tis the season

Every Doctor Who Holiday Special, Ranked

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.
Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor. Photo: Casey Crafford/BBC America/BBC Studios

A tradition that beats your grandma’s fruitcake, the annual Doctor Who holiday special puts a sci-fi spin on holiday cheer, not to mention a bit of entertainment to tide over Who fans between seasons. From 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” to the more recent (and much more unconventional) New Year’s Day special, we’ve ranked all 15 Doctor Who holiday episodes from worst to best.

15. “A Christmas Carol” (2010)

Following the trash fire that was the Pandorica arc, “A Christmas Carol” tells the story of a doomed spaceship and the rich miser who could save the day but refuses to do any such thing. It’s a transparent attempt to adopt the plot of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — indeed, even Matt Smith’s Doctor says it — but the episode’s logic and execution are both off-target. Why does the Doctor decide that his best plan of action is to literally change a man’s personality? Isn’t it bad to manipulate someone’s life? Didn’t we already learn how crossing one’s own timeline can be disastrous? For a show about a time-traveling alien and his human companions skipping through the universe and saving the day, we also get little of our protagonists, and the characters who are pushed into the spotlight — Kazran Sardick and his icebox sweetheart Abigail — aren’t nearly interesting enough to act as worthy substitutes. Between its sky full of fish and its magical singing love interests, “A Christmas Carol” is marked by nonsensical diversions in a story that doesn’t stand on its own.

14. “Spyfall” (2020)

The second Doctor Who holiday special to not run on Christmas Day (after 2019’s “Resolution”), “Spyfall” dispenses with the show’s usual holiday themes for a straightforward dive into the new season. It’s a shame, though, because “Spyfall” is utterly conventional, nondescript at best and dull at worst, in the way it picks up where we last left off. While preparing to depart on another adventure, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are kidnapped by a bunch of suits and taken to MI6 headquarters, where — surprise! — Stephen Fry is the head honcho and needs their help. All over the world, undetectable aliens are attacking spies, and so the TARDIS team is on the case. The episode announces from the get-go that we’re in for an hour of Spy vs. Spy: Doctor Who Edition, and its characters jump in with James Bond-style cosplay. It’s far from the first time the show has played with genre tropes, but for all the playfulness that the episode title’s punnery suggests, “Spyfall” itself doesn’t sport enough fun, intrigue, or originality. The baddies — the alien spies — are too amorphous to feel particularly threatening, and their human targets seem too specific to give a sense of any high stakes. The twists, too, feel predictable, right down to the double-cross of the Doctor’s old spy buddy O (Sacha Dhawan), who is revealed to be the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master. In an episode marked by middling dramatic action and a dearth of whip-smart dialogue, the appearance of the Master feels lazy and unearned, especially after the character’s last two momentous arcs, as played with delicious mania by John Simms and Michelle Gomez.

13. “The Snowmen” (2012)

One would think that an episode featuring the likes of Richard E. Grant and Ian McKellen’s voice would rank higher, but alas, this episode about sentient killer snow is mediocre at best. Taking place after the Doctor loses his companions Amy and Rory, “The Snowmen” features a markedly downtrodden Doctor — a tone shift that Matt Smith, for all his vibrant energy and kinetic charm, can’t quite pull off. It certainly doesn’t help that the episode promises a much more engaging antagonist than it delivers. (A snowman who talks back to a lonely child? Let’s go for it! A mean, dead nanny frozen in the pond? Sign me up! But once these villains appear, they do little to present themselves as believable threats.) The lone saving grace is Jenna Coleman, who makes her second appearance in the series as barmaid/governess Clara — a wittier, more likable version of the character who would become the next companion. Nineteenth-century Clara is a brave, self-assured companion, even though her death is used to create the deus ex machina that resolves the episode’s conflict.

12. “The Time of the Doctor” (2013)

Perhaps the most criticized of all Doctor Who Christmas specials, but not bad enough that I can knock it all the way down to the bottom rung. With the Time Lords waiting behind the ever-present crack in the wall — and all of the big baddies from the Whonerverse drawn in by the signal passing through a quaint little town called Christmas — the episode builds itself up to a major blowout that never occurs. The premise, of course, is that the Doctor is caught in the middle of a perpetual cold war, but the tension never feels quite real, and neither does the Doctor’s apparent complacency with living out his days as the protector of this little town. The Doctor is always sacrificing his life for some greater purpose or another, but his turn as the Father Christmas savior is too defeatist to feel genuine, and it opens the gate to yet another deus ex machina in the form of the Time Lords’ gifting their regeneration energy to him. That being said, the episode redeems itself a little bit in the closing minutes, as the Doctor says his final good-bye to Amy Pond and reflects on the inevitable nature of change. It’s an exit that’s effective in its simplicity and understatedness, even if it isn’t enough to save the rest of the episode.

11. “Voyage of the Damned” (2007)

There’s nothing disastrously wrong with this one. It’s a totally fine, self-contained story with all of the typical charms of any individual Doctor Who episode, but it’s also totally unremarkable. In “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor finds himself crashing a Christmas party on an intergalactic cruise ship that is fated to nosedive into Earth, killing everyone onboard as well as all the unlucky earthlings below. Before tragedy strikes, he attempts to save a small group of survivors, including his would-be companion, Astrid (guest star Kylie Minogue), but the episode tries too hard to build emotional stakes for each character, with short exchanges purely intended to make us care when they die. Perhaps the real problem is that the writers weren’t invested in these characters; after all, they die just to illustrate the Doctor’s inability to save everyone and his constant struggle with that fact — a premise that would be pulled off to much better effect in “The Waters of Mars.”

10. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (2016)

An homage to classic superheroes, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” runs through a checklist of comic-book clichés: the poor schmuck who lives a double life; the love interest who, despite her brilliant journalism skills, is unable to discover the hero’s identity; and the dilemma our hero faces of needing to be in two places at the same time. Justin Chatwin perfectly embodies the adorable boy next door turned hero nanny, and Charity Wakefield presents a clever love interest, though neither character evolves much past their tropes. That’s the real problem here: It’s a cute and self-aware story, but it’s also not surprising because it sticks so closely to classic superhero tropes. Matt Lucas is delightfully odd in his second episode as Nardole, and he works as a funny companion to Peter Capaldi’s lovably cranky, pessimistic Doctor, but the episode just isn’t original enough to rank any higher.

9. “The End of Time” (2009)

At this point in the series, Doctor Who was resolutely set on the path of wrapping up David Tennant’s run. Unfortunately, “The End of Time” is shamelessly focused on being a means to this end, so it suffers from heavy-handed foreshadowing and an overdramatic voice-over that detracts from the story. The plot to bring the Time Lords back gets a bit convoluted (as any plot involving the Time Lords tends to be), though the Master’s plan to turn humankind into a “Master race” is just odd and hilarious enough to be believable, especially as it comes from a maniacal genius-madman. (Plus, John Simm is an absolute treat as the Master, and Bernard Cribbins also delivers great scenes as the ever-endearing Wilfred Mott.) The last 20 minutes of this two-parter find the Doctor saying his very long and silent good-byes to loved ones, but it all leads up to him uttering those unforgettable last words: “I don’t want to go.” Tennant and the writers earned that ending, with the sad final twist of the four knocks allowing the Tenth Doctor to perform one final, heartbreaking moment of heroism before his death.

8. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” (2011)

It’s difficult not to be drawn in by this cute, trim episode, if only because it has the most holiday cheer of all the specials. When the Doctor decides to give a family a perfect Christmas in the form of a decked-out mansion and a bit of Narnia wrapped up in a box, they get caught up in a sentient forest’s attempt to save itself from imminent destruction. That’s all well and good, but the episode’s real backbone is Madge Arwell, a mother who only wants her children to have a good Christmas despite knowing that her husband just died in World War II. Time and time again, Madge comes to the rescue: commandeering and piloting alien machinery; transporting within herself the souls of a whole planet; and saving her husband as she navigates her family, the Doctor, and countless tree-souls through space and time. The episode recognizes the strength of women, and mothers in particular, as Madge turns out to be the big hero in the end. Bonus points for the effortlessly tender ending, which reunites the Doctor with Amy and Rory.

7. “The Next Doctor” (2008)

Before “The Day of the Doctor” there was this meeting of Doctors, which starts with a comical case of déjà vu. Two Doctors for the price of one is an especially good deal when you consider the charm and playfulness of David Tennant and the earnestness of David Morrissey’s Jackson Lake, who borrows the Doctor’s name along with Tennant’s mannerisms and style. The action and dialogue is lively and fun, and the story of how Lake’s Doctor came to be is an engaging and heartbreaking reflection of the real Doctor, revealing his fears and profound sense of loss. Still, it’s the women who truly stand out in this episode: The villainous Ms. Hartigan is a daring, feminist antagonist with enough brains and willpower to overcome Cybermen mind-control, and Lake’s companion Rosita would’ve been a great partner for the real Doctor. In the final act of the episode, the action — which includes a hot air balloon and Godzilla-sized Cyberman trampling Victorian England — gets too overinflated for “The Next Doctor” to rank any higher, but the episode still has plenty to offer.

6. “The Christmas Invasion” (2005)

As the show’s very first Christmas special, “The Christmas Invasion,” is a classic, and not just because it marks the start of David Tennant’s long and successful run as the Doctor. Beneath the basic premise — an impending threat from the Sycorax, who hold a third of the planet under their control — the episode’s true underlying conflict focuses on the Doctor’s regeneration and how it will affect his relationship with Rose. In fact, the Doctor spends the majority of “The Christmas Invasion” being unconscious while Rose broods over him, trying to figure out if he’s still the Time Lord that she loves. Tennant’s introduction is bold and charming, as he himself tries to figure out what sort of a man he is now. (When the defeated leader of the Sycorax tries to attack him while his back is turned, the Doctor sends him to his death without a blink of one Gallifreyan eye, saying, “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”) The crowd of recurring favorites — including Jackie Tyler, Mickey Smith, and Harriet Jones — round out this episode.

5. “The Runaway Bride” (2006)

Featuring a car chase, evil Santa robots, giant spider creatures, deadly Christmas ornaments, a duplicitous fiancé, and plenty of lively banter, “The Runaway Bride” establishes a great balance between action and comedy that keeps the episode engaging. And then there’s Donna Noble. Stubborn, irascible, and perfectly ordinary, Donna (Catherine Tate) may not initially seem like the typical companion, and thank God for that. Magically appearing in the TARDIS on her wedding day and unknowingly caught in her fiancé’s trap to turn her into food for giant alien spiders, Donna shows up at just the right time, when the Doctor is still sulking about Rose. From the beginning, it’s clear what a good pairing they make, and by the end, Donna proves that she understands the Doctor’s dark impulses, telling him, “Sometimes I think you need someone to stop you” before turning down the invitation to be his companion. Even with its well-paced action and solid premise, the episode really belongs to Tate — it’s no surprise she came back to the TARDIS as a regular companion.

4. “Resolution” (2019)

For the first time in the 13 years since its revival, Doctor Who broke with its Christmas Day tradition with “Resolution,” which instead premiered on New Year’s Day. Figuring out the reason for the change doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination, considering how the 11th season — with its new monsters, new trio of companions, new writer-showrunner, and new female Doctor — focused on, well, a new perspective. But there’s no moving forward without first dealing with the past, which the Doctor must do in “Resolution,” as she faces down an ancient Dalek that has found itself on Earth, parasitically latches onto his victims for control, and is ready to “exterminate” humanity. All this is going on while Ryan struggles to find some emotional closure — a resolution, if you will — with his absentee father, who has come back hoping for a new start. One can certainly connect the thematic dots to the New Year’s theme, but ultimately there was no reason why the episode had to be a New Year’s special. Take out the handful of mentions to New Year’s in the dialogue and it could have been any other typical episode of Doctor Who. But that doesn’t make “Resolution” any less enjoyable. In fact, after a season of fresh monsters, characters, and stories, the appearance of a Dalek feels like a treat, or as much of a treat as a squid-like psychopathic alien can be. It’s not particularly innovative for the series, but it’s a tidy throwback to what Who fans love.

3. “The Husbands of River Song” (2015)

The world of Doctor Who is full of countless aliens and beasts, so when I say that Dr. River Song is one of the best, most interesting parts of the series, I mean that as the highest praise for any character on the show. I’m not the only one with a soft spot for her, either: Steven Moffat loved the character so much that he wrote all of her dialogue himself, and for all of his faults, Moffat’s care and affection is apparent in this loving good-bye episode. “The Husbands of River Song” sees River at her most resourceful, but it also shows a vulnerability in her we had not seen since “The Wedding of River Song.” Not recognizing Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor until the episode’s climax, River delivers a long, rambling speech revealing her insecurities about her relationship with the Doctor — it’s one of the few times that River loses her composure and confidence. The ending, too, is stellar, when the Doctor and River stand before the Singing Towers of Darillium, both knowing that it will be the last night of River’s life. The only real flaw is the idea that River takes so long to recognize the Doctor. Sure, she got thrown off by the extra regeneration loophole introduced in “The Time of the Doctor” (weren’t we all?), but are we meant to believe that she wouldn’t even humor that possibility until the very last minute? Nevertheless, the character-revealing dialogue that leads us to that point redeems the episode and presents a tender, satisfying end to River’s arc.

2. “Twice Upon a Time” (2017)

A fitting end to Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Twelfth Doctor, “Twice Upon a Time” sees the Doctor cross his own timeline yet again, this time to meet his first iteration, wonderfully played by David Bradley. The Doctor-meets-Doctor conceit is one to be used lightly, but here it feels just right, as the episode even incorporates footage from the First Doctor’s regeneration. Capaldi and Bradley form a comical odd couple as the First Doctor criticizes the Twelfth’s fashion and flair and the Twelfth winces at the First’s casual sexism and political incorrectness. But it’s all about the historical meeting the contemporary in “Twice Upon a Time,” which feels particularly fitting considering that Jodie Whittaker makes her appearance as the first female Doctor at the end — highlighting, with some ironic satisfaction, the outdatedness of the First Doctor’s views on gender. Plot-wise, there’s not much to speak of here; there’s not even a bad guy to defeat. Though notably subdued, this episode works because it’s grounded in the Doctor’s fears and concerns rather than a blown-out plot to save the universe. “Can’t I ever have peace? Can’t I rest?” Capaldi’s Doctor asks in desperation. Of course, the answer is “not really,” because, as they say, the show must go on, but the Twelfth gets closure in the form of his past companions, Bill, Clara, and Nardole returning to say their brief, touching good-byes. Pearl Mackie, as Bill, brings her own depth to the episode, and Mark Gatiss also makes a welcome guest appearance as a British World War I captain caught in the middle of a time hiccup and ultimately saved during the Christmas truce of 1914 — a tear-jerking dose of history in the episode. It’s another day in which no one dies … except, as the Twelfth drolly points out, himself.

1. “Last Christmas” (2014)

Now this one’s clever. “Last Christmas” takes place after “Death in Heaven,” which ends with the Doctor and Clara lying to each other and parting ways: She thinks he found Gallifrey, and he thinks Danny Pink is still alive. With this bit of dramatic irony floating in the background, the episode begins with Clara encountering none other than jolly Old Saint Nick himself. She and the Doctor end up at a North Pole facility where scientists are fighting off a group of face-sucking, telepathic alien crabs that bear a resemblance to the face-huggers from Alien (“There’s a horror movie called Alien?” asks the Doctor. “That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”) But that’s not the only blockbuster that “Last Christmas” recalls: The premise is right out of Inception, with each face-hugger inducing a dream-like state in its victim as it kills them, and the characters breaking through nested dreams to save themselves.

Even after the episode reveals its Inception-style setup, the uncovering of each dream layer remains a surprise. Breaking out of her typical role as the plucky, clever girl, Clara is forced to deal with the grief of losing Danny. Her good-bye to dream-Danny is touching, and the Doctor’s arguments with Santa provide much-needed moments of levity. (Who else but Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor would pick a fight with Saint Nick?) But the main reason why “Last Christmas” snags the top spot is because of its stakes: Clara has to choose between living in a fatal state of false bliss, or in an imperfect world where she’s forced to soldier on with her grief. Balancing horror, comedy, drama, and ultimately joy, “Last Christmas” is wonderfully complex and a reflection of Doctor Who at its best.

Every Doctor Who Holiday Special, Ranked