The strange story of the first and only Doctor Who Christmas special of the 20th century

Festive episodes of the series are a recent tradition, and going by their first attempt in 1965 it's not hard to see why.

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The Doctor Who Christmas special is one of the hallmarks of the revived 21st century version of the series. The first was in 2005, the same year the programme came back, and it has been a fixture of the BBC One Christmas Day line up ever since. This year’s will be the 13th consecutive Christmas Day episode. That’s not a record but it seems that - excluding things like Christmas Night with the Stars - only EastEnders and The Queen’s Christmas Message can boast longer uninterrupted runs of new episodes shown on BBC One on Christmas Day itself.

As an annual event the special has been significant for both the programme and its parent channel. From 2007 to 2010 it was the most watched television drama not merely of the day, but of the entire year: the sort of banner success any producer or channel controller earnestly craves. The special’s position at the turn of the year, and coincidentally at the end of actor and producer contracts, means they have often had to be key episodes in the series. Both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s final episodes as “showrunner” are Christmas specials. David Tennant’s first proper story as the Doctor was a Christmas special and so was his last (although that was a two parter which concluded on New Year’s Day). Matt Smith too, bowed out in a Christmas Day episode, just as Peter Capaldi will this year, having also come in in one. The number of times going somewhere at Christmas has led to Doctor Who being killed, it’s surprising he ever deigns to visit it. He does have a time machine after all.

Doctor Who and Christmas weren’t always twinned in this way. In the 20th century, Doctor Who was only shown on Christmas Day once, all the way back in 1965. Shown at 6:35pm “The Feast of Steven” featured William Hartnell, the very first Doctor Who. It’s a far cry from the modern series festive instalments, for better or worse. Then producer John Wiles - only Doctor Who’s second and in the job for less than six months - took the exact opposite approach to his distant successors Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, and decided they were going to make a bit of disposable fluff.

The story, in so much as it qualifies as one at all, finds the Tardis materialising at a police station at Christmas 1965, where the Doctor and companions Steven (Peter Purves, later of Blue Peter) and Sara (Jean Marsh, later of Upstairs Downstairs) are briefly caught up in semi-farcical shenanigans with the local constabulary. They escape from the police into the Tardis, only to find themselves travelling back in time to 1920s Hollywood, where they become involved in Keystone Cops style comedy  - complete with silent intertitles - and a tyrannical Erich Von Stronheim style director (name Ingmar, presumably as a tribute to Bergman). They escape to the Tardis once again, where they break out the champagne and through the fourth wall in order for The Doctor to wish “A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

“The Feast of Steven” was not a Christmas special as such. It was just that 1965 was the first year since Doctor Who’s creation where Christmas Day fell on a Saturday (before 1970 Doctor Who effectively ran all through the year, like Holby City or Casualty do now) and the BBC didn’t feel like giving the programme the week off. The episode wasn’t even a complete story in its own right. It was nominally the seventh part of the twelve episode The Daleks’ Master Plan, which had been running since early November. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss them when I relayed its contents above. They don’t feature, and that the regular characters are locked in a life and death struggle with them that will continue until the end of January is only briefly alluded to. Given that 1965 was the Christmas of “Dalekmania” with a vast amount of merchandise featuring the metal meanies available, meaning that much of the programme’s audience would have unwrapped Dalek toys, books or games under the Christmas tree that morning, this does seem like a very peculiar decision.

Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks and one of the programme’s then regular writers, had come to Doctor Who after a falling out with Tony Hancock, whose less-remembered ATV series he’d been a writer on, and was initially keen to return to his comedy roots with this episode. However, according to the series’ then story editor Donald Tosh, Nation delivered a script that was far shorter than required, leading to Tosh and director Douglas Camfield having to make up the shortfall themselves. Camfield was apparently largely responsible for the silent movie sequences, in which he cast his wife, actress Sheila Dunn, as starlet Blossom LeFavre. 

Like much British television from the mid sixties, “The Feast of Steven” no longer exists. There are also only a handful of photographs from the production, mostly taken off a television screen by a cast member during the episode’s transmission. (Most of those you’ll find on google are recreations by enterprising fans) The script survives, as does a recording of the episode’s soundtrack, also recorded during its single transmission, in this case by one of those same enterprising fans.

It’s hard to know what to make of “The Feast of Steven” when you can’t even watch it, only read it or listen to it. It might be argued that the level of care that went into the production is evidenced by the title. Nation called the episode “The Feast of Stephen”, under the impression that the Doctor’s assistant’s name was spelled like that of the saint whose feast day is the 26th of December. Which is not Christmas Day. The spelling was amended for transmission, meaning an already weak joke worked even less well than before. Wiles would not last long as Doctor Who’s producer. He clashed with William Hartnell, whom he attempted unsuccessfully to replace, and quit - by Peter Purves account in order to avoid being fired - and would later say he had been unhappy and was temperamentally unsuited to being a producer, especially of Doctor Who.

It is perhaps possible to divine some method in the madness behind Doctor Who’s first Christmas episode. The police station scenes were intended to be a crossover with Z Cars, and the anonymous policeman of the comedy opening the characters from that series. Z Cars producer David Rose wasn’t keen, and in the end the version of Z Cars being referred to finished on 21 December 1965. The series wouldn’t return until Spring 1967, when it would have a largely new cast. Had the crossover worked out as planned, the meeting between characters from two of BBC One’s then key series could have been quite memorable.

There might be more to it than that, though. One of BBC One’s big Christmas programmes that year, nestling oddly in an afternoon slot rather than its usual prime time place, was a special episode of Dixon of Dock Green, “Georgina”, a tour de force for star Jack Warner as he tended an injured woman. Hold that thought.

Near the end of “The Feast of Steven”, the Doctor, still in the 1920s, meets a down on his luck comedian who despairs of ever becoming a success. Dialogue reveals the character to be a young Bing Crosby. Crosby, obviously, is heavily associated with Christmas, but Christmas Day 1965 saw the television premiere of the Crosby-starring Road to Bali (1952). Those working at the BBC in the weeks immediately prior are likely to have known about both of these programme choices. Is “The Feast of Steven” consciously forming a bridge between the modern police story on before it and the Bing Crosby comedy on after it? If so, that’s quite clever.

It is doubtful what influence, if any, it had on BBC One’s determination to have Doctor Who Christmas Specials this century, and either Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat’s execution of them. The Daleks’ Master Plan storyline, although not its Christmas episode, would prove to be a turning point for Doctor Who in a different way. It would be the last Doctor Who story with any episodes watched by more than 10 million people in the era of monochrome television. By 1969 the series would be occasionally dipping towards 3 million viewers. The simultaneous introductions of colour and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in 1970 saw an upturn in the show's fortunes with audiences, and in 1971 producer Barry Letts was asked to prepare a Christmas compilation repeat of a recent Doctor Who serial. The resulting omnibus “Doctor Who And The Daemons”  was screened on 27 December and was an enormous success, watched by 10.5 million people, the first episode to push through the 10 million barrier since early 1966. That success initiated a tradition of Christmas week (if not day) Doctor Who repeat compilations that lasted until 1977. Davies, a Doctor Who fan of longstanding who has spoken fondly of the series repeat compilations, may well have been thinking of those.

This year’s Christmas special, “Twice Upon A Time”, will guest star David Bradley, playing William Hartnell’s first Doctor, having previously played both the Doctor and Hartnell playing the Doctor in 2013’s “An Adventure in Space & Time” a television play about the production of the earliest series of Doctor Who. Given (admittedly insubstantial) rumours that it will be the last Doctor Who Christmas episode for the foreseeable future, that’s appropriate. It means that Hartnell’s Doctor, if not the man himself, manages to be in both the first and last, and manages to chalk up a second Doctor Who Christmas episode after an enormous gap. “The Feast of Steven” is now 52 years old. Its setting of 1920s Hollywood was then only 40 years in the past, and treated as ancient history.

The end of “Twice Upon A Time” will see Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerate into Jodie Whitaker’s. It is incredibly unlikely that her Doctor will, in the episode’s final moments, turn to camera and with her first words in the role emulated Hartnnel by saying “We so rarely get a chance to celebrate, but this time we must. A happy Christmas to all of us. And incidentally a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

Admit it though, it would be amazing if she did.