Ghosts of Doctors Past, 1: “The Christmas Invasion”
Thanksgiving is over, which can mean only one thing: The countdown to the next Doctor Who Christmas Special is officially underway. What, you thought there was more to the festive period than that…? Well, okay, you’re right, but each Sunday (and one Saturday) between now and Christmas, I’ll be revisiting the past six Who Christmas specials nonetheless, to help get you in the right mood for “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” on December 25th. This week: “The Christmas Invasion”!
It’s very strange, revisiting this episode now that we’re two seasons into Matt Smith and Steven Moffat’s reign on the series; it all seems curiously old and… not exactly half-formed, exactly, but definitely a much younger show, and one that had to work out some kinks still. But there’re teeth to “The Christmas Invasion” that save it from the overwhelming sentiment on show, and in the end, it holds together much more successfully than it has any right to.
One of the problems with the episode is that it’s just far, far too ambitious for its own good, but I think that sums up Russell T. Davies’ run as showrunner in general; never one for understatement, he tries to push everything into this episode, giving it this strange, unsettled tone that tries (and, if you ask me, fails) to have its cake and eat it, too – It’s a feel-good rollicking adventure about abandonment, renewal and the dangers of power corrupting, in which we get kid-friendly robotic Santas with deadly Christmas trees and a hero who nonchalantly kills the bad guy and then goes on to call the human race the true monsters of the episode… and that pretty snowfall at the end? That’s actually ash from the alien spaceship that humanity shot down for no good reason other than our own fear! Happy Holidays, Everyone! It really shouldn’t work – the pacing is terrible, and the show is at least ten minutes too long – but somehow, mostly down to the electricity of David Tennant’s first real appearance as the Doctor, it almost does.
It’s actually an oddly political script, with Harriet Jones telling someone to tell the president of the United States that “He’s not my boss and he’s certainly not turning this into a war” when aliens approach, and then feeling forced to take similarly aggressive action even after the aliens are leaving, in order to protect her people. That’s one way in which Davies’ Who differs from Moffat’s; Davies always tried to keep the show relevant to contemporary life, and contemporary Britain in particular; Moffat’s take on the series is much more timeless and less tied to a particular take on “Britishness” (It’s not for nothing that the Doctor is revived here by a nice cup of tea. “Very British, isn’t it?” says Mickey at one point, in case you’ve missed the point).
But back to Tennant, who is definitely the highpoint of the episode, even though he’s essentially missing for more than half of it (A smart move, building anticipation and raising the stakes, not to mention keeping so much of the discovery of just who this new Doctor is for the next season, giving curious viewers reason to come back); he’s clearly having fun here, relishing the camp and pantomime in the writing and just elevating the script way higher than anyone else had managed up until that point – Is it just me, or did a lot of Who at this point seem kind of… cheap, perhaps? It hadn’t developed the filmic quality, visually, that later episodes would, even before Moffat took over the show. Every scene he’s not in seems to drag in comparison (Your mileage may vary, but I was never a Rose superfan, and her “The Doctor left me, so I’ll sulk” for the majority of this episode is amazingly annoying; Jackie and Mickey, too, always got on my nerves when given too much to do, so having the three of them carry the first 40 minutes of this show wasn’t a pleasant experience), and by the end of the episode, the viewer really does feel like he saved the day for the programme-makers, as well as the fictional characters inside the show.
Overall, then, this is a weird episode to rewatch. Aside from the deadly Santas and Christmas trees in the first third of the show and treacley, unnecessary “Everyone having fun around the dinner table on Christmas Day” epilogue, this is a pretty unfestive special, and it almost disappears under its own ambition and pretention more than once. But when Tennant is on-screen, it’s thrilling and entertaining and exactly the kind of present that you’d be happy to find under your metaphorical television tree on Christmas morning. It’s a start, then, and when looked at as the product of early days and good intentions, it’s a lot easier to like. But things, thankfully, got much better from this point on.
Next week: “The Runaway Bride”!