Our resident Doctor Who fan breaks down some of his favorite Christmas specials.
Ah, the Christmas season: that time of year when carols fill the air, when we decorate our trees and wrap our gifts, and – for us sci-fi fans – when we start eagerly anticipating this year's Doctor Who Christmas special. For nearly a decade, these holiday trips in the TARDIS have been an annual tradition for fans, so much so that despite the new Doctor Who series only having just ended its eighth season, the show has given us ten Christmas episodes so far. This Christmas will give us the eleventh special, titled Last Christmas, and it looks like a great one: it features guest-star Nick Frost (Sean of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End) as Santa Claus, in a take on the character that he describes as “gangster-ish.”
Fans of the series are undoubtedly planning to revisit the best of these Christmas specials this month, but most of the specials aren't just for fans. For casual viewers, or even people who haven't watched Doctor Who at all, at least a few of these episodes are perfect if you are looking to branch out from the typical sorts of holiday movies and find a different, more offbeat type of yuletide entertainment. While there are a couple Christmas specials that are key parts of Doctor Who's serialized continuity, and probably shouldn't be viewed out of context (the dense-with-plot-development The End of Time and Time of the Doctor in particular), here are recommendations of five Doctor Who holiday episodes that anyone can enjoy, and that rank among the very best. Rather than leading up to the top recommendation, let's start right out with the one that should be essential viewing: it's as accessible and holiday-themed as the title implies, and is a fantastic story by both Christmas movie and Doctor Who standards. It is...
A Christmas Carol
from season 6 (2010), 60 minutes
As the title implies, this is a loose adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, redone sci-fi-style as a time-travel drama. When lives are at stake on Christmas Eve, and the only one who can save them is a cruel, uncaring businessman who would rather let people die than hurt his bottom line, the Doctor (number 11, Matt Smith) takes a cue from Dickens and casts himself as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to change the old miser's mind. Aside from substituting time-travel for ghostly magic, this is actually a fairly straightforward (if loose) adaptation; the big difference is that the “ghost” is just as much a main character as the Scrooge-equivalent (Casran Sardic, played by Michael Gambon). By going back into his past Christmases, the Doctor hopes to make Casran a better person by replacing his cruelty with compassion, and the Doctor's process of trying to save him (and the people whose lives he holds in his hands) is just as central to the plot as Casran's journey of redemption.
Despite some sci-fi trappings, this special is – just like Dickens' novel – essentially a character study, as well as a love story. It's all about what happened in Casran's life that made him the callous cynic he is now, the young love that almost made him a much better person along the way, and the question of whether he can still change. While some purists might find it a bit blasphemous to move Charles Dickens into outer space, the script is literary, insightful, and totally understands the themes and central character from the novel; it truly is worthy of the Christmas Carol name. Anchoring the episode is a seriously excellent performance by Michael Gambon, who is as a great a Scrooge as we have ever seen. His transformation is totally believable, and we deeply feel both his cruelty at first, and then his heartbreak and sadness as we get to know him better. Over his illustrious career, Gambon has played characters as varied as the disgustingly evil Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Theif, His Wife, and Her Lover, and the wise and kindly Professor Dumbledore. He gets a chance to draw on both ends of that spectrum as he really digs in to this timeless character.
Highly recommended, as both a very different yet strong adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and as a great Doctor Who episode. And the next recommendation makes a very interesting companion piece to it...
The Unquiet Dead
from season 1 (2005), 45 minutes
When Doctor Who returned to TV in 2005, its third episode – and its first one set in the past – was this Victorian ghost story starring Charles Dickens (Simon Callow), set on Christmas Eve. The episode actually aired in March, but considering its setting, protagonist, and themes, it's definitely a Christmas episode at heart, and it set the tone for the holiday specials that would follow every subsequent December. It begins as the Doctor (number 9, Christopher Eccleston) and Rose arrive in Victorian-era Cardiff just in time to see Charles Dickens do a Christmas Eve theatrical reading of A Christmas Carol. But elsewhere in town, creatures are stirring: a funeral home is having problems with their corpses coming back from the dead, and ghosts are playing havoc with the gaslights. When one of the ghosts interrupt Dickens' performance, he joins the Doctor and Rose to get to the bottom of the mystery – although he is certain it is a hoax, and is out to debunk it.
This is Dickens in the last year of his life: he is tired and jaded, he has lost his sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity, and he is creatively crippled by a writer's block that prevents him from finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A firm skeptic of the supernatural and a debunker of charlatans, he thinks he understands everything about the order of the natural world – which is precisely why he can no longer find inspiration in it. As his adventure with the Doctor and Rose introduces him to the supernatural and alien, his worldview is at first deeply shaken... but then he starts feeling alive and finding excitement again for the first time in years. In other words, Dickens' journey in The Unquiet Dead heavily mirrors that of Scrooge.
The episode uses quite a few references and visual cues from A Christmas Carol in telling its story, even as the supernatural plot draws from classic ghost stories and Hammer-style horror films. It all gels together very well, though, and gives us the first really good episode of the revived Doctor Who series. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper (as Rose) are really growing into their roles here; Eccleston in particular is in top form, proving how great a Doctor he was despite having only one season. As with Doctor Who's Christmas Carol, though, it is guest-protagonist Charles Dickens who grounds the episode emotionally, thanks to another excellent performance from an accomplished character actor. Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love) is an expert on Dickens' life and work, and played the author on stage, so when he was asked to reprise the role in Doctor Who, he said he would only take the part if he felt it truly understood the man and did him justice. Perhaps Callow expected that a sci-fi series would surely let Dickens down, but it definitely did not: The Unquiet Dead met his high expectations and won the skeptical actor over, and there isn't much higher praise than that.
Voyage of the Damned
from season 4 (2007), 72 minutes
Tenth Doctor David Tennant's last full season started off spectacularly with this nearly movie-length special. It's Christmas Eve, and the Doctor finds himself aboard an alien luxury cruise liner, flying through space on a scenic orbital tour of Earth. In honor of is destination, the ship is named for Earth's most famous luxury liner... the Titanic. When a disaster suspiciously like the original Titanic's occurs – the ship strikes an asteroid – it too starts to sink... but in this case, that means not just the deaths of all the passengers, but the deaths of countless people on Earth when the ship falls to the surface and its nuclear engines explode. The Doctor sets out to lead his fellow passengers to safety and save the world, and also to figure out if what happened was really an accident, or if someone with a warped sense of humor created the disaster to mirror that of its namesake.
If the premise initially sounds far-fetched or silly, don't let that put you off; it is no such thing. The special pulls the concept off beautifully, with strong characters, very real emotion, and a tense feeling of disaster. The script is inspired equally by the serious drama and romantic tone of Titanic, and the old-school disaster-movie thrills of The Poseidon Adventure, and in an impressive feat of screenwriting it genuinely manages to succeed on both fronts. The suspense, thrills, and special effects set-pieces are there, but they are matched equally – and amplified – by the story's strong sense of humanity. The thing that really allows Voyage of the Damned to be so good is the length: since these Christmas specials aren't restricted to the usual 45-minute time-slot, the story can spread out to well over an hour, and take the time to develop characters that we can genuinely care about.
This episode is also a great example of what made David Tennant such an excellent Doctor: his blend of humor and charm counterbalanced by serious intensity shines through brilliantly here. He also provides a few iconic moments that perfectly capture his character: check out his “I'm the Doctor” speech in the trailer; that's the tenth Doctor in a nutshell, and it's awesome. His co-star this time around is Kylie Minogue (as you may be noticing, these Christmas specials love their famous guest-stars), and she gives a strong and likeable performance as well. She and Tennant have great chemistry, and play off of each other very well; it makes you wish that the show's budget could have afforded to make her a recurring character rather than just a guest.
As you may have guessed from the plot teaser, this is more of a story that just happens to be set against the backdrop of Christmas, rather than an actual Christmas story, but it is nonetheless great entertainment, and is highly recommended. With its 72-minute length, this really does feel more like a movie than an episode of a TV series, and whether you're more of a Titanic person or a Poseidon Adventure person, you will find a lot to like.
from season 7 (2012), 60 minutes
Six seasons, two Doctors, and one showrunner after The Unquiet Dead, it was about time for Doctor Who to give the successful formula of a Victorian Christmas ghost story another – quite different – go. This time, the Doctor (Matt Smith's number 11 again) arrives in Victorian London as Frankenstein-ish mad scientist Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant) is finalizing a Faustian bargain with a disembodied evil presence that calls itself the Great Intelligence (voiced by Ian McKellen). The Intelligence can manifest itself physically by taking control of snow and ice, and the result is an army of evil, man-eating snowmen. Sure, that may sound silly, but the creatures are surprisingly creepy and effective, thanks to some great character design and the highly menacing performances by McKellen and Grant.
That contrast of creepy and comic is pretty typical of The Snowmen, actually: its tone fluctuates quite a bit between the spooky Gothic horror elements of the Great Intelligence story and the sometimes-silly interplay between the Doctor and his trio of Victorian monster-fighter guest-stars, Madam Vastra (a Silurian), Jenny (a human with some awesome martial artist skills), and Strax (a Sontaran). The tonal shifts from funny to dark and back again can be jarring, but thanks to good performances and great atmosphere, it all comes together into a strong episode. Like Voyage of the Damned, The Snowmen uses its longer-than-usual runtime to develop its large ensemble cast, and delve into the Doctor's character as he re-examines his life after the events of season 7 so far. Also like Voyage, this is more of a character-driven sci-fi story that happens to be set around Christmas, and less of an episode about the holiday like A Christmas Carol, but the very idea of sentient killer snowmen definitely makes it appropriate holiday viewing.
The Chimes of Midnight
Audioplay, 2002, 2 hours (4 half-hour episodes)
This Christmas episode is a bit different, as it comes from those years between the 1996 TV movie and the 2005 revival when Doctor Who was no longer on TV, but was being kept alive through a series of official full-cast audioplays produced by audiobook studio Big Finish Productions. Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, who starred in the 1996 film, returned to the role for this series, getting a much-deserved tenure on the show beyond the thankless single TV episode he was given. He really made the most of it too: the eighth Doctor audio series is fantastic, and shows not only that Paul McGann is an excellent Doctor, but also that Doctor Who was in very safe hands (albeit as a much better-kept secret) even when it was off of TV. One of the most highly-acclaimed entries in the series is The Chimes of Midnight: a spooky, time-warping, murder-mystery-meets-haunted-house-tale (or is it really either of those things?) set on Christmas Eve. It has become such a classic that BBC Radio has aired it at least three times around Christmas over the years; definitely a worthy edition to your holiday Doctor Who enjoyment, even if you've never explored Big Finish's audio series before.
The Doctor and his audio-series companion Charlie – a self-described Edwardian adventuress who joined the Doctor after he saved her from death during her own travels – land in what appears to be the cellar of an English manor house in the early-1900s, on Christmas Eve. They hear carols being sung, and smell plum pudding cooking... but they soon realize that something is very wrong. There's a murder... and then the ghost of the victim starts talking to Charlie... but that's just the start. It is quickly clear to the Doctor that the house seems to be in some sort of twilight zone where time and reality are both bending, and where nothing is quite what it appears to be... but how, and why? He and Charlie set out to solve the mystery... but it's going to be a long, strange night.
This is a story where it is even more important than usual to say only the little bit that is required about the plot: the unfolding of this macabre mystery is hugely entertaining, and one of Big Finish Productions' finest accomplishments. Even without visuals, they create a strange world with richly moody atmosphere and a palpable sense of dread, using the possibilities of the audioplay format to full effect in their creepy soundscape. The whole cast brings their characters very effectively to life through their voice-acting, and Paul McGann and India Fisher are excellent together as the Doctor and Charlie. This is a perfect story to listen to with the lights out on a cold winter's night.
If you're looking for some Christmas viewing (or in the case of The Chimes of Midnight, listening) that's a bit different and more offbeat from the typical holiday classics, these five Doctor Who tales should certainly do the job. Between a murder mystery, a Victorian ghost story, a disaster epic, and a couple unique twists on the classic Christmas Carol, there should be something there for just about anyone who wants their Christmas movies a bit less straightforward and a bit more “timey-wimey.” Whether you're a fan of the series or a newcomer, these episodes make this a perfect time of year to step into the TARDIS.
-Christopher S. Jordan