Do you agree with our Doctor Who Christmas special ranking?
The Doctor and Santa Clause stare at one another in Last Christmas (Image credit: BBC)
Of the many holiday staples, Doctor Who Christmas specials are right up there with the most notable. However, as you scroll through our list of every Doctor Who Christmas special ranked, you’ll notice that there’s nothing before the 21st century.
Why is that the case? Well, the long-running sci-fi show had aired over the festive period before that, of course. In 1965, it even took a brief break from The Daleks’ Master Plan to acknowledge Christmas in an episode titled The Feast of Steven. However, the concept of seasonal episodes didn’t start until 2005’s The Christmas Invasion – hence the lack of 20th century Doctor Who Christmas specials.
Since then, the annual Doctor Who special has become a festive fixture on BBC One n the UK, traditionally viewed by millions after they’ve eaten their turkey and mince pies. We’ve seen the Doctor save the world, meet enemies new and old, and even regenerate. Whether they’re silly or serious, though, the Doctor’s Christmas adventures tend to come with a seasonal spin.
Since Jodie Whittaker’s turn as the legendary space traveler, Doctor Who’s festive specials shifted from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day. We’ve included all those episodes in this rundown – after all, January 1 still falls within the 12 days of Christmas. However, we haven’t included Spyfall, the 2020 season premiere that just happened to air on New Year’s Day. Hey, if it’s not Christmas-themed, it doesn’t make our list.
There’s no 2022 Doctor Who Christmas special, but hopefully these episodes (available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the US) will fill the hole. While you’re here, check out our guide on the 20 best Doctor Who episodes, too.
16. Revolution of the Daleks (2021)
A not so revolutionary TV special, eh, Doctor? (Image credit: BBC)
For the second special in a row, Doctor Who ushers in the new year with a Dalek, but sadly this isn’t a patch on 2020’s Resolution of the Daleks. With Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor incarcerated on a distant prison asteroid, a new threat is brewing back on Earth. It turns out that Jack Robertson – the immoral businessman played by Chris Noth in series 11’s Arachnids in the UK – is manufacturing defense drones that look a lot like Daleks.
What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, actually. The Doctor is forced to take on both Dalek 2.0 and original models who see the newcomers as impure. The episode also marks the end of the road for companions Ryan and Graham, whose departure is the most, well, ordinary of the new-Who era.
15. The Next Doctor (2008)
Doctor, meet The Doctor. (Image credit: BBC)
With David Tennant’s departure already confirmed, showrunner Russell T Davies built up the hype for this Christmas special by getting future Walking Dead villain (and Tennant’s Blackpool co-star) David Morrissey to play the titular Next Doctor. Could he be future incarnation of the Doctor? Or even a surprise regeneration?
Unfortunately, the episode is too run-of-the-mill to justify the build-up, even though it features a giant Cyberman (or CyberKing) stomping its way through Victorian London. Still, the chemistry between the two Davids/Doctors is excellent. It’s a shame we’ve never got to see them together again.
14. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
A superhero-styled special that’s not really super in any way. (Image credit: BBC)
With Marvel reining supreme on the big screen, it was only ever a matter of time before superheroes found their way into Doctor Who’s orbit. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is an unashamed love letter to classic Superman stories, in which the Doctor and newly resurrected sidekick Nardole join forces with a caped crime fighter and an intrepid investigative reporter – sound familiar?
While the episode can’t compete with Hollywood for scale, this is a semi-fun, popcorny adventure in which alien brains are taking control of world leaders. Showrunner Steven Moffat also finds a way to incorporate comic-book mythology into proceedings – the Ghost is powered by an alien gemstone! – as well as squeezing in plenty of in-jokes. Still, as a spectacle, it could’ve been better.
13. The Snowmen (2012)
Jack Frost, this certainly isn’t. (Image credit: BBC)
A slightly odd Christmas special in the sense that it’s nestled right in the middle of series 7. Following the Weeping Angel-induced departure of companions Amy and Rory, the Doctor is quasi-retired and leaving Earth’s safety in the hands of the Paternoster Gang. That’s the fan-favourite trio of Sherlock Holmes-esque Silurian detective Madame Vastra, her human wife Jenny, and her Sontaran butler Strax, in case you’d forgotten.
The return of classic Second Doctor villain the Great Intelligence – who maintains the Christmassy vibe by animating some very creepy snowmen – is a nice nod to past Who. But it’s perhaps most notable for foreshadowing the arrival of new “impossible girl” companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), with the appearance of her Victorian doppelganger.
12. The Husbands of River Song (2015)
River Song is back in this festive episode. (Image credit: BBC)
Having made her debut in Tenth Doctor two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, Alex Kingston’s River Song became a key component of Matt Smith’s time in the TARDIS. It was only right, then, that her back-to-front (or is that front-to-back?) romance with the Doctor should get a proper conclusion.
Aside from introducing future companion Nardole (played by The Great British Bake Off’s Matt Lucas), it’s a silly, relatively forgettable romp. However, it does have a wonderfully romantic ending, tinged with the sadness of knowing that River’s time is almost up.
11. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
A CS Lewis Whovian adventure? Sign us up. (Image credit: BBC)
Showrunner Steven Moffat goes full CS Lewis in this Narnia-inspired episode. Even the wartime setting is true to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as a young boy (whose pilot father is missing in action) stumbles through a portal to a mysterious snowy world.
The story feels over-sentimental at times, but there’s a nice environmental message in the mission to save a forest from lethal acid rain. The living wood creatures are one of the more memorable aliens of the Matt Smith era, while Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner provides the episode’s emotional anchor as the eponymous widow.
10. The Runaway Bride (2006)
The first of many Donna Noble appearances occurred in The Runaway Bride. (Image credit: BBC)
Just as Die Hard’s John McClane discovered that bad things keep happening on Christmas, the Doctor’s second festive special suggests he should also consider giving December 25 a miss.
Still reeling from companion Rose Tyler’s tearjerking departure, the last thing the Doctor thinks he needs is an adventure with the loud-mouthed bride who materializes in his TARDIS. This early version of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) isn’t yet the wonderful companion she’d become in series 4, but the duo’s antagonistic odd couple dynamic shows early promise – she even gets to play the Doctor’s conscience at the end. The spider-like Empress of the Racnoss (plotting to feed the human race to her ravenous offspring) is also a memorable villain.
9. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
All aboard this Doctor Who Christmas episode! (Image credit: BBC)
Doctor Who became such a ratings juggernaut after its 2005 return that, two years later, it could attract an A-lister like Kylie Minogue to guest as a one-off sidekick. The pop star plays Astrid Peth, a waitress on an interstellar version of the RMS Titanic (that was never going to end well…) set on a collision course with Earth by a spurned CEO.
With its Star Wars Cantina-like selection of alien passengers and entertaining spin on disaster movie conventions, Voyage of the Damned functions as a cleverly placed palate cleanser after the relative bleakness of series 3’s final episode.
8. Resolution (2019)
The Daleks are back, Doctor. (Image credit: BBC)
The first seasonal episode of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure was a radical departure – it shifted Who’s festive time slot from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day. And, after a debut season that had made a concerted effort to focus on new aliens and monsters, showrunner Chris Chibnall finally brought back the shows biggest bads.
Much like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution does everything it can to remind the world why they should be scared of a bunch of pepperpots with anger issues. Having a human host (Ghosts’ Charlotte Ritchie) possessed by the squiddy bit of the Dalek gives the story an icky, horror-esque twist. And though the DIY Dalek looks a bit like cosplay, it still has the capacity to exterminate like a pro.
7. Eve of the Daleks (2022)
Hey, we did warn you they were back. (Image credit: BBC)
Doctor Who’s most recent festive special (and Jodie Whittaker’s last) is very much a product of Covid, a New Year’s Eve-set adventure with minimal cast, and a single warehouse location. However, writer Chris Chibnall turns these limitations into a strength, with a Groundhog Day/Edge of Tomorrow time-loop story where the Doctor,Yaz, and Dan face a group of angry Daleks – again and again and again.
After the sometimes over-ambitious complexity of series 13 (also known as Flux), it’s refreshing to see a smart, standalone story like this. Comedian Aisling Bea makes an engaging one-off sidekick. In terms of the bigger picture, though, the Doctor’s belated realization that Yaz is in love with her is the most important character beat.
6. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Not so tough now are you, Cyberman! (Image credit: BBC)
Just as David Tennant’s Doctor saved his farewells for the festive season, the Matt Smith incarnation also bowed out over Christmas. We’d known for ages that Eleven’s days would be numbered when he arrived on Trenzalore, but few would have guessed the grim reaper would arrive in the form of extreme old age, after he’s spent hundreds of years protecting the town of Christmas (yes, really) from the universe’s most wanted.
It’s an episode bursting with ideas – some of which work, just as many that don’t – but writer Steven Moffat does a decent job wrapping up many of the story arcs from the Smith era. He also gives the Doctor an unlikely (but touching) friendship with a disembodied Cyberman called Handles, and addresses the pressing issue of the Time Lord’s dwindling regenerations head on.
5. Twice Upon a Time (2017)
Doctor, meet the Doctor. Again. (Image credit: BBC)
Possibly the most self-indulgent of all Doctor Who’s festive specials, but this is one case where that’s a compliment. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor received his regeneration-inducing fatal blow in the series 10 finale, but got to stick around for a whole extra episode – long enough, in fact, to come face to face with a First Doctor who’s having a similar mid-lives crisis.
David Bradley deftly steps into original Who star William Hartnell’s shoes, bringing great warmth to an incarnation often written off as curmudgeonly. The First World War-set plot (featuring regular Who writer Mark Gatiss as an injured British serviceman) isn’t particularly memorable, but when it comes to pure, joyous fan service, Twice Upon a Time really hits the spot.
4. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
The Christmas Invasion just misses out on a top three spot. (Image credit: BBC)
As well as being the special that began the tradition of Who at Christmas , The Christmas Invasion is the first episode headlined by David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. That said, he spends most of it asleep as he recovers from his recent regeneration, leaving companion Rose Tyler to stall for time after the war-mongering Sycorax attack Earth on Christmas.
As Rose comes to terms with her Time Lord friend’s new face, the episode is surprisingly pivotal to the show’s main arc plot, but there’s still plenty of festive fun courtesy of killer robot Santas and lethal Christmas trees.
3. The End of Time: Parts One and Two (2009-10)
We’re not crying, you’re crying. (Image credit: BBC)
Russell T Davies pulled out all the stops for David Tennant’s swansong (until his surprise 2022 comeback, at least) with a two-parter that straddled Christmas and New Year’s Day. It feels appropriate that John Simm’s wonderful Master should return to say goodbye, and his evil scheme – involving turning everyone on Earth into a facsimile of himself – is every bit as mad/apocalyptic as his decimation plan in season three finale The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords.
Linking the story back to the Time Lords, Gallifrey, and the Master’s childhood provides a neat throughline to classic Who mythology, while the Tenth Doctor’s long-prophesised departure (“he will knock four times”) is utterly heartbreaking. There were some who felt Tennant’s farewell tour was over-stretched but after three magnificent seasons, he’d earned it.
2. Last Christmas (2014)
Laaaast Christmas, you gave me your two hearts…. (Image credit: BBC)
In a story that takes a surprising amount of inspiration from Aliens and The Thing, the crew of a remote Arctic base are being attacked by face-hugging Dream Crabs, who induce hallucinations in their victims while they eat their brains. As the characters negotiate various dream states, there are plenty of scares and poignant moments, often involving the recently bereaved Clara Oswald. But the most remarkable thing about Last Christmas is that it manages to seamlessly integrate Santa in an Inception-style plot – who saw that coming?
If you’re going to go festive, you might as well go the whole hog. Peter Capaldi’s first seasonal special hits peak Christmas by bringing Santa Claus (played by Hot Fuzz’s Nick Frost) along for the ride.
1. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Of course Doctor Who put its own sci-fi spin on Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale. (Image credit: BBC)
Russell T Davies may have stood down as showrunner but new Who boss Steven Moffat wasn’t about to abandon the show’s now-traditional festive adventure. Following in the footsteps of the Muppets, Scrooged, and Blackadder, the Eleventh Doctor’s first seasonal special riffs on A Christmas Carol, adding flying sharks and a woman in deep-freeze to the traditional Dickensian mix.
The Doctor plays the role of the ghosts, transporting a miserable old man (wonderfully played by Harry Potter’s Michael Gambon) back in time to show him the error of his ways – and hopefully save companions Amy and Rory in the process. It’s arguably the most magical of all Who’s Christmas specials, though Moffat doesn’t hold back on the ambitious sci-fi ideas that became a hallmark of his time at the helm.
For more Doctor Who-based content, find out which streaming service will be The Doctor’s new home (outside of the UK and Ireland) from 2023 onwards. Alternatively, read our thoughts on why Ncuti Gatwa is a perfect choice for The Doctor’s next incarnation, what’s planned for Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary, or why Blink remains one of the scariest Who episodes ever 15 years after its release.
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Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard’s happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he’ll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard’s name was Winter.