Does the New Year’s ‘Doctor Who’ Special Highlight a Failing Show?

The New Year’s Doctor Who special is starting to become a fixed event, and it’s something of an unusual one considering how the post-2005 era of the show has become so strongly linked with Christmas. Perhaps the most popular portrayal of the Doctor, the tenth incarnation provided by David Tennant, first beamed onto our screens on Christmas Day in 2005 — and almost instantly made it tradition to watch the time traveller’s escape amidst all the season’s festivities. We’ve had numerous festive adventures since, from the likes of Donna Noble’s (Catherine Tate) first appearance in ‘The Runaway Bride’ (2006) to Matt Smith encountering a flying shark and time travel romance in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The movement now towards a somewhat less important holiday perhaps reflects the decreasing importance of Doctor Who, but perhaps also points out that this particular format, and this particular show, have been flawed since their very inception. 

It’s been fifteen years since the revival of Doctor Who, and the era currently overseen by Chris Chibnall exists in a very different time to when we first sat down to watch it over a Christmas dinner. This is the age of prestige television, one where the medium doesn’t play second fiddle to the grandeur of film but often has very impressive production values and room perhaps to explore even grander themes. There’s an expectation of class and narrative integrity that has extended across the medium at large, and so the often-schmaltzy Christmas special appears a largely historical idea better suited to the story-lite sitcom format. How can Doctor Who have episodes that elegantly both nod to the time they’re released and feel part of broader, less lightweight stories? 

To understand the importance of Doctor Who in the cultural calendar, it has to be viewed through the lens of early noughties British television. The show succeeded as a confluence of many external factors: nostalgia for the original that had ended sixteen years before, a dearth of great family friendly entertainment, and the lesser presence of American shows in the pre-streaming age. But the reason for its success was not just those external factors but the result largely of Russell T Davies’ vibrant and kinetic reinvention, bringing in a northern Doctor and going for an urban fantasy vibe. It was British entertainment that revelled in its uniquely British character without feeling hemmed in by its budget, and naturally became an instantaneous television fixture.

The Tenth Doctor, in pyjamas and a dressing gown, stands with Rose in front of robotic santas and a Christmas tree in this 'The Christmas Invasion' promo image
Courtesy of BBC

‘The Christmas Invasion’, the very first of the Christmas episodes, set the standard for a great Doctor Who by being genuine event television: epic fun and seemed to push a phenomenon to stratospheric levels. There were menacing villains, some big laughs, and the introduction of an exciting new Doctor just finding his feet. It’s an important part of the show’s narrative on a wider level and easily rewatchable as festive fun; it’s tone being precise enough that it even gets away with the fourth wall breaking question of a character asking, “Doctor Who?” Clearly, a high standard had been set for future specials in hitting that sweet spot between seasonally jovial and relevant to the wider story, but this isn’t something that the show often managed to achieve.

Different showrunners have tried different tacks with the specials, and Russell T Davies’ run of them between 2005 and 2010 lost precision after that perfectly pitched start. Several were stand-alone efforts and lacked the balance of Tennant’s debut, with ‘Voyage of the Damned’ being a particular lowlight of that format: it was an all-round disappointment due to its mix of an annoying supporting cast, lack of serious stakes, a short lived love interest in the form of Kylie Minogue, and cringe-inducing cheesiness that includes the Queen running away from a crashing Space Titanic. Perhaps for some it was perfectly entertaining viewing, but after such an invigorating debut to the Christmas special some inconsequential and silly storytelling appears a disheartening downgrade.

It’s easier to forgive the less substantial efforts, though, since they don’t factor into the largely plotline, but both Davies and his immediate successor, Steven Moffat, made the risky move of deciding to wrap up eras over the holidays. ‘The Christmas Invasion’ could confidently be both festive and freewheeling because it was all about a new beginning. Two-parter ‘The End of Time’ (2009/10) and standalone adventure ‘Time of the Doctor’, the finales of Tennant and Smith, had to wrap up existing storylines whilst remaining lighthearted enough to watch with all the family. It resulted in episodes that felt truncated versions of what regeneration stories should be, creating odd mixtures of dark character moments, seasonal references, and heavy doses of nostalgia. Enthusiasm and optimism were appropriate on ‘The Christmas Invasion’, but with these episodes there’s lingering sense that the stories had been knocked into a shape appropriate for the viewing figures rather than the narrative.

The Tenth Doctor is lifted through the broken space Titanic by two Heavenly Hosts in ''Voyage of the Damned'
Courtesy of BBC

Undoubtedly the best Christmas specials can be found in the latter part of Moffat’s era, where the energetic Smith was replaced with the much broodier Peter Capaldi. The tension between festive silliness and epic plot machinations that defines the others is lost and is instead replaced with episodes driven by strong characters and self-contained entertainment. The reason for this balance comes from something quite fundamental: the show here is sure of itself. This is best exemplified by ‘The Husbands of River Song’, where there is a rollicking, exciting adventure that fits the jovial mood of late December but there are lovely and important character moments that have lasting impacts. Capaldi’s specials that entertain new fans, reward old ones, and feel part of something bigger than just throwaway entertainment. 

With the challenge of crafting something like that every year, though, it’s easy to see why there’s been a move to the less expectation-laden date of New Year’s Day. It is also likely the case that enough time has passed to simply need a new approach. Fifteen years ago, audiences were exposed to a fresh take on a classic show, but across the years since we’ve become accustomed to the new iteration’s ways and the fact that it’ll always appear on December 25th. Doctor Who can’t simply expect to draw in viewers year after year on the basis that it’s become a sort-of tradition, as the TV landscape is constantly changing and so too must the sci-fi show if it’s to keep the relevance and budget that it holds. 

A unique tone has been brought by  Chibnall’s ‘Resolution’ (2019) and ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ (2021) in their moves to New Year’s Day. There’s less concession to ensuring a family friendly feel, with serious emotion playing important parts in the episodes. However, Chibnall still can’t escape the lure of making the episodes heavy on spectacle despite the quickly resolved villainous schemes feeling like they belong to “Monsters of the Week”; the embarrassing result is drama-devoid action sequences that appear sparse and cheap without a distinctive festive visual style. They are improvements on some of the pandering that’s happened in the past but don’t offer enough improvement to instil faith in the broader direction of Doctor Who

A smiling, leather jacketed River and a skeptical, suited Twelfth Doctor stand in front of an alien waiter in 'The Husbands of River Song'
Courtesy of BBC

There’s an argument to be made that Doctor Who has to be taken on its own level, and that the lack of consistency is part of what keeps things fresh for its most important audience of children. This may very well be the case with the likes of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, which is overblown and ultimately unimportant but perhaps entertaining for children because of those things. Yet this ignores the fact that there is the potential for the writing to be crafted with a precise enough balance of drama, character, action, fun, and emotion to appeal to children, teens, and adults in a way that leaves few dissatisfied or condescending. The real frustration as a fan is that the show’s identity feels settled enough to create such confident end results.

It’s no surprise that crowd-pleasing specials are few and far between, as there are many patchy episodes in any given season of Doctor Who. Russell T Davies famously was inspired by the structure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when creating the Doctor Who revival, exemplified by the three-pronged approach of conjoining new monsters each week with a central villain and emotive character arcs. However, unlike Buffy there’s simply too little time to breath, with seasons and all of the plot points rushing towards conclusion in thirteen episodes; much shorter than Buffy‘s perfectly sized 22. Longer seasons might just stop the show’s silliness that seems to take up so much of its time, too. 

The current approach can’t be providing much satisfaction to anyone, as the pandering to unquestioning, happiness hungry audiences even was frustratingly condescending when I was a regular childhood viewer. There is only so much goodwill that people have towards Doctor Who in an age of great TV, and a special isn’t going to make it stand out in an age of incredible, cinematic, and richly textured shows. What needs to happen for a more consistent show is the consistent, confident vision that made Capaldi’s work so easily entertaining at Christmas. Vision, creativity, and confidence in deciding a route forward could make the Doctor’s adventures challenging and must see once again, and ensure we’re enjoying them all year round.

Header Image Courtesy of BBC