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Every Doctor Who Christmas Special Ranked

"Doctor Who" has been a British television institution for nearly sixty years, and is still one of the most well-known franchises in pop culture. It has a number of iconic elements, such as the TARDIS (a blue police box that can travel through space and time), and even the notion of the ever-regenerating Doctor. But when Russell T Davies relaunched "Doctor Who" in 2005 with all-new mythology, he introduced one new custom to the franchise: the annual Christmas special.

In 2020, Davies spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the origins of the yearly holiday episodes, saying "we launched the first series of 'Doctor Who' in 2005, it was such a success that the BBC turned around to me and said, 'Let's have a Christmas special.' They ordered two more series and two more Christmas specials all in one breath." As Davies said in the interview, Christmas Day is a huge ratings day for TV in the U.K., and to have a guaranteed slot every year was a huge gift to the series. "So we had to raise the stakes! We had to deliver a great big blockbuster and entertain everyone!" And that's what they did. Airing on Christmas Day 2005, the first holiday special would begin a long-standing nearly-annual event, with 13 total Christmas episodes to date. How do they compare? Well scroll on, we've ranked every "Doctor Who" Christmas special from good to great, based on its IMDb score.

13. The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe (2011)

In "The Doctor, The Wife, And The Wardrobe" we meet Madge Sinclair, a grieving widow who can't bear to tell her children, Lily and Cyril, of their father's death, for fear she'll ruin their Christmas. Taking the children to her uncle's estate, they are surprised to meet the Eleventh Doctor, who claims to be the caretaker. Unbeknownst to Madge, she once helped The Doctor when he was lost on Earth three years before, and now he's back to return the favor and make sure they all have a happy Christmas.

But little Cyril ruins those plans when he disappears inside a portal to another world, a forested wonderland where living trees are seemingly being wiped out. During Madge's determined quest to find her son, The Doctor learns that a group of industrial harvest rangers plan to wipe out the forest, as the society of tree people desperately fight to escape annihilation. Together, the Doctor, the Widow, and the children must decipher the secret of the wooden people and find a way to save their entire civilization. The episode is full of classic "Doctor Who" fantasy adventure, and complete with a tender and heartwarming ending that will make anyone believe in the true spirit of Christmas.

12. The Next Doctor (2008)

Christmas in London is lovely, but not if you're caught in a diabolical Cyberman plot and forced to work with a future version of yourself, which is what happens in one of the most unusual multi-Doctor stories, "The Next Doctor." Arriving in London on Christmas Eve 1851, the Tenth Doctor meets a mysterious man (played by David Morrissey) claiming to be the Doctor himself, complete with a companion, sonic screwdriver, and TARDIS of his own. But this "Next Doctor" is also suffering a form of amnesia with no memories before arriving in London and meeting the Cybermen.

Believing his story, the Tenth Doctor agrees to help The Next Doctor to solve a string of missing person cases around the city. They believe these individuals to have been abducted by the Cybermen, whose nefarious scheme may lie at the heart of his troubles. Soon, the Tenth Doctor learns that this "Next Doctor" is no Time Lord at all, but the first of the missing victims, who stumbled upon the Cybermen and came to believe he was The Doctor based on information in their computer. But Doctor or not, he proves himself a brave adventurer, and together the pair must stop the Cybermen from constructing "The Cyber King" and laying waste to the entire planet.

11. The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)

The 12th Christmas special is a loving homage to classic comic books, and why shouldn't it be? The Doctor himself is in a way Britain's greatest superhero: a time and space traveling do-gooder with awesome gadgets, a killer vehicle, and a mission to save the world — all worlds. In "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" we find The Doctor in New York City on Christmas Eve 1992 where he meets Grant, a little boy obsessed with superhero comics who calls him "Doctor Mysterio." When the Twelfth Doctor asks for the boy's help in building a "time distortion equalizer thingy," Grant mistakenly ingests a piece of the device and is granted incredible powers. 

The Doctor returns to New York in 2016, looking into the activities of Harmony Shoal, a sinister mega-corporation that is apparently harvesting human brains. They've been infiltrated by an alien invader intent on taking over the world, and it's up to a superhero known as "The Ghost" to stop them. It's a pretty standard alien takeover story, but it's the sharp dialogue and comic book tone that make the episode work so well. The Doctor himself really shines as the cynical wise-cracker, accustomed to being the hero but suddenly thrust into the role of sidekick.

10. The Runaway Bride (2006)

"The Runaway Bride" is the second special that aired on Christmas Day, letting audiences know that this was going to be a new "Doctor Who" tradition. It was also the debut of actress and comedienne Catherine Tate as Donna Noble after her brief appearance in the Season 2 finale, "Doomsday," where she materialized inside the TARDIS in the closing moments of that episode. 

Picking up from "Doomsday," we learn that Donna was whisked away from her wedding because she had apparently absorbed excessive amounts of "Huon particles." She was unknowingly being slowly infected with them by her fiancee, Lance Bennett, who worked for a clandestine government organization called The Torchwood Institute. Lance had secretly been serving an alien master, however: the subterranean spider-like creature dubbed the Empress of the Racnoss. The Empress was attempting to use Donna to help regain her strength, free her spider-children, and destroy the world. 

It's a wild romp of an episode complete with Santa Claus robots and a car chase involving the TARDIS, but it's defined by the performances of a wonderfully confused Donna and the Doctor, still in mourning from the loss of his previous companion Rose. This would serve as an introduction to Donna Noble, who after a season-long absence would return in 2008 as the Tenth Doctor's full-time companion.

9. The Voyage Of The Damned (2007)

Another holiday episode where the Doctor finds himself without an official full-time companion, the 2007 Christmas Special introduces Astrid, a single-episode companion played by Kylie Minogue. In "Voyage of the Damned," we find the TARDIS has crashed into a starship called the Titanic, an interstellar replica of the ill-fated Earth steamship. But we also discover that this doesn't take place in some far-off future, but the present day of 2008. The starship Titanic has arrived to observe a primitive cultural ritual: Christmas.

But all is not well on the starship Titanic: We discover that the Captain has engineered a collision course with Earth, and the resulting impact could not only destroy the ship but cause an extinction-level event. Facing a horde of murderous robotic angels, The Doctor must stop the cruiser's owner, Max Capricorn, from enacting his plan for Earth's total destruction. But the Doctor isn't alone: With the help of Astrid, he just might have a chance to save the world once again.

8. The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Though it's not the first Christmas-themed episode of the relaunched "Doctor Who" series (that would be "The Unquiet Dead" with 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston), "The Christmas Invasion" is the first official Christmas special, written by showrunner Russell T Davies. It's also the introduction of a new Doctor, as he regenerated from Eccleston's Ninth incarnation to David Tennant's Tenth at the end of the revived series' first season.

Picking up right where "The Parting of the Ways" left off, The Doctor shows off his new personality, sunny and cheery, very different than the previous iteration. Rose, his faithful companion, doesn't know what to make of him, and isn't even sure it's really the same person. In "The Christmas Invasion," the villainous Sycorax have arrived on Christmas Day, threatening to wipe out billions if the Earth doesn't surrender to them. Unfortunately, The Doctor collapses soon after making his debut and lies comatose for much of the adventure, still recovering from his violent regeneration. Without the Doctor, Rose and Mickey are on their own to face down the alien threat and save the human race from subjugation at the hands of the Sycorax. Thankfully, the pair have an ally in the Doctor's old friends at the UK's top alien-fighting agency, UNIT.

7. The End Of Time Pt. 1 (2009)

Technically, this is just part one of a two-part episode, with the second half airing a week later on New Years Day 2010. It's the epic culmination of four series and two Doctors, tying together stories that had been running through the series since it returned to TV five years earlier. It's also the last story by Russell T Davies, who shepherded the return of the franchise and would be succeeded as showrunner by writer Steven Moffat the following year.

In "The End of Time," the Tenth Doctor is forced to stop running and finally confront the prophecy that foretold his death. Meanwhile his old nemesis The Master is reborn anew, seeking to resurrect the Time Lords, thought killed after the events of the apocalyptic Time War. Timothy Dalton guest stars as the President of Gallifrey, and gives a foreboding performance as the leader of the Time Lords. The two-part episode sees many familiar faces return, including ex-companions Jack Harkness and Sarah Jane Smith. The events of "The End of Time" include revelations that expand the scope of the series and set the stage for a new direction for the "Doctor Who" mythos that would carry over into the adventures of both the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors.

6. Twice Upon A Time (2017)

"Twice Upon A Time" not only features two official Doctors, but two regenerations as well. The Twelfth Doctor is on the verge of regenerating when he bumps into one of his previous incarnations, the First Doctor, who just so happened to also be preparing for his own regeneration, as seen in the classic serial "The Tenth Planet."

Landing his TARDIS at the South Pole in 1986, he discovers the First Doctor stumbling towards him. Shocked to see his former self, the meeting is interrupted by the arrival of a World War I soldier — a British captain lost in time. His last memories are of being in a foxhole in Belgium in 1914. If he were to return to his own time, he'd surely die, and a newly arrived entity from the far future called "Testimony" is intent on making sure he does. Unwilling to let the captain meet his demise, the trio — plus a duplicate of companion Bill Potts — escape through time together and are drawn into an adventure involving a rogue Dalek. It's a brilliant caper that rather neatly ties up the Twelfth Doctor's three series, while David Bradley — who played First Doctor actor William Hartnell in the docudrama "An Adventure in Space & Time" — is delightful as the original incarnation of the title character.

5. Last Christmas (2014)

Written by Steven Moffat, "Last Christmas" is the Twelfth Doctor's first Christmas. The brooding, jaded Twelfth Doctor is a stark contrast to the hopeful, happy Christmas Eve backdrop, but that's part of what makes it so much fun. When this Doctor is involved, the cheerful adventure turns dark and scary rather quickly. It's Christmas Eve and Clara is as surprised as anyone when she's visited by Santa Claus himself, played by Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead"), who appears to have crash-landed on her roof. When the Doctor arrives, there's a brief but foreboding interaction, and he whisks his companion away for another holiday adventure, this time to a remote research station at the North Pole, which has become overrun by horrifying crab monsters that are laying siege to the station. When things look hopeless, it's Santa who comes to their rescue, as The Doctor discovers the creatures' terrible secret that threatens to throw their entire reality upside down.

More than just a merry Christmas adventure, "Last Christmas" plays a key part in the growing bond between Clara and The Doctor. It's ultimately a story of friendship, with a heartbreaking twist ending — until it shifts once more, finally closing on the kind of life-affirming note that Moffat's Christmas specials have become known for.

4. The Snowmen (2012)

The Eleventh Doctor's second holiday special, "The Snowmen," was the first episode to follow the exit of fan favorites Amy Pond and Rory Williams, leaving the Doctor to travel time and space alone. It also saw the return of the classic "Doctor Who" villain the Great Intelligence, voiced by Sir Ian McKellan and assisted by the sinister Dr. Simeon, played by Richard E. Grant (who would take on the role of the Great Intelligence in subsequent episodes). "The Snowmen" is one of the scariest Christmas specials, with living, deadly snowmen — complete with red beady eyes and sharp gnashing teeth — terrorizing the Doctor and his newest ally.

"The Snowmen" takes place on Christmas Eve 1892. The Doctor is in London, still in low spirits after losing his companions, and seemingly retired to a TARDIS above the clouds. His friends, local detectives Jenny and Vastra, plus the good-natured Sontaran Strax, are concerned for him. But it will be a stranger, Clara Oswald, who calls him to action once more when living deadly Snowmen begin attacking the young barmaid. The Doctor, with the help of the young Ms. Oswald, will track their origins back to one of the Doctor's oldest foes, The Great Intelligence, who is attempting to resurrect himself once more.

3. The Time of The Doctor (2013)

The final Christmas special for the Eleventh Doctor (and also his final bow), "The Time Of The Doctor" was an epic conclusion to the three-part saga that also included the multi-Doctor special "The Day Of The Doctor." It served as a fitting end to the Eleventh Doctor's tenure, wrapping up multiple ongoing storylines such as the cracks in the universe from Season 5 and the prophecy of the Silence from Season 6. It even touches on a story as old as the franchise itself, finally addressing the limitation of the Doctor's regeneration.

The story opens on Trenzalore, the one place The Doctor has always avoided since it is said to be his final resting place. But when a message addressed to him begins transmitting from the planet, he takes Clara to investigate. There they find a mysterious village called Christmas, and yet another crack in the universe. With the planet surrounded by the Doctor's greatest enemies — armies of Daleks, Cybermen, and more — The Doctor spends centuries fighting to keep the townspeople safe and his enemies at bay. But time is quickly running out for Eleven, who grows older and weaker with each battle he endures. With no regenerations left, this threatens to be the end for the Doctor.

2. The Husbands Of River Song (2015)

In a story eight years in the making, The Doctor finally has his date with River Song at the Singing Towers of Darillium. First hinted at in her first appearance in the Season 4 episode "Silence In the Library" during David Tennant's tenure, it's Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor who has the long awaited evening with his wife, after a memorable and grand adventure. 

In "The Husbands of River Song," the Doctor is on Mendorax Dellora on Christmas in the year 5343, and stumbles upon his time-traveling wife, River Song, who doesn't seem to recognize him. To the Doctor's astonishment, Professor Song is accompanied by her husband Ramone, and — mistaken for an actual Doctor — is asked to remove a precious jewel from the head of King Hydroflax. Playing along, the Doctor plays the role of the bumbling physician and helps the thieving archeologist. They get into all kinds of trouble with the decapitated King Hydroflax, his royal guard, and a sudden meteor strike. When River does deduce the Doctor's identity, it's one of the best moments in the long relationship between the time-traveling pair. The chemistry between the two is positively electric, and once again Moffat ends his Christmas special with a touching but bittersweet conclusion.

1. A Christmas Carol (2011)

The first Christmas special for Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, "A Christmas Carol" is a loose adaptation of the Dickens classic. It also features "Harry Potter" actor Michael Gambon — Dumbledore himself — as the miserly old man Kazran Sardick, who with the Doctor's time-traveling help, will confront his past to save the future.

The Doctor's companions, Amy and Rory, are taking their honeymoon aboard the Thrasymachus, a 44th Century Galaxy Class Luxury Liner, when it gets caught in the cloud belt of the planet Ember. While Amy and Rory signal the Doctor, the ship's captain contacts the town below, asking for permission to land. The bitter Kazran Sardick, who controls the skies above Ember, refuses to allow the ship to land, and it's up to the Doctor to change his mind. Traveling back in time, The Doctor visits a younger Kazran and discovers a troubling childhood with an abusive father who keeps lost souls cryogenically frozen in a vault beneath his estate. The Doctor promises to visit Kazran every Christmas day to release one young woman from her imprisonment to spend time with Kazran. The Doctor hopes that this kindness, and the budding romance between a younger Kazran and the young woman, might be enough to soften his heart and save the lives of everyone aboard the Thrasymachus.