked here, and while C.S. Lewis‘ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t exactly a Christmas story, it’s certainly conjures up the requisite level of wintry imagery. This gentle story plays heavily once again on the theme of family togetherness, bringing the Doctor together with a family that have been separated by war, and gives us one of the most poignant ever moments in the Eleventh Doctor’s relationship with companions Amy and Rory with his Christmas Day visit at the end. It also offers an image that is such a young fan’s dream that it’s a surprise it took the specials so long to do: a present underneath the Christmas tree being a special “portal to adventure” left there by the Doctor.
The Snowmen (2012)
Just like his predecessor, Moffat couldn’t resist eventually turning to Victorian London for a Christmas special (there’s just something about a Victorian Christmas, isn’t there? Maybe it’s all the chestnuts) but in typically Moffat-ish fashion, did so with a twist. This was the first, although not the last, of Moffat’s specials to more explicitly concern itself with an ongoing storyline (in this case, the “Impossible Girl” Clara arc that had begun back in “Asylum of the Daleks”), and so the Christmas connection is generally more visual than thematic. Although it is worth noting the significance of the “killer snowmen”, as in the U.K. the snowman is usually more specifically associated with Christmas (rather than winter in general as elsewhere), thanks to the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs‘ The Snowman having been an annual broadcast tradition since the early 1980s.
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Once again, the end of the year saw the end of the Doctor’s latest regeneration cycle: but unlike Tennant, who regenerated on New Year’s Day, Matt Smith took his final bow on December 25. “The Time of the Doctor” was a more Christmas-based story than “The End of Time”, however, with the narrative jumping between Clara’s family sitting down for dinner, and the Doctor’s travails in a town on Trenzalore that just happens to be called… Christmas. The story takes on an almost picture-book feel in its closing stages, renewing the festive feeling amid the explosive excitement of the Eleventh Doctor’s last stand.
Last Christmas (2014)
By comparison, it looks very much like Peter Capaldi‘s first Christmas special in the role of the Doctor will base its story much more firmly around Christmas than its predecessor—and indeed, than almost any of the other specials to date—simply by virtue of featuring none other than Santa Claus himself (played by Nick Frost) as a guest character. Exactly how this will play out, however, we’ll have to wait until the day itself to find out …!
Which Doctor Who Christmas special do you think best captures the festive spirit?Read More