Advertisement

The best Doctor Who Christmas episodes ranked

The long-running BBC sci-fi series has become a festive staple since its relaunch in 2005

Doctor Who has become a Christmas tradition since its 2005 reboot. (BBC)
Doctor Who has become a Christmas tradition since its 2005 reboot. (BBC)

Airing on 25 December, 2023, The Church On Ruby Road will mark the first Doctor Who Christmas special since 2017.

Notwithstanding an episode of 1965’s The Daleks’ Master Plan that happened to fall on Christmas Day, and saw William Hartnell’s First Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish the audience "a merry Christmas to all of you at home”, the Doctor Who Christmas special is a relatively new addition in the show’s 60-year history.‌

And yet, under showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, it quickly became a festive fixture, and one we’re happy to see back on the big day.

Here’s our list (we’ve checked it twice) of the best Doctor Who Christmas specials so far…‌

13 | The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe (2011)

Matt Smith was The Doctor in The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe. (BBC)
Matt Smith was The Doctor in The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe. (BBC)

The one where... the Eleventh Doctor does a Narnia

Broadcast across two years, Matt Smith’s final series technically has three festive specials, and The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe is not the strongest. Set during World War II, the story sees the Eleventh Doctor treat two evacuated London children to a Christmassy off-world trip as a favour to their widowed mother, Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner).

The scatterbrained plot takes in references to Moonraker, A Matter Of Life And Death, and the classic Who serial The Caves Of Androzani. Nevertheless, a festive highlight comes in the final moments of this companion-lite episode, where the Doctor reunited with estranged companions Amy and Rory for Christmas dinner.‌

12 | The Next Doctor (2008)

David Morrissey and David Tennant tackled Cyberman in 2008's The Next Doctor. (BBC)
David Morrissey and David Tennant tackled Cyberman in 2008's The Next Doctor. (BBC)

The one where... David Morrissey might be the Doctor

David Tennant had already announced his departure from Doctor Who by the time the 2008 festive special The Next Doctor was first publicised. In the run-up to Christmas, David Morrissey looked as likely a contender as any when he turned up to help the Tenth Doctor fight Cybermen in Victorian London.

The eventual reveal of the character Jackson Lake and his tragic backstory makes this a darker story than many expect, but it’s also a deceptively lightweight outing. Davies kicks off Tennant’s final run of specials with the attendant foreboding and blockbuster trappings, but it’s the first one that goes through the motions for Christmas.

11 | The Time Of The Doctor (2013)

Matt Smith's time on Doctor Who came to an end in 2013. (BBC)
Matt Smith's time on Doctor Who came to an end in 2013. (BBC)

The one where... the Matt Smith's Doctor regenerates

Following the triumphant 50th-anniversary special in November 2013, The Time Of The Doctor leaves a lot to the last minute. The Eleventh Doctor’s final fling wraps up all the ongoing concerns of his era, including the cracks in time, the Church of the Silence, and the battle of Trenzalore, while also juggling many returning monsters and Clara’s family Christmas dinner.

It’s quite indigestible fare for primetime Christmas viewing. Although Smith’s departure packs an emotional wallop, (“Raggedy man, goodnight.”) this is quite a densely packed and ungainly outing for the festive slot.

10 | The Return Of Doctor Mysterio (2016)

Peter Capaldi starred alongside Matt Lucas in The Return Of Doctor Mysterio. (BBC0
Peter Capaldi starred alongside Matt Lucas in The Return Of Doctor Mysterio. (BBC0

‌The one where... the Twelfth Doctor teams up with Superman, sort of

‌The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is the only Doctor Who episode broadcast in 2016. After a year away, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor accidentally provides 8-year-old Grant Gordon with a superhero origin story and then catches up with the grown-up Ghost (Justin Chatwin), who defends New York City between nightshifts as a live-in nanny.

‌Doctor Who often pastiches popular genres and Moffat has a lot of fun riffing on superhero texts from Richard Donner’s Superman to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Upon rewatching the Capaldi era, this almost serves as Part Two to the previous year’s Christmas special The Husbands Of River Song, reviving its villains, the Shoal of the Winter Harmony, and promoting guest star Matt Lucas to a regular companion role.

9 | The Snowmen (2012)

‌The one with... Clara Oswald, but not that one

Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman teamed up in 2012's The Snowmen. (BBC)
Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman teamed up in 2012's The Snowmen. (BBC)

In between the first and second halves of Series 7 came The Snowmen, which doesn’t quite introduce Jenna Coleman’s new companion. Brooding after the loss of Amy and Rory, the Eleventh Doctor has spent 200 years with his head in the clouds when the return of an old enemy shakes him out of his reverie.

Smith and Coleman have an instant rapport, even if the barmaid/governess version of Clara isn’t long for the show. There are also lovely guest performances from Richard E Grant and Ian McKellen as aspects of the Great Intelligence. The Snowmen has a lot of setups for the next run of episodes, but we never got Moffat’s proposed spin-off with Madame Vastra the Silurian, her wife Jenny, and their Sontaran butler Strax…

8 | Last Christmas (2014)

Nick Frost appeared with Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi in the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas special Last Christmas. (BBC)
Nick Frost appeared with Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi in the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas special Last Christmas. (BBC)

‌The one with... Nick Frost as Father Christmas

‌Doctor Who doesn’t often go for Christmas Day chillers, but when it does, it’s got Dream Crabs that latch onto your face while you sleep and eat your brain while you dream. The Twelfth Doctor and Clara must fight to stay alive at a North Pole research base that may or may not be real. Oh, and Santa is there.

‌Serving as an epilogue to Series 8, Last Christmas tempers its psychological horror with reliable comic relief from Frost and more emotional scenes between Capaldi and Coleman. It’s impressive how this carries a warm and fuzzy feeling between effective, entertaining chills.

7 | Voyage Of The Damned (2007)

Kylie Minogue appeared with David Tennant in 2008's Voyage of the Damned. (BBC)
Kylie Minogue appeared with David Tennant in 2007's Voyage of the Damned. (BBC)

‌The one with... Kylie Minogue on the Starship Titanic

Davies’ Christmas specials slot nicely into the teatime slot that used to go to big blockbuster premieres, and Voyage Of The Damned is Doctor Who at its blockbusting-est. After the TARDIS collides with a Titanic-themed space tour, the Tenth Doctor discovers a plot to crash the ship into Earth and battles for survival with waitress Astrid (Kylie Minogue) and a motley crew of alien tourists.‌

On original broadcast, more than 16 million viewers watched a special with more of The Poseidon Adventure than Titanic; an outrageous disaster movie homage with a bit of everything in it. There are better Christmas episodes, but they don’t come bigger than this.

6 | The End Of Time (2009)

Bernard Cribbins, David Tennant and John Sim starred in 2009's The End Of Time. (BBC)
Bernard Cribbins, David Tennant and John Sim starred in 2009's The End Of Time. (BBC)

The one where... the Tenth Doctor regenerates

RTD’s final Christmas special set a formula for regeneration episodes, if not Christmas specials. Although the Tenth Doctor’s demise went out on 1st January rather than 25th December, the two-parter is by turns epic and ferociously bonkers.

While Bernard Cribbins salutes the Queen’s speech, John Simm’s Master tucks into homeless people like they’re roast turkey, and guest-star Time Lord Timothy Dalton issues grave warnings that this Christmas Day will be Earth’s last. Davies and Tennant would both be back, but they bowed out with a bang.

5 | Twice Upon A Time (2017)

The Twelfth Doctor, still refusing to change, goes on a last adventure with the First Doctor.
David Bradley and Peter Capaldi (BBC)
The Twelfth Doctor, still refusing to change, goes on a last adventure with the First Doctor. David Bradley and Peter Capaldi (BBC)

The one where... the Twelfth Doctor regenerates, and so does the First Doctor

The most recent Christmas regeneration episode to date is the combo-breaker. Capaldi’s final series dealt with the sturm und drang, so Twice Upon A Time hits on the irresistible idea of the Twelfth Doctor meeting the First Doctor, here played by David Bradley. Coincidentally brought together at Christmas, the Doctors reflect on the hopes and fears of all the years as they mull over whether to go on as new people.

Without bombast or bluster, it’s unlike any other modern regeneration story. Taking in the past, the present, and what’s yet to come, it’s a low-stakes swansong that gives us time to realise how much we’ll miss this Doctor, up until the next incarnation immediately lands herself in mortal danger.‌

4 | The Runaway Bride (2006)

Catherine Tate and David Tennant in 2006's The Runaway Bride. (BBC)
Catherine Tate and David Tennant in 2006's The Runaway Bride. (BBC)

The one with... Donna Noble’s wedding

Right after the Tenth Doctor tearfully bids farewell to Rose, he’s confronted by Donna Noble in a wedding dress. In the process of getting her back to the church on time, he discovers Donna is the centre of a web of conspiracy spun by the spider-like Empress of the Racnoss.‌

Billie Piper’s departure in Doomsday was arguably bigger than any regeneration, so it’s handy that this breezy, action-packed adventure rides on the cracking chemistry between Tennant and Catherine Tate. It’s no surprise that Donna eventually came back as a full-time companion (twice) but to watch The Runaway Bride, you’d think they planned it all along.

3 | The Husbands Of River Song (2015)

DOCTOR WHO, (from left): Alex Kingston, Peter Capaldi, 'The Husbands of River Song', (Season 10, aired Dec. 25, 2015). photo:
Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi in 2015's The Husbands of River Song. (BBC)

The one with... the Twelfth Doctor and River Song

Though maybe not the best episode with River in it, The Husbands of River Song is the best River episode. On the surface, pairing Capaldi and Alex Kingston in a screwball romantic comedy about a diamond heist is ideal festive fare, but narratively, it’s also a tipping point for the Twelfth Doctor’s era.‌

This gorgeous, always underrated sci-fi farce is one of Moffat’s very best scripts, both lightening the mood of the show and wrapping up his longest-running story arc. As originally conceived, this would have been the showrunner’s final episode, and it would have been a fitting end – as with the McGuffin embedded in guest-star Greg Davies’ enormous head, it’s a real gem.

2 | The Christmas Invasion (2005)

The newly-regenerated Time Lord is out of action, but the Sycorax are coming... (BBC)
The newly-regenerated Time Lord is out of action, but the Sycorax are coming... (BBC)

The one where... the Tenth Doctor sleeps in

‌For the second time in a year, Davies introduces a new Doctor. The Christmas Invasion belays that for a little while by focusing on Rose, who’s left scrambling to foil killer Santas and the mysterious Sycorax while the new guy sleeps off his regenerative hangover.

Davies doesn’t make Doctor Who’s first proper Christmas special a throwaway trifle – there’s grim stuff in here by primetime BBC One standards, but also an appealing, jet-black jollity to the proceedings. By the time Tennant bursts into the picture at the episode’s climax, you know he’s going to be a roaring success. It’s a smashing end to the revival’s first year, with the promise of plenty more to come.

1 | A Christmas Carol (2010)‌

Festive edition of the time-travelling drama. The Doctor has one hour to save a crashing spaceship and a miser's soul - but what lurks in the fog? (BBC)
The Doctor has one hour to save a crashing spaceship and a miser's soul - but what lurks in the fog? (BBC)

The one that’s... based on A Christmas Carol

Moffat drew on both Dickens’ definitive festive story and his own timey-wimey predilections in the Eleventh Doctor’s first Christmas special. On a planet where Amy and Rory’s honeymoon cruise is about to crash, the Doctor tries to save a Scrooge-like miser’s soul by conjuring up his past, present, and future.

The source material is a Christmas story and a time-travel story and a redemption story, and the Doctor Who version is also all of the above, with added flying sharks to boot. A Christmas Carol is straightforwardly crowd-pleasing stuff with gorgeous guest turns from Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins.

It’s delightful, unparalleled festive fare from top to bottom.

Honourable mention: The Unquiet Dead (2005)

Unquiet Dead, featured corpses coming back to life in an undertakers' basement. The
Unquiet Dead, featured corpses coming back to life in an undertakers' basement. (BBC)

The one with... Charles Dickens and ghosts at Christmas

When is a Christmas special, not a Christmas special? Before the BBC commissioned a festive special for 2005, Davies had something Christmassy in mind for the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler’s first trip back in time.

Mark Gatiss writes this deliciously spooky penny-dreadful yarn about the alien Gelth possessing corpses at a funeral home in Cardiff. However, The Unquiet Dead was broadcast in April, and it also drew complaints about its pre-titles scene, in which a recently deceased granny sits up and strangles her grandson.

Ho ho ho!

Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road will air on BBC One on Christmas Day


Read more: Doctor Who