Here at Wealth of Geeks, we are connoisseurs of all things geeky—particularly anything sci-fi. Whether it's Star Wars, Star Trek, or Doctor Who, we have you covered. But in a galaxy of nerdy programming, one franchise has the market made on holiday specials and that's Doctor Who.
Our Favorite Holiday Doctor
Doctor Who remains one of the most well-known examples of science fiction the UK has ever produced. Before Star Wars or even Star Trek, that lovable, appearance-changing Time Lord known only as “the Doctor” was the face of science fiction, introducing the genre to a mass audience of viewers and becoming a cultural icon.
Whether watching old black and white episodes featuring the cantankerous first incarnation of the Doctor (William Hartnell) or the newer adventures of the last Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) in the newer series, Doctor Who remains as beloved a contribution to pop culture today as it had in when it first debuted in 1963.
In its revived run, Doctor Who has made a tradition of releasing either a Christmas- or New Year-themed standalone special, many of which remain the most popular episodes the series has ever produced, as well as generating thousands of pounds for children's charities.
With Christmas right around the corner, we thought we’d look back at some of the best Doctor Who specials that you can watch right now in preparation for the upcoming holiday.
This episode might thrive on a more promising plotline than it actually delivers upon. However, “The Snowmen” still manages to be a largely satisfactory episode, if perhaps one of the series’ weaker holiday specials.
Downtrodden over the loss of Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the Doctor spends some time in Victorian London, where he soon becomes involved in a plot orchestrated by the Great Intelligence (a formless, sentient hyper-intelligent being that had previously appeared in 1968 opposite the Second Doctor) to create an army of carnivorous snowmen.
The main action of the episode may be a bit subpar, but “The Snowmen” makes for a fun watch simply for the addition of the Great Intelligence, a classic Doctor Who villain ingeniously brought back into the revived series, made all the more enjoyable by the vocal talents of Sir Ian McKellen (one of the smoothest English voices there is).
Another feature that makes this episode worth seeing is the inclusion of Clara Oswald, who the episode spends a good bit of time building a lot of mystery about, including the idea of her having multiple lives, a plotline that would figure heavily into the rest of season 7.
It may not be the quintessential Doctor Who Christmas special—perhaps its greatest fault is the underutilization of the episode’s villains (the main point of criticism audiences had)—but it delivers an entertaining enough episode that introduced a plot thread that would figure heavily into the next season.
“The Next Doctor”
One of the more underrated Doctor Who Christmas specials, “The Next Doctor,” owes a lot to an interesting enough premise.
Following the departure of Donna Noble in season 4’s finale (fourth series if we’re going by British lingo), the Tenth Doctor travels on his own to 1850s London around Christmas time, where he encounters an eccentric man who refers to himself as the Doctor (David Morrissey).
With Tennant’s Doctor believing this new Doctor to be a future incarnation of himself, the two come together to stop a sinister plot orchestrated by a workhouse matron to build a giant Cyberman that could mean the destruction of London if completed.
The episode’s main plot may be a bit silly (namely regarding the appearance of a kaiju-sized mecha-Cyberman). Still, the most interesting aspect of the special comes from whether Morrisey’s Doctor is indeed the future successor to the title role of the show or not.
Of course, it’s revealed that in actuality, rather than being the next Doctor, Morrisey’s character is a man who’s entered a fugue state and believes himself to be the Doctor to escape the trauma of losing his wife and child to the Cybermen (a heartbreaking revelation that also managed to parallel Tennant’s own version of the Doctor: a man constantly busying himself with adventures to escape his own troubled past).
Like “The Snowmen,” “The Next Doctor” may not rank as favorably as “Last Christmas” or “The Christmas Invasion.” However, it remains enjoyable in its own right, especially for the more grounded, dramatic performances of Tennant and Morrissey.
“The Time of the Doctor”
If there’s one common element in most Doctor Who Christmas episodes, it’s the idea of saying goodbye, with many of the series’ leading Doctors or any number of their beloved companions making their final appearances on the show’s annual Christmas episodes.
Just as his earlier incarnation, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) met his end in 2009’s “The End of Time,” and as his successor, Peter Capaldi, would make his last appearance in “Twice Upon a Time,” series lead Matt Smith would similarly step down from the role in 2013’s “The Time of the Doctor.”
In what would be Smith’s fourth and final Christmas special, the Doctor arrives on the planet Trenzalore, a planet that—according to ancient prophecies—he’s destined to meet his end.
Drawn to a small farming town called Christmas, the Doctor finds a message sent from the Time Lords emanating from the town, revealing a small pocket universe where the Time Lords exist.
After tricking Clara into returning to Earth, the Doctor spends the next 300 years battling his most formidable enemies (Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, and Weeping Angels, among others) to protect the town and the Time Lords from sure obliteration.
As he is at the end of his life cycle and with no regenerations left (Time Lords only have 12 regenerations), the episode deals heavily with the fact that the Doctor is nearing his end.
Though the dramatic tones of the episode are eventually rendered moot when Clara successfully asks the Time Lords to give the Doctor a new regeneration cycle, the true emotion in the episode stems from Smith’s departure, who manages to go out with a bang through his final farewell speech to Clara (as well as his heartfelt goodbye to Amy, who he imagines is there in his final few moments).
It may not be the greatest of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials, but it’s more than a satisfying conclusion to Smith’s tenure on the show.
“The End of Time” Parts 1 & 2
David Tennant was and continues to be one of the most popular Doctors in the history of Doctor Who. There's a reason he's back to fill in the gap between Thirteen and Fifteen.
From his first appearance in season 1’s finale to his three-season long run on the show, fans had fallen in love with the antics of the Converse-clad, ridiculously high-energy Tennant, who quickly managed to rank among the most beloved Doctors the show had ever seen.
However, Tennant’s time on the show would eventually draw to a close with his fifth and final Christmas special, 2009’s “The End of Time.” In this two-part episode, the Doctor deals with the return of the Master, who plans on turning the world’s population into cloned versions of himself.
However, their battle is soon interrupted by the return of the Time Lords, who have managed to survive their war with the Daleks and attempt to bring Gallifrey back by essentially replacing Earth. It’s perhaps fitting that Tennant’s introduction to the show came through 2005’s special “The Christmas Invasion” and ended with “The End of Time.”
Whereas the former perfectly showcased the Tenth Doctor’s personality and strengths (funny, joyful, and outgoing, yet able to snap into seriousness within a moment’s notice), the latter portrayed him in a much more dour way, as a man coming to terms with the end of his life cycle.
Though a bit messy in some aspects (the Master’s plan is a little over-the-top, but comedically so), “The End of Time” is an entertaining episode that perfectly summed up Tennant’s tenure on the show, featuring appearances from some of his most famous companions and his most famous nemesis (John Simm’s Master, who is always delightful to see in the role).
As with Matt Smith’s farewell in “The Time of the Doctor” or Peter Capaldi’s goodbye in “Twice Upon a Time,” “The End of Time” offers an incredibly emotional final appearance for Tennant, whose last words before his regeneration (“I don’t want to go!”) echo our own sentiments exactly.
“The Christmas Invasion”
Doctor Who’s first Christmas special introduced the world to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. “The Christmas Invasion” ranks as one of the best episodes the show has ever produced.
Shortly after the Doctor’s regeneration in the first season’s finale, London finds itself invaded by a hostile alien race known as the Sycorax, demanding half the world’s population become slaves to keep the Sycorax from killing one-third of humanity.
Meanwhile, humanity's only hope, the Tenth Doctor, is unfortunately still recovering from the effects of his regeneration and figuring out the kind of “man” he is and the personality he possesses, much to the concern of Rose and Mickey, his two companions.
“The Christmas Invasion” may boast a pretty standard alien-invasion plotline. Still, the special’s real strength comes with Tennant’s introduction as the Doctor, whose lovable charm, wit, and charisma are on full display here.
It’s an episode that queued audiences into the kind of Doctor they would see for the next few seasons, as well as establishing the kind of relationship he’d share with his companions (especially Rose, who features heavily into the episode as she comes to terms with her own romantic feelings towards this new Doctor).
“The Runaway Bride”
Whereas the earlier “Christmas Invasion” introduced audiences to the lovable, fan-favorite Tenth Doctor, the series’ second Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride,” marked the first appearance of another fan-favorite character, Donna Noble.
Moments after season two’s “Doomsday” finale, the Doctor finds a woman in a wedding dress who has mysteriously and randomly appeared aboard the TARDIS, demanding to know where she is.
Trying to return Donna to the wedding she’s magically disappeared from, the Doctor soon discovers a nefarious plot by a spider-like creature to plan to unleash her children onto the world.
Like “The Christmas Invasion,” “The Runaway Bride”’s popularity owes more to the characters and their dynamic than the actual plot. Sure, the action is exciting enough (full of car chases, robotic Santas, and even contains hints of a “Mr. Saxon,” who would later be revealed as the Master in disguise). But Donna’s introduction and hilarious interactions with the Doctor make it this special well worth watching.
Their constant arguing served as an entertaining juxtaposition between the romantic relationship between the Doctor and his previous companion, Rose, introducing a character who would eventually become one of Doctor Who fans’ favorite companions.
“The Husbands of River Song”
River Song had been a character whose appearance and development in Doctor Who spanned nearly seven years. From her debut in “Silence in the Library,” the show’s creators established her with a distinct air of mystery as someone who clearly knows the Doctor. Still, her relationship with him would only gradually be revealed as the show went on.
As the series continued, audiences learned more about the ever-enigmatic River, who is eventually revealed to be a future companion to the Doctor, his eventual wife, and the daughter of the Doctor’s fellow companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.
River’s long-running arc in the show would finally reach its culmination with 2015’s “The Husbands of River Song,” which marked the character’s final appearance on the show. Just before she died in the “Forest of the Dead” (her introduction to the Tenth Doctor was also her last meeting with him—thanks to opposite-moving timelines she shares with the Doctor), River meets Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor in their first and only episode together.
Not recognizing him at first, she recruits him into an Indiana Jones-style archaeological heist, with the Doctor not outright revealing his identity to her, opting to play along and see what his wife is really like when he’s not around.
More of an episode centered around River than it is the Doctor, “The Husbands of River Song” is the ultimate swan song to River’s character, showing her fiery personality, her adventurous past, and just how different a person she is when she believes the Doctor isn’t around.
The episode’s climax gives the episode its power, featuring the final meeting between the couple before River’s inevitable end (made all the more difficult given the Doctor knows he’s essentially sending her off to her death).
It’s an emotional goodbye and draws River’s long-running storyline to a more than satisfying conclusion, making this an episode well-worth watching.
“Twice Upon a Time”
In one of the show’s best send-offs for a Doctor yet, “Twice Upon a Time” featured the final adventure of Peter Capaldi’s humorously grouchy Twelfth Doctor.
In a fitting farewell, this imaginative and clever episode (filled with various nods to numerous Doctor Who episodes), the Twelfth Doctor, happens across the First Doctor (David Bradley) in a remote region of the North Pole, both of whom are coming to terms with their individual regenerations.
Together, the two Doctors save a doomed WWI army captain (Mark Gatiss) from his own death, with each of the three men struggling to face their eventual ends. Like all the best Doctor Who specials, “Twice Upon a Time” doesn’t have much plot but instead offers a wonderfully introspective look at the Doctor in two of his most well-known incarnations, both of whom slowly come to accept the inevitably of their ends.
Heavily emotional throughout (including an incredibly gut-wrenching depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce), “Twice Upon a Time” also has some strong comedic elements as well, derived mostly from the two Doctors’ odd pairing, with the show making more than a few hilarious jabs at the First Doctor’s dated, non-PC attitude and worldview.
In more than a few ways, “Twice Upon a Time” seemed like the end of an era for Doctor Who, marking Capaldi’s final appearance on the show, as well as the final episode written by principal writer and executive producer Steven Moffat and the last episode scored by composer Murray Gold since his tenure on the show began in 2005.
History is also made with the long-awaited first appearance of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor at the end of the episode, with the entire build-up to her debut extremely well-done, echoing each Doctors’ growing concern and fear about meeting their end.
“A Christmas Carol”
Doctor Who has never been above referencing pre-existing stories or outright borrowing an entire episode on a famous story. Perhaps the greatest example of this practice can be found in 2010’s “A Christmas Carol,” with a plot virtually identical to Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story of the same name.
As Rory and Amy try to enjoy their honeymoon aboard a massive space liner, they are caught in an electrical storm that threatens to kill them and the 4,000 other passengers on board unless the cloud layer thins. However, the only person with control over the cloud belt is an embittered, cynical older man (Michael Gambon) who appears indifferent to whether the ship crashes or not.
Taking a page straight out of A Christmas Carol, the Doctor travels through the older man’s past, present, and future to try and get him to become a better person, saving his friends in the process.
“A Christmas Carol” may be weighted too heavily in its source material. However, it still serves as a strong outing for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in his first Christmas special, who can hold his own against the veteran actor, Gambon (who steals the show in this episode).
The Doctor had previously encountered Charles Dickens himself before (2005’s “The Quiet Undead”), but the plot from this special revolves around an even more interesting hypothetical: What if two of the most famous British characters in existence (the Doctor and Ebeneezer Scrooge) met one another? What would their interaction be like?
With this highly inventive, unique episode, we see the answer to that question.
The joy of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials has always been its strength, either in plotting or illustrating character. Some episodes we’ve discussed so far, such as “The Christmas Invasion” or “The Runaway Bride,” may have had somewhat mediocre plots. Still, at the very least, they were a joy to watch simply for the Doctor’s antics or for the banter he shared with his companions.
Some specials like “Last Christmas,” though, perfectly blended both elements, focusing on a tight, entertaining story and showcasing the Doctor's complicated relationships with his companions.
Peter Capaldi’s first Christmas special, “Last Christmas,” revolves around the Doctor and Clara venturing to the North Pole together. There they wind up at a research station under attack by an animal species that latch on to their victims’ face, feeding them an endless supply of dreams as they devour their brains.
As the Doctor and Clara try to help the research team survive, they quickly begin to question their own reality and whether they themselves are dreaming or not. An episode that pays homage to sci-fi horror classics like Alien and The Thing, “Last Christmas” is a mind-bending story that seems to owe a lot to Inception, making you wonder whether what you’re seeing is real or a figment of the characters’ imagination.
It also features some terrific back-and-forth between the Doctor and his longtime companion Clara, both of whom start the episode by lying to each other (the Doctor claims he’s found Gallifrey, and Clara fools him into thinking that her boyfriend Danny Pink is still alive).
Though weighted heavily in incredibly emotional scenes—Clara comes to terms with Danny’s death by the special’s conclusion—the episode also boasts plenty of much-needed comedic relief, provided especially through St. Nick himself, brilliantly played by Nick Frost.
It’s perhaps the best-plotted of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials, which offers an engaging episode that keeps you guessing and invested.
In its revived series’ run, Doctor Who has seen several enjoyable Christmas specials, focusing on the Doctors’ many adventures throughout time and space, encountering everyone from Scrooge-like miserly old men to past incarnations of his former self.
We hope this list offers an in-depth look back at some of Doctor Who’s best Christmas specials, all 10 of which we highly recommend viewing.
Additionally, we enjoyed “Voyage of the Damned” and “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” both decent in their own right but perhaps not as memorable as some of the other Christmas specials detailed here.
All episodes of Doctor Who are currently streaming on HBO Max.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.