For many fans, the end of December is as much about the Doctor Who Christmas Special as it is all that other meandering stuff about family and love and gifts and such. Now an annual tradition for the revived series, the specials run from silly adventures to tearjerker messes due to the pesky habit that actors have of eventually moving on from the role of the Doctor.
In preparation for exactly that happening in this Christmas' "Twice Upon a Time," which will see Peter Capaldi had the sonic screwdriver over to Jodie Whittaker, here is our definitive ranking of all the specials that have come before.
Honorable Mention: The Daleks’ Master Plan: The Feast of Steven (1965)
While not conceived as part of an annual tradition the way modern show handles their specials, this First Doctor story took advantage of the fact that the episode’s normal air date would land on Christmas. Worried that viewers would either simply not watch or not be invested in the buger storyline, the ongoing serialized plot was set aside for a farcical romp that ends in a Christmas toast onboard the TARDIS and includes a rare fourth wall breaking greeting from the Doctor himself.
The End of Time (2009)
The truth is that while they end up being a necessity of timing, regeneration stories tend to make weak Christmas Specials because the focus on the departure of the current Doctor and the oncoming new one is far more prevalent than the plot of the story itself. Despite being spread across two full episodes, this issue is especially prevalent in the "The End of Time." While plenty of Tennant fans can remember his drawn out farewell tour (a sour note for non-Tennant fans) and his “I don’t want to go,” very few are eager to recall the transformation of John Simm’s Master into half Malfoy/half electric skull monster, or the frequently tear-stained face of poor Wilfred Mott. Seriously, I never need to see that poor old man cry again. You leave Wilf alone, Doctor Who, he's been through enough! Not even Timothy Dalton who is still pulling pieces of scenery out of his teeth for his performance as war-corrupted Time Lord President Rassillon can save this one.
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
On top of feeling like a season’s worth of plot was squeezed into a single hour, "Time of the Doctor" has absolutely the lamest attempt to tie the story into the holiday, by setting all of its action within “a town called Christmas,” basically a snow globe someone dropped onto the planet Trenzalore where everyone dresses like they’re in a Dickens book and no one can lie. But like "End of Time," Matt Smith’s final episode's biggest problem is that it struggles to get out of the shadow of his own regeneration scene at the end. Hopefully this is a quality trend that can be bucked this year by the fact that Peter Capaldi's Doctor has been regenerating for months now.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
There’s really very little to say about this one. It’s not even per se a bad episode, and at the time it aired it was a very welcome return of the show, which had been off the air since the Christmas before. But while it’s an interesting attempt at trying to tell a superhero genre story within Doctor Who’s mythos, it’s still… well it’s still basically just a pretty generic superhero genre story that happens to be set within Doctor Who’s mythos. Also, how dare they tease a potential re-appearance by Osgood only to not make good on it in series 10? SHAME! Still, we got our first taste of Nardole as an actual companion, and Peter Capaldi casually eating sushi while Doctoring was classic Twelve.
The Snowmen (2012)
The only Christmas Special set within the middle of a series, "The Snowmen" has its high points including the second best incarnation of Clara Oswald, and makes good use of the Great Intelligence, a classic Who villain that isn’t the Daleks or the Cybermen. But despite all the things that it has going for it, "The Snowmen" just feels like a setup for the oncoming (terrible) “series 7.5” arc, (which had the worst incarnation of Clara Oswald), rather than a plot of its own. Still, it brought the Paternoster Gang back to us for a bit and that’s always welcome.
Last Christmas (2014)
The first of Peter Capaldi’s four Christmas Specials, "Last Christmas" surprisingly manages the seemingly impossible task of making Santa Claus into an actual character that the Doctor interacts with. The mix of humor with one of the more legitimately scary monsters, a homage to both The Thing and Alien, is perfect, and this episode seems to be the beginning of a shift for Capaldi’s Doctor, distinctly marked by it being his first hoodie appearance, the key to unlocking his aging rocker vibe in lieu of bitter magician of series 8. This softening of Twelve would make him much a more popular Doctor amongst fans in the next two seasons, and "Last Christmas" is when it felt like Steven Moffat and team really clicked on how to write for him. Only the ending, which digs deep into Inception territory and needed to shoehorn in Jenna Coleman’s late decision to stay on as companion Clara, keeps this one from placing higher on the list.
The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The only Christmas Regeneration story to happen after the regeneration instead of before. While often remembered for David Tennant bounding out of the TARDIS in his pajamas, ready to swashbuckle, quip, and take his place as the Doctor, it’s usually forgotten that none of that happens until the very end of the episode. While there is some great stuff with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey, most of the story is really spent waiting for the Doctor to show up, even if he does deliver once he finally does. "Invasion" also ends with the much maligned “don’t you think she looks tired” takedown of Prime Minister Harriet Jones, a plot point that only looks worse as time passes. You simply don’t cross Penelope Wilson fans and expect to get away with it. Yes, we know who you are.
The Next Doctor (2008)
Kicking off the year of specials that would send off David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and showrunner Russell T. Davies, this amusing standalone story features David Morrissey as seemingly a future regeneration of the Doctor. It has the charm of a multi-Doctor story with a twist. Also, while the slightly (overly) dominatrixy female villains would become a mainstay of the upcoming Moffat era, this episode’s Miss Hartigan is a rare intellectual match for the Doctor, with a brain strong enough to withstand even the Cyberman conversion process. While it certainly has its sad moments, it’s a pretty fun romp to follow up the emotional gutpunch that was the departure of Donna Noble at the end of series 4.
The Runaway Bride (2006)
Speaking of Donna, this special was our introduction to Catherine Tate’s temp from Chiswick, whose chemistry with David Tennant would lead to her return a season later as one of the best modern companions. While the actual storyline is somewhat forgettable, and the spidery villain, the Queen of the Racnoss, feels like she’d be more suitable to an old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode than Doctor Who, what makes this episode glisten is the charm of the Doctor and Donna together, which served as a fun balm on the burn that was the immediate departure of Rose.
The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Originally planned as Steven Moffat’s departure episode, "Husbands" saw the surprise return of the Doctor’s wife, and presented a madcap heist and con type adventure that is an example of River Song at her most natural setting: scheming, flirting, and running. Reactions to this episode vary depending on one’s feelings towards River as a character, but as a fan, this was the perfect bookend to the first time we met her in the Library, providing the Doctor and us as an audience one last goodbye. Had it remained Moffat’s last episode as showrunner, it would have also been an excellent last page for his chapter on Doctor Who. Also, it places this low on the list if only for Peter Capaldi's perfect delivery of "Hello, sweetie," and the Doctor getting his turn to react to seeing the inside of the TARDIS for “the first time.”
Voyage of the Damned (2007)
The best Who Christmas specials are the ones that don’t get bogged down with looming regeneration scenes or moving forward the bits of seasonal arcs, and instead just get to be fun adventures. While "Voyage of the Damned" has little connection to Christmas, and is essentially a space-based remake of the Poseidon Adventure, it’s also really, really fun, possibly the most action-adventure story that the Tenth Doctor gets. The story makes strong statements about the Doctor's inability to choose who he is able to save, a theme that is explored well here and adds a layer of nuance to the adventure. Plus for all the scoffing about Kylie Minogue as a stunt casting guest star, she and Tennant play off each other well, and hers is one of the few major characters on the show whose death actually resonates, since she’s allowed to stay dead.
The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011)
Another story that benefits from being able to exist outside of a seasonal continuuity. This nod to Narnia has some particularly goofy moments like the Doctor wandering around in a backwards spacesuit, but shines the most through guest star Claire Skinner as Madge Atwell. The grieving war widow’s attempts to spare her children the pain of their father’s loss brings out one of the strongest one-off performances that mark the best Christmas specials.
A Christmas Carol (2010)
A solidly Doctor Whoish retelling of the book from whence it takes its name, "A Christmas Carol" is not only the best of the Christmas Specials, but one of the best episodes of modern Doctor Who, period. It contains so many elements of the show at its best: a weird planet that feels almost magic, a plot that really plays up the time travel element of the show, and even manages to be really sad and beautiful at the same time, and even ventures deep into the steampunk vibe that it typically dances around. Like "Wardrobe" and "Voyage," "A Christmas Carol" very much benefits from being a self contained adventure that doesn’t need to push a regeneration or ongoing story arc in any direction. Plus, Dumbledore and fish in the clouds! Oh, and let’s not forget the (spoilers) not even subtle inference that Amy and Rory were in the middle of likely conceiving River when the episode begins, kicking off Christmas with a cheeky touch.