Christmas Day is massive for TV, Doctor Who specials have been part of the line-up for 13 years and to some, the move for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor felt like a demotion – but I think everyone’s been a little bit too doom-and-gloom about the whole thing.
Let’s get real – Doctor Who Christmas specials have almost always been a bit rubbish, and dropping them now, at least for a while, might be the best thing for the series.
I know what you’re going to say – “What about The Christmas Invasion?” – and yes, David Tennant’s 2005 debut as the Tenth Doctor was a terrific piece of television, and a great episode for the 25th December. And I’m not denying that there have been some fun festive adventures over the years since like Voyage of the Damned, The Next Doctor, A Christmas Carol and Last Christmas.
But frankly, so many more of the episodes have been duds (it’s less than a 50% hit rate) and even some of the ones I just named as “good” may be controversial choices – in particular, A Christmas Carol has its detractors. Generously speaking, the last decent Christmas special was in 2014 with Peter Capaldi’s first go at it – and before that there had been a run of pretty so-so Matt Smith efforts.
The problem? It’s hard to come up with an arresting self-contained sci-fi adventure with a Christmas slant, especially 13 times over, and the storytelling was suffering as a result. Former showrunner Steven Moffat (who wrote eight Christmas episodes for the series) even admitted some of the difficulty in 2017, while speaking to journalists on the set of that year’s special Twice Upon a Time.
“I think it was a brilliant idea at the beginning and it lasted a very, very long time,” the screenwriter said.
“But when The Christmas Invasion came out, it didn’t feel as though there were a million different Christmas specials. Now it feels like the whole day’s full of Christmas specials.
“I sort of think we might have mined and possibly over mined every single thing we could about Christmas in Doctor Who.”
Accordingly, over the years Doctor Who Christmas specials have been less and less about Christmas itself – 2016’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio basically just had a Christmas tree in it at one point – so going forward, why bother having it on that day at all?
“Well,” you might reply, “There’s a massive captive audience to watch the series – and even if the episode isn’t that Christmassy the slot itself confers prestige. Every TV show would get onto Christmas Day if it could, so why give up the slot?”
And you might then point to ex-showrunner Moffat, who even in his final months on Doctor Who was so concerned about losing the precious festive slot that he changed his and Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi’s final episode from series 10 finale The Doctor Falls to the Christmas special, just to safeguard the tradition.
“I didn’t really want to end at Christmas,” Moffat told RadioTimes.com in 2017. “But we were going to end up not having a Christmas episode and we would just lose the slot if we did that.”
New boss Chris Chibnall, by contrast, seems to have cavalierly given the special away – at least in the eyes of some fans.
But if the Christmas specials haven’t really been working that well for years, why bother making one just for the sake of it? Wouldn’t it be better to just make a good episode, one under less pressure, with more storytelling freedom, even if it aired on another day?
At the moment, it’s unclear whether the moved special will riff on the traditions of New Year in the same way the festive episodes did with Christmas – the changing of one year to another, time itself shifting, WOULD be a great setting for a Doctor Who episode – but even if it doesn’t, the change allows for a different sort of episode, telling a story using ideas that haven’t been, in Steven Moffat’s words, “over-mined”.
And let’s be honest, New Year’s Day isn’t the worst kind of demotion, as there’s still a big audience for TV on that day. In fact, some of the BBC’s biggest dramas have aired on January 1st over the years, free to be a little darker, a little more involved and a little more interesting than Christmas Day editions, which tend to be on the chummier, simpler and more cheerful side to match the sleepy, well-fed mood of the nation.
New Year’s Day is a blank slate, an open opportunity to tell whatever kind of story you want. Why not go for that instead of sticking with a slot that’s not really been working that well for years, creatively or in terms of ratings (the overnights for the last two specials were the lowest yet, not even matching the regular week-to-week showings of the current series)?
In a way, this change is a bit like the main series’ move from a Saturday-evening to Sunday slot this year. That was another long-held series tradition, but now Sunday night Doctor Who is universally accepted and ratings are the best they’ve been in years.
And who knows? Maybe after a year (or two) off the Doctor Who Christmas special will return again, fresh after a bit of break and with a truly great adventure for Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord.
Of course, I can understand fans’ concerns. The Doctor Who Christmas special is a beloved part of the festive TV schedules, and a cornerstone of many people’s Christmas Day viewing habits. It’s sad to wave goodbye to it, and I’ll miss watching it with slightly bemused relatives on the big day.
But after years of slightly underwhelming Who-letide adventures, I’m ready to give something new a try – and January 1st, 2019 seems like the perfect day to do that.
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays
This article was originally published on 21 November 2018