It’s the month of December, and we know that means:
Holiday specials on all TV screens!
The Frostys and Santas and Rudophs are here
To brighten the month with their cute, shiny cheer.
But geeky among us may feel underserved,
Sans holiday specials we know we deserve.
So here are a few nerdy holiday shows
To fill living rooms with that warm, cheery glow.
If you’re watching old seasons on a DVD,
Or streaming the episode, there’s sure to be
A holiday special to fill every need
Of geeks of all interests, obsessions and creeds.
Please note that in sharing these holiday treats
There may be some spoilers, so if you’re like me
And wish to refrain from knowing what’s to come,
You now know to simply scroll right past that one.
A Muppet Family Christmas
This is my one Christmas viewing tradition, and is the source of the most rage and disappointment. A Muppet Family Christmas was a 1987 television special. The central Muppet cast — Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and the gang — are spending Christmas at Fozzie’s mother’s home in the country. The Sesame Street Muppets join the party, and the Fraggles make an adorable appearance. Every Muppet ever stitched is gathered together, celebrating the holidays. At the very end, Jim Henson shows up and fondly watches the whole crew singing merrily, saying “Well, they certainly seem to be having a good time…Yeah, I like it when they have a good time.” That’s when I start bawling. It’s a holiday tradition.
It’s also the most frustrating part of my holiday, because I have to watch the whole damn thing on YouTube. The rights to some of the film’s featured carols were only obtained for the television airing, and so the extant piece is not available for purchase in the United States. An edited version is for sale, but those carols are cut, it’s missing the scenes in which those songs appear, and it’s just a disappointment for anyone familiar with the glory of the full film. I was two when the special first aired, and thankfully my parents recorded it, but I wore out that VHS years ago. Every now and then, versions advertised as “complete” pop up, but they’re either lying or trying to sell me something in a non-US friendly viewing format.
I can promise you, though, that the payoff of watching this on YouTube is worth the frustration. To see the Swedish chef working out how to cook Big Bird, or the Fraggles exchange gifts with everyone’s favorite frog, is to know exactly what “warm and fuzzy” feels like.
“Amends” and “Bring On The Night,” Buffy The Vampire Slayer
These episodes aired with three full seasons between them, yet their similarities and parallels are such that they can almost be watched as one two-part holiday special. Both deal with the same Big Bad, both deal with issues of sanity and belief in others, and both fall just before Christmas in Sunnydale.
“Amends” takes place in Season 3, and is our first real introduction to The First, or the first evil. The First can’t take corporeal form, but can sure as heck hop into the guise of a dead person, and does just that in order to screw with people’s heads. In “Amends,” the victim is Angel, to whom The First appears in the guise of the vampire’s many victims. This haunting predictably begins to drive Angel mad, and pushes him to the brink of suicide (a pretty passive suicide, though: standing outside on Christmas Eve, waiting for the sun to come up).
The concept of The First, the one who ever was and ever shall be, throws out some religious overtones, but it’s the idea of redemption and belief in others that sets this so nicely at the holiday season, and at the year’s end. People are lonely, looking back on this year, and, in this case, their lives, with ample regret. It’s Buffy’s belief in Angel’s redemption and inner good that saves him. This episode also features some terrific bitter Willow (“not everyone worships Santa”), rare and convenient Sunnydale snow, and the symbolic locating of the villain’s secret lair by means of a patch of dead Christmas trees.
“Bring On The Night” picks up right where “Amends” ends, except for, you know, the three seasons in the middle. The First has returned as the ultimate Big Bad, only this time it’s torturing Spike, and the torture is much more than merely psychological. There’s a nice twist on the theme of redemption form how it popped up in “Amends.” When Angel ran up against The First, he wound up rejecting Buffy’s faith in him, preparing himself to die rather than trust that he was a good man. When Spike is tortured by The First, it’s his insistence that Buffy believes in him that keeps him going, and prevents him from breaking. “Bring On The Night” deals with Christmas less overtly, but the evolution of previously established themes and characters make this fascinating follow-up to the Christmas creepiness and cheer of “Amends.”
The shirtless Spike — well, just consider that a little gift from me to you. Enjoy.
“The Christmas Invasion,” Doctor Who
This is the first full Who episode for the Doctor in his David Tennant-y guise, and he spends most of it passed out. Our dear Doctor is more than a little pooped from the act of fully regenerating, but London could certainly use his help when things start spinning out of control. Earth has been invaded by the Sycorax, one-third of the world’s population is under the alien’s power and poised to commit suicide, and the Christmas decorations have gone mad and started attacking people. Don’t we all feel like the decorating has gotten a little out of control?
The episode brings old friends together — Jackie and Mickey are here, of course, but we have the first of many re-occurrences of Harriet Jones, now Prime Minister — and touches on epic themes, both loosely biblical (the climax calls for a champion of mankind) and geeky (the Doctor loses his hand in a swordfight). The Sycorax retreat, and the Doctor and Rose prepare to set off again, but not before enjoying a family Christmas dinner, complete with crackers and crowns. This is all before Harriet Jones mucks it all up by destroying the retreating aliens, of course, but in a world where “holiday” is almost always synonymous with “end of the world,” I’ll take all the cozy Christmases I can get.
This isn’t the only Doctor Who Christmas special, but the events depicted have far-reaching reverberations, and the Doctor’s exploration of his new self mimics the frequent self-reflection we all feel around this time of year. The jolliest aspect of this holiday special is the Doctor’s fervent defense of the human race. It’s oft-repeated, and may get a little old, but it never hurts to hear your species heralded by another, and at this time of year, such a speech instills hope. “The Christmas Invasion” is the Christmas special for when you want to feel good about mankind.
“X-Mas Story,” Futurama
If there were ever a special to make you feel better about the current state of the holidays, it’s “X-Mas Story.” This Season 2 episode establishes one of the most charming aspects of New New York: Holiday terror. The carols have morphed from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to “Santa Claus Is Gunning You Down,” and everyone knows that Santa is no longer a jolly old elf — everyone, of course, except Fry.
In the year 3000, Santa Claus is very real, now a robot, and deadly serious about who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Problem is, he holds everyone to an impossible standard, and judges everyone (except Zoidberg) to be naughty. It’s no good asking him to check his list twice, as he performs over fifty mega-checks a second. The jolly John Goodman provides the brilliantly menacing voice of Santa, and the episode’s dialogue is about as punny and snappy as Futurama gets.
This holiday scenario creates a great deal more warmth than you might think, as the call for “peace on earth, goodwill to men” takes on new meaning, and the collective fear of everyone unites them as one big, horrified family. Save this one for when your holiday cynicism has reached its peak, and you’re not sure things could get any worse, because they totally can.
“Marge Be Not Proud,” The Simpsons
This had all the makings of a tough choice, as The Simpsons has aired many notable Christmas episodes. The family’s very first appearance in their own series, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” dealt with Christmas bonuses and mall Santas, and who could forget the “craptacular” Christmas tree in “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace?” But Season 7’s “Marge Be Not Proud” is not only the show’s most exceptional Christmas special, but one of the Simpsons episodes that pushes the boundaries of what such a cartoon can accomplish.
Bart finds himself tempted by the “coolest videogame ever,” Bonestorm. Marge shoots down his hopes like so many “you’ll shoot your eye out”s, arguing that not only is the game violent and distracting, but “those games cost up to, and including, $70.” Bart is forced to turn to other means to procure his desired bone-crushing action, ultimately turning to shoplifting — what Nelson promotes as “a victimless crime, like punching someone in the dark.” There are some serious laughs up to this point, including a particularly pointy interchange with Comic Book Guy, but the episode stops cold when Marge discovers Bart’s indiscretion.
Never has a cartoon instilled such discomfort. The audience follows Bart as he shoulders the guilt of his actions, and endures the disappointment of his loving mother. Marge Be Not Proud rapidly switches gears from being a good ol’ laugh, as per usual, to a soul-crushing portrait of a parental cold shoulder. The despair the episode instills sets up one of the episode’s warmest moments, as Bart and Marge exchange gifts that reflect how they’ve grown over the episode and in their relationship. Watching Marge Be Not Proud can take you back to your childhood, in the most hysterical and uncomfortable ways.
“How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” The X-Files
The holidays can be awfully depressing. The ever-present allusions to friends and family can wreck havoc on the lives of the lonely, and reports are always telling us suicides peak at this time of year. “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” plays on this loneliness, and traps Mulder and Scully in a loop of depression and distrust.
In what must have seemed like a good idea at the time, Agents Mulder and Scully set out to investigate a pair of ghosts, said to be the apparitions of two lovers who killed one another on Christmas 81 years past. They wander into an appropriately creepy house, only to find themselves besieged by their prey. Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin separate our intrepid pair and begin what amounts to a psychological war. The ghosts prey on the loneliness within the pair, and the ambiguity of their relationship, urging them all the while to follow the old example and kill one another on Christmas, there in the house.
This one is a psychological trip, wrapped up nicely in one setting with a great big creepy bow. Doors and walls appear and disappear, and time itself seems to be shifting around Mulder and Scully. It all serves to isolate and displace them until they can succumb to the ghost’s desires. The penultimate scene finds our protagonists shot and bleeding, inching themselves across a great tiled floor as a scratchy Bing Crosby urges them to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
It’s enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, that’s for sure.
Save “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” for a time when you’re feeling cheery. If you watch it lonely, just remember that it’s not as bad as Mulder and Scully think.
So those are the shows that I now recommend
To watch in the comp’ny of family and friends.
If you should have your own holiday show
That you love to watch, recommend it below!
And please let me say, as I type this with speed
Happy Holidays to you, geeks, and thanks for the read.