The Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Specials are rather exciting! However, change is one of the best things about the show. In just a few weeks, Doctor Who Christmas Specials are back! Titled “The Church on Ruby Road“, It’s the first special since they retired in 2017. The Christmas slot became a staple of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s eras, with innumerable iconic moments. It will be so lovely to have our favourite show back on screens through the holidays.
This upcoming episode is going to properly introduce us to Ncuti Gatwa‘s Fifteenth Doctor. Additionally, he will be joined by a new Doctor Who companion, Ruby Sunday. She’s played by Millie Gibson, who will make her debut appearance in the Christmas Special. Everything we’ve seen from the episode, and his upcoming series, is genuinely really exciting. It’s the start of a brand new era for the show, one which we hope is only going to get bigger and better.
With all this holiday excitement in the air, it seems like a perfect time to reflect on the previous Christmas Day specials. So, before the next Christmas episode, let’s review the years and rank the show’s previous offerings.
13. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
The 2011 Christmas special was the second Moffat-era special to be inspired by classic children’s literature. Inspired by “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) finds himself caring for children who have been evacuated due to the war. However, once they embark on an adventure through a magical present into a fairytale world, it all gets a bit dull. There are good ideas, but it falls flat on the execution and fail to be completely engaging. Saying that it has some lovely emotional twists that redeem it.
12. The Return of Doctor Mysterio
“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was an odd special. It came in 2016 and was our first episode since the previous Christmas, a full year-long gap. It even featured one of the villains of the last episode, the Harmony Shoal. The story was a little cute but was nothing special and had clearly been made just to jump on the superhero bandwagon. Understanding the Marvel and DC craze at the time, in hindsight, it feels a little silly. While it’s not awful, it’s not that memorable and isn’t particularly Christmassy.
11. Voyage of the Damned
“Voyage of the Damned” is a huge episode with some big themes and ideas. It’s a fun disaster story inspired by classics like The Poseidon Adventure. However, being set onboard a spaceship Titanic, it feels like it might be in a bit of bad taste, considering that, like the Titanic we all know, this one is doomed too. There’s also some questionable characterisation, and it hasn’t aged brilliantly. Mind you, the story also features Australia’s pop princess Kylie Minogue—a real mixed bag, but with one with some very high highs.
10. The End of Time: Part One
The End of Time was the first part of David Tennant’s final story as the 10th Doctor, and it was a huge one. Unfortunately, it was quite slow and did a lot of set-up for the second (better) part. Also, the detailed resurrection of The Master (John Simm) is a little goofy at best.
As one of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials, it was not easy viewing. For example, Difficult conversations played on the audience’s sadness in saying goodbye to Tennant. The scenes with Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), in particular, are really impactful. Saying that it was great to start to see the threads of Tennant’s time as the Doctor came back to tie them up neatly.
9. The Next Doctor
Kicking off the year of specials in 2009, which saw David Tennant leave the role of the 10th Doctor, The Next Doctor tricked viewers into thinking they were about to meet the man himself. Instead, it was just a clever trick. While David Morrissey was not, in fact, the next Doctor, Jackson Lake was a standout of David Tennant’s whole era. Unfortunately, the plot was perhaps too bold and seemed a bit silly in parts. Still, it was an interesting Cybermen story. It contained a cheeky red herring and was full of campy Christmas fun.
8. A Christmas Carol
This one was the first Moffat Doctor Who Christmas Specials inspired by classical literature. Based on A Christmas Carol, it retold the classic story with a sci-fi twist. As Matt Smith’s first Christmas special, it was a nice adventure with a lot of originality regarding the sci-fi element. At the same time, it felt too familiar, taking away the sense of threat. Despite that, it delivered some lovely emotional twists and set up a larger arc for the coming series. Visually inventive with a great guest spot from the legendary Michael Gambon, creating a must-watch Christmas event.
7. The Christmas Invasion
This episode was David Tennant’s first! It was one of the first Doctor Who Christmas Specials of the revival. For what it’s worth, it became an instant classic. Russell T Davies blended Christmas themes with the everyday and put a sci-fi twist on it with killer Christmas trees and robot Santas. While subsequent Christmas specials surpassed this, it’s still a classic.
It was a strong story that introduced us to the iconic Tenth Doctor, giving us our first taste of what a loveable but ruthless character he would go on to become. It’s fun to go back and look at quite how much Tennant’s Doctor has grown over the years.
6. Twice Upon a Time
Peter Capaldi‘s beloved 12th Doctor greatly changed over his years in the TARDIS. He went from being a grumpy old man to someone who truly values love and compassion. His regeneration story played to the parallel of his character against the First Doctor (David Bradley).
It allowed Twelve to engage with his past and help himself move forward… twice. Sadly, as perfectly as David Bradley plays the First Doctor, the script let the character down, but it was still a near-perfect story to bring the two of them together with quite the emotional regeneration.
5. Time of the Doctor
This one is another final Doctor story, this time for Matt Smith. The episode was full of heart, and Eleven’s message of hope was perfect for Christmas. It perfectly captured Eleven, and all his Doctor had stood for. However, it felt like the theme of Christmas had been forced to make it fit. Despite this, it was a beautiful send-off to the Eleventh Doctor, which addressed the previous canon and made allowances to keep the show moving for the future. All of this is in the middle of some epic battles and emotional scenes that hit hard.
4. Last Christmas
Last Christmas was a genius twist of a festive episode. Set in an arctic base with Santa, elves, reindeer and unusual dreams, it was a surreal story that kept us guessing at every turn, full of twists, drama and scares. Twelve’s first Christmas special captured the tone of his stories perfectly and started to set up the departure of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who was still struggling with the loss of her boyfriend. Last Christmas gave us the right balance of emotional, exciting and scary. Plus, Nick Frost plays Santa; what more could you want?!
3. The Snowmen
This is a fairytale of an episode where the 11th Doctor meets the Impossible Girl in Victorian London while killer Snowmen are on the loose. Right after an episode like The Angels Take Manhattan, it’s a lovely palate cleanser. It was great to see the return of a classic villain in The Great Intelligence. We also got our first look at a new TARDIS interior, marking a turning point in the Eleventh Doctor’s era. When we thought we might get some answers about the mysterious Clara Oswald, we reached a shocking climax. It’s entry into our Doctor Who Christmas Specials list—making it a great episode that still holds up all these years later.
2. The Husbands of River Song
A camp Christmas romp where Twelve teams up with River Song (Alex Kingston), who doesn’t recognise him. What more could we want? The dynamic between Twelve and River is one of the best, and it’s a shame we never got to see more of them together. Sadly, the Doctor and River finally make their date at the Singing Towers of Darillium, creating one of the hardest-hitting scenes in Doctor Who history. Is it really Christmas if you’re not crying over Doctor Who? It’s not all sadness, though, with some great guest performances from Greg Davies and Matt Lucas.
1. The Runaway Bride
The introduction of Donna Noble. The iconic character, played by Catherine Tate, debuted in 2006 in one of the greatest Christmas specials ever. It’s fun, it’s action-packed, and there’s a horrible villain in the Racnoss. The Runaway Bride is a perfect mix of comedy and drama that shows some lovely character development for Donna, a changed woman by the end. The Doctor and Donna share one of the best Doctor/Companion relationships of all time, as the 60th specials proved, and it all began here.
That’s our ranking of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials. What is your favourite? While “The Runaway Bridge” might be at the top of our list, we might have to revisit this list with 2023’s special episode. Airing on Christmas Day, Doctor Who is set to kickstart its new era in a bold way.
Doctor Who returned on November 25th 2023, with “The Star Beast“, the first in three special episodes as the show’s 60th Anniversary headliner event. David Tennant returns as the 14th Doctor alongside Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. Ncuti Gatwa’s first episode as the Fifteenth Doctor will air over the festive period, while his series 14 will debut in 2024 with Millie Gibson. Disney+ will be the exclusive home for new Doctor Who seasons outside the UK and Ireland.