Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Doctor Who and Sense8 Christmas Specials

The parties are over, and the lights have come down. Winter has settled over the land (at least in this hemisphere), bringing cold weather and the wasteland of television’s midseason hiatus. Now that mid-January is upon us, let us remember fonder, brighter times. Specifically, the 2016 Christmas specials of Doctor Who and Sense8.

Rather than a review article of these episodes, however, I’d like to host a short thought-piece regarding why holiday specials are so appealing, and what purpose these episodes serve. On that note, while I discuss some major elements of each episode, I do not spoil any important plot points. Read on in safety!

Before I started this article, I was under the impression that Christmas specials were as much a part of Doctor Who history as Daleks and Cybermen. A quick search disabused me of this notion, revealing them to be a thoroughly “New Who” development. The exception is an interlude episode that aired on Christmas Day in 1963, with a toast directly to the show’s audience by the first Doctor.

In most cases, television shows that highlight Christmas (or some representative generic winter festivities) feature it amidst the climax of the midseason finale, weeks before the actual holiday. Doctor Who, on the other hand, seems to use its holiday episodes as a mixture between exciting season finales and filler episodes to keep audience engagement during the sometimes ages-long interludes between seasons. While the first episode, “The Christmas Invasion” (2005), appears to use the holiday is a coincidental backdrop to the more exciting plot of Nine’s regeneration to Ten and the imminent invasion of the planet, later Christmas specials such as “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” (2011) and “Last Christmas” (2014) use familiar trappings of the holiday as actual plot elements.

2016’s episode, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” features a quick nod to the holiday in the early minutes of the episode before morphing into a story that is much more focused on superhero tropes. At this point, it seems that Christmas episodes have become part and parcel of what viewers expect from Doctor Who, and any relation to Christmas can be tangential. After 10 years, we’ve become the kids who come downstairs on Christmas morning and expect the presents under the tree as our due, rather than a special treat.

This year, however, we did receive a special treat in the form of the Sense8 Christmas special. I know that I, along with many other people, have been anxiously awaiting season 2 at some point in 2017. So it was with great surprise that I learned of an extra episode to air on December 23, 2016, mere days after it was announced. This was a true holiday gift for loyal viewers who fell in love with the characters and mythology of this peculiar Netflix show.

Far from a fluff episode, the story quickly caught us up with all the characters and included much of what makes Sense8 unique (such as gorgeous landscape shots and the requisite orgy scene). Though some members of the cluster lack their own development in this particular episode, which is to be expected with such a sprawling cast, it serves as an excellent bridge between the first two seasons of the show. It also follows the sensates through two major holidays: their shared birthday, followed by Christmas.

While some plot development does happen through the Christmas scenes, it seems a strange holiday to include when part of the point of the show is diverse characters with different religious backgrounds. In comparison to the communal birthday celebration, which was a blast to watch, even “generic winter holiday” scenes felt shoehorned for some characters, such as Capheus watching It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s unclear whether this occurs because he celebrates Christmas, or he just likes the movie.

What do you think? Does a holiday/Christmas special need to include some element of or reference to the holiday? Or should we just be thankful to the gods of fandom for the special gift of more time with characters and worlds that we enjoy?


  • Shara White January 13, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    So how do you feel about the recasting of Capheus? They cast quite the light on it, which made sense and also made me laugh, but I’m gonna have to warm up to the new guy. The original actor had such an earnestness to him, you know?

    You hit the nail on the HEAD with Sense8. I loved how this served as a kind of secondary/backdoor pilot to the series, as well as a transition between seasons!

    • J.L. Gribble January 13, 2017 at 7:44 pm

      I’m going to allow the new Capheus to grow on me, but you’re right about the earnestness of the original being part of his charm.

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier January 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    You know, I traditionally have not been much of a fan of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials, but I’ve really enjoyed the last two. Although that might be because of the presence of River Song last year, and the fact that I’m a sucker for superhero tropes this year. Otherwise, the majority of them have been kind of forgettable for me.


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