Ranking the Christmas Specials (Part 1 RTD)
Connor Johnston begins his countdown of the Christmas specials.
With 2015’s Christmas special “The Husbands of River Song” airing a couple of weeks ago, the opportunity to reflect on and explore the various festive outings we’ve been graced with over the years has never been so appropriate. In the first half of this two part article we’ll be paying tribute and ranking the work of the man who not only resurrected Doctor Who from the depths of hiatus, but also introduced the very idea of a ‘Doctor Who Christmas Special’ to the show’s history: Russell T Davies. Tomorrow our attention will turn the way of the latter specials written by Steven Moffat, before the community itself will be granted the opportunity to rank all 11.
The Next Doctor (2008)
Kicking off our countdown today is the 2008 Christmas special – “The Next Doctor”, which not only saw the return of the Cybermen but also the first time Russell T Davies took his Christmas special to a non-contemporary setting. The special itself has never really been held in high regard by the fan base, and for good reason. The episode starts off promising enough with an interesting premise and gripping mystery over the true identity of this brand new Doctor. We’re also introduced to the chilling Mercy Hartigan who remains a motivated and strong antagonist for most of the episode’s duration. However, the pool of saving graces seem to quickly dry up, leaving us instead with an episode that lacks substance as a story, a climax that is utterly unrewarding, and a treatment of the Cybermen that is so superficial it’s almost insulting to their well established history.
The real failure of the episode is that so many of the aspects it banks its success on simply don’t work. Jackson Lake’s story begins with the illusion of being interesting, but is resolved far too quickly and despite attempting to move the audience with an emotional twist – is in reality, quite shallow. David Morrissey’s performance is subtly refreshing, though simply isn’t strong enough to save the hammy and grating character he’s been given. Similarly, the entire ‘Mercy Hartigan’ and ‘Cybermen’ plot is wasted with the reveal of the Cyberking and amounts to an anticlimax whose only real sense of threat is forcing the audience to sleep. Of course David Tennant’s performance ensures the episode remains extraordinarily watchable – though it doesn’t save the special from being uncharacteristically disappointing when ranked against Davies’ other Christmas specials. It’s an episode that seems constructed by red herrings and semi-ideas that serve only to tarnish the reputation of all those it includes.
The Naughty: the Cybermen, the Cybershades, the Cyberking.
The Nice: David Tennant’s performance, early premise, Mercy Hartigan (Pre Cyberking), David Morrissey, ‘Rosita’.
The End of Time – Part One (2009)
For the purposes of this ranking I’ve chosen NOT to include the second part of the “The End of Time” in today’s ranking given that it technically wasn’t a Christmas special but a New Year’s episode, despite being part of the same story. Personally I find myself looking far more favorably on the episode’s conclusion rather than its first part – so rest assured if I had made the call to judge the story as a whole its place in this ranking would have been marginally higher. The opening to David Tennant’s farewell is the most accurate definition of ‘a mixed bag’ one can think of, full of numerous build ups that lead to both some fairly impressive ‘hits’ and some equally disastrous ‘misses’. Beginning with the positives, Bernard Cribbins’ ‘Wilfred Mott’ remains one of the strongest points of success for the special, unanimously praised by the fandom and for good reason! His charm, wit, and sincerity is such a joy to watch and brings nothing but warmth to the episode. Similarly, the emotional toll on David Tennant’s Doctor is presented beautifully, and carries through to his eventual regeneration with ease.
As far as points of success for the 2009 Christmas special, that’s where its luck dries up. The episode itself is far too self indulgent in the way it fails to hold any real substance and finds itself building instead to an ‘anti-climax’ in the form of the ‘Master Race”. Now don’t get me wrong, I do love most aspects of John Simm’s master – but the entire ‘Master Race’ plot point is laughably bad – even by my generous standards. The depiction of regeneration as ‘death’ is also something I found very distasteful – given how it goes out of it’s way to contradicts the entire themes of renewal and change the show is based on. “Part 2”’s success banks on the return of the Time Lords and an emotionally charged regeneration to really bump up the story’s approval rating in my own affections. However, in the absence of these things, its introductory special simply lacks too much substance and reward to hold itself afloat as a singular episode.
The Naughty: The Master’s return, the narrative, attitude towards regeneration
The Nice: David Tennant’s performance, Wilfred Mott.
The Christmas Invasion (2005)
Now how to word this in the best way possible: “The Christmas Invasion” is not a bad episode in its own right – it’s full of intense moments, a durable threat and a lot of emotion. Similarly, it is not a *bad* Christmas special either. Granted, it’s not as seasonally relevant as some of the latter specials, but we have to remember this was the show’s first chance in experimenting with the format and still includes some wonderfully festive imagery. Where the special makes its biggest mistake is in not fulfilling its primary role of introducing the Tenth Doctor in a strong enough way. With some episodes (See “The Magician’s Apprentice”), the Doctor’s absence works in the way it ironically puts more focus on the Doctor due to the the mystery of his whereabouts; however, in an episode specifically written to introduce and convince audiences of the capabilities of a new leading man, having him unconscious for a good ¾ of the story remains an unforgivable mistake.
In saying that the special is not without its victories, specifically in the way of Rose’s characterization and the threat imposed by the Sycorax. The ‘Rooftop’ scene remains one of the most intense and gripping scenes of the show’s history, and, though defeated quite effortlessly by the newly awakened Doctor in the closing section of the episode, the Sycorax have passed the test of time in being one of the greatest Christmas villains the show has had. The presence of the Tylers also serve as a point of familiarity for the audience embarking on their first ‘Post Regeneration Episode” of the 21st Century. They also work well in providing providing a solid amount of comic relief, with Jackie Tyler’s “I’m about to be killed by a Christmas Tree” extracting a hearty chuckle in almost every re-watch. No “The Christmas Invasion” hasn’t been as praised among the number of specials it preceded, but still remains quite an entertaining, nostalgic, and enjoyable viewing.
The Naughty: Pacing, seasonal relevance, the oncoming snore.
The Nice: the Tylers, Harriet Jones, the Sycorax and David Tennant’s EVENTUAL debut.
Voyage of the Damned (2007)
Next in our countdown today is the charming 2007 Christmas special – “The Voyage of the Damned” which of course takes inspiration from the historic events of the Titanic. Co-starring pop sensation Kylie Minogue, the episode holds nothing back in terms of audience appeal and charisma. As we follow the survivors through the wreckage of the cruise liner it’s clear to see how diverse the line up of characters are; ensuring for a truly entertaining adventure. Though the victim of various clichés and cringe-worthy antagonists (My name is Maaaaaaaaax”) the episode takes it all in its stride and by not taking itself too seriously, and invites the audience to do the same by sitting back and enjoying the ride. The story is also blessed with plenty of emotional moments – with Astrid’s death, the Van Hoff’s love and even Alonso’s spirit being moving affairs. The Host also are quite memorable, and while they aren’t developed to an overwhelmingly significant extent they work effortlessly to impose a sinister danger to the episode.
Where the episode doesn’t flourish quite as well is in the originality department – with the entire narrative and plot of the script seemingly mirroring that of the Fourth Doctor Adventure “The Robots of Death” and the 1972 film “The Poseidon Adventure”. However, given that sinking cruise ships and killer robots are both well-loved and well-used genre tropes, this hardly impacts one’s enjoyment of the episode. “Voyage of the Damned” exhibits a certain flare and pizazz that remains unseen by other Christmas specials, and earns its ranking today through its unchallenged entertainment value.
The Naughty: Max Capri-Corny, Rickston Slade, originality.
The Nice: Astrid Peth, Wilfred Mott, the Host, Mr. Copper and the Van Hoffs.
The Runaway Bride (2006)
Concluding our ranking today is David Tennant’s second Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride”, which of course saw the debut of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble who would later return in Series 4. “The Runaway Bride” is raw, unapologetic fun that ticks all the right boxes for an entertaining, indulgent, and utterly enjoyable Christmas special. Of course, at the center of the episode’s entertainment value is Catherine Tate herself, who exceeds every expectation made of her in producing an instantly loved and endearing character who fails to falter for the episode’s entire duration. The pacing and tone of the episode is spot on and rarely dips, ensuring for an adventure that makes no sacrifices in the way of excitement and enthusiasm.
Of course, like most episodes, the special isn’t without its negatives – including first and foremost the main antagonist: The Empress of the Racnoss. The Racnoss is a villain who struggles to find traction throughout the episode, and whose realization, while visually impressive, is far too over the top and grating. Though her presence does risk souring the quality of the episode, her downfall is a particular highlight of the episode; the scene being equally powerful and confronting as the extent of how far the Doctor will go is exposed. The special is one with a lot of heart, and although it isn’t exactly a highlight of Tennant’s, Davies’, or Tate’s time on the show, it remains a confident and enjoyable contribution.
The Naughty: The Racnoss, Lance, seasonal relevance.
The Nice: Donna Noble, the Fury of a Time Lord, remembering Rose, she Moped scene.
Join me next time for a ranking of Steven Moffat’s Christmas specials, the chance to make your own ranking, and… a shocking twist sure to surprise, infuriate, and astonish – strictly in that order! (Or you may be completely unmoved by it, but hey – ’tis the season)