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Time for the WHOlidays: RTD-Era Doctor Who Christmas Specials

It’s Christmas Day, 2005.

Seven-year-old Robin would have been in their childhood home, post-Christmas dinner, all cosy on the sofa. I have no memory of that Christmas; I know which family members would have been there that year, where we would have sat to open presents and share terrible cracker jokes, how the general day would have gone. It was 16 years ago now, and I have a shockingly bad memory as it is, so I don’t remember experiencing it. But, even with the help of many rewatches, the first New Who Christmas special, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, is utterly rooted into my brain from that day.

“Just let it be Christmas. Can you do that? Just for a bit. You and me and Christmas. No Doctor, no bog monsters, no life or death.” – Mickey Smith, ‘The Christmas Invasion’

Now, of course, having grown up with Doctor Who, the Doctor, bog monsters, and life or death situations from any and all episodes have stayed with me. The Christmas episodes, however, particularly those in ex—and soon to be again—showrunner Russell T Davies’ era of the show, stand out as some of the best television from my generation. Balancing alien threats and danger with cheesy comedy and heartwarming emotional moments is what RTD does best, and nothing showcases this more than his seasonal episodes. So, enjoy my festive little nostalgia-fest!

(Side note: for argument’s sake, I won’t cover ‘The End of Time, Part One and Two’. Yep, the first one is technically a Christmas special, but since it’s part of a bigger, not so Christmas-centric story, I’m just gonna leave it out this time.)

Sci-fi Seasonal Shenanigans

Robot Santas about to attack with their brass instruments in 'The Runaway Bride'

Over the years, Doctor Who has had a habit of taking pretty ordinary things and making them scary; school teachers, pencil drawings, wi-fi, blinking, to name a few. The seasonal versions of these are all the more insidious. Fancy turning fun little mascots of festivity that children find great joy in and making them evil. How messed up is that. Just kidding, that’s what’s so great about it! Plus, kids enjoy creepy aliens as much as, if not more so than comedic cheer. I know I did. 

Across RTD’s four Christmas specials, we have armed robot Santas, a killer Christmas tree, explosive baubles, a laser-shooting Christmas star-shaped spaceship, and murderous angelic robots. After all, it’s not Christmas without a little international danger! (Maybe that one’s a bit close to home at the moment with the pandemic and all…) 

The threats may seem silly when coupled with holiday cheer, but there are some genuinely alarming moments associated with them. The blank stares of the plastic Santa masks as the brass band becomes a mass of weapons has a stark, chilling contrast against the bustle of cheerful Christmas shoppers. And, yes, the “I’m gonna get killed by a Christmas tree!” scene is objectively hilarious to watch, but imagine actually being in that situation in the safety of your own home, having a huge decorative tree spin so rapidly it essentially turns into blades, incessantly advancing towards you. Not so laughable now, is it? Not to mention golden, robed angels removing their halos TO BEHEAD YOU. That’s actually pretty dark.

A Good Christmas Sing-a-long

Bird's eye shot of the main function room with everyone partying on the Titanic in 'Voyage of the Damned'

Now, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who without mentioning master composer, Murray Gold. His dramatic, playful, and emotionally resonant scores across the series have always been the cherry on the cake of a deeply captivating show. Even more special, however, are the original songs Gold wrote and composed for ‘The Christmas Invasion’, ‘The Runaway Bride’, and ‘Voyage of the Damned’; ‘Song for Ten’ (originally performed by Tim Phillips, then recorded by Neil Hannon), ‘Love Don’t Roam’ (Neil Hannon), and ‘The Stowaway’ (Yamit Mamo) respectively.

‘Song for Ten’ plays while the Tenth Doctor is selecting his staple outfit in the TARDIS wardrobe, right before joining the Tylers (and Smith) for Christmas dinner. It’s a song full of hope and aimed at a loved one—it can easily be read as the Doctor addressing Rose. He might be a different person now, being newly regenerated and all, and has many unfamiliar adventures ahead, but the one constant is Rose. His “star” that he’ll always “come running back to”, as the song says. The Doctor’s gentle yet assured smile in the mirror fits the tone of the song perfectly, and is a great introduction for his run of the show. 

‘Love Don’t Roam’ is more of a bittersweet symphony. This song is playing at Donna and Lance’s would-be wedding reception while her whole family dances. Meanwhile, the Doctor is standing alone by the bar, half-investigating, half-reminiscing about his recently lost companion. It’s another love song, and coupled with the flashbacks to previous happy moments with Rose, it makes for a heartbreak anthem. Certain lyrics also reflect the Doctor’s newfound reluctance to continue with his travels alone, and how losing someone so important and close to him has caused a change of heart:

I have wandered, I have rambled

I have crossed this crowded sphere,

And I’ve seen a mass of problems

That I long to disappear

Now, all I have’s this anguished heart,

For you have vanished too

[…]

‘Cause my body’s tired of travelling

And my heart don’t wish to roam

The Doctor’s cynicism is also present in his attitude and actions in the episode itself, therefore the song is very fitting indeed. I love the contrast between the jolly family members and friends on the dance-floor having a boogie to the upbeat tune while the Doctor is isolated, both physically and emotionally due to his grief.

‘The Stowaway’ is the most Christmassy of the bunch. The general tone of it just sounds like a traditional Christmas song, and the narrative of it is set on Christmas Day. It is performed by a band aboard the spaceship Titanic while all the guests get to partying. Although it’s another upbeat number, it’s also a love song that hints at the Doctor still missing Rose. Considering Astrid Peth, his one-off companion throughout the episode, is also a love interest, it’s easy to gather that the song is from her perspective:

He told me ’bout his girl back home

Waiting patient, all alone

While we danced, I shed a little tear

He closed his eyes, all out at sea

I think he danced with her not me

I’ll just have to wait another year

Additionally, Astrid’s death at the end of the episode parallels the Doctor losing Rose in ‘Doomsday’. The song therefore has an added layer of melancholy in retrospect. All in the Christmas spirit!

Classic RTD-brand Cheese

Donna screaming as she starts glowing with huon particles while walking down the aisle in 'The Runaway Bride'

One of the more Marmite facets of RTD’s Doctor Who era is the excessive campiness and cheesiness prevalent in those mid-00s episodes. I, for one, love a bit of cheese. Any completely over the top, outlandish absurdity, bordering silliness, never gets boring for me. Especially when it’s coupled with a mundane setting. So naturally, the working class residents of the Powell Estate attempting to have an ordinary Christmas, or Donna trying to get married on Christmas Eve, are the perfect set of characters and situations to stand alongside wacky alien invasions.

It makes for some amazing comedic one-liners amongst the trouble and chaos; for example, Donna’s “Santa’s a robot”, saturated with sarcasm. Bannakaffalatta’s entire presence in the third Christmas special is gimmicky and fun—despite his lack of extensive vocabulary, he’s still hilarious and loveable. Running jokes throughout the seasonal episodes are always a hoot as well. It snows in each of them, but never for real. There’s the ash of the Sycorax ship in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, “basic atmospheric excitation” caused by the TARDIS in ‘The Runaway Bride’, and “the ballast from the Titanic‘s salvage entering the atmosphere” in ‘Voyage of the Damned’. The only time it snows for real is in ‘The Next Doctor’.

“The Doctor: They were behind the battle of Canary Wharf. Cyberman invasion. Skies over London full of Daleks?

Donna: Oh, I was in Spain.

The Doctor: They had Cybermen in Spain.

Donna: Scuba diving.”

– ‘The Runaway Bride’

Hidden amongst these abundant humorous moments is significant emotional impact, not to be underestimated. A random example of this is Harriet Jones, Prime Minister, blowing up the Sycorax ship after they surrendered, and the Doctor’s subsequent anger. It seems jarring in contrast with the rest of the episode, but the political gravitas is profound, particularly considering wider politics entangled with Tony Blair’s Labour government in the UK at the time. In further regard to political commentary, we have a villain actively exploiting child labour by pulling children from workhouses to work in a Cyberman-guarded underground facility in ‘The Next Doctor’. To say Doctor Who is a family-friendly show, that one’s pretty intense!

Another powerful scene is the Doctor destroying all the Racnoss children in a purge of fire and floods. The audience is naturally placed in Donna’s shoes as she watches on in horror. The situation adheres to the Tenth Doctor’s ‘no second chances’ rule set up from his first episode (and incidentally the first Christmas special), but it’s still incredibly shocking how far he takes it in this instance. Multiple emotional deaths occur in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ with the haphazard crew the Doctor collects on his journey through the Titanic; Morvin falls to his death closely followed by his wife Foon, Bannakaffalatta sacrifices himself, and so does Astrid at the end.

It’s not out of the ordinary to have some tear-jerkers in a Christmas special (looking at you, It’s a Wonderful Life). These moments are enough to stand out and have an impact, but not so much that it puts a (bio)damper on the joy of the episode.

Love, Actually

Rose and the Doctor smiling at each other amongst the snow in 'The Christmas Invasion'

Really, when it comes down to it, the holiday season is about love. To quote a recent episode of Doctor Who, “Love is the only mission.” It’s at the heart of the show itself. What better time to showcase this than in the Christmas specials? And it’s not only traditional, romantic relationship love being celebrated. There’s familial love, platonic love, undefinable love, true soulmate love—you name it, it’s probably in a Doctor Who Christmas special. 

I’ve always thought RTD has such a wonderful knack for writing typical British families. Rose’s relationship with her supportive yet overbearing working class single mum, Martha’s fragile interactions with her divorced parents and stressed-out siblings, Donna’s frustration at her toxic mum and subsequent sanctuary with her relaxed and loving grandad…they’re all relatable in one way or another. In ‘The Christmas Invasion’ and ‘The Runaway Bride’, we see the contradiction of how the Tylers and the Nobles respectively are caring and close yet also banging-your-head-against-a-brick-wall annoying and involved in classic family dinner-type arguments. Rose complaining about Jackie thinking a cup of tea will fix everything before it turns out to actually be the case is peak British family dramedy. 

Platonic bonds are just as important. The Tenth Doctor and Donna is my favourite friendship in the show, and their banter during ‘The Runaway Bride’ is hilarious, feel-good telly. The “I’m in my wedding dress!”, “Yes, you look lovely! Come on!” while trying to get Donna to jump out of a moving taxi is an iconic exchange. But aside from their bants, they forge a genuinely affectionate bond throughout the course of the episode. I mean, you wouldn’t invite any old alien to Christmas dinner, would you?

‘Voyage of the Damned’ is more involved with romantic love. There’s the blooming yet doomed romance between the Doctor and Astrid, but the relationship that sticks with me is the one between married couple Morvin and Foon Van Hoff. It’s so quiet, and gentle, and underrated, but in there is a beautiful representation of pure, unconditional love. Take this ludicrous conversation, for example:

“Morvin: Five thousand credits? You spent five thousand credits?

Foon: Don’t hate me.

[Morvin laughs]

Foon: What’s so funny?

Morvin: Five thousand?

Foon: We’ll never pay that off.

Morvin: I know. I’ll have to work twenty years, you mad, bloody woman.

Foon: You’re not cross?

Morvin: Does it matter? Look at us. You drive me barmy. I don’t half love you, Mrs Van Hoff.”

– ‘Voyage of the Damned’

On reflection, it’s a deeply intimate moment. A little window into someone’s long, loving marriage, a conversation they have with no one else around. It’s these quickly over, yet defining glimpses into human interaction that show us what really matters. Hysterical laughter between a couple, a cuppa provided by a family member, a wink or smile shared with friends. The moments that are really saying “I love you”.

The End of (Christmas)Time

With the last Who Christmas special having been in 2017, it doesn’t look as if we’re getting another for at least a year in the future. Despite this long-gone era, rewatching around the festive season is always a nice option. There’s many more Christmas specials throughout Moffat’s era of the show that aren’t too shabby either. 

So happy holidays—and try not to get abducted by aliens!

Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world. Follow them on Twitter @robinmoonwrites!

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