The Rise of the Tragic Christmas Special

Haven’t watched “The Husbands of River Song” just yet? Then be warned…


I have mixed feelings about the Doctor Who Christmas specials. Like I’ve said in the past, the episodes are often hit-or-miss for me. Usually they don’t have a regular companion, and the stories don’t play much into the larger storymline of that particular Doctor. Really, that’s the whole point of the special. It’s a fun adventure with the Doctor to help give you some Gallifreyan holiday cheer.

Of course, there’s also another sort of Doctor Who Christmas special, and that’s the special utterly breaks your heart. For the past three years now, we’ve had specials that are quite sad on different levels. We’ve had Eleven’s regeneration, the almost-final episode of Clara (that ended up being Danny Pink’s official, final episode), and this year marked what is likely River Song’s last episode (you never know with River–she’s so timey-wimey it’s not totally unrealistic for us to hope to see her again). Before that, we also had Ten’s regeneration happen over Christmas as well as feels-inducing “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and “The Snowmen”. With Capaldi staring down his third season as the Doctor, rumors are beginning to fly that this may be his last season as our favorite Time Lord, which means we could have another tragic Christmas special in 2o16.

Seriously, can we NOT talk about regeneration? I feel like Capaldi JUST started…

While I get that having a Doctor regenerate in the Christmas special is the easiest option for everyone involved–remember Eccleston regenerated prior to the Christmas special, so Tennant’s first episode was a Christmas special which made the Christmas special a bit tough since he spent a majority of the episode regenerating–it can really put a bit of a dark cloud over the Christmas special. Still, I’ve said before that those MOTW-style Christmas specials often don’t stick with me much past the final credits. Though I HATE re-watching Tennant and Smith’s regeneration episodes, I can’t deny that those are solid episodes. And “Husbands of River Song” and “Last Christmas“? Both of those episodes are sad, but I think those are two of my favorite specials.

We’ve had three years of sad specials, and it looks like we’re in for another next year. So my question is: how do we feel about the rise of the sad Christmas special? It’s no secret that Doctor Who, for all of its silliness and frivolity, can be a bit of a gut-wrencher. For instance: Van Gogh, Bad Wolf Bay, “Angels Take Manhattan”, Melody Pond, Donna-freaking-Noble…this show likes to rip out our hearts on the regular. So a Christmas special that is sad isn’t necessarily an escape from the norm, but does adding that melancholy touch to the special ruin what makes it unique? Should the special simply be a fun adventure that isn’t important to the main timeline, or is it good for big events like companions final episodes and regenerations to happen at Christmas?

When the show had the split-season format, it made a lot more sense for the Christmas special to not offer fans closure on major plot lines from the season. It didn’t matter if anything vital to the season’s story arc addressed, because part two of that season was only a few months away. Closure and big plot events would be handled in the latter half of the season. Now though, the Christmas special is acting a sort of unofficial season finale (even though the episode prior to the special is officially billed as the finale). Since the seasons aren’t split anymore, I think it’s important for the Christmas special to tie in to the main season a bit more.

Certainly this year’s special didn’t have much to do with the events of season nine. Clara’s final episode had already happened, an we hadn’t seen River since the days of Eleven, but I think we all knew this episode was coming at some point since we never saw the Doctor give River a screwdriver. However, I think it was a big deal to have the Doctor bid River what is likely their final farewell, especially since it came on the heels of losing Clara (can we talk about how much I loved the TARDIS trying to cheer the Doctor up by putting hologram antlers on his head?). So while River didn’t directly tie into this season, she’s always a vital part of the Doctor’s story. Taking her to the Singing Towers of Darillium made him think about the people he loves, how he loves and treats those important to him.

I love it that the Christmas specials are getting a bit weightier. While I definitely don’t want every special to be soul-crushing, episodes like this one and “Last Christmas” are great because they’re vitally important to the Doctor’s story as a whole, they contain companions we know and care about, and the adventures aren’t stories to just fill the logbooks of the TARDIS–their stories have an impact that reaches far beyond that particular episode. For instance, did you catch when the Doctor told River the same thing Danny told Clara in the 2014 Christmas special?

Danny Pink

With the re-jiggering of the season’s structure, I think making the Christmas specials pack more of an emotional punch only makes the show stronger as a whole. I still may be on the fence on making us watch the Doctor regenerate on Christmas, but I love that the specials have had stories and characters that reach far beyond the sixty minutes of the special. And if the show runners can give us excellent, non-regeneration specials like “The Husbands of River Song” and “Last Christmas”, I’m definitely on board with more feels-heavy specials.

What did you think of this year’s Christmas special? Are you happy with Christmas specials that are a bit sadder and have more of a tie in to the season’s story line, or do you want the show to go back to the one-off Christmas special style? Let me know what you think in the comments!

6 thoughts on “The Rise of the Tragic Christmas Special

  1. Like the Crimbo specials. They are what they are. Some weepy Sci Fi for the festive season. They are also not so much what you see in the series episodes, which is good because Christmas specials wouldn’t be special if they were all year 🙂

  2. The Husbands of River Song was a more fun and upbeat Christmas Special than previous years. I though it worked quite well, and brought River’s story full circle. The ending was quite moving as well. Overall, I find the Xmas specials can be a bit hit and miss. I don’t tend to watch them again very often. But they do offer the chance to do something different, so in their own way they usually work ok. Think as series 9 has been quite dark, it was a good move to have a lighter in tone special this time 🙂

    1. Yeah the whole of the episode was really fun. The end was just sad, especially since it might be the last time we see her. But I loved it. I thought it was an excellent episode. Definitely one of my favorite specials.

      1. I agree, certainly one of the better Christmas special episodes. It seems this could be River’s final appearance perhaps, we shall have to wait and see. Who know, who knows…?

  3. I like the Christmas specials that actually tie into the show. It doesn’t make it feel like the writers were wanted to do just a one off thing. I think, if the Doctor didn’t have a companion at the time or it was a grey area where the doctor just regenerated, then yes that’s find for a one shot. Otherwise tie it into the show.

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