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Every Doctor Who holiday special - ranked!

From 'The Christmas Invasion' to 'Eve of the Daleks,' which Doctor Who holiday episode works best?

Doctor Who
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If it’s the holiday season, it’s time for a Doctor Who holiday special — well, except for last year, but there was a lot in the works at that point, as we've seen in the last few weeks. (Almost) every year since 2005, the long-running sci-fi institution has marked the season with a special episode filled with goodwill to all beings and maybe a few monsters as well… but with 17 specials so far, it’s fair to say that not all of them have been winners.

With this in mind, we’ve decided to rank all of the holiday specials to date, from worst to best, to help you program your viewing over the next few days. Of course, all such rankings are subjective and we’re sure that everyone will find something to disagree with in the list below, but, honestly, disagreeing with friends and family is kind of a tradition of the season as well, isn’t it…? (And “worst” doesn’t even mean “bad” per se— we’re not arguing that any of these are objectively bad… well, except for ‘Spyfall Part 1.’ That one is rubbish.)

All of the episodes below are available via BBC iPlayer in the UK, and Max in the US.

17. Spyfall Part 1 (2020)

Doctor Who
Image credit: BBC

There’s no easy way to say this, but the 13th Doctor holiday specials are just... lacking in general. There’s at least one external reason for this — for this Doctor’s era, the shows were New Year’s Day episodes, not Christmas episodes — but in general, they suffer from a self-seriousness and a lack of festivity that makes them significantly less fun to watch than the other Doctors’ specials. Jodie Whittaker really deserved better.

Worst of all is 2020’s Spyfall Part 1, which wasn’t even a stand-alone special, but the first episode of a season - and as such not even a complete story. Sure, there’s a new Master to enjoy, but… this really isn’t what we come to the holiday specials for.

16. Revolution of the Daleks (2021)

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Also not what we come to the holiday specials for is this ultimately downbeat story that features the Doctor committing a bunch of murders by trapping the Daleks in a TARDIS that’s about to disappear into nothingness. Ho ho ho…?

15. Resolution (2019)

Doctor Who
Image credit: BBC

The first 13th Doctor holiday special almost gets the formula right, but is let down by a ponderous subplot about Ryan’s absent father and some dreadfully handled pacing. Also, the resolution — no pun intended — being simply “You thought I was taking you home but instead, I took you to your death” feels somewhat underwhelming, but still: it’s almost there!

14. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)

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I love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and I think Doctor Who is a very fun show when it takes on other genres of storytelling and sees how the Doctor can fit into them. That said, this attempt to tell a superhero story with the Doctor is just kind of a dull mess that seems to avoid what audiences like about superheroes and forgets to come up with a worthwhile story to tell at the same time. Rarely did the 12th Doctor feels so much like a half-hearted attempt to finish homework at the last minute ahead of school.

13. Eve of the Daleks (2022)

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It’s no coincidence that the best 13th Doctor holiday special is also the one that most heavily features the holidays as a core component. (It’s almost as if that’s a lot of the appeal of the whole thing!) It’s also the one that’s funniest, and that helps a lot, as well. Why couldn’t we have had more of these kinds of specials during Jodie Whittaker’s time as the Doctor?

12. The Time of the Doctor (2013)

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There are a bunch of interesting ideas in Matt Smith’s final episode as the Doctor, but not enough of a story to prevent the whole thing from feeling a little over-extended and disjointed. As much as we love the idea of a town called Christmas, there’s a reality where the screenplay for this special got a second draft that connected the dots a little bit better, and Smith’s finale was befitting of his time as the man with the box.

11. The End of Time Pts. 1 & 2 (2009/2010)

Doctor Who
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Talking of disappointing final episodes, The End of Time — the two-parter that closed out David Tennant’s first time as the Doctor — is a hyper-active, over-stuffed mess of a story that suffers from trying to outdo all of the other apocalyptic, “everything but the kitchen sink” special episodes and finales Russell T. Davies had done up to that point. Turns out, you really can have too much of a good thing.

10. Twice Upon A Time (2017)

Doctor Who
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And here’s a third regeneration episode in a row. Peter Capaldi’s final episode is, again, dragged down by a ponderousness and self-consciousness that gets in the way of the story. That said, the episode has two things very strongly in its favor: the re-appearance of the First Doctor, played by An Adventure in Time and Space’s David Bradley, and Capaldi’s final speech, as he explains the ethos of the Doctor to his successor — one of the finest monologues the show’s ever seen, if not the finest.

9. The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Doctor Who
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Let’s be blunt: David Tennant’s first episode is actually… kind of bad? Sure, when Tennant gets to show up and get into action it's fun, but there’s a lot of episode before that happens, ramping up tension that just doesn’t make sense because we know the Doctor’s going to be a good guy and save the day. So much time and effort is spent trying to convince the audience that maybe the Doctor isn’t going to do the exact thing that we all know he will, and really, what’s the point?

8. The Next Doctor (2008)

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Beyond the gag of pretending to introduce David Tennant’s successor (but not really!), there’s fun to be found in the Victorian setting and the ersatz Doctor and companion set-up, not to mention the Steampunk Cybermen in this episode. It feels somewhat slight and throwaway — and, strangely, reminiscent of the superior ‘The Runaway Bride’ in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on — but it's no less enjoyable because of that.

7. The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011)

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After the success of the previous year’s “A Christmas Carol,” the pressure was on for Steven Moffat to deliver a great holiday special in 2011… and, unfortunately, ‘The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe’ falls a little short. There’s a lot to appreciate, sure — not least of all, Matt Smith’s Doctor was really good with kids — but is there enough story to keep it all together?

6. Last Christmas (2014)

Doctor Who
Image credit: BBC

Pairing Capaldi, the most curmudgeonly Doctor from the current era, with Santa Claus — and making Santa less jolly than his reputation might suggest — was always going to be a great comedic set-up, and mixing it with a horror story in space only adds to the incongruguity of the whole thing. Like all of the best Doctor Who holiday specials, it’s a romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and one that’s very knowingly using all those seasonal treats to their best ability.

5. The Husbands of River Song (2015)

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What was I just saying about a romp? ‘The Husbands of River Song’ is a pantomime that refuses to take itself too seriously until the emotional bomb that is the closing scenes, when we realize that it’s the end of River for the Doctor and the audience alike. Don’t worry; there’s a happy ending (of sorts) that underscores the bittersweet nature of the season. All that, plus Taskmaster Greg Davies himself!

4. The Snowmen (2012)

Doctor Who
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Grabbing the holiday by the horns, this episode lets both a mystery and the joys of the season redeem a depressed Doctor after the loss of his companions — and it lets the viewers enjoy all manner of treats at the same time, not least of which is the Vastra/Jenny/Strax teaming, which is the spin-off show we always deserved but never got. Richard E. Grant’s overacting is a treat that can be enjoyed at any time of year, of course, but finally seeing him as a Who villain might be the best gift of all.

3. Voyage of the Damned (2007)

Doctor Who
Image credit: BBC

Rarely has the phrase “as camp as Christmas” felt as fitting as this episode, in which a spaceship called the Titanic is threatened by robotic angels, while none other than Kylie Minogue helps the Doctor save the day. As with all of Russell T. Davies’ holiday specials, there’s too much going on at any one time and there’s no sense of taste or shame, but here, it all adds up to a gloriously over-the-top experience.

2. A Christmas Carol (2010)

Doctor Who
Image credit: BBC

Perhaps the apex of the Victoriana of many of the Doctor Who holiday specials — it’s Dickensian, don’t you know? — A Christmas Carol is a beautifully melancholic, magical story that feels at once timeless and brand new, with Steven Moffat stealing from the best and advertising it in the episode’s title. Matt Smith and Michael Gambon play their roles pitch perfectly, creating what might be one of the finest hours of Who so far.

1.The Runaway Bride (2006)

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Two words: Donna Noble. Oh, there’s so much about this episode that doesn’t technically work — not least of all, the Doctor quasi-committing genocide at the end — but Catherine Tate’s Donna is one of the great Who companions, and her introduction is a complete joy: stripy, unimpressed by everything about the Doctor, and just the antithesis of what Rose Tyler had been. No wonder we wanted to see more.

What about…?

Yes, 2023 sees the first actual Christmas Day episode for Doctor Who since 2017, as well as the first full episode for Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor. (And an introduction for Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday, too.) ‘The Church on Ruby Road’ — huh, an interesting title, considering the name of the new companion, don’t you think? — airs Monday, December 25 on BBC One in the UK, and on Disney+ internationally. Tune in and add it to the ranking where you see fit… and feel free to tell us your own personal rankings in the comments below.


If you want to start watching Doctor Who and don't know where to start, check out our handy Doctor Who watch guide. Or maybe you're already finished with the show - We've got the perfect Ten shows to watch when you're done watching Doctor Who guide for you too. If you're already heads over heels for the Fifteenth Doctor and want to learn more about the actor playing him, check out what he's been in before here. Or maybe you just need to figure out how the new series numbering is going to work (Are there really gonna be two series 1s? Yes.) - if so, this is the explainer you want.

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Graeme McMillan

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Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.

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