The Christmas special has been a staple of British television since the early post-war days, with a catalogue of tinsel-clad Alf Garnett’s and Tony Hancock’s, but it took Doctor Who decades before the first full-fledged Christmas special (David Tennant’s first episode, The Christmas Invasion, in 2005.) There’s a lot of problems with the Christmas special; they’re often shot in the spring/summer so you have actors clearly struggling to sell winter with the sunlight and warmth beating down on them, as well as trying to make a programme that’s accessible to everyone bloated and pissed from eating and drinking too much. 2016’s special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, due to be broadcast on Christmas Day as one of BBC One’s crown jewels of Christmas programming offers much, but how do the other specials fare in hindsight?
That first special holds up remarkably well. The Christmas Invasion is as traditional a post-regeneration episode as any from the classic series as it softly introduces the concept of regeneration to a new audience. Writer Russell T. Davies creates a simple jumping on point for everyone, and with this sets a template of the Christmas special as being a tad panto, which with a few exceptions, has been the norm every since.
In fact the, Davies era is marked by a run of big, boisterous, populist specials from The Runaway Bride co-starring Catherine Tate (a fairly patchy episode but enjoyable fluff), through to the pretty poor Voyage of the Damned co-starring Kylie Minogue (in which Davies once again draws upon 2000 AD for inspiration after having drawn upon the comic previously) and the wonderfully fun The Next Doctor co-starring David Morrissey which teased Tennant’s then undisclosed forthcoming regeneration in the programme. Even the final Tennant episodes (The End of Time) are romps where Davies overindulges himself like a glutton starting on their second turkey dinner of the day, but it manages to succeed as a send-off for David Tennant, as well as a huge Christmas blow-out.
That instant accessibility that Davies installed in the specials seems to carry of with Stephen Moffat’s first special, A Christmas Carol, which is the best of all the specials so far. It’s sweet, charming, tragic and uplifting all at the same time. It really is a fantastic episode that highlights how good Matt Smith as the Doctor, and also serves as reminder as to how poorly served in scripts Smith’s Doctor was. The following years special, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, is a nadir of the specials. It’s a mix of bad writing, bad plotting, poor casting, and a second or third draft script being passed off as the finished article. 2012’s The Snowmen is an improvement but by now the Christmassy accessibility of the Davies era has been replaced with the labyrinthine plot twists of the Moffat era which meant if your nan sat down to watch it full of gin, then she’d be a tad confused as to what’s going on.
The Time of the Doctor brings this to an end. It features Smith’s regeneration into Peter Capaldi but it also ties up years of dangling plotlines, sometimes in throwaway sentences which can be missed if you’re adding Olympic amounts of brandy to your Christmas pudding which can make the attention span a tad all over the place. 2014’s Last Christmas is an attempt to make a one-off special but ends up fighting with Voyage of the Damned for the wooden spoon.
The Husbands of River Song manages to nearly capture the best of the Christmas specials as well as wrapping up old plotlines to keep the hardcore fan happy. It isn’t perfect, but as an hour on Christmas Day evening when six pints, a Christmas lunch and your nan’s homemade gin is percolating in your guts, it does the job.
Over the years, the Doctor Who Christmas has seen amazing highs, and terrible lows, as people across the nation sit down bloated on turkey and wine to see what the Doctor does this year. 2016 brings the superhero into the Doctor Who universe. It could be amazing, but we’ll see if it meets the six pint test soon enough.