With sci-fi/fantasy series indulging in an unusually heavy spate of holiday specials this season, including Futurama, Eureka, Warehouse 13, and an extra-Christmassy Doctor Who, it's worth looking back at how genre series have celebrated the holidays in days gone by.
What's interesting about this is that, for people in the fantasy business, our Hollywood dreammakers are just as likely to get it wrong, conjuring holiday specials that are memorable for all the wrong reasons. The ultimate example is the one-off TV movie The Star Wars Holiday Special. But regular episodes of established series could go either way as well.
10. 'Lois & Clark': "Season's Greedings"
Superman himself, Dean Cain, served up this Christmas turkey that reunites Jeffersons stars Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley as a bitter toymaker and his discontented partner. The two veterans are great together, slotting right back into their old bickering dynamic, but they aren't helped by one of the most heavy-handed holiday scripts this side of Krypton. It seems Sherman's upset with the mean-spiritedness of the holidays, so he hatches a plan to turn all the citizens of Metropolis as greedy as the jaded tots he sees clamoring for toys. Lois and Clark, needless to say, teach Sherman the true meaning of Christmas, with the help of a few zingers from Sanford and lots and lots of treacle.
9. 'Tru Calling': "'Twas the Night Before Christmas... Again"
This episode stands out as much for its broadcast history as for its content. Tru Calling was canceled while this episode was shooting; and the back end of season 2 was broadcast behind schedule, which meant that this Christmas episode would be airing not in December but in the spring -- so it was held back and not broadcast at all in the U.S. It was aired internationally and in later reruns, but a lot of fans saw it only after they bought the season 2 DVD set.
8. 'Hercules': "A Star to Guide Them"
So... a Christmas episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys? Really? Actually, the ironic aspect of this adventure, involving characters living in supposedly pagan times long before the Christian era (though it's splendid mix of very different pagan times and places), is that it's one of the few "Christmas" episodes to actually allude to Christ himself in any kind of direct way. Not only is there the plotline, straight out of the Gospel of Matthew, of a king intending to slaughter the male children to eliminate a future challenger to his power -- but at the end, Iolaus and other followers find themselves drawn to a shining star glimmering over an infant in a manger.
7. 'The Six Million Dollar Man': "A Bionic Christmas Carol"
One of the goofier reenactments of A Christmas Carol, this episode finds Lee Majors's Steve Austin (during his joke-mustache period) taking pity on the plight of poor "Bob Crandall," a hardworking victim of his bah-humbug employer/uncle, Budge. So Steve dons costumes and uses his bionic powers to (somehow) convince Budge he's the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, because Budge is the one person on Earth who's never heard this story. Along the way, the episode manages to plug the Steve Austin action figure, so important lessons were learned by characters and list-making children alike.
6. 'Supernatural': "A Very Supernatural Christmas"
The Winchesters are working Christmas, as usual, investigating a series of murders where the people were pulled up through the chimney -- victims of a sort of Anti-Santa, a demon with roots in pagan lore. But that's largely a backdrop for a highly charged holiday season, with Dean wanting a final old-fashioned Christmas in light of his impending death and Sam refusing, not wanting to accept that Dean won't be around next year. This provides the frame for Sam's flashback to a childhood Christmas when he waited for his father to come home to give him a special gift. The trips to the Winchesters' childhoods are always great, and this episode had the added bonus of finally explaining the significance of the memento Dean wears around his neck.
5. 'Smallville': "Lexmas"
In a dream Lex sees the life he could lead if he walks away from his father and LuthorCorp. It's surprisingly touching: in this possible future timeline, Lex and Lana have a baby on the way, Clark is still good friends with Lex (and is now sporting some pretty cool specs), and most of all Lex is living life as if a great burden had passed from him. Coincidentally, the last episode of Smallville this year before the holiday involved Clark finding himself in a timeline where he was found and raised by Lionel Luthor, placing himself in the opposite position from Lex here. It's one of Michael Rosenbaum's more interesting turns as Lex -- he doesn't have to be angry or duplicitous, and he and his character both seem to revel in the moment.
4. 'The Dead Zone': "A Very Dead Zone Christmas"
Airing on its own in December after The Dead Zone's fourth season had ended in August, "A Very Dead Zone Christmas" was intended to be considerably lighter than the high-stakes conflicts Johnny Smith was finding himself in. In the special, Alex Sinclair, a fellow psychic with whom Johnny had shared some romantic moments, returns to visit Johnny for Christmas -- and of course they fall into some wacky shenanigans involving the mugging of an old man with no memory dressed as Santa. The muggers, it turns out, are three young boys who Johnny and Alex try to help find their long-lost father. Everybody, even the tough street kids, ends up sharing some holiday cheer.
3. 'The Twilight Zone': "The Night of the Meek"
In this classic episode from The Twilight Zone's second season, we meet the prototype of all derelict Santas, played by Art Carney in a memorable performance (later honored by Richard Mulligan's tribute to Carney's turn, in the remake of the episode for the 1980s Twilight Zone). Carney receives a mysterious Santa bag from which he can retrieve all sorts of magically conjured gifts, and he vows to use it to provide poor children with happy Christmasses. Well, that's just the sort of thing that arouses the suspicion of uptight city officials, but Santa Carney is able to make everyone's wishes come true in the end.
2. 'Bewitched': "A Vision of Sugar Plums"
All the way back in the first season of Bewitched, Samantha and Darrin are still getting used to their magic-tinged married life together when they encounter grumpy young orphan Michael (Billy Mumy), who's becoming disillusioned with Christmas and Santa Claus. Fortunately, Samantha happens to be on speaking terms with Saint Nick, resulting in a wide-eyed Michael getting something other kids don't get for Christmas -- a visit to the North Pole! It's a great turn for Samantha -- Elizabeth Montgomery plays all this as serious business, ensuring the imaginations of children -- and Abner and Gladys Kravitz get some of their best scenes as well. Plus the Stevenses -- and we in the audience -- get a nice preview of themselves as loving parents.
1. 'Roswell': "A Roswell Christmas Carol"
Against the leavening comedy of Isabel's annual stress-inducing "Christmas Nazi" phase, the series deals with a problem most writers would avoid: If Max has the ability to heal, should he really be more concerned about his secret than the lives of others? While Christmas shopping, he sees a father sacrifice his life to save his daughter from a car accident. Dead Dad then haunts Max, demanding to know why he didn't use his alien skills to help him. Max ends up purging his guilt at a children's hospital ward, healing one child and then unable to stop himself from healing the others, despite the risk of discovery and the danger to his own health -- a message about giving that for once doesn't involve wrapping paper and department stores.