There is a Christmas tradition as popular in the UK as mince pies: the Christmas special. Popular TV shows generally have a stand-alone special episode airing in the week of Christmas (or on Christmas day itself). Unlike most TV series here, these Christmas episodes are not within a specific season but stand alone (usually at the end of a season or a few months after the end). I may be wrong, but this might be partially because the TV seasons/series in the UK do not run Fall-Spring, like they do here.
Some of the most famous Christmas specials in the recent past were shows like the Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses (these specials continued to air at Christmas years after the series itself was cancelled), as well as shows more known on this side of the pond, like The Office and Doctor Who. From what I have read, the Christmas special episodes of the two big soap operas, Eastenders and Coronation Street, are always the most depressing episodes of the year. And these are soap operas for whom melodrama is an understatement. According to tvtropes.org, people gather around to watch the emotional and physical carnage. Fun.
This year, I saw two Christmas specials that made their way across the pond in one form or another: Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. Before I get into those specific episodes, I’d like to talk about my favorite Christmas specials in British TV history.
The Christmas Special for The Office UK also functioned as the series finale (a habit of Ricky Gervais’ apparently), so it was extra meaningful. It was a two part special (or two specials, according to some) that aired on December 26th and 27th in the UK in…whatever year it was. Things are quite different in the special than they were in the series, with Dawn and whats-his-name off in Florida, David Brent trying to make a career in Comedy, and Gareth the manager of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg. Of course the Tim and Dawn relationship is the big story of the specials, and it makes me happy and sappy every time I watch it, partially because of my intense love for Martin Freeman. But another key moment is one that advances the slow story of David Brent becoming a human being. He meets a nice woman who he likes, and who likes him. That alone is lovely, but the best part (perhaps of this entire TV show) is when he stands up for her to Chris Finch (worst person ever). Every time I see that I have renewed faith in his ability to evolve as a character. The US Office presented a much more sympathetic boss, but David Brent walks a fine line between being irritating and being empathetic, which I think is more accurate and realistic.
Again, Ricky Gervais chose to end his series with a Christmas special. This one has Andy Millman choosing between commercial success and artistic integrity. In the end, he firmly says no to commercial success for its own sake, though I’m not sure he’s any closer to artistic integrity. Again, he evolves as a person and that is rewarding, though not in the same way as occurred in the Office finale. The best part of this special is undoubtedly the last five minutes, when he finally stops being an utter ass.
There has been a Doctor Who Christmas special every year since David Tennant took over in 2005. In fact, the Christmas special was the first appearance of the tenth Doctor. Unfortunately, they haven’t all been gems. David Tennant spends most of 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” asleep (literally), and we are stuck with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey the Idiot. In “the Runaway Bride”, Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a very argumentative pseudo-companion and the whole episode isn’t very Christmas-y, though there is a return of the Santa Claus robots that plagued London the previous year. A high point of 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” is the Doctor discovering that everyone in London leaves each Christmas, because there has been an invasion for the last two years. Little moments where the show pokes fun at itself really make it worth watching. Each Christmas special has some really spectacular visuals, but often times they are not the best episodes taken on their own. I’m not a fan of “The Next Doctor” and “The End of Time” left me heartbroken and angry. “A Christmas Carol” had Michael Gambon, but that was the best thing about it.
And this year? This year was called “The Snowmen” and I have to say I think it was the best Christmas special they’ve had. The visuals were great, though I am very partial to Victorian England so that may have had something to do with it. Also, though, most of our current Christmas traditions emerged in Victorian times, so it’s a very Christmasy looking episode. We see the return of Oswin, confusingly, and we see some very creepy snowmen.
My personal favorite part was the Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes. Hilarious. After a lackluster first part of the seventh season, this episode gave me a lot of hope for when the show returns in the Spring.
Downton Abbey has now had two Christmas specials, and I can’t say I cared for either of them. The first one, did at least take place at Christmas, however! And the ending was much happier. It took place in 1919/1920, and there were sad points (Bates being convicted of murdering his wife) but there were happy moments (Matthew and Lady Mary finally getting together). It had some emotional resonance because of that fact. This year’s Christmas special was …infuriating. Warning to all who have not (in a totally legal way) seen season three and its special–spoilers!
This year’s Christmas special took place just a few months after the last episode of season three, though it did not take place at Christmas time. The Grantham family goes north to Scotland to visit the super annoying Lady Rose, and now we know that she will be in the show regularly from now on–much to my chagrin. The men stalk deer (in deerstalkers…). Edith continues to settle for unavailable and unworthy men, in an effort to have someone at all. I don’t really like her. A strumpet of a housemaid starts making eyes at Tom Branson, A rotund grocer tries to marry Mrs. Patmore because he is deeply in love with her sandwiches. Thomas is beaten nearly to death by ruffians after a highly contentious game of Tug of War (really?). But there’s just one thing that really makes news in this special.
If you follow the gossip about DA at all, you know already that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew, is leaving the show. I had heard that he would be in a few episodes the following season, just to end his run, but apparently not. Mary is very pregnant in the special, and as soon as I saw that, I had an inkling. A few loving and tender moments between Mary and Matthew throughout the special clinched it. By the time Mary was giving birth, I knew it would be a boy, because they need an heir, and I knew it was curtains for
the Tramp Matthew. Also, whenever anyone in any movie goes out for a ride/drive and are extremely happy, they’re going to be killed in a car accident. For proof of this precedent, see City of Angels, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. It was just really predictable. And not Christmasy. And not fun. And I feel that Julian Fellowes has just killed off too many people in this show. The death of the heir on the Titanic starts the first episode, but on camera we have the deaths of William, Mr. Pamuk, Sybil, Lavinia, all of the minor characters who die on and off screen, and now Matthew. It’s a lot for three seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on for seven seasons, featured a town rife with earthquakes, vampires, demons, gods, and every other nasty thing…and though there were a ton of red shirt deaths, only a few major characters were killed. Just saying. I found this Christmas episode irritating and disappointing.
I find that Christmas specials sometimes put together everything trite and overwrought that the creators can envision for the series. It’s very rare that they get it right, and manage to convey a Christmas theme and an important part of the life of their characters. What I do like about a Christmas special is that it adds some pomp and circumstance to the holiday. In America, the Christmas episode of a show is just part of the season, and usually airs about three weeks prior to the holiday. In the UK, these specials can happen when the show isn’t even on the air anymore–Christmas is important enough to mark out on its own. I don’t even like Christmas, but I like a Christmas special. I wish we had them here. Though, I prefer when Ricky Gervais is in charge of them, not Julian Fellowes.