Ranking the Doctor Who Christmas Specials

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Matt Smith, Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins in “A Christmas Carol”. (Photo: BBC)

1. A Christmas Carol

In a way that no other Doctor Who Christmas special manages, this episode reminds us that hope and faith and joy are all, first and foremost, acts of belief. They are choices. The spirit of Christmas is a thing we do as much as it is a thing we celebrate.

“A Christmas Carol” is a take on the classic Charles Dickens holiday story. And Matt Smith’s first Christmas episode highlights everything that’s great and charming about his Doctor, from his manic demeanor to his seemingly boundless empathy. Michael Gambon does a wonderful guest turn as an obvious stand-in for Ebenezer Scrooge named Kazran Sardick. The plot involves Amy and Rory trapped on a disabled spaceship. To rescue them, the Doctor must help Kazran become a better person by befriending his younger self in the past.  Eleven goes on adventures with the young Kazran and a beautiful, doomed woman named Abigail, whom they awaken from her frozen cryogenic sleep every Christmas Eve.

“A Christmas Carol” is incredibly sappy, and incredibly bittersweet. Because for all the Doctor’s wondrous abilities, it turns out that he can only bend time so far. He can change Kazran through his visits to the past, but not much else. He cannot cure Abigail’s illness, and he cannot ease Kazran’s anguish over her loss.

The episode’s happy ending, such as it is, is laid over the knowledge that this is Kazran and Abigail’s last Christmas together. She will die offscreen, shortly after this episode ends. The episode’s fairy tale feel underlines its central message. That it is the moments of light that make the darkness bearable. It is, after all, the reason that Christmas — or something like it — is celebrated on almost every planet. (“Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.”)

Next: Steven Moffat on His Final Doctor Who Episodes

How will new Christmas special “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” fare when compared to previous Doctor Who holiday installments on this list? We’ll have to wait and see!