As you may already know Doctor Who has no Christmas special this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy a Yuletide adventure from the BBC sci-fi series thanks to the back catalogue of festive adventures that Who has built up over the years, currently available in its entirety on BBC iPlayer.
But which one to watch? Well, we might be able to help you make that decision, as here at RadioTimes.com we recently asked fans to choose their favourite Christmas episode, and after thousands of votes we’ve found a winner – 2010’s A Christmas Carol.
Starring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, the story sees the Time Lord trying to thaw the heart of a Scrooge-like old man (Michael Gambon) by recreating the story of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, using time travel to play the Ghost of Christmas past and eventually convincing him to help save a ship full of people. Oh, and there are flying sharks too.
In our poll, 13% named the heartwarming episode as their absolute favourite Christmas special, narrowly pipping 2015 Peter Capaldi episode The Husbands of River Song (12%) to the top slot.
Rounding out the top five of the 14 festive episodes were David Tennant’s 2009 swansong The End of Time, Peter Capaldi’s 2017 exit episode Twice Upon a Time and 2005’s The Christmas Invasion, which introduced Tennant’s popular Tenth Doctor to the masses.
At the other end of the table, perhaps unsurprisingly, was one-off semi-festive 1965 episode The Feast of Steven (the only classic series Christmas special, and one impossible to watch today), and only narrowly above that was 2016 superhero-themed Peter Capaldi adventure The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
The full list, from most to least popular (with short episode summaries) can be read below, but remember – we only asked fans to vote for their favourites, not to rank the episodes one by one, so it isn’t the case that the lower-ranked episodes are universally reviled, just that fewer people considered them their favourites.
When selecting your own Christmas adventure to revisit, take that as you will.
1. A Christmas Carol (2010)
Matt Smith’s Doctor rang in his first Christmas episode with an opera singer (Katherine Jenkins), a flying shark and a national treasure – Michael Gambon, as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick – who the Doctor attempts to cheer up through rewriting history in a Dickens-style structure, hoping to save his companions from a plummeting spaceship in the process.
2. The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor finally teamed up with his time-displaced wife River Song (Alex Kingston) in this frothy adventure, which saw the duo take on the evil King Hydroflax (Greg Davies), steal a diamond from his head and finally say their goodbyes to one another.
The episode is also significant for introducing Matt Lucas’ character Nardole, who was intended for a one-off guest appearance but ended up starring in the series as a companion for the next couple of years.
3. The End of Time (2009/10)
David Tennant got his brood on for his long-heralded exit from the show. Despite Wilf’s (Bernard Cribbins) antlers and a bit of gift-giving, there wasn’t too much Christmas cheer as the Master (John Simm) returned with his most extreme plan yet and the Doctor headed towards death. We didn’t want him to go either – but it was the end of the line for the Tenth incarnation of the Time Lord.
4. Twice Upon a Time (2017)
Peter Capaldi’s final ever episode packed a lot in, featuring a multi-Doctor story (thanks to the David Bradley as the Doctor’s first ever incarnation), the return of Pearl Mackie’s companion Bill, cameos from former cast members Matt Lucas and Jenna Coleman AND the Time Lord’s long-awaited regeneration into Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor.
The fact that they managed to fit in a story about glass aliens saving the consciousness of the dead AND the First World War Christmas Day Armistice as well is frankly a marvel.
5. The Christmas Invasion (2005)
This episode gave us our first decent look at David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor – although he did spend most of the runtime conked out in bed after his regeneration. With killer Christmas trees, sword fights and a deadly satsuma it was a decidedly different take on Christmas – but introduced us to one of the most popular incarnations of the Time Lord.
6. The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Matt Smith’s final(ish) episode had a lot to cram in plot-wise and basically acted as a finale for his entire run as the Time Lord – but still managed to include plenty of Christmassy fun including the most accurate depiction of cooking a turkey in science-fiction history. And, of course, we got our first (but not last) fully Christmas-based regeneration into Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, who had to wait a year for his first real festive appearance.
7. Voyage of the Damned (2007)
Doctor Who went all disaster movie in this adventure, which featured a guest appearance from pop star Kylie Minogue as Astrid Perth. We also learned a little more of how humans are perceived by other species, specifically as cannibals with a hatred for the people of Turkey – no wonder aliens seem to have such an axe to grind with Earth at Christmas.
8. The Runaway Bride (2006)
Another introduction here to companion Donna Noble (though at this time actress Catherine Tate was intended as a one-off guest star), who was beamed right into the Tardis of a depressed Doctor. There were yet more killer trees, a Tardis/car chase, a deadly “Christmas star” and some dark moments for the Tenth Doctor – but in the end, Christmas was saved again. Huzzah!
9. Last Christmas (2014)
It was a few years ago now, but how could anybody forget this Santa-meets-The Thing dream adventure? With twists and turns galore, there was plenty to get our food-befuddled brains around – but it also gave us by far the creepiest Who Christmas special to date, and an unexpected reprieve for Jenna Coleman’s companion Clara (who had originally been planned to leave in this episode).
10. The Snowmen (2012)
This time the Doctor himself was a bit of a Scrooge, having lost his companions Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) to the past. Not to worry, though – he soon cheered up with the help of a snowman-themed plot from an old enemy, and a strangely familiar new friend called Clara (Jenna Coleman)…
11. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
The Eleventh Doctor went all CS Lewis for this particularly family-themed episode, set in an endangered forest where Christmas trees bedecked with ornaments grow for real – but who also had plans of their own. The special also gave us a taste of the Doctor’s interior design skills, which were eccentric to say the least (see above).
12. The Next Doctor (2008)
At this time, speculation was rife as to who could succeed David Tennant’s confirmed-to-be-departing Doctor, only for the series to throw a curveball by actually framing an episode around the next incarnation – but was this Doctor (David Morrissey) who he seemed? Cybermen, the voice of the Marks and Spencer ads as a villain (Dervla Kirwan) and plenty of steampunk fun (including a huge rampaging Cyber-King) made this episode a Christmas to remember.
13. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)
After a year off screens Doctor Who returned at Christmas with this romantic superhero story, which featured a powerful vigilante called the Ghost (Justin Chatwin) who teamed up with the Doctor and Nardole to unravel a devious alien conspiracy. And if he did manage to find happiness with his unrequited love, well, that was all the better.
14. The Feast of Steven (1965)
This isn’t actually a full Christmas special, but given that it’s technically the first ever Doctor Who festive episode we could hardly leave it out.
Broadcast as the third part of The Daleks’ Master Plan serial (footage of which is now mostly lost), The Feast of Steven ended up airing on Christmas Day so some Yuletide elements were included in the middle of the multi-part adventure, including First Doctor William Hartnell’s famous fourth wall break to wish a Merry Christmas to viewers at home.
Yes, it was just a brief interlude in the middle of an unrelated story – but it was definitely a small festive treat when it aired in 1965.
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All of these episodes bar The Feast of Steven are currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer or for purchase on Amazon video, so this Christmas you should be free to indulge in a bit of Doctor Who fun – even without a new episode on the day itself.
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on Tuesday 1st January at 7:00pm