Best Doctor Who Christmas specials, ranked

Leon Miller
A montage of Doctor Who Christmas special poster artwork

Doctor Who’s Christmas specials are a beloved tradition. But which of the sci-fi series’ many festive-themed episodes are the best?

It’s worth noting that Doctor Who’s classic run didn’t have Christmas specials in the conventional sense. As such, don’t expect to see any episodes from that era listed below.

By contrast, Yuletide-specific adventures have been a staple of Doctor Who’s 2005 revival since the very beginning, although in recent years, their focus (and release) has shifted to New Year’s Day.

Still, these New Year’s outings count as holiday specials, so we’ve included them on our list (except for 2020’s “Spyfall (Part 1),” which was just a regular episode). Now, read on for our full Doctor Who Christmas special rankings!

17. Revolution of the Daleks

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Not even the presence of fan-favorite rogue Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is enough to save “Revolution of the Daleks” from being the lowest-ranked entry on this list. Neither is Sex and the City veteran Chris Noth, who’s wasted as generic evil tycoon Jack Robertson.

Admittedly, the Thirteenth Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) second New Year’s special has its positives. Chiefly, its core concept of Daleks converted to drones is a valiant – albeit unsubtle – stab at social commentary. Yet the special is ultimately too busy for its emotional epilogue to fully land, which is a real shame.

16. The Return of Doctor Mysterio

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If nothing else, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” has a great high-concept premise: the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) meets a superhero. And certainly, there’s joy to be had in watching Doctor Who’s 2016 Christmas special take on (and poke fun at) the tropes of the cape and tights genre.

But while the long-running franchise is famously malleable, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” proves it has its limits. Yes, Doctor Who and MCU-style blockbusters have plenty in common, but they’re very different beasts at heart. It’s a bit like roast turkey and pudding: best enjoyed when not mashed together.

15. Eve of the Daleks

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2022 New Year’s Special “Eve of the Daleks” is decent enough. It’s also a bit forgettable. Sure, there are Daleks, time loops, and fun guest turns by Aisling Bea and Adjani Salmon, however, it was filmed under COVID-19 restrictions – and it shows.

In fairness to then-showrunner Chris Chibnall, he leans into the small scale foisted on “Eve of the Daleks” pretty well. But, ultimately, watching Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor wander around a Manchester storage facility isn’t exactly peak Doctor Who.

14. Resolution

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“Resolution” is the most bombastic of the Jodie Whittaker-era Doctor Who holiday specials – and the best. Both the stakes and scope of the Thirteenth Doctor’s first New Year’s Day escapade are suitably epic. Indeed, “Resolution” feels worthy of the oversized format.

So, what are the special’s shortcomings? Mostly, it’s down to the choice of villain. The Daleks were in heavy rotation at this point in Doctor Who’s history, blunting the impact of their inclusion here – although former showrunner Chris Chibnall puts a fresh spin on the classic antagonists, at least.

13. The Husbands of River Song

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Peter Capaldi’s second Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song” fills in a major gap in Doctor Who canon: the Doctor’s fabled final encounter with River Song (Alex Kingston). In this, it succeeds – ticking all the continuity boxes while telling a worthwhile story in its own right.

However, “The Husbands of River Song” has one big problem: its leads. Capaldi and Kingston are as good as ever but lack the sparkling chemistry Kingston shared with Capaldi’s predecessor, Matt Smith. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it keeps 2015’s Doctor Who Christmas special from rating higher.

12. The Next Doctor

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David Tennant’s first tenure in the TARDIS boasts a stellar line-up of Doctor Who Christmas specials. That said, 2008’s “The Next Doctor” is the weakest of the bunch. As its title suggests, “The Next Doctor” involves the Tenth Doctor (Tennant) encountering his apparent successor in 1850s London.

This is a great setup, however, it’s undermined somewhat by our knowledge (even in 2008) that David Morrissey’s Jackson Lake can’t be who he claims to be. On the plus side, “The Next Doctor” includes a gigantic mecha Cyberman, and Velile Tshabalala is a likable one-off companion.

11. The Runaway Bride

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There’s a lot to like about “The Runaway Bride.” Not only does David Tennant’s second Doctor Who Christmas special properly introduce fan-favorite character Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), but you’re also unlikely to forget its killer Santa robots.

Conversely, you’ll struggle to remember the villain of the piece, the Racnoss Empress (Sarah Parish), who amounts to little more than a striking design. Past and future Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies hadn’t yet nailed Donna’s characterization either – here, she occasionally verges on obnoxiousness.

10. The Church on Ruby Road

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Effectively Doctor Who’s first soft reboot since the 2005 revival, “The Church on Ruby Road” is a perfect jumping-on point for franchise newcomers. It’s also a dynamite Christmas special, full of goblins and snowy churchyard mysteries.

Will some of its bigger swings – including an outrageous musical sequence – work for everyone? Probably not. But Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor and Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday are such a winning duo that not even the occasional out-there creative flourish can hold 2023’s Doctor Who Christmas special back.

9. Twice Upon a Time

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“Twice Upon a Christmas” is the final Peter Capaldi Doctor Who Christmas special – and Capaldi’s final appearance as the Twelfth Doctor (for now, at least). Overall, it’s a triumphant swansong for the Scottish star and outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat, complete with moving monologues and touching cameos.

The addition of An Adventure in Space and Time‘s David Bradley as the First Doctor is an inspired choice, too. So, it’s a bummer that Moffat succumbed to his inclination toward over-complicated plotting with “Twice Upon a Christmas,” as it takes some of the shine off an otherwise great special.

8. Voyage of the Damned

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Imagine James Cameron’s Titanic set in space at Christmas – that’s the gist of David Tennant’s third festive-themed outing, “Voyage of the Damned.” A whimsical riff on the disaster movie formula, this Doctor Who Christmas special is by turns thrilling, funny, and disarmingly emotional.

It also inducts a worthy foe to Doctor Who’s rogues’ gallery: the eerie, angelic Host. Indeed, the only negative thing we have to say about “Voyage of the Damned” is that Kylie Minogue is a tad underwhelming as companion Astrid. But that’s not enough to sink 2007’s Doctor Who Christmas special.

7. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

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Matt Smith’s second Doctor Who Christmas special riffs on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and does its inspiration proud. There’s a fairytale magic to “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe,” as well as a poignancy to the plight of World War II soldier’s wife Madge (Claire Skinner) and her kids.

True, 2011’s Christmas special comes perilously close to collapsing under its own sentimentality. But its intentions are so pure and its execution so skillful, only real Scrooges would knock it. Well, them and fans of comedians Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir – both of whom feel a bit wasted here.

6. A Christmas Carol

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The other Matt Smith Doctor Who Christmas special based on a literary classic, “A Christmas Carol” takes its cues from Charles Dickens’s novella of the same name (natch). This 2010 effort nails the assignment too, thanks in no small part to Michael Gambon‘s stand-in Scrooge, Karzan.

There’s also a welcome amount of inventive silliness on display in “A Christmas Carol,” from flying sharks to day-saving musical numbers. The latter comes courtesy of this Doctor Who Christmas special’s other big guest star, Katherine Jenkins, although the Welsh singer’s acting is decidedly less memorable.

5. The End of Time

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Two-part Christmas special “The End of Time” marks David Tennant’s exit as Doctor Who headliner – and it sends him off in grand style. Sweeping in scope, “The End of Time” pays off plenty of long-running plot points and delivers a raft of cameos by Tennant’s former co-stars.

Admittedly, the sci-fi logic gets a little bit strained; you’ll likely get the gist rather than the specifics. The Master‘s (John Simm) life-draining powers border on goofy, as well. But as with the best of Russell T Davies’ original run, the sheer emotion involved steamrolls these and other minor quibbles.

4. Last Christmas

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“Last Christmas” is essentially Inception meets Alien, with Santa Claus thrown into the mix for good measure. The Doctor Who Christmas special that results from this wild alchemy is as delightful as it sounds, even if Steven Moffat’s script probably pushes things one dream-within-a-dream too far.

However, you’ll hardly notice because”Last Christmas” is just so good. Nick Frost is predictably fun as Santa, but more importantly, this 2014 special’s bittersweet message – every Christmas could be our last – resonates, especially in the Twelfth Doctor and Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) scenes late in the game.

3. The Time of the Doctor

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor

Yet another Doctor Who Christmas special that doubles as a send-off for its main star, “The Time of the Doctor” wraps a big festive bow on the Matt Smith era. It’s also one of the finest expressions of departing showrunner Steven Moffat’s fairytale sensibilities, via the Eleventh Doctor’s mythical “Man Who Stayed for Christmas” status.

That said, the 2013 special’s heavy reliance on Doctor Who continuity will leave casual viewers a bit lost, so factor that in before queuing it up. There’s plenty for the initiated to appreciate in “The Time of the Doctor,” though, not least of all its emotional answer to the show’s oldest riddle: “Doctor Who?”

2. The Snowmen

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The best Doctor Who Christmas special headlined by Matt Smith, “The Snowmen” pits the Eleventh Doctor against a swarm of not-so-friendly Frosties. Better still, this 2012 adventure partners him with Jenna Coleman’s Clara – so there’s plenty of frothy banter to offset its scary snowmen.

Sure, classic Doctor Who villain the Great Intelligence (Ian McKellen) is ultimately underutilized here, and the baddie’s evil scheme mistakes convolution for complexity. But who cares, when the Doctor and Clara frolicking around the Victorian era – with support act Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in tow – is such a treat?

1. The Christmas Invasion

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While Doctor Who Christmas specials often function as farewells, “The Christmas Invasion” acts as an introduction. The franchise’s 2006 Yuletide joint welcomed David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor into the fold fully, following his brief cameo at the end of Series 1.

And what an entry “The Christmas Invasion” is, loaded up with rogue robot Santas, mind (or rather blood) controlling aliens, and thrilling sword fights in the sky above London. Best of all, Tennant hits his stride as the Doctor immediately – radiating charisma even as he saves the day kitted out in pajamas!

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