Years: 2014 — 2017
Synopsis: The Moffat-led Christmas specials.
• A set of largely whimsical stories that succeeded more than they failed.
• At their best, pushed forward the story of the Doctor in ways not wholly unprecedented.
• Tended to highlight the raw talent of Matt Smith (Eleven) and Peter Capaldi (Twelve), who elevated the sometimes less transcendent stories.
• Often seemed more awkward and forced than the Russel T. Davies specials, particularly the ones with the Eleventh Doctor.
• Did not always try very hard to be more than just a holiday story.
• Sometimes had trouble finding a balance of cerebral and action in the storytelling.
Moffat was a very different writer than Davies. He liked to be more snarky and direct than his predecessor, while finding sometimes harsh ways for the Doctor to develop as a character. The Christmas specials, particularly with the Eleventh Doctor, did often feel like a forced affair, making one wonder if the stories would have been better off without all the snow and bells. Regardless, they did tend to satisfy.
A Christmas Carol —
As weak a Doctor Who story as it was interesting. The plot of the Eleventh Doctor’s first full special was largely predictable, as we not only knew the Doctor would succeed, but also practically knew the story of Scrooge verbatim. It was also almost the reverse of “Voyage of the Damned,” which itself was a weaker story. However, the journey to the resolution makes that boring predictability largely worth the ride. The Doctor makes adjustments all the time to things that are not truly fixed in the history of the universe. Yet, we were never shown someone’s history being changed in “real time.” It was a real testament to the talent of Michael Gambon for him to show a character’s personality transform before our eyes. That performance alone made the special worthwhile.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe —
In this special, Moffat again took the plot of another well known story. That storytelling choice again made the story rather predictable, albeit to a lesser extent than “Christmas Carol.” What made the episode interesting for fans of the Classic Era was how it brought the Doctor back to the Androzani system, which was where the Fifth Doctor sacrificed himself to save his current companion, Peri. There was also the effective running joke of how the sonic screwdriver still did not work on wood, with the main aliens appearing through wood. The story itself had elements rarely explored in the show, such as environmentalism, a peaceful yet forced evolution of a whole race, and the strength of motherhood. Perhaps it was all a bit too sappy, for lack of a less obvious pun, but it was a story a bit more than the sum of its parts.
The Snowmen —
Moving past the sci-fi remakes of classic stories — not a moment too soon — this special genuinely tried to be far more connected with the show’s continuing storyline. It was much more a true “Moffat” story, for good or ill. The rather lovecraftian Great Intelligence of the Second Doctor’s time was slyly reintroduced in this prequel to all the Great Intelligence stories, likely ensuring the Great Intelligence’s battles with the earlier Doctor. It also has the Doctor “retiring,” which was a plot point in Moffat’s parody special “Curse of Fatal Death.” And perhaps even more significantly, Clara, the Impossible Girl, makes her second appearance before being killed again (her deaths and reappearances would prove to be significant to the Doctor’s survival). Though it was certainly not the best story Moffat ever wrote for the show, it did highlight his strength as a very intricate storyteller.
The Time of the Doctor —
This special was tangentially comparable to the film 2010 (1984). That film was arguably an amazing piece of science fiction that does, mostly, stand on its own from Kubrick’s eternally cerebral classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Yet, 2010 can only ever be in the shadow of 2001. So was “The Time of the Doctor” in the shadow of one of the best Doctor Who story’s ever told, “The Day of the Doctor,” from the month before. But like 2010, “The Time of the Doctor” was still a great story. It not only rounded out the “Of the Doctor” story arc that began in the earlier season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” but also most of the Eleventh Doctor’s time. Most interesting, however, was how it was written more like the finale of the entire show, with the Eleventh Doctor in his thirteenth and final body. We see the Doctor fight just about everything he ever fought while not only protecting the Human colony of Trenzalore, but also his ancestral home of Gallifrey, the people of which looking for a safe moment to bring their world back to the universe. It was not a surprise that the Doctor would survive — Capaldi already appearing in the show as the Twelfth Doctor, but the confirming of the regeneration limit (twelve regenerations and thirteen overall incarnations), the War Doctor counting, and Ten regenerating back to himself was easily one of the most important moments ever written into the show. Of course, surpassing those limits was not an impossibility. The Master technically succeeded multiple times, being resurrected by the Timelords themselves during the Time War, and Rassilon being resurrected prior to win that Time War, which the Doctor ultimately won. It was genuinely dramatic to see the Doctor receive a new batch of regenerative energy, because of the extreme circumstances that always made such a gift possible. One also must wonder if it was against Rassilon’s wishes, but that is still left up to interpretation. But inevitably, the cool bowtie finally fell …
Last Christmas —
Peter Capaldi’s first full Christmas special was easily one of the strangest and most surreal of any story ever told in the show. Though the overarching Christmas theme was a bit overbearing, the overall story was fascinating and bizarre. The use of a dream-state is all but unheard of in the show, with the Eleventh Doctor episode “Amy’s Choice” perhaps being the only other live action example. It was written in an intentionally absurd way, not unlike “Amy’s Choice,” while also a kind of horror story. A creature was indeed drilling into their heads the entire episode, inducing a shared dream-state to make the victims passive. Everyone in the story was dying, including the Doctor, who eventually forced them all to wake up before their brains literally turned into pudding. We genuinely did not know until the end if anyone but the Doctor would survive. And with it literally being uncertain until the episode script was completed, Clara’s confirmed return was incredibly cathartic.
The Husbands of River Song —
While this special was more conventionally written than the prior, it was perhaps the most heartfelt. This special genuinely worked to surpass the overbearing Christmas elements, and largely succeeded. Twelve was always one of the more introverted Doctors, and this was one of those stories viewers saw past the “no time for this” attitude. This was always the Doctor that preferred to show his feelings through actions, leading to brilliant subtly on Capaldi’s part. And though Twelve and River never met until this story, their two actors brilliantly created chemistry between them. Eleven and River were a surprisingly obvious couple, but Twelve and River gave meaning to opposites attracting. For anyone that was a fan of the forever nonlinear River Song, it was a truly bittersweet episode, most certainly being just before she met the Tenth Doctor, who saved her consciousness when she died in sacrifice.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio —
This special was an odd experiment, and would likely have been much better off as a regular episode far away from Christmas. Still, having a more traditional superhero next to the Doctor, who was always an unconventional antihero, was an interesting juxtaposition. Nardole’s promotion to regular companion was surprisingly welcome as well, him always making surreal observations of ridiculous things. The special’s biggest problem in the end was how it was a bit less than the sum of its varied parts. The plot almost seemed secondary to the Doctor dealing with his likely last adventure with River Song, all but being a expanded epilogue of “The Husbands of River Song.” It was still a fun ride to a colorful place the show never really went before.
Twice Upon a Time —
Capaldi’s final episode as the Twelfth Doctor was perhaps as bittersweet as all such final episodes. Still, it was different in many ways. Not only was the Doctor actively trying not to regenerate, but also met with a prior incarnation, the First, the original, you might say. David Bradly first appeared as William Hartnel (1908-1975), who played the First Doctor, in the docudrama An Adventure in Space in Time in 2013, and his performance was so perfect he returned as the First Doctor within the show. The First and Twelfth Doctors were very much alike: secretive, irascible, heartfelt, fascinated. The whole special was inspired by a cut line from the First Doctor’s final episode with him not wanting to go. Indeed, Hartnell certainly did not want to go, while leaving the show was certainly difficult for all those that played the Doctor. The First Doctor was given a soon to be forgotten glimpse of his future, as the Twelfth is facing an uncertain one. Perhaps most significantly was how the only true antagonist of the special was the Doctor being in conflict with the necessity of change. The Doctor essentially saved himself, learning and relearning that change is necessary for survival of himself and the universe. This was Doctor Who at its most indulgent, but a good regeneration story probably should always be before the future explodes into the present …