This is turning into an unexpectedly festive blog. Out of eleven Christmas specials, my random Who spreadsheet has now spat out eight of them. A disproportionate representation if there was ever was one. It’s like a fixation. Every few weeks it’s Christmas again.
Now we’re up to Last Christmas, the only Doctor Who story named after a Wham! song (working title: Wake me up before you go-go, Crab Face). With The Husbands of River Song still fresh in the memory, I thought it might be time to reflect on a decade of Christmas specials. A decade! How weird to think that when I sat down to watch The Christmas Invasion I was ten years younger. And just as weird to think that Doctor Who at Christmas has become regular seasonal viewing. Traditional even.
One thing I do remember from a decade ago is thinking that Doctor Who and Christmas didn’t seem like natural bed fellows. It’s not unusual for the publicity machine surrounding the annual Christmas episode to spout stuff like ‘Doctor Who and Christmas just seem to go together!’ I’ve never thought so. I’ve always imagined sitcoms and variety shows as the ones which indulge in festive excursions, not drama series and certainly not sci-fi. But ten years and eleven specials on, it seems more natural and certainly a holiday treat to savour.
But I should point out I watch these specials from Australia, which has no strong tradition of Christmas day television viewing – unlike the UK, where it’s one of the most important ratings nights of the year. In Australia, it’s high summer and in the middle of non-ratings period. People aren’t generally watching TV at all, they’re still immersed in festive celebrations stretching on into the balmy evening. And the Christmas special is never on a consistent day or time anyway, so there’s no automatic relationship with Christmas evening as there is in the UK.
Still, the Spandrells have their own tradition, heading round to a friend’s house on Boxing Day to join in a communal Who watching. It’s always slow to start and slow to finish because it involves much wine and gossip and laughs. So even if Doctor Who and Christmas seem oddly matched, we’ve turned it into something brilliant. That’s the best part of it all.
In the funny, boozy aftermath of these viewings, all of the Christmas specials seem great. It’s only in the days afterwards that I get a chance to review and reconsider them. Sometimes the gloss wears off faster than others. Last Christmas is more rewarding than most to repeat viewings, and I’ve grown to admire its dexterity and its sly humour. But my latest look at it has caused me to wonder, now that we have a critical mass of Doctor Who Christmas specials, can we now tell what makes a good one? And how does Last Christmas compare?
Which leads me to consult my old friend, the Doctor Who Magazine 50th anniversary poll. For those who haven’t come across this yet, it’s a ranking of every story up to The Time of the Doctor. Respondents are asked to give each story a mark out of 10, and the results averaged to produce a percentage score. The list below shows each Christmas episode’s position out of 241 stories and its final score:
57. The Christmas Invasion 77.93%
68. The Snowmen 76.56%
82. The End of Time 74.87%
95. The Time of the Doctor 72.85%
97. A Christmas Carol 72.60%
149. The Next Doctor 67.94%
153. The Runaway Bride 67.70%
158. Voyage of the Damned 67.11%
229. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe 55.12%
What this list tells us is that on the whole, we’re not that fussed on Christmas specials. Only one – the original, The Christmas Invasion – is placed in the top 60 (i.e. the top 25% of stories), even though on average it’s nearly an 8/10 story. Competition is fierce.
We find four Christmas specials in the next 40 stories, safely in the second quartile. In general it seems that when a special contains a big event – a Doctor or companion’s debut or farewell, then we’re interested. The third quartile contains another three, including the one with Kylie. That might seem fairly unenthusiastic response, but there’s very little in it. Between The Snowmen and Voyage of the Damned there’s only 9.45 points. Basically, they’re all at 6s and 7s out of ten.
No, there’s only one we really dislike. That’s The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, at very close to the bottom of the list. It seems inoffensive enough to me, but perhaps it is the most sentimental of the Christmas specials, and maybe that’s we don’t want so sickly a sweet dessert after Christmas dinner. And looking at the top of the list – The Christmas Invasion and The Snowmen, perhaps they are the scariest of this yuletide bunch. What makes a good Christmas special, is if you bring all the frights.
You couldn’t accuse Last Christmas of being sentimental and it’s also very creepy. Maybe that’s why we like it best. In DWM’s latest poll, its readers scored it a 78.70%, which would have trumped all its fellow Christmas compadres (although we should remember that scores for new stories tend to head south once the excitement of the initial broadcast has faded).
It’s also mind bendingly complex, and hugely referential to other works (and oh yes, it co-stars Santa). All this seems to play against what we’ve been told about Christmas specials: that they have to be simple rollicking adventures for a half drunk audience. They shouldn’t be taxing on the brain or the nerves.
Last Christmas‘s reception seems to show the opposite. That you can take risks at Christmas and give the audience a little more credit. Don’t assume that they’ll be stuffed to the gills with food, half sloshed and chatting regularly throughout. I mean, I will of course. But don’t assume everyone else will be.
LINK to The Keeper of Traken: Interestingly, the endings of both leave the viewer with a nagging sense of unease. Traken most obviously, but Last Christmas and its last shot of the tangerine leave us wonder if we really have finally penetrated the last layer of dreams or not.
NEXT TIME… Now if you excuse me, I must be getting along. It’s The Chase, you know.