Several venues inquired last month as to which of Doctor Who‘s nine (nine!!) previous Christmas specials were fans’ favorites. Polls were taken, rankings made, each one different. I found I could not choose. Was it ‘Christmas Invasion?’ The Tenth Doctor’s introduction, with Rose and Harriet Jones and ‘Did you miss me?’ How about ‘Runaway Bride,’ with Segways and little kids cheering from the back of the car? ‘The Next Doctor,’ with David Morrissey and Victoriana? ‘The Snowmen’ with sassy Clara, potato jokes, and Ian McKellan?
The season passed without nearly as many re-watchings as I’d hoped, but I find myself settling on ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Having seen it twice in fairly short succession – once as part of the regularly scheduled re-watch, and once with my husband as the holiday approached – I still find it delightful. It’s everything that makes Doctor Who wonderful – funny, scary, smart, and sweet – while staying true to the spirit of the source material. It’s good fun, a nice warm bittersweet holiday treat.
And of course – we’re halfway out of the dark. That quote is the best expression yet of the universality (among Northern cultures that is) of winter holiday celebrations, religious or otherwise. Everyone who lives through the dark needs and wants to celebrate the light. The holidays don’t belong to Christians or pagans or anyone else; they belong to humanity. I use the quote every year at Solstice, as both a literal and figurative expression of the season. It’s one of those perfect moments that happen in Doctor Who from time to time, and part of the reason I love the show.
It’s hard to believe there have now been ten Doctor Who Christmas specials. Five of them belong to the Tenth Doctor all by himself. Eleven has four, including the regeneration, and now the Twelfth Doctor has one of his own as well. And because this is my blog and I can do what I want, I’m now going to comment on all of them.
‘The Christmas Invasion’ A newly regenerated Tenth Doctor crashes to Earth and promptly faints, leaving Rose to face an alien invasion on her own. Rose gets some wonderful character stuff in this episode – not the ‘isn’t she great at everything’ uselessness people so often expect of their characters, but stuff that makes her real and human and alive. She doesn’t know how to help the Doctor; she doesn’t know how to help herself. She sobs in her mother’s arms and bemoans her loss. She’s nineteen and frightened and she’s just seen her best friend transform into someone else right in front of her eyes. She doesn’t understand.
But that doesn’t stop her from stepping up. ‘You can’t be the Doctor,’ Mickey warns her, fearing for her safety. ‘Someone’s got to,’ she answers. Frightened and ignorant as she is, she takes a stand. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she doesn’t let that stop her from making an effort. She tried running away and hiding in the TARDIS – who wouldn’t? – but when forced to face the enemy she does her best. Rose is a hero in this story, even if her heroism fails. Fortunately the Doctor is there.
The episode is not without its issues. The Doctor’s takedown of Harriet Jones’ government is problematic on a number of levels. Externally, it’s the disenfranchisement of a duly elected female leader by an arrogant and self-righteous male. Even within the story it’s something of an overreaction: Jones’ actions may have been extreme but her reasoning was sound. Even if what she did was wrong – and I think it was – it doesn’t justify his single-handed destruction of what he himself had referred to as Britain’s great Golden Age.
I do, however, appreciate that this action came back to bite him in the end. The loss of public confidence in Jones made way for Harold Saxon. In addition, Jones never did second-guess herself. She believed till the end that what she did was the right thing to do at the time. His arrogance and her self-possession are both ultimately acknowledged.
The end of this episode remains one of my favorite moments of the series. The Doctor becomes a part of Rose’s family, and they make the choice together to continue their adventures into the unknown. It’s sweet and optimistic, and a great setup for the season to follow.
‘The Runaway Bride’ Donna Noble quickly became a favorite when she got a season of her own. When she first meets the Doctor, she is loud, demanding, self-centered, manipulative, and shallow; but he soon finds she has enormous courage and an enormous heart. She stands up for herself and doesn’t take crap from anyone.
On her initial outing, Donna’s reception was harsh. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is society’s rejection of powerful women. Men boss and bitch and get their way, but let a woman do it and she is excoriated. Some have asked whether a male companion behaving identically would have been so widely disliked. She is also older than the vast majority of companions, and is less the model type. Would a younger, prettier woman – Peri comes to mind – get away with such behavior more easily? Catherine Tate was cast initially as a guest star because of her popularity as a comedian, not for her looks or her type or her dramatic acting chops. However, she clearly won people over, and went on to show incredible depth of character in S4.
The episode is heavy on humor. Who doesn’t love a car chase, complete with TARDIS and screaming fans? Who doesn’t find Segways hilarious? It’s a good story, a good romp, and some great character stuff too. The Doctor is grieving, in agony of loss; Donna offers distraction, balance, and in the end, compassion. She helps him in his pursuit of the mystery, and returns to her family with both of them in a better place than they started.
This story, as many do, touches on the way the Doctor changes people for the better, foreshadowing the tragedy of Donna’s ultimate fate. By forgetting the Doctor and everything she experienced with him, she became again the vapid, self-absorbed person she had been before. However, while I agree that forgetting one’s adventures is tragic, I interpret the result differently. I saw – and ‘The End of Time’ helped demonstrate – that there was nothing wrong with Donna in the first place. Gossiping, reality-TV-watching, 40-year-old temps are people too, and every bit as important and valuable as the Roses, the Sarah Janes, and the Doctors.
‘Voyage of the Damned’ On first viewing I was annoyed by the parallels with ‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ a classic disaster movie, but recently I learned that such fare were already popular holiday viewing (why, I have no idea) and the homage was entirely appropriate. It’s darker in tone than its predecessors: the Doctor’s new friends and fellow heroes are all killed, one by one, in spite of his best efforts to save them, and he’s left with the timid criminal Copper and malevolent Rickston Slade. It’s a little bit like life that way: you don’t get to choose who stays and who goes, and if you could what would that make you?
The Doctor’s rapport with Astrid demonstrates the scorching chemistry Tennant has with every one of his co-stars. Pop star and fangirl Kylie Minogue doesn’t sing a note, but plays her role perfectly. Who among us wouldn’t dream of traveling the stars, and leap at the chance for such a charming companion? Her loss adds to the grief and guilt that have begun to define this incarnation. The Doctor travels on alone.
Wilfred Mott makes his first appearance in this episode. Originally he was to be a one-off; then Howard Attfield died, and the writers needed to fill the male parent role in Donna’s life. Bernard Cribbins was a DW veteran, having played the male companion role in the second Peter Cushing movie. He reprised the character of Wilf, quickly becoming another fan favorite, and the incident was referenced in ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ when the Doctor first meets Donna’s family.
One slightly problematic aspect of this episode is the wheelchair-bound villain. Television in general has trouble with positive depictions of the disabled; Doctor Who makes them evil. Like Davros and John Lumic before him, Max Capricorn is driven to madness by his disability, destroying others in his efforts to compensate himself. While the writers have since worked to improve treatment of disabled characters, by this episode they had not yet begun.
‘The Next Doctor’ I wrote about this one recently. It has its issues, but still it’s lots of fun.
‘The End of Time, Part I’ The first half of the Tenth Doctor’s swan song. It’s hard to separate this one from its other half, as they make up a single story. Wilfred Mott is a key feature, and he is a delight:
The story has its ups and downs, and it’s heavy on the melodrama. John Simm’s Master is terrifying, as is Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon. The two parts make a decent pair, not the strongest nor the weakest of the series, and a satisfying goodbye to David Tennant.
‘A Christmas Carol’ I think I’ve covered this one sufficiently as well.
‘The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe’ The Narnia reference is obviously intentional. This one has a lot of fun with Matt Smith being a lunatic. Madge Arwell, grieving single mother, saves the day – and, at the last minute, her imperiled husband, in keeping with Moffat’s inability to kill anyone. Having seen it only once I don’t remember it well, but I recall it was a sweet and enjoyable story.
Except for humany-wumany. That’s just stupid.
‘The Snowmen’ Clara’s first appearance as Clara, while baffling, is a lot of fun. This episode also features the assembly of the Paternoster gang. The Doctor’s interactions with Strax are hilarious – those grenade jokes will keep us going a long time. Ian McKellan is flawless. In spite of the frustration of never learning the reasons for Clara’s double life, we could watch this episode over and over.
‘The Time of the Doctor’ The last in the ‘Noun of the Doctor’ series is also the weakest. I remember little other than gratuitous nudity, old acquaintances and entire religions appearing out of nowhere, and boredom. The regeneration took forever and still managed to be anti-climactic. If not for his lovely scene in ‘Deep Breath,’ Matt Smith would have had a sad exit indeed.
I’ll probably see it again at some point, but I’m not in any hurry.
‘Last Christmas’ The newest and Capaldi’s first, this one ranks near the top. I definitely plan to see it again; it was great fun, and I hear it rewards additional viewings with depth and nuance. I look forward to it.
Another Christmas has come and gone; another season is yet to come. Let the waiting begin.