Sure, you could go to a more “serious” Whovian site with detailed summaries, but we’ve got, like, unicorns and funny .GIFs and stuff. Ask and ye faithful commenters shall provide. Now let’s get to it:
“The Feast of Steven” (Aired 1965)
The first Doctor did not have a Christmas episode during the first and second series, but by the third, the show did indeed air on Christmas Day. “The Feast of Steven” is part of the adventure/serial titled “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” and only limited stills and fragments of footage still exist. In it, the Doctor breaks the fourth wall and wishes viewers a Happy Christmas.
However, as far as I can tell, this is the only Christmas Special that occurred during the “Classic Doctor Who” period. Viewers did not get another until…
“The Christmas Invasion” (Aired 2005)
Yes, a full forty years later, we see David Tennant as Ten in his first full episode, dressed in jammies and all out of sorts from regeneration. The Sycorax have invaded Earth, and they say they will kill off one-third of Earth’s population unless half of the planet is given up as slaves. Harriet Jones is Prime Minister, and Rose, Jackie, and Mickey do a lot of the work, since the Doctor is not fully present for most of the episode. But once he’s ready, he’s delightful.
This special also more firmly sets up the existence of Torchwood, which premiered the following year.
“The Runaway Bride” (Aired 2006)
Donna Noble makes her first appearance here, as the bride who suddenly materializes inside the TARDIS. In typical Donna fashion, she yells at the Doctor to take her back to Chiswick, and the Doctor, still desolate over the loss of Rose, does just that. Sort of. He never quite gets the landing points 100% correct. There are more Robot Santas and spinning, evil Christmas trees, and it turns out that Donna’s fiancé, Lance, has been secretly working with the Empress of Racnoss, a spider-like race that is using Torchwood technology to reach the center of the Earth in an attempt to revive their ancestors.
The previous Christmas special is referenced, but Donna has no memory of the events that day because she was hungover. She acts as the voice of reason for the Doctor when he gives in to his more punishing instincts, but despite losing both her job and her fiancé, she declines his offer to travel with him. This is the setup going into “Smith and Jones,” when Martha Jones becomes the newest companion.
“Voyage of the Damned” (Aired 2007)
When a spaceship based off the Titanic crashes into the TARDIS, the Doctor takes a look around to discover that it is meant to be a cruise for the well-to-do who want to observe “primitive cultures.” There are some funny jokes based on a Telephone-game-esque recording of history. The Doctor meets a waitress named Astrid, a.k.a the always adorable Kylie Minogue. The ship is then sabotaged by the ship’s Captain, sending it on a collision course with Earth. Meanwhile, Londoners have predominantly left the city, remembering the events of the previous two years. Instead of Robot Santas, we get Robot Angels, who are sort of like butlers for tourists.
The entire special is meant to be a bit of an homage to a disaster film, and according to Wikipedia, the story borrows heavily from a 1998 computer game, Starship Titanic, a game written by former Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams. Yes, Hitchhiker’s Guide Douglas Adams. From here, the Doctor reunites with Donna in the ever-fantastic episode with baby-Adipose, “Partners in Crime.”
“The Next Doctor” (Aired 2008)
The Doctor arrives in 1851 London, and encounters a man who believes he is the Doctor, a Time Lord, and he even has a companion, Rosita, who seems to have the combined personality of Rose and Martha. He’s a bit bumbling, and the Doctor at first thinks that he might be a later incarnation of himself with amnesia. The “Next” Doctor’s TARDIS is a hot-air balloon — “Tethered Aerial Released Developed in Style” — and the Cybermen are the baddies once more.
The supposed future Doctor turns out to be human, a man suffering PTSD after the Cybermen killed his wife, shortly after he viewed Cybermen data info-stamps containing material about the Doctor. We get to see some images from classic episodes here.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of the Cybermen as villains. I don’t know why.
“The End of Time (Part 1)” (Aired 2009)
This is a sad one, since Ten’s departure is imminent and Donna’s forced amnesia prevents her from interacting with the Doctor. The Doctor is accompanied by Wilf, Donna’s grandfather, in his latest battle against the Master. The Master uses a device to replace all human DNA with his own in order to create a “Master race.”
From a far off place in the universe, the last of the remaining Time Lords, “timelocked” at the point of the previously referenced Time War, decide they must return. The story isn’t resolved until the following January episode, which is of course when we lose Ten.
“A Christmas Carol” (Aired 2010)
I read over the plot summary of this special on Wikipedia, and I didn’t remember a single thing about it. After consulting Netflix, it seems that, yes, I’ve never seen it. It’s not currently available on Netflix streaming for reasons I don’t quite know. (Another Doctor Who special, “Planet of the Dead,” is also not on Netflix, but you can watch it for free on Amazon Prime. “A Christmas Carol,” however, will cost you $1.99. -shakes fist-)
So! Amy and Rory are on their honeymoon, but because this is Amy and Rory, nothing goes as planned. The ship they are on is about to crash because it is caught in a strange cloud belt. The Doctor lands on the planet below and meets a man who can control the cloud belt, but he is not inclined to do it. The episode naturally borrows a lot from the Dickens tale.
“The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” (Aired 2011)
I have seen this one, though Netflix added it on its own quite a bit after it had added the previous series’ episodes. Unfortunately, I started paying attention to Doctor Who after I no longer had BBC America at my disposal. As the title suggests, 2011′s special owes elements to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
In it, a woman has taken her children to the country to experience Christmas away from the 1941 London blitz. Her pilot husband has been reported missing, but she has decided not to tell the children just yet so that she does not have to ruin their holiday. Three years prior, she had unknowingly met the Doctor when he crash-landed in London on Christmas Eve, wearing an impact-resistant space suit with a backwards helmet. She had helped him find the TARDIS, and he promises to repay her kindness one day. Now on this holiday in the country, he reappears as “the Caretaker” of the house in which they are staying, and has all sorts of exciting presents for the children — including a box that is a portal to another planet. Peril ensues, but for once, not the planet-ending kind. It’s perhaps the sweetest of the Christmas Specials.
Especially at the end when Amy and Rory invite him in for dinner. Tears, man. Tears.
I’d have to watch them all again, but I think out of all the Christmas Specials, it’s a toss-up between “Voyage of the Damned” and “The Doctor, a Widow and the Wardrobe” as my favorites. I like them for different reasons — the adorableness of David Tennant and Kylie, and the jokes, for one, and the emotional wallop at the end of the other. Though Ten is my favorite Doctor, I do love Eleven’s subtle skill at showing his age while also trying to put on a cheery face. He is more interesting than people give him credit for sometimes.
So what about you? Let us contrast and compare while we wait for “The Snowmen.”
Also, I expect .GIFs of Joy.