In 2005, a bizarre and unexpected Christmas tradition began: A charming and handsome time-traveling alien with two hearts and an English accent fought a snarling alien with a sword. And even though he had to re-grow his hand during the duel, he was triumphant. Ever since, Doctor Who has appeared in a Christmas episode every single year but with varied results. Sometimes the episodes are stand-alone adventures; sometimes the episodes are deeply rooted in the show’s complicated mythology. Robot Santas have wreaked havoc, sharks have been ridden, and at least two Doctors have changed faces.
As this year’s superhero-themed Christmas special approaches — “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — it’s time to count down all the highs and lows of Doctor Who during the holidays. Here they are ranked from outer-space coal in our stockings, to “allons-y” perfection.
11. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” (2011)
Not only the worst Doctor Who Christmas special of them all, but easily one of the worst episodes of Doctor Who, period. Trying to fuse C.S. Lewis story beats with Matt Smith’s normally excellent comic timing resulted in a boring, bizarre entry into the Doctor Who mythos. The opening scene in which the Doctor almost burns up in a space suit is literally the best part. Just assume he burned up and stop watching after that.
10. “The Next Doctor” (2008)
The 10th Doctor meets a man who he thinks is a future version of himself. But really, it’s just a depressed guy named Jackson Lake (David Morrissey) who is in fugue state after his child died. Oh, and there’s cybermen-dogs, and the Doctor rides in a balloon. BOO.
9. “The Husbands of River Song (2015)
Though this episode brought the story of River Song (Alex Kingston) full circle, it failed to give her and Peter Capaldi anything interesting to do. Because River doesn’t know the Doctor is the Doctor in this episode, any of their potentially exciting sexual chemistry is absent. In theory, the concept of this episode is great but it’s just mostly heaps wasted potential. Alien cannibals! Characters who can’t talk to each other because they don’t know each other! Hooray for Christmas?
8. “Voyage of the Damned” (2007)
Kylie Minogue guest-stars on Doctor Who in an outer-space version of the Poseidon Adventure. In fairness, though David Tennant got some great speeches in this one, the scene in which the robot-angels blast off and carry the Doctor Christ-like, while he rocks a tuxedo, are a just a little too much to handle. Still, having just written those exact words, suddenly this feels like it’s worth rewatching.
7. “The Snowmen” (2012)
One of the more romantic episodes of contemporary Who, this one saw the debut of the 11th Doctor’s lavender Victorian getup that he would wear for pretty much the rest of his run. Ian Mckellen is also delightful as sentient evil snow. Richard E. Grant is even better as the sinister Dr. Simeon who is for some reason assisting the evil snow. The only true negative of this episode is the bizarre death of yet another simulacrum version of Clara, even though this was Jenna Coleman’s first proper outing as the character. Still Matt Smith disguising himself as Sherlock Holmes in the middle is pretty cheerful.
6. “The Time of the Doctor” (2013)
Matt Smith’s swan song as the Doctor found him and Clara on a planet actually called Christmas. This one dragged in moments, and had the Doctor planting some questionable kisses on a woman who may or may not have already been dead. But, the truth field was hilarious, and the touching final moments in which he dropped his bowtie forever still send chills up the spines of fans everywhere, as if we too are growing old and regenerating.
5. “The Christmas Invasion” (2005)
This is the first Doctor Who Christmas special ever and the Doctor was hardly even in it. Even though David Tennant went on to become the most beloved of any actor to play the Doctor, ever, he stayed in his pajamas, and slept for pretty much the entire episode. Showrunner Russell T. Davies later mentioned this was an homage to Arthur Dent from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books. Still, that sword fight, and Tennant’s final speech will put a smile on faces for several Christmases to come. Bonus Lion King joke only seals the deal.
4. “The Runaway Bride” (2006)
Though Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) wouldn’t return to as regular companion on the show until 2008, her first appearance remains one of the funniest, and most ridiculously satisfying Doctor Who episodes ever. The low-budget spider-queen enemy in this one is probably the best cheesy Doctor Who monster ever. Did I mention Donna is hilarious? BRING BACK DONNA.
3. “Last Christmas” (2014)
Endearing and hilarious, this may be one of the best episodes featuring Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald. The concept of the dream crabs is also wonderfully original, as is Nick Frost as the faux “Santa Claus.” This episode also might contain one of Peter Capaldis best jokes ever: “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive.”
2. “The End of Time” (2009-2010)
“I don’t want to go!” Airing over Christmas Day 2009, and New Year’s Day 2010, David Tennant departed the role of the Doctor forever. His final two-part adventure with Donna’s grandfather Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) was heartwarming and fantastic. Despite some of the plot’s wonkiness, and Timothy Dalton spitting, this remains a classic Doctor Who adventure for a reason.
1. “A Christmas Carol” (2010)
It’s the most Christmas-y Doctor Who Christmas special of them all! Instead of jumping the shark, Matt Smith simply rides a flying one as the show does a classic update to Dickens, one which actually makes more sense than the original book. Michael Gambon’s sci-fi Scrooge “Kazran” is also the best Scrooge that has ever Scrooged, save for maybe Michael Caine in The Muppets Chiristmas Carol. And, Matt Smith coming down the chimney is perhaps his most enduring Doctor Who Christmas moment, ever.
This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” airs on the BBC December 25.