Ranking the Christmas Specials (Part 2 Moffat)
Connor Johnston concludes his countdown of the Christmas specials, then cast your own vote.
- You can read the first half of this series in which we ranked Russell T Davies’ festive contributions here
While Russell T Davies traditionally justified the relevance of his Christmas specials primarily with their setting, Steven Moffat has conversely relied on the themes of Christmas in the form of goodwill, love, spirit, family and generosity by embedding them through his scripts to make his specials seasonally appropriate. Throughout the years, each of Moffat’s festive contributions have followed a running criteria by banking on humour, stunning imagery and a profound emotional climax to pull off a truly spectacular and celebratory finish. Today, in what is incidentally my 100th article for Doctor Who TV, I’ll be embarking down a festive adventure of my own in ranking the 6 Steven Moffat Christmas specials – before the DWTV community will have the opportunity themselves to rank all 11 Christmas specials against each other below.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011)
The 2011 Christmas special is right up there with “The Rings of Akhaten”, “42”, “Boom Town” and “Kill the Moon” as one of the most under-appreciated and underrated gems of the show’s history. While I can understand how some may not see too favorably on the special, to me it’s always been one of the most beautiful and moving stories of all time. At the core of the episode’s success are the themes of grief, loss and family – which paired with such an uplifting and touching conclusion makes the episode incredibly powerful. Driving forward the episode is the Arwell family – whose story is one I found particularly easy to relate to having struggled with overcoming grief and the loss of a father figure myself.
Though the story does have its points of weakness (specifically in the somewhat transparent threat and wastage of guest characters outside the Arwell family) – ultimately the story’s quality isn’t overly affected by them, given that the heart and worth of the special is the actions and courage of Madge Arwell. Her strength and bravery to keep the death of her husband a secret from her children to spare their Christmas is incredibly admirable – and above all drives home the importance the episode places of family and love.
The Naughty: Lack of substance for Lily and Cyril, Wooden King and Queen are a little… well ‘wooden’.
The Nice: Madge Arwell, seasonal relevance, heart, imagery, themes.
The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Last year’s special, “The Husbands of River Song” has proven to be, without a doubt, an astounding success, bringing an (apparent) end to a character that has brought so much to the show since her debut in 2008. Here we are whisked away into one of River Song’s final adventures – stealing the head of King Hydroflax and embarking on a crazily entertaining mission to sell it to the highest bidder, while unbeknownst to her being accompanied by the man she loves the most in the entire universe. The special also allows for a more intimate look inside the character’s personality specifically regarding her life without the Doctor and more prominently the toll the unorthodox nature of her relationship with the Doctor has on her emotionally. “Husbands” is an episode that not only warrants the contributions to such a sound and impressive legacy – but honors it in the best way a fan of the character could hope for.
The final third of the episode remains to be one of the most profound sequences of the show’s history – fitted with a conclusion that leaves casual viewers and fans alike equally fulfilled and moved. River’s speech reflecting on her love for the Doctor and the ‘impossibility’ that this love could ever be returned is a notable highlight as the significance of the episode is slowly revealed. The Doctor’s ‘Hello Sweetie’ and River’s realization comes with such a strong emotional crescendo it’s hard not to feel yourself swept up in the scene as they eventual head towards Darillium. The symbolism of the towers channeling the beauty of their relationship and River being the Doctor’s ‘song’ most awards a level of sincerity and heart to their pairing – and as well as Kingston and Capaldi worked together, it seems a point of exit far to beautiful and appropriate to ever touch again.
You can read more of my thoughts on the 2015 Christmas special in the 2nd Opinion Review here.
The Naughty: King Hydroflax, lack of substance for guest characters.
The Nice: Alex Kingston, pacing, Doctor/River dynamic, Darillium, humor.
The Snowmen (2012)
As you’ll notice towards the end of the article, the top half of the Christmas special rankings are so close together that separating them and prioritizing one special over another became increasingly difficult. Matt Smith’s third Christmas special, “The Snowmen”, was the second time that a companion’s introduction had been dedicated a festive outing, and charged with the duty of furthering the mystery of Jenna Coleman’s ‘Impossible Girl’ there was quite a lot banking on the success of episode. From the offset the special expels the whimsical magic that one has come to associate with Doctor Who and Christmas, with the Victorian setting working massively in its favor to install a festive atmosphere. The presence of the Paternoster Gang is also a welcome return following their debut in “A Good Man Goes to War”, each of the three characters offering the Doctor and the audience an opportunity for guidance, support and even the occasional chuckle.
Jenna Coleman’s “Clara OSWIN Oswald” is instantly lovable – giving us merely a glimpse of exceptional journey that was to become of her character in the years to follow, as well as thickening the mystery around her true role in the Doctor’s life. The Doctor’s ‘scrooge-like’ behavior following the departure of Amy and Rory is movingly appropriate without being overbearing on the episode’s narrative. The return of the Great intelligence and its merciless manipulation of Dr. Simeon is similarly successful in imposing a strong sense of threat and menace to the episode – only losing points for the show’s underuse of Sir Ian McKellen. Finally, the death of Clara is one that is emotionally charged – but whose impossibility is totally crucial in rebooting the enthusiasm and energy of the show as it ventured into the second half of Series 7.
The Naughty: The lacking characterization of the Latimers, criminal underuse of Sir Ian McKellen.
The Nice: Remembering the Ponds, the ‘One Word’ scene, The Paternoster Gang, The Snowmen/Dr. Simeon, Clara Oswin Oswald.
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Matt Smith’s epic regeneration episode marked such a highlight for his incarnation’s final year – and in a time that saw both “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor” burst on to our screens it certainly faced quite monumental competition. 2013’s Christmas special was tasked with filling a ridiculously ambitious criteria, having to not only farewell one of the most loved Doctors of all time, but also hold through on the success and quality of the 50th anniversary special AND produce a festive outing worthy of its Christmas Day release date. It was no easy feat, but one ‘Time’ rose to effortlessly. There are few episodes that one can look back on after countless rewatches and still feel the same energy, passion and emotion of every scene at the same strength as when they viewed them for the first time – and it’s no secret that for me this special is one of them. This was the episode that promised to tie up every loose end for Matt Smith’s era – and with the Weeping Angels, the Daleks, the Silence and the Cybermen all to feature in the special, this was set to be the most difficult challenge the Time Lord had ever faced… This was to be “The Time of the Doctor”
The Time of the Doctor” stayed true to the show’s tradition of such a strong and scene-stealing guest cast that truly do define the episode. Most notably Orla Brady’s portrayal of Tasha Lem brings so much chaos and fun to the role, it’s very difficult not to instantly fall in love with her. How she holds such authority so entertainingly in every scene is a real testament to her acting abilities and really is a highlight for the episode. However, the most treasured aspect of the episode is the fitting way it sends of Matt Smith, with arguably his most moving and sincere performance to date. We will not soon forget when the Doctor was him…
The Naughty: Influx of monster cameos and lack of singular antagonist.
The Nice: Clara Oswald, Matt Smith, Trenzalore, Tasha Lem, the Silence, the cracks, Handles, the regeneration.
Last Christmas (2014)
Though not as unanimously praised by the fandom as most episodes, for me 2014’s “Last Christmas” remains not only as one of the greatest Christmas specials of all time – but also one of the greatest episodes of the show’s history. The episode exhibits everything Doctor Who owes its continued success to: humour, a stunningly creative script, emotion, strong performances and a perfect balance of sci-fi, fantasy and horror without sacrificing its festive responsibilities. Leading the array of guest stars is Nick Frost as Santa Claus, who’s depicted warmly as ‘a dream trying to save us’. The contrast of Santa’s laid back and festive attitude against the Doctor’s strained and comedic grump makes for a hilarious dynamic, so too does the antics of the instantly lovable and memorable ‘Shona’. The remainder of the base crew are similarly well served, with the exception of the somewhat forgettable ‘Professor Albert’.
The Kantrofarri work remarkably well to impose a sinister menace to the episode, with the ‘Inception-esque’ dream sequences keeping the intensity and energy of the episode at its peak right into the second act. The narrative of the story is incredibly clever – but also quite profound in the way it provides crucial development for Clara’s relationships with both Danny and the Doctor. For the former, the episode provides a fitting closure to a character that moved from strength to strength in the series, the special concludes before his untimely and remarkably mundane death in the previous episode. The Elder-Clara scenes are among the most moving and impressive sequences the show has ever had. It’s in this moment, a man who lives all his life burdened by regrets looks towards a woman who’s running out of time to make more mistakes of his own and shames his own stubbornness. In a wonderful turn of events they both receive something he rarely gets or gives: a second chance in an honest and strong relationship, something Clara was robbed of with Danny Pink in the previous episode and something the Doctor has been robbed of so many times before. “Every Christmas is Last Christmas” …. And in this case for the Doctor and Clara, it was.
The Naughty: Professor Albert, underuse of the Christmas elves.
The Nice: Santa Claus, Danny Pink, the Dream Crabs, energy, base crew, thematic relevance, elderly Clara, the closing scenes.
A Christmas Carol (2010)
And at number 1… For me, the quintessential Christmas special is without a doubt Matt Smith’s first seasonal outing: “A Christmas Carol.” Moffat’s first special captures the whimsical aspect of Christmas and the warmth the season brings. A Doctor Who take on the Dickens’ classic of the same name, we are taken through the moving story of a man hardened by loneliness, a boy who grew up in fear of the man he may become, a young woman deprived of a wholesome life and an impossible hero who changed it all. Kazran Sardick’s personal journey throughout the episode is incredibly moving and serves as the perfect example of how the Doctor’s presence and guidance can change a person’s life for the better.
Musically the episode excels due to the efforts of Murray Gold and Katherine Jenkins, who are marvellously used to solidify such a festive and magical atmosphere. There remains not one weak moment or performance for the entire special, and like the best Christmas specials is so immersed in the holiday it celebrates it almost feels inappropriate to watch it at any other time of the year. “A Christmas Carol” sets the benchmark not just for Doctor Who Christmas specials, but for any piece of festive television. Creative, emotional, absolutely crazy and utterly enjoyable – the special is Doctor Who and Christmas at its best. Halfway out of the dark….
The Naughty: …
The Nice: Everything!
And now… the twist!
Some of you may have wondered why for this ranking article I decided to separate the specials into a RTD category and then a Moffat category instead of grouping and ordering all 11 in a row.
Well, despite the accusations skewed perception this could conjure up, it might surprise you to realise that in reality, I did both.
Now this isn’t to say that I have some blind adoration for Steven Moffat over Russell T Davies – I have a devout love for them both! Only that on this occasion I’ve found Moffat’s specials to be more moving and seasonally appropriate. For indulgence’s sake here are my final rankings:
- 11. The Next Doctor – 7/10
- 10. The End of Time: Part 1 – 7.5/10
- 9. The Christmas Invasion – 7.5/10
- 8. Voyage of the Damned – 8/10
- 7. The Runaway Bride – 8.5/10
- 6. The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe – 9/10
- 5. The Husbands of River Song – 9/10
- 4. The Snowmen – 9.5/10
- 3. The Time of the Doctor – 10/10
- 2. Last Christmas – 10/10
- 1. A Christmas Carol – 10/10
Have Your Say…
You’ve heard Connor’s thoughts but what do you think? Vote in the poll below.
Note: This poll requires you to rank the stories, from your favourite at the top, to least favourite at the bottom. Drag each of them to create your desired order of preference. Mobile and tablet users can directly number them (or try this link).