The Future of Doctor Who Christmas Specials
Feature by Cameron Smith.
It’s official: there will be no Christmas special this festive season. Despite some outlets reporting that Series 12 will kick off with a New Year’s Day special in 2020, this is not accurate. The official word from the BBC is that the first episode of Series 12 is an extended episode which happens to air on New Year’s Day. Chris Chibnall already clarified this several weeks ago when he stated that the next special would not arrive until after Series 12.
Given the turbulent track record of specials in the past two years, it would seem that their future isn’t entirely certain. As such, I wanted to look back at the history of Christmas, as well as other holiday-themed specials. In doing so, I shall consider whether or not we actually need them, and the possibility of their continuance in the future.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Let’s start with a brief insight into Doctor Who’s history with Christmas specials. Although they’re traditional in many British shows, Doctor Who had been one of the exceptions during the 20th Century. The only classic episode to have any kind of festive theme was 1965’s “The Feast of Steven.” Since the episode was set to air on Christmas Day that year, the decision was made to add a scene in which the characters shared a Christmas meal and the First Doctor broke the fourth wall to wish viewers a “Merry Christmas”. The scheduling of this episode was merely a coincidence, as early seasons of Doctor Who would begin late in the year and run through the Christmas season to the next year.
When the show was revived by Russell T. Davies in 2005, it was only for one series consisting of 13 episodes. Fortunately, the first episode was more popular than anticipated, attracting more than double the expected number of UK viewers. This prompted the BBC to renew the show for a Christmas special at the end of the year and a second series in 2006. As such, the first official Doctor Who Christmas special, aptly titled “The Christmas Invasion,” aired on the 25th of December in 2005.
In the late 2000s, each new series regularly aired between March and July. Now that Doctor Who was positioned closer to the middle of the year, the annual Christmas special served to fill a gap in the show’s schedule. During the early 2010s, the broadcast schedule shifted closer to the Christmas season once again. Because of this, Christmas specials were no longer needed to fill a gap, but they continued because they had become a tradition. As the arrival of new episodes became less predictable, the assurance of having a Christmas special each year was undoubtedly comforting to the fans and to the BBC alike.
During this time, Christmas wasn’t the only holiday to be celebrated with a special. In 2009, several different holiday specials were produced. These included an Easter special, an autumn special (casually referred to as a “Halloween special”), and a New Year’s Day special for the start of 2010. Between 2005 and 2017, audiences were gifted with a total of 17 different specials, including 13 consecutive Christmas specials. This annual tradition was discarded when Chris Chibnall chose not to do one in 2018. Although we got a New Year’s Day special at the start of 2019, many fans considered this to be a hollow substitute.
Ghosts of Christmas Present
Contrary to common belief, 2018 wasn’t the first year that Chibnall avoided doing a Christmas special. He began his showrunning duties for Doctor Who in early 2017, but he chose not to start his run with a Christmas special that year. Steven Moffat, who was the outgoing showrunner at the time, volunteered to stick around a little longer and produce the 2017 Christmas special. Moffat was worried that Doctor Who would permanently lose its broadcast slot on Christmas Day if it skipped a year. Despite his best efforts, the show inevitably skipped Christmas in 2018 and will be skipping it again in 2019.
Considering the evidence in the previous paragraph, I believe that the most likely explanation is that Chibnall simply doesn’t like Christmas specials. This sentiment might outrage the majority of the fan-base, but there are some who would agree with Chibnall on this point. I am one of those people. I enjoy the occasional Christmas special because the setting provides a bit of variety and changes the context of the narrative. However, I’ve grown tired of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials because the efforts to make each story festive-themed have become more and more egregious. By the end of 2017 we’d had 13 of them. It was time for a break.
When it was revealed that Doctor Who wouldn’t have a Christmas special in 2018, I was actually relieved. I was also a little annoyed that we got a New Year’s Day special instead. They’re functionally identical, so I can sympathise with fans who felt it was unnecessary to shift the special to a different holiday only a week later. However, I disagree with those who think that Christmas specials need to continue simply because we’ve had them for so long now. They might be traditional, but they aren’t mandatory.
Ghosts of Christmas Future
Although it’s been confirmed that we will be getting another special after Series 12, since Chibnall has skipped three Christmases in a row it’s unlikely that this new special will be Christmas-themed. It’s even possible that it might not be holiday-themed at all. As previously mentioned, the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars” wasn’t holiday-themed and was publicised as an autumn special. On a more positive note, I think we can expect specials to continue in the future. If we continue to experience large gaps between the broadcast of each series, the BBC will likely consider specials a necessity to bridge those gaps.
As for whether or not future specials should be holiday-themed, perhaps Chibnall will explore the potential that other holidays could offer. An Easter special that’s actually holiday-themed (unlike the brief reference to Easter in 2009’s “Planet of the Dead”) might be nice. Personally, I’d be most interested in seeing the TARDIS return to the US for the show’s first proper Halloween special.
But on the other hand, by the end of 2020 it will have been three years since Doctor Who’s last Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time.” I stated earlier that I had grown tired of frequent Christmas specials, and I stand by that. However, after such a lengthy recess, even I would welcome a new Christmas special with a warm embrace.