For Whovians, the holiday season is about more than just the holidays. It also means the release of a new Doctor Who holiday special or at least revisiting our favorite old ones.
The Doctor Who Christmas special was a new addition to the revival series, but a welcome one. Come Christmas (or sometimes New Year’s) since 2005, Whovians around the world gather around their televisions to tune in to the Doctor’s latest holiday antics. The holiday specials are vastly varying in quality, some of the best episodes of NuWho, and some of the worst.
For this holiday season, here are our picks for the five best Doctor Who holiday specials, both Christmas and New Year’s.
“The Time of the Doctor” (Christmas 2013):
It’s safe to say that there will be several regeneration episodes featured on this list.
Coming hot off the heels of the legendary 50th anniversary special, expectations for Matt Smith’s final outing were high. And boy, did this episode meet expectations.
“The Time of the Doctor” is probably one of the better regeneration episodes, because of how it beautifully ties together the Eleventh Doctor’s era. Featuring the legendary Battle of Trenzalore, finally on screen, a somewhat satisfactory conclusion to The Silence story arc, returns of countless old villains, and perhaps the most epic (and explosive) regeneration scene yet put to screen, this holiday special had the collective jaws of many fans on the floor.
What I think is best about this episode is how it wraps up the character arc of the Eleventh Doctor. Eleven spends 1,000 years on Trenzalore, defending the humans of the planet fearlessly the whole time. This is easily one of the most difficult trials the Doctor has ever had to face, and certainly one of the bravest. If anything sums up the character of the Eleventh Doctor, and all Doctors, it’s that self-sacrificial, endlessly persistent nature, that is wonderfully exemplified in this episode.
Plus, Matt Smith’s final lines of “I will always remember when the Doctor was me” are enough to bring tears to the eyes of even the most stoic fan.
This one’s a little less festive than some of the others, as the only major Christmas-y element is the town called Christmas, and of course Clara’s awkward family dinner. What it lacks in the holiday spirit, though, this episode makes up for in emotional weight.
“Voyage of the Damned” (Christmas 2007):
Probably one of the more bizarre holiday specials, this one revolves around an alien replica of the Titanic in orbit above Earth on Christmas Day. The ship is a novelty replica of “Earth’s most famous ship” built by an alien tour company.
After the hull of the ship crashed through the TARDIS, the Tenth Doctor investigates and becomes involved in a disaster on the ship. As time runs out, he has to protect the tourists from killer robotic angels. Another one of the darker Christmas specials, “Voyage of the Damned” still has a certain kind of Christmas magic to it.
Between yet another iteration of killer Christmas decorations, to the first appearance of Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), to the ashes of an alien spaceship becoming snowfall, to Kylie Freaking Minogue, what more could you want from a Who holiday special?
“Twice Upon a Time” (Christmas 2017):
Another regeneration episode, this Christmas special marks another beautiful send-off for a beloved Doctor—two, actually.
“Twice Upon a Time” approached the multi-Doctor story in a way that no other story did previously. Having both the Twelfth and First Doctors meet at their last moment’s prior regeneration is fantastic, surreal, and magical. It marks an incredibly emotional and poignant (if incredibly drawn out) send-off for an excellent Doctor.
Moreover, the antagonist of this episode not actually being evil is a welcome touch. It’s very nice to watch Doctor Who when the aliens can be reasoned with.
Additionally, the Christmas spirit in this episode is at just the right level. I feel that some of the holiday episodes (especially some of Steven Moffat’s) are negatively impacted by being too “Christmas-y” to the point that they’re over-saturated. However, the snow of the South Pole and the appearance of the real historical Christmas Truce of 1914 add some really lovely, atmospheric holiday spirit to this adventure.
“The Snowmen” (Christmas 2012):
So, clearly, I like the darker holiday specials. “The Snowmen” perfectly blends the feeling of a Classic Who episode with the concept of the modern Christmas special.
The loss of his previous companions still on his mind, the Eleventh Doctor is brooding quietly in the clouds in 1890’s England. There, along with Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, he meets barmaid Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna Coleman). This episode really kicks off the mystery of the Impossible Girl, as well as introduces Clara as a regular character.
This episode also features the return of the Great Intelligence, a villain who hadn’t been seen since the 60s. He controls terrifying Snowmen with teeth, and the intimidating Ice Governess, who are here to provide the episode’s Christmas spirit.
Plot-wise, this is one of the more solid and interesting holiday specials. The Eleventh Doctor also experiences some fascinating character development, as we rarely get to see the Doctor “retired” and hiding away from the world.
Beyond all that, Clara’s introduction to the TARDIS, on a spiral staircase leading into the clouds, with its new dreamlike blue interior, is certainly one of the more fairytale and magical TARDIS entrances. It never gets old, does it?
“The End of Time” (Christmas 2009 / New Year’s 2010):
This two-part holiday special encompassed both Christmas and New Year’s, so of course, it was going to end up here.
As good as 2005’s “The Parting of the Ways” was, “The End of Time” truly set the standard for the modern regeneration episode. The long buildup, the sequence of the Doctor re-visiting their previous companions, the melancholy tone, and you’ve got yourself a somber Doctor Who regeneration episode: perfect for the holiday season.
The return of the Master, Rassilon, and the other Time Lords is utterly memorable and jaw-dropping. The explosive, destructive regeneration would set the stage for every regeneration to come. And David Tennant’s “I don’t want to go” is just heartbreaking.
Beyond being the sendoff to one of my favorite Doctors, the episode is also memorably festive. Again, I think this story has a nice balance of holiday trappings, without going too overboard into the Christmas side of things. If you’re looking to sob this holiday season, rewatching this two-part special might not be a bad idea.
Doctor Who Holiday Runners-Ups:
- “Eve of the Daleks” (New Year’s 2022)
- “The Runaway Bride” (Christmas 2006)
Bonus: The Five Most Festive Doctor Who Specials
- “The Christmas Invasion” — three words: killer Christmas tree.
- “A Christmas Carol” — a unique (if convoluted and confusing) take on the classic Christmas story. Bonus points for the sky sharks.
- “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” — the planet of the Christmas Trees. And the woodland King and Queen are a nice touch. Almost too whimsical at times.
- “The Snowmen” — nothing says dark Christmas fairytale such as snowmen with sharp teeth.
- “Eve of the Daleks” — Doctor Who has done time loops before, but a time loop getting shorter each time, on New Year’s Eve, and ending in fireworks, just perfectly encapsulates the holiday.
All these Doctor Who holiday specials and more are currently streaming on HBO Max. Which Doctor Who holiday special is your favorite? Let us know over on Twitter or in the comments!
And if you need some last minutes holiday gifts for the Doctor Who nerd in your life, check out our Doctor Who gift guide!