Christmas is coming...
Hard though it may be to believe now, there was a time when Doctor Who wasn't a festive fixture. Though we've now enjoyed (and occasionally endured) ten years of the Time Lord taking over BBC1 on Christmas Day, it was never considered a particularly Christmassy show until Russell T Davies brought the show back in 2005. While we're not getting a Doctor Who Christmas special this year (it's on New Year's Day instead), we decided to rank the specials so far from worst to best. Which were Christmas crackers, and which were dry old turkeys? Read on to find out...
10. The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe
The plot: An injured Doctor falls to Earth in 1938 and, after being nursed back to health by Madge (Claire Skinner), promises to repay the debt one day. That time comes when Madge's husband is killed in action. The Doctor returns to help Madge and her children enjoy Christmas, but the kids find themselves transported to Androzani Major...
Is it any good? Despite a whole heap of good intentions, The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe is easily the weakest Who Christmas special and a contender for one of the worst episodes of the revived series as a whole. Steven Moffat's script is characteristically witty, but it's let down by schmaltz and excess. This is the story that introduced, let's not forget, the vomit-inducing phrase humany, wumany.
Crucially, the plot is will-o'-the-wisp thin, and the show's squeamishness about death leads to a warm-hearted but hollow happy ending that undoes the darkness of its central premise. Villain-less episodes are an interesting rarity in Doctor Who but the absence of menace here leaves this story feeling lacking in immediacy.
9. Voyage Of The Damned (2007)
The plot: The TARDIS crashes into a spaceship modelled on the Titanic and must help the guests survive as everything goes wrong and it crashes towards Earth...
Is it any good? Voyage Of The Damned is a disaster movie in space with Kylie Minogue as the proxy companion. Unsurprisingly, it was a massive ratings winner and it feels suitably grandiose.
Unfortunately, it was also the first of the Christmas specials to really disappoint. The Tenth Doctor is at his most pompous and the moment where he is raised heavenwards by some robot angels is eye-rollingly unsubtle. It feels baggy at 72 minutes and the villain, Max Capricorn, is literally a head in a box who is defeated with a fork lift truck.
It's not all bad: the script has some good jokes, and Kylie's Astrid Peth is better than you might expect. Still, looked back on today, the episode feels hollow and silly.
8. The Time Of The Doctor (2013)
The plot: The Doctor arrives at his final destination: the planet Trenzalore, where he spends hundreds of years as the defender of a town called Christmas. Clara is eventually reunited with her friend, just in time to watch his final death and a last moment reprieve courtesy of the Time Lords.
Is it any good? There are a lot of wonderful moments in Matt Smith's finale notably his moving regeneration scene. Sadly, the attempt to tie up his entire era in a single episode leaves a special that's messy, confusing to fans (let alone casual viewers who must have found the whole thing entirely baffling) and oddly paced. There's no sense of consistent threat, with the Daleks popping up every now and again, inbetween wooden Cybermen and Weeping Angels, and a lot of the comedy falls flat. The final scenes are superb, but Matt Smith deserved a better last hurrah.
7. The End Of Time, Part One (2009)
The plot: The Tenth Doctor's time runs out (slowly) as he comes face to face with a resurrected Master...
Is it any good? "The End Of Time" really does feel like the final chapter in Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who. It's storytelling on huge scale, packed with characters, humour and heart. There's a lot to love, but unfortunately most of that is saved for "Part Two", which aired on New Years Day...
"Part One" spends ages contriving the Master's revival, and while John Simm is as manic and watchable as before, he can't save the incoherent opening half-hour. After all the initial running and shouting there's an almost palpable sense of relief every time Bernard Cribbins' Wilf or Catherine Tate's Donna comes on screen and the show settles back into a more familiar tone. Still, it does end on a hugely audacious cliffhanger, and "Part Two" is far more successful.
7. The Next Doctor (2008)
The plot: The Doctor arrives on Earth, only to run into an army of Cyberman. And if that wasn't enough, there's another man (David Morrissey) running around, saving the day - who claims to also be the Doctor...
Is it any good? "The Next Doctor" hangs on a tantalising premise: just who is this mysterious man? It's clear right from the start that David Morrissey isn't really playing our hero's next regeneration, but could he be one from a parallel world? The far future? Or something else entirely?
The answers, when they come, are largely satisfying. Morrissey is really Jackson Lake a man who has suffered a great tragedy and who, though some sci-fi handwavery has absorbed aspects of the Doctor's personality. Dervla Kirwan gives good, camp villainy too as the bitter and twisted Miss Hartigan.
Unfortunately, in telling such a low-key, character-based adventure, the story feels a little small fry. It was a necessary decision "The Next Doctor" comes just after the epic "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End" two-parter, so a breather was needed but compared to some of the other Christmas episodes it does feel a little inconsequential. The giant Cyber King stomping over London is a baffling bit of steampunk weirdness too that looks good, but doesn't really fit with Cyber-lore.
5. The Runaway Bride (2006)
The plot: Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) materialises on the TARDIS, just as she's walking down the aisle. The Doctor tries to get her to the church on time, but the machinations of the evil Queen of the Racnoss put both him and Donna in the firing line.
Is it any good?The second Christmas special brings back a few elements from The Christmas Invasion (killer Santas, a world-threatening attack) but is faster and funnier. It also marks the debut of Catherine Tate's Donna Noble. Tate was controversial casting at the time, but after her turn as a full-time companion in season four, most fans were won over.
As ever with Russell T Davies' scripts, there's a thick vein of tragedy beneath the surface and Donna's heartbreak when she realises that Lance, her husband to be, actually hates her and is conspiring with an alien spider (hey, it's Doctor Who, go with it) is palpable. It's not going to be in many fans' best ever episodes lists, but it's a hugely enjoyable festive treat.
4. The Snowmen (2012)
The plot: A grieving Doctor is hiding out on Victorian Earth with just a Sontaran, a human, and a Silurian detective as his pals. And then he meets Clara a young barmaid who changes everything for him.
Is it any good? After the previous year's dodgy special, "The Snowmen" was a solid return to form for the Christmas outings. The return of the Great Intelligence (a villain from the Patrick Troughton era) was a real fan pleaser, and Who almost always works in the Victorian era. Jenna Coleman appears as the second iteration of Clara, and her death at the end is a genuine shock. You expect the Doctor to save her, but he singularly fails, setting up a mystery about how she will become the companion in the following series. There's a great villainous turn from Richard E Grant as Dr Simeon and the whole thing feels Christmassy without hammering home its seasonal elements.
3. Last Christmas (2014)
The plot: Santa Claus crashes the Doctor Who universe but how is he related to a research base at the North Pole?
Is it any good? There was a question mark over how well Peter Capaldi's (initially) dour Doctor would work at Christmas. The answer, thankfully, was "brilliantly". This is the moment that the Twelfth Doctor finally starts to warm up, and it's hard not to smile at his obvious joy in the closing scenes where he flies a sleigh over London. Of course the Doctor would be like that. Even the elements that initially seem too silly Nick Frost as Santa! are integrated well into an episode that consciously riffs on The Thing and Alien in a family friendly, yet still spooky, manner.
The episode also works as a satisfying cap to the previous season. Clara has lost her boyfriend Danny, and is dealing with that trauma, while the Doctor is learning that he really needs his friend. The final scene where you think she might die is genuinely affecting, and her ultimate reprieve a real sigh of relief. Beautiful work from all involved.
2. A Christmas Carol
The plot: Well, it's Dickens' A Christmas Carol, only in space, and with a flying shark, Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins.
Is it any good? Steven Moffat knocks it out of the park with his first stab at a Doctor Who Christmas story. After a couple of years of increasingly iffy specials, this finds the show in fine, renewed form. Doctor Who has always been inspired by other books and films, but this is by far the show's most blatant act of narrative plundering. But it doesn't matter one jot the tale of a good man being worn down by time and tragedy into a bitter, spiteful hermit and his eventual redemption is a classic, and both Michael Gambon and Danny Horn do great work as Kazran Sardick. Even the mandatory song by Jenkins works well. And at the heart of it all is Matt Smith, who impresses with - at the time his most confident turn as the Doctor. It's a brilliant and loveable episode.
1. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The plot: The TARDIS crashes to Earth, bringing with it a freshly-regenerated Doctor just in time to fend off an attack by the alien Sycorax.
Is it any good? The first Christmas special and still the best. "The Christmas Invasion" is a fast, funny adventure that uses its festive elements well. Those robot Santas and killer Christmas trees are etched into the minds of the kids who saw it at the time. The jokes are sharp and writer Russell T Davies' even smuggles in a genuinely unsettling sequence where thousands of people under the control of the skull-faced Sycorax climb tall buildings and prepare to throw themselves off.
Of course, the fact that it's the Tenth Doctor's first story gives it a natural boost though he remains unconscious or off-screen for a surprisingly long time, leaving it up to Billie Piper's loveable, empathic Rose to carry the adventure. When he does show up, however, it's an instantly charming performance from David Tennant, immediately setting the tone for the next four years of adventures. Still, new Doctor or not, it's the quality of the production that has ensured that this remains a festive fave and a tough act to beat. Will this year manage it?