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Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Christmas Invasion originally aired in 2005.

Oh, that’s rude. That’s the sort of man I am now, am I? Rude. Rude and not ginger.

- the Doctor

Part of what’s remarkable about The Christmas Invasion is that it’s a great big important episode. Not only is it the first Doctor Who Christmas Special, the beginning of a BBC institution, it’s also the first full-length adventure to feature David Tennant in the title role, and so it comes with a lot of expectations. Whereas most of Davies’ Christmas Specials tended to be relatively light fare – enjoyable run-arounds aimed rather squarely at the kind of people who didn’t tune into the show week-in and week-out – The Christmas Invasion is a pretty big deal.

It’s a vitally important part of Davies’ Doctor Who, and one that really lays out a general blue print for where he wants to take the series over the next few years. The fact that so much of this winds up tying back into the final story of the Davies era – The End of Time – is quite striking on re-watch.

Song for Ten(nant)...

Song for Ten(nant)…

Let’s be honest. Getting a Christmas episode is a pretty big deal. You know that a show has succeeded when it’s invited to be a part of the BBC’s festive line-up. Airing a new episode on Christmas Day represents a massive vote of confidence from the BBC, and firmly identifies Davies’ revived Doctor Who as a success. Sure, there were high-profile actors and rave reviews and great ratings… but devoting a competitive slot on Christmas Day to the show less than a year after Rose aired represented a massive vote of confidence.

It’s now hard to imagine Christmas Day without a Doctor Who special, but it was a big gambit back in 2005. Christmas television is a rather wonderful thing. It represents its own unique subgenre of television viewing. It’s really about themed festive fun. It’s often an excuse to revive old favourites. The BBC had a habit of resurrecting Only Fools and Horses for Christmas viewing. It’s no coincidence that ITV’s attempted revival of Upstairs Downstairs started at Christmas. Even competitive games shows like Strictly Come Dancing will have non-competitive holiday viewing lined up.

Doctor Who interrupts East Enders...

Doctor Who interrupts East Enders…

The idea is that families will have spent the whole day together; they’ll have unwrapped presents, hung out, cooked and eaten dinner. What better way to relax in the evening than in front of the television? Adults can share a glass of wine, while kids might be allowed a soft drink for the occasion. Older members of the family might be forgiven for falling asleep while wearing one of those funny paper crowns that come inside crackers. This is not your regular audience for any show, and so the “special” part of Christmas Special feels somewhat apt.

Russell T. Davies tends to get a fair bit of criticism because his Christmas Specials tend to be rather bombastic and simplistic – but that misses the point. This isn’t really television intended for a box set or for yearly rotation. This is television designed to be followed by your elderly aunt with the dodgy hearing, or your grandfather who is struggling to stay awake, or your cousin who wouldn’t be caught dead watching “that show with the flying phone box.”

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

It’s entirely incorrect to suggest that Davies writes his Christmas Specials for people who don’t like Doctor Who. It is, perhaps, more accurate to argue that Davies writes the Christmas Specials to include extended family members who don’t watch Doctor Who. (Of course, I’m writing from personal experience here; my family are fond of the show in a passive and affectionate manner, but don’t watch the show on a weekly basis. However, most will try to get into the spirit of the Christmas Special, and I quite like that I have something to share with them. As wonderful as Human Nature is, it’s far from ideal Christmas viewing.)

This really explains how Davies and (later) Moffat structure their Christmas Specials. The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned and The Next Doctor are all the result of this approach to the Christmas Special. While Moffat tends to have the Doctor collide with traditional festive narratives, Davies tries to have Doctor Who intersect directly with Christmas itself. The imagery of The Christmas Invasion is so effective that pretty much all the Christmas-themed set-pieces get revisited in The Runaway Bride. Robot santas with musical instruments as guns! Killer Christmas trees! Snow that isn’t really snow!

Ratings were through the roof...

Ratings were through the roof…

However, The Christmas Invasion is odd. It’s particularly odd because it’s the first Christmas Special. Davies hasn’t yet established the template for the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and you can already feel the episode straining against it. I can’t help but wonder if Davies’ Christmas Specials might have been better received in The Christmas Invasion didn’t have the heavy narrative baggage carried over from The Parting of the Ways. Because The Christmas Invasion isn’t just a nice piece of festive television. It’s a vital part of the on-going arc of Davies’ Doctor Who.

The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned and The Next Doctor are relatively self-contained pieces of television. There’s no real expectation for the audience to be familiar with the trappings of Doctor Who beyond the most surface-level detail. The shows assume that the audience know about the Doctor and the TARDIS, and that viewers might recognise words like “Dalek” or “Cybermen”, the monsters that have pop culture cache. There’ll be a whole bunch of in-jokes and references, and a sneak peak at the arc word of the year ahead, but nothing too reliant on the audience’s familiarity with Doctor Who.

That voodoo that they do so well...

That voodoo that they do so well…

The Runaway Bride builds off the departure of Rose, but it only relies on the viewer knowing that Billie Piper left tha show. Sure, Donna would go on to become a regular companion over a year later, but that doesn’t impact The Runaway Bride. Voyage of the Damned makes fleeting reference to repairing the TARDIS after The Sound of Drums, but its biggest link to the show’s internal continuity is the suggestion that Londoners have learned to fear Christmas. The Next Doctor fleetingly references Journey’s End and Doomsday, but only in the most abstract manner.

So this makes The Christmas Invasion feel quite different from the Christmas Specials that would follow. It is tasked with introducing the audience to David Tennant and his take on the Doctor. It features Rose’s supporting cast from the Powell Estate. There’s a relatively large supporting role reserved for Penelope Wilton, paying off a character arc that began in the revival’s first two-part episode. Indeed, the Doctor’s frustration with Harriet Jones hinges on the promise she offered, promise that is never really established here, but was an important part of World War III.

Burning up the energy...

Burning up the energy…

That’s not to suggest that The Christmas Invasion is unrecognisable when compared to later Christmas Specials. The main plot still has that “popcorn television” feeling to it. While The Runaway Bride throws the Doctor into fast-paced action thriller and Voyage of the Damned gives us Doctor-Who-as-The-Poseidon-Adventure, The Christmas Invasion offers the audience a big dumb alien invasion movie.

The iconography is quite striking. The aerial shot of the Sycorax ship arriving over London is designed to consciously evoke the title card of another show on the BBC Christmas schedule. This is aliens invading East Enders. So we get all the trappings of a big alien invasion film. A gigantic ship appears. Mankind is powerless. Our quest to the stars has brought undo attention from above. These creatures plan to invade the world and harvest its inhabitants.

Hariet Jones, disgraced former Prime Minister...

Hariet Jones, disgraced former Prime Minister…

There are a lot of the obligatory sequences. Of course the space ship parks in an orbit low enough to cast a shadow over a major metropolitan city. Snippets of news footage lend the events a bit of verisimilitude, giving a grounded credibility to the events unfolding. The important leaders of the human race hunker in bunkers, surrounded by lots of expensive equipment and snazzy visuals allowing them to get a truly global perspective from inside one tiny room.

In particular, it seems like Davies is spoofing Independence Day, perhaps the definitive nineties alien invasion film. This would perhaps explain the strangely jingoistic vibe to The Christmas Invasion with its talk about “Britain’s mission to Mars” and the Sycorax’s decision to treat the British Prime Minister as the “leader of the planet.” (For what it’s worth, Davies’ politics shine through here as Harriet Jones refuses to let the United States get involved. “You can tell the President, and please use these exact words, he’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.”)

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

Contact with the Sycorax is managed by the British, and on British terms. Although the Sycorax make contact at midnight GMT on Christmas Day, the American news networks give the date of contact in British time. “On the 25th of December, the human race has been shown absolute proof that alien life exists,” we’re told, even though first contact would have been made on the 24th of December in United States time.

This Anglo-centric invasion seems like a rather tongue-in-cheek response by Davies to the very American-centric nature of most alien invasions in popular culture. In Independence Day, this sense of quirky nationalism that ran so deep that the BBC radio adaptation of the film was expressly prohibited from allowing the British characters contribute to saving the day in any meaningful manner.

A crowning accomplishment?

A crowning accomplishment?

At the same time, The Christmas Invasion isn’t quite sure how seriously it takes its British nationalism. The idea of a British space programme is quite laughable, but it dates back to the Pertwee era of the show – an era that Davies has quite a lot of trouble reconciling. Even outside of obvious touches like that, there’s a more low-key Britishness at play here. The Doctor even references Arthur Dent as a role model. In spite of everything else going on, a little hot tea winds up being “the solution to everything.” (“Very British,” Mickey observes.)

Which, to be fair, really brings us to one of the grand themes of the Tennant era, perfectly embodied in his very first episode. Arrogance and hubris. In his desire to be a major player in human history, and to help pave a road to the stars, Llewellyn arrogantly and recklessly gives the Sycorax a mechanism to control a third of the planet. Harriet Jones dares to presume that she knows better than the Doctor. And, in hindsight, the Doctor dares to presume that he knows better than Harriet Jones.

Everything's a bit askew...

Everything’s a bit askew…

This plays out as part of the national pride of The Christmas Invasion. The Doctor lauded the arrival of “the Golden Age” in World War III, proud to be involved in Harriet Jones’ rise to power. However, the reality of the “Golden Age” is rather different from the ideal. It doesn’t just mean a Britain where Jackie is eighteen pounds a week a better off, it means a world where Britain is a major political and social power. It means a Britain that can and will defend itself. Building from the history of Britain, Davies suggests that any “Golden Age” couldn’t help but evoke the spectre of the British Empire.

The British Empire was, after all, the peak of British power and influence on the world stage. And national pride is often resurgent with a willingness to assert that power and influence. Davies very explicitly connects Harriet Jones’ “Golden Age” to Margaret Thatcher’s defence of the last vestiges of empire during the Falklands War. The destruction of the retreating Sycorax ship invites comparison to the sinking of the retreating Argentinian ship Belgrano during the Falklands campaign. Indeed, Jones’ disgrace and resignation is designed to mirror that of Margaret Thatcher.

News to me...

News to me…

In a less political context, there’s also a sense that Davies is building hubris and arrogance into the character of the Tenth Doctor, as a way of playing out some of the tensions within the show itself. The first year of the revived Doctor Who was very much an effort to establish the series as a vital part of British popular culture once again. That had been accomplished. The existence of The Christmas Invasion is proof enough of that.

From the second season onwards, Davies seemed to be trying to turn Doctor Who into the biggest thing on television. Despite the wonderful work of Christopher Eccleston, there’s a reason that David Tennant is more recognisable to casual viewers. Davies would launch two massive spin-offs from the show during his tenure. He’d manage to recruit incredible guest stars and rave reviews and massive ratings. He’d manage to turn Doctor Who into event television. That’s a pretty significant accomplishment, and it’s something that really only kicked into gear once Eccleston was replaced by Tennant.

Putting this regeneration matter to bed...

Putting this regeneration matter to bed…

You can see that even here. The Christmas Invasion has its own pop song, playing over a scene of the hero choosing his wardrobe. Sure, Song for Ten was never a massive hit single – but it was still a song written by Murray Gold and eventually recorded by Neil Hannon. You can imagine a world where the show released a single with a video guest-starring David Tennant. The album went on to top the soundtrack charts on iTunes, selling better than the higher profile release of the Casino Royale official soundtrack.

Davies builds this into the Tenth Doctor from the start, this conflict between ego and reality. And so the Tenth Doctor becomes a character caught between two radical extremes. It’s hard to tell where he will fall on that line in any given episode. In this respect at least, the Tenth Doctor is consistent. He remains this way until his regeneration in The End of Time, perhaps the point where it’s most obvious that Davies can’t make up his mind about this iteration of the character.

Comparing Doctors is like apples and satsumas...

Comparing Doctors is like apples and satsumas…

On one hand, there’s a sense that Davies buys into the hype, and believes that the Doctor really is the best thing ever, the most wonderful of creatures in the universe. So we get attributes like the Doctor’s ability to pull a big red reset button out at the end of every season finalé. On the other hand, there’s a sense of fear that Davies might have miscalculated, that this might all be hype and bluster; that the Doctor talks a good game, but is really useless. So we get Midnight or Voyage of the Damned.

And then there are times when it’s very hard to figure out what we’re supposed to make of the Tenth Doctor’s actions. In The End of Time, it’s hard to care too much about the Doctor when he dedicates considerable time to making Wilf feel stupid before reluctantly and grudgingly sacrificing himself for the poor guy. Appropriately enough, it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of his decision to overthrow Harriet Jones here.

Syc-ing the voodoo on them...

Syc-ing the voodoo on them…

To be fair to Davies, he allows Harriet Jones to make a compelling case for her decision to proactively defend planet Earth. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time,” she argues. “You come and go. It happened today. Mister Llewellyn and the Major, they were murdered. They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” Given that the Doctor has just lived through Bad Wolf, you think he’d be more sympathetic to that argument. Instead, in a fit of pique, he brings down her government.

However, Davies layers on the Margaret Thatcher comparisons quite heavily. Given how the show (as a whole) feels about Thatcher, that’s a pretty damning indictment. The script also makes it abundantly clear that the Sycorax have been defeated and are retreating when Harriet Jones gives the order to shoot them down. Most damning of all, however, Davies has Harriet Jones apologise for her actions. “I’m sorry,” she utters after the Doctor leaves, making it clear that even Harriet Jones doesn’t believe her actions were entirely justified.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

To be fair to Davies, he retroactively clarifies these events. In hindsight, the Doctor’s actions become downright reckless rather than simply morally ambiguous. In The Stolen Earth, he has Harriet Jones stand by her actions. In The Sound of Drums, he reveals that the Doctor’s actions allowed the Master to take control of Great Britain. Given that the Master’s actions lead to the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration in The End of Time, the events of The Christmas Invasion carve out a path that leads to The End of Time. The Tenth Doctor is doomed from his first story.

(That said, I doubt this arc is something that Davies had planned from The Christmas Invasion. Certainly, the weird rush to make the necessary connections in The End of Time feels a bit more like frantic attempts to retroactively connect the dots in order to bring the Tenth Doctor in something of a full circle – within the larger full circle of the revival by teasing the return of the Time Lords. At the same time, it is a nifty little dramatic hook, even if it feels just a little bit convoluted.)

A fun knight...

A fun knight…

Although we only really get ten minutes of the Tenth Doctor here, they do establish quite a lot, quite quickly. A lot of actors really grow into the role, with their performances shifting over the span of their tenure. William Hartnell is the most obvious example, but it’s also true of Sylvester McCoy, Tom Baker and even Matt Smith. In contrast, Tennant seems to arrive fully-formed. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise; this is the role that Tennant has spent his entire life dreaming about.

The writing is, understandably, a little rougher. There’s a sense Davies doesn’t quite have the Tenth Doctor nailed down. “No second chances” is perhaps the least appropriate cliché to attribute to this incarnation of the Doctor. The Tenth Doctor’s standard modus operandi is to repeatedly beg aliens not to force him to commit genocide… before committing genocide when they force his hand.

Snow better partnership...

Snow better partnership…

The Tenth Doctor isn’t an incarnation of the character that tends to react immediately and brutally, as that cliché would suggest. Instead, the Tenth Doctor will wring his hands trying to avoid taking extreme measures. In fact, Human Nature is such an effective critique of the Tenth Doctor because it makes it clear that his reluctance to act decisively and brutally when facing an alien threat often leads to more violence and suffering.

At the same time, there are glimmers of the character the Tenth Doctor would become. “I mean, judging by the evidence, I’ve certainly got a gob,” he boasts. As he threatens the Sycorax, he explains, “Because I really don’t know who I am. I don’t know when to stop. So if I see a great big threatening button which should never, ever, ever be pressed, then I just want to do this.” Which is a much better description of the Tenth Doctor.

Those pilot fish are screwed...

Those pilot fish are screwed…

The Tenth Doctor is the one who doesn’t know when to stop. That is the point of his characterisation in The Runaway Bride and Turn Left. It’s probably a nice way to account for the Tenth Doctor’s weird vaguely suicidal tendencies, hinted at in The Satan PitEvolution of the Daleks and The Poison Sky. It also fits quite well with the events of The Waters of Mars and his last words in The End of Time. So it turns out that Davies already has a broad idea of where he might want to take this version of the character.

Of course, the Doctor spends most of The Christmas Invasion incapacitated and unconscious. This is a canny move, for a number of reasons. In practical terms, it allows the episode to build up to the reveal of the Doctor’s new personality, with David Tennant wandering into the narrative and defeating the Sycorax in under ten minutes. It also allows the episode to shift the burden of defining the Tenth Doctor to the thirteen-episode season that will air in a few months. After all, that will allow David Tennant to find his feet and for the scripts to find his range.

Rax-ing up quite a bodycount...

Rax-ing up quite a bodycount…

More interestingly, it puts the emphasis on Rose as a character. In a way, this is Davies pretty much re-writing one of the great overlooked ideas from The Twin Dilemma. In The Twin Dilemma, the Doctor’s regeneration left him incapacitated and left his companion to manage both the situation and the Doctor. Of course, this was eighties Doctor Who, so The Twin Dilemma overlooked the interesting hook of having a companion “covering” for an incapacitated lead, and just went straight to the Doctor choking Peri in the Console Room. As you do.

Like a lot of Davies’ early work, The Christmas Invasion rehabilitates this idea. It suggests that there’s actually an interesting story to be told about what happens to a companion when the Doctor undergoes regeneration. Here, Rose is forced to try to protect the Doctor, creating an interesting inversion of the classic dynamic. She succeeds at this. More than that, though, The Christmas Invasion makes it clear that the companion validates the Doctor.

"Be honest, do I look like I can pull this off?"

“Be honest, do I look like I can pull this off?”

When you have a new actor assuming the lead role, you need a way to let the audience know that they are the Doctor. The Daleks usually work quite well, conferring legitimacy on the incoming performer. Patrick Troughton stepped into the role of the Doctor by vanquishing the Daleks in Power of the Daleks. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss inverted this by having the Daleks rely on the Doctor to confer legitimacy in Victory of the Daleks. Still, it’s a nice way to reassure the audience that this man is who he says that he is.

The Master served the function for the Fifth Doctor; the Rani stepped into the void for the Seventh. However, Davies seems to make the argument that the Doctor’s legitimacy does not depend on any of his old foes. In fact, David Tennant has to wait a whole season before coming into contact with the Daleks in Doomsday, which is longer than Christopher Eccleston or Matt Smith. Instead, Davies suggests that it’s up to Rose to judge the Doctor worthy of the title “Oh, so I’m still the Doctor, then?” the Doctor asks. “No arguments from me!” Rose replies.

He does make this look good...

He does make this look good…

Rose is also forced to try to fill the narrative vacuum left by the Doctor. “Someone’s gotta be the Doctor.” In this, Rose is less successful. The Sycorax accuse her of using “stolen words” to try and scare them away. Davies seems to be suggesting that there is a limit to how far a companion can go to replace the Doctor. Davies’ Doctor Who is really about the Doctor empowering people to become heroes. Rose, Martha and Jack all end up emulating the Doctor in some way, shape or form. However, The Christmas Invasion seems to suggest that there is a line to be drawn. The companion can never actually take the place of the Doctor.

This is important, given that Billie Piper was going to be departing the show soon. It was important for Davies to firmly establish that the Doctor is just as vital to the show as the companion was. While the companion has a unique function in the show, the Doctor is completely irreplaceable. The Christmas Invasion really defines the boundaries of what a companion can and can’t do. They can protect the Doctor. They can validate him. They cannot replace him.

Sadly, I suspect this is as close as we'll ever get to "the Pacino Doctor."

Sadly, I suspect this is as close as we’ll ever get to “the Pacino Doctor.”

And so, The Christmas Invasion sets us up for the show’s second season.

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