The Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are curious beasts in many ways. Because of Doctor Who’s usual production schedules they often mark the arrival or departure of a Doctor, and this always overshadows the Christmas theme. This happens with The Christmas Invasion, The End of Time, The Time of the Doctor and will happen again tomorrow with Twice Upon a Time. The Next Doctor also has the spectre of a departing Doctor hanging over it, and played deliberately on press speculation about who will be replacing David Tennant.
In addition to Doctors coming and going, the placement of these episodes generally outside of the usual runs of seasons means that they tend to lack a regular companion, so whilst the Classic series rarely had a story with the Doctor travelling on his own this has become quite commonplace nowadays. So there is no regular companion in The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned, The Next Doctor, The Snowmen, or The Husbands of River Song, and Amy and Rory make little more than cameo appearances in A Christmas Carol and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Sometimes a one-off character for Christmas turns out to be so good that they become a regular companion in the long run, which happened with Donna and Nardole. But by and large it is a chance for Doctor Who to try out new things with the lineup, and bring in big name stars who would only be able to commit to one episode. Even when there is a regular companion in the special it tends not to be what we might think of as the “main” companion, so we have Wilf in The End of Time, River in The Husbands of River Song, and Nardole in The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
The Christmas episodes that tend to embrace the theme of Christmas the most are generally the ones that come mid-run for a Doctor, so there is no overshadowing of the theme, although this is not always the case. There are also two distinct approaches to Christmas: make it intrinsic to the plot, or shoehorn it into a story that could have been made at any other time, with minimal rewrites. The former approach only really applies to A Christmas Carol, Last Christmas, and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, if you consider the Christmas element of CS Lewis’s book to be an essential element (which it probably is). There is sometimes a sense of writers getting bored with having to shoehorn in the time of year, especially Steven Moffat’s last couple of efforts, with The Return of Doctor Mysterio in particular virtually abandoning it altogether.
This is a shame because Christmas provides endless opportunities for fun and interesting storytelling, and not just the obvious stuff like killer Christmas trees, robot Santas, and deadly snow. As I mentioned in my Snow and Ice article, there is a contradiction in our relationship with this time of year, with the joy of the season combined with the danger of bitterly cold weather. Christmas has often been used in films, television and books as a fascinating contrast – with the long, dark winter nights it’s a perfect time to explore themes of scary things happening, which is why ghost stories and Christmas go hand in hand just as much as at Halloween. There is also a wealth of Christmas literature (and ghost stories) that can be looked to for inspiration, and thus far Doctor Who has only done that with the most obvious two sources.
This year we have what looks like a recipe for success, with an episode that will feature three Doctors, one of whom is such a break from tradition that all eyes should be on her. We are also going back to the South Pole where the First Doctor faced his final battle, an appropriately snowy location and also with that contrast of beauty and danger. It looks like we are in for another interesting ride… RP