Starting in 2005, the most enduring science fiction show of all time began a unique tradition. Every year since Doctor Who returned to the 21st century, there’s been a special episode airing on Christmas. More often than not, these episodes center around metaphors of renewal and change, which aren’t really even metaphors. Nearly every third Who holiday adventure deals with the Doctor “regenerating,” a process by which he becomes a completely different person with the same memories and same spaceship/time machine combo telephone box. After this year’s Christmas episode — “Twice Upon a Time” — the Doctor will no longer be male. The incoming 13th Doctor is Jodie Whittaker, replacing incumbent Doctor Peter Capaldi. Fittingly, as the Doctor is set to make his biggest change ever, he’ll be visited by his very first incarnation. Originally played by Willaim Hartnell from 1963 to 1966, the 1st Doctor is now played charmingly by David Bradley.
But what have the Doctor’s other Christmas adventures been like? When he’s not regenerating, are these episodes any good? Here’s a complete — and totally biased — ranking of every single Doctor Who Christmas special, from worst to best.
Spoilers for a lot of Doctor Who ahead. But NOT for “Twice Upon a Time.”
12. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (2016)
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special was really, really rough. Taking place in a barely plausible version of New York City, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) accidentally creates a superhero. The first few minutes, stuffed with Clark Kent jokes, and the Doctor talking about how he’s the “original” superhero are wonderful. The rest of it is grating to the point of being dull. Thank goodness this wasn’t Capaldi’s last outing. This year’s “Twice Upon a Time” will be better by default.
11. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” (2011)
This is not only a bad Doctor Who Christmas special, but it’s also 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. Now, you could argue that part one of this story is the Christmas special, while part two is the New Year’s special. And if that’s the case, this ranking might change. Part one isn’t near as good as part two.
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 Christmas 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 — “Twice Upon a Time” — airs December 25 at 9pm eastern time on BBC America.