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Friday, 17 December 2010

What's so 'Special' about the Doctor Who Christmas Specials?

What's so 'Special' about
the Doctor Who Christmas Specials?


To make the wait for this year's Doctor Who Xmas Special - A Christmas Carol - a little easier for us impatient Who fans, I have delved back into the archives and found some reviews of the first five Specials to whet our appetite. This personal selection goes a long way to explaining what makes for a great Dr Who Special and where the festive format falls down.

So what of the early Who yuletide episodes? Some have been crackers, some have been turkeys. Some have had all the trimmings, others have had a little too much stuffing. All have featured the Tenth Doctor and all have generated a mountain of reviews - good and bad, funny and sad, sensible and mad ...

"The thing about Doctor Who Christmas Specials is that they are now traditionally required to fulfil a number of audience expectations. They have to be brash, no nonsense populist affairs with an ersatz seasonal message or spirit of intention. It's no good examining the plot that closely or digging around for complex existential homilies because it won't stand up to the pressure."
Frank Collins on BehindTheSofa.org.uk (2008)

"Obviously, there has to be some sort of monster. It wouldn't be Doctor Who on Christmas Day if there wasn't something to freak you out."
David Tennant on RadioTimes.com (2007)

"Doctor Who and Christmas go together like marmite and cheese. Or marmite and jam. Or whatever the hell English people eat marmite with. The point is, they go together well."
Teresa Jusino on PinkRayGun.com (2007)

"If you’re looking for subtleties, a bit of quietness and a little bit of restraint and withdrawal over the festive period, then the past few years have proven that the Doctor Who Christmas Special is absolutely not the place to find it."
Simon Brew on DenOfGeek.com (2009)

"If the Doctor Who Christmas Special really is the franchise's shop window then isn't it about time we got the Fenwicks treatment instead of another gaudy sale at What Everybody Wants?"
Neil Perryman on BehindTheSofa.org.uk (2008)

"Doctor Who is deliriously camp at the best of times, so it makes sense that putting it together with Christmas will notch the Ugly Sister factor up to 11."
Dan Martin on Guardian.co.uk (2010)

"It’s a measure of the remarkable success of the 21st century reboot of Doctor Who that the show’s special 60-minute Christmas episode has, after only one previous outing, already been accorded the sort of acclaim and anticipation historically reserved for the likes of Morecambe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses."
Paul Mount on SciFind.co.uk

"Christmas television was a big deal when I was young. It was the only time of the year that my mum would buy the Radio Times and the TV Times, and I used to love poring over them - I think that’s quite a common British experience. So I’m thrilled to have been part of that for the last few years. We’ll have done five Christmas Specials and Doctor Who seems such an obvious fit for Christmas television, doesn’t it?"
David Tennant (2009)



The Christmas Invasion (2005)

"The Christmas Invasion is an important episode of Doctor Who, not least because it introduces a new Doctor. It is the first Christmas special for forty years (to the day); it is the first Christmas Special to exist in the BBC's archives, and it is the first Christmas Special to exist independently of a wider story. The fact that it is written by Russell T. Davies carries negative connotations for many (myself included) but I was in a forgiving mood for this one: a Christmas special is intrinsically campier and less serious than a regular episode and so I am prepared to let quite a lot go."
Ed Martin on GalliffreyOne.com

"When I read the script, I thought, 'This is quite dark and kids will be petrified to go near their Christmas trees.' But they love being scared."
Billie Piper on RadioTimes.com (2005)

"Billie Piper was a real jingle-belle as she tried to stand up to the aliens."
Sara Nathan in The Sun (2005)

"The most wildly anticipated show of the season - the Doctor Who Christmas Special. 'Wildly anticipated' because a) Doctor Who was the best show of 2005 by about 16 billion parsecs and b) it's our first proper chance to see David Tennant in action. Thank God, then, that this doesn't disappoint in the slightest. In fact, it's possibly the greatest Christmas episode of any programme ever."
Charlie Brooker in The Guardian (2005)

"Casanova, in pyjamas, fighting the Sycorax with a broadsword? What greater gift could womankind receive on Christmas Day?"
Caitlin Moran in The Times (2005)

"Psycho Santas, a killer Christmas tree, a great sword fight, The Doctor coming over all domestic as he tucks into his Christmas dinner - all this and a burst of Slade's perennial it-wouldn't-be-Christmas-without-it hit Merry Christmas Everybody too - what more could you ask for in a Christmas present?! It actually made the tedium and despair of the Christmas season worthwhile!"
Kevin Stone on EOFFTV.org

"Mickey Smith played 'Adric.' A supporting role that adds little to the episode other than to remind viewers that the concept of 'family' is central at Christmastime."
Matthew Walter on EyeOfHorus.org.uk



The Runaway Bride (2006)

"At times you have to wonder if Russell T. Davies is running out of ideas - it's a big leap from bringing back old favourites like the Daleks or cybermen to having robot santas and those silly killer Christmas trees appear on Earth two years in succession. Especially as they weren't that inspiring in The Christmas Invasion."
'The Acrobatic Flea' on HeroPress.net (2006)

"Christmas is a time of high expectations - perhaps only weddings (according to the Doctor, scenes of chemical warfare) come close. The Runaway Bride turns the familiar into a threat - killer Santas, exploding baubles, a spaceship shaped like the star from a Christmas tree. And families will have enjoyed the episode. I note its use of children - three in the wedding reception, two watching the motorway chase, one near the end threatened with death by laser, none of them speaking parts - and suspect it will have been much more successful at making the youngest viewers feel part of the action than Old Who's habit of dragging in child actors ever was. Above all there is a happy ending; the man with the magic screwdriver sees us right, all over in time for dinner."
Nicholas Whyte on StrangeHorizons.com (2007)

"A sparkling but musty vintage with complex undertones and a bittersweet finish. Best enjoyed with: Christmas pudding with a very large slosh of brandy."
Androzani.com

"Russell T. Davies had one big surprise in his story that was all but guaranteed to lead you spitting out your Christmas satsuma."
Simon Brew on DenOfGeek.com (2009)

"Compared to last year’s big, epic Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride seems distinctly low-key and, despite the odd festive reference and a bit of trimming here and there, decidedly un-Christmassy ... But ultimately it really doesn’t matter; it’s always entertaining, frequently laugh-out-loud amusing and never less than utterly charming. The Runaway Bride is perfect veg out Christmas night television and if Doctor Who is now established as a festive tradition, then long may it continue."
Paul Mount on SciFind.co.uk


Voyage of the Damned (2007)

"In early December I predicted Voyage of the Damned would be 'all teeth, tits and tinsel - it'll be spectacle and little substance - it'll annoy the hell out of us and be loved by the masses.' Of course, it got 12 million plus viewers, but almost half that number had consumed such an excess of food that their body mass just fused with the sofa they'd slopped down in after eating their way through 4 Iceland stores worth of Profiteroles and honey glazed racks of Kerry Katona. They'd barely register as sentient life, let alone viewers. DFS could make a fortune from these new sofa people."
Damon Querry on BehindTheSofa.org.uk (2007)

"In the space of three years, the Doctor Who Christmas Special has become the tent pole of the BBC’s seasonal schedule ... Voyage of the Damned is pretty to look at and diverting enough yuletide entertainment but it’s a long way from being unsinkable."
Adam Herman on TotalSciFiOnline.com (2007)

"How is it remotely conceivable to become so wrapped up in your own clich├ęs and tropes that you are a mere parody of yourself after only three years on the air?"
Catherynne M. Valente on PinkRayGun.com (2007)

"It seemed kind of silly that Queen Elizabeth, without seeing anybody on the spaceship, knew who the Doctor was and that he was the one to save Buckingham Palace from impact of the falling cruiser. It does make sense that she knows who the Doctor is, given his involvement in British history, but ... ah well. It's the Christmas episode. For that, we will engage in the cutting of the slack."
Brad Trechak on TVSquad.com (2008)

"Oh, look, it’s Doctor Who does The Poseidon Adventure - on the Titanic. Good fun. No, wait: What? Fun? Holy crap, but this is a depressing episode. Jesus. Dead bodies floating in open space, a 'nuclear storm' drive that’s gonna wipe out life on Earth? Characters dying senselessly ... sure, some die nobly, saving others, but some just die senselessly."
Maryann Johanson on FlickFilosopher.com (2008)

"I don’t think I would dare try to jump-start a spaceship that looks like the Titanic by diving it into the atmosphere … but I have to forgive the Doctor that, because it was hilariously funny."
Terry Pratchett in SFX magazine (2010)


The Next Doctor (2008)

"The Next Doctor is the best Doctor Who Christmas Special yet, or is at the least on a par with The Christmas Invasion. It doesn't have the emotional scope of the Doctor and Rose's farewell in Doomsday but it's moving, funny, impressive and has a big, beating heart. Possibly two, in fact."
Gareth McLean in The Guardian (2008)

"It's great fun. The special effects look very expensive: Dickens meets Transformers."
Jim Shelley in The Mirror (2008)

"The Next Doctor moves from a publicity-grabbing mystery to an emotional explanation and finally a child-pleasing (and toymaker-pleasing) conclusion without ever quite seeming as if they belong in the same production. But as a feast of spectacle for Christmas Day, it delivers the thrills that are needed, even though I'd personally rate it below the specials from the last three Yules, if only because the finale does feel a bit like the sort of thing a child would write once they got bored with having all 10 Doctors unite to battle a combined Dalek-Cybermen attack."
Anthony Brown on VisImag.com (2008)

"The Next Doctor was hardly a classic Doctor Who episode, in many ways it stank. But it was a perfect Christmas Special. Warm and cuddly with all the right seasonal elements and exactly what was needed for the evening of Christmas Day."
Trevor Mendham on OffWorldTV.com (2008)

"If, by the end, you're not welling up at the scene where Tennant gets a reaction he's not accustomed to, then - erk - have a lovely time doing whatever you Cybermen do at Christmas, OK? This is not just a Christmas special; this is a Christmas extra special."
Gill Hudson on RadioTimes.com (2008)

"This is more like it: a Christmas Day special that uses Christmassy tropes given a Doctor Who twist. The urchins may have been stage-school perfect - no malnutrition or rickets here - but the sense of place was sold well."
Peter Quentin on TotalSciFiOnline.com (2008)

"A grand slam, a perfect game, a triple play all steroid free and rolled into one. Behold ... The Next Doctor???!!!??"
Joseph Savitski on SciFiCool.com (2009)


The End of Time (2009)

"There's little room for Christmas jollity when you have several series' worth of stories to complete ... This year's Christmas Doctor Who was never going to pause and sniff the mulled wine. There are stories that need completing, fireworks to set up; the End of Time means No End of Plot ... There are plenty of tinsel touches - two separate 'best Christmas present' lines, the Queen's speech, a choir and a silver band, not to mention that turkey - but this didn't need to be a Christmas story in the way that previous Christmas Doctor Whos have."
Peter Robins on Guardian.co.uk (2009)

“This year we’ve done something different again - partly because we’re telling the stories of the end of the Doctor’s time. It is still set at Christmas but it’s perhaps not got quite as much Christmas cheer as before."
David Tennant (2009)

"Russell T. Davies likes to get the gang together at Christmas - last year, he had all the Doctor's travelling companions back to co-pilot the TARDIS - and there is no way he wouldn't call back the troops for Tennant's farewell."
Robert Lloyd on LATimes.com (2009)

"In the end then this entertaining but indulgent 73 minutes is symbolic of the best and worst of the RTD era. Beautifully tender drama spliced together with plotting that plays out like a game of Top Trumps."
Frank Collins on CathodeRayTube.blogspot.com (2009)

"The concluding chapter of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who stint was rife with flaws, yet potent and powerful enough to milk dry the emotions of every faithful fan who has watched this wonderful show in recent years and decades ... If the Kleenex were still dry, then the Ood song should have changed that."
Ben Rawson-Jones on DigitalSpy.co.uk (2009)

"A weakness of the episode for me was that I felt it was potentially alienating those casual viewers that will more often than not tune into the Christmas show. I feel the use and re-introduction of the Time Lords would be better handled in the regular series as apposed to the Christmas Specials, which by tradition have always tried to be as inclusive as possible."
Ian Cullen on SciFiPulse.net (2009)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Yes, it was Christmas, but it was also time to say goodbye to David Tennant as the Doctor in a two-part special of Doctor Who. We laughed (maybe), we cried (probably), we said 'WTF was that?' (a lot) - it was a typical Rusty way to end it all."
Rob Buckley on The-Medium-Is-Not-Enough.com (2010)


Most of the above reviews / quotations come from the forthcoming book The Quotable Doctor Who - Volume Four: The New Who Episode Guide to be published in 2011.
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