...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, December 24, 2010

Day 3645: DOCTOR WHO: The Christmas Invasion

Christmas Steve*:

Well jingle my bells if BBC1 isn't going to run its first series of Doctor Who repeats since (Daddy Alex tells me) 1993, showing Christmas Specials all next week, starting with, er, "The Runaway Bride"…

Never mind, let's dial our anticipation for tomorrow's "Christmas Carol" Special up to eleven by getting Daddy Richard to look back on that OTHER Dr Woo story with "Christmas" in the title… "Christmas on a Rational Planet" by Lawrence Miles…

What? It's not?

Look: it's got bone masks, voodoo curses, and Time Lord continuity… are you SURE this one isn't by Mr Larry?

"I wish today could be like every other day…" warble the words of Murray Gold's elegiac "Song for Ten" over the closing montage of the Doctor's first Christmas with Rose and her family "…because today has been the best day." And this, succinctly, is the tragedy of the Tenth Doctor. Because his first day is is best day.

I'm not saying that this is his best story, nor even David Tennant's finest hour. There will be plenty of triumphs yet to come, "Gridlock", "Human Nature", "Blink", "Midnight", many others. But from the Doctor's point of view, this is as good as it gets: he saves the world with a swordfight and wins the girl. With hindsight, everything from now on is looking back to this: the cloying relationship with Rose in his first year is clearly trying desperately to cling on to it; and obviously everything after "Doomsday" is yearning to return to that moment that has slipped through his fingers. No wonder he goes bonkers in the end. "I can do anything!" he boasts as the Time Lord triumphant; but the only thing he wants to do is the one thing that he can't. And inevitably he ends up where he started, returning to Earth at Christmas, and at the end, returning to Rose at Christmas. "I don't want to go." Doctor, you never did.

Mind you, it is a ruddy good episode.

For starters, Tennant nails the Doctor straight out of the traps, completely redefining what it is to be the Time Lord.

We've had Doctors before who use bluff and bluster to cover up their actions, but never one that uses such a blizzard of words. And where Troughton uses bluster to cover up a vast intellect, and Colin Baker uses bluster to cover up his Doctor's bleeding heart, Tennant creates a Doctor who is covering up his… disappointment at the universe, and a white-cold burning fury.

The ninth Doctor was a damaged man, for whom wonder was the only solace in a universe tainted by guilt and loss, who in the end found redemption through Rose, in love and self-sacrifice. He was the most powerful person in the universe, but his power was constrained by his fear of himself. The tenth Doctor has no such restraints and anoints himself judge, jury and executioner for all creation. "No second chances." He's that sort of a guy.

True, he's barely in it for forty minutes, doing little more than suffer nobly and exhale meaningfully (with CGI fairy dust added later), though in the two moments when he is up and at 'em – the pre-title sequence with its remarkable TARDIS crash, and the confrontation with the sinister Santas after the killer Christmas tree which still never fails to delight me – in both cases we see him already putting together the two sides to his Doctor: the gabbling, so full of ideas the words tumble over one another so they can barely get out of his mouth Doctor and the silent, wrathful demigod.

But from the moment that the TARDIS translation starts to work again, and we have a moment to work it out just ahead of Rose and then Harriet and the others, and the music builds and the camera zooms in through the gathered cast to the opening TARDIS doors and Tennant stands there and tips us a cheeky, insouciant, "Did you miss me?", he absolutely has us.

It's funny and wise and dynamic and completely televisual. Unlike Eccleston, he's totally unselfconscious about the jokes, and if he's slightly overdoing the boggler-boggler look-at-me thing – as he will later really overdo the boggler-boggler look-at-me thing; yes, "The Satan Pit", I'm looking at you – you can also say that he's doing it deliberately because the Doctor is trying to keep the Sycorax attention on him and off balance.

And he looks so young. We've gotten used to the way that Tennant has aged with this series, but here he looks so fresh and unlined, without the weight of seriousness that his years as the Doctor add to him.

It's not just Tennant who looks young. The entire production feels new and fresh and original, looking like it did before it became bloated and flabby in trying to do an event just like this one again and again, but bigger and louder and brasher each time.

Here there is something pure and true about the story of Earth's "first" encounter with an alien invasion (particularly when the government's level of preparation for such an event turns out to be shockingly neither pure nor true: it's a fully armed and operational Battle… er …Earth).

It's not something you can do again, and they shouldn't have tried. Before the Sycorax it doesn't stretch our disbelief, that the human race doesn't believe in aliens yet. But after this it starts to get silly.

There are so many little moments that it gets just right: the scaffolding around the top of the repaired Big Ben (all right, Westminster Clock Tower). The hilarious Christmas tree-shaped hole in the wall of Jacqui's flat. The fact that Jackie is actually spot on when the first thing she offers the regenerating Doctor is a nice cup of tea.

As in "Aliens of London", Russell uses newsreaders and reportage to add to the "realism", cogent of how a 24-hour news world would react to an event of global significance. And for the first time we get those shots of "all around the world", a bit cheesy, perhaps, using world landmarks like this, but it sells the story to us. Of course, that's also one of the reasons why subsequently all the "retractions" are so unbelievable.

Here and there, there are the odd silly mistake. All those people stood up on London's roofs and not a one topples off when the Sycorax ship arrives with a blast wave sufficient to shatter the Gherkin. The Sycorax appear to have designed their spaceship for the convenience of the Doctor's battle, with easy access to the exterior and a very handy button for dropping treacherous defeated warleaders over the side. We can maybe be generous and say that business with the "still within the first fifteen hours of my regeneration cycle" means it's less than fifteen hours since he finished regenerating (thanks to the tea) than since he started.

In many ways it's a story in two clear parts: the "Christmassy" part, with the Santas and the Tree, and the Sycorax who, in spite of their red robes, are not very Christmassy at all. The Doctor almost says as much with his "something is coming". Future episodes will see this sort of thing become the most ludicrously portentous prophecies, but this time it's very nearly and very clearly an "end of part one" trailer. The Santas don't add anything to the main plot, and literally disappear from the story halfway through. We don't get a resolution to them; in fact, it's not even clear that they're robots until next Christmas. But without the robot Santas there would be very little Christmas about this invasion at all.

And then we get the Sycorax. They do look really good, not just the bone masks and the reveal that underneath they are even more hideous (not merely a reference to Larry's Faction Paradox, but also a nod to that earlier Doctor Who panto, "The Horns of Nimon", where the bull-headed Nimon were allegedly supposed to be revealed as masks over something even worse), but also the choreography of them, from their "Bohemian Rhapsody"-inspired message to Earth to their council chamber. And there are enough of them that they look like a crowd even in the scenes where they are digitally multiplying them.

Up against them: Earth's finest. The entrance of UNIT, how many fanboys punched the air at that? And the reveal of their base in the Tower of London is a triumph, no matter that the "secret base in major London landmark" will become such a cliché of the show that even the Doctor starts to comment on it.

But in "The Christmas Invasion" it seems right, it seems blindingly obvious that of course the defence of Earth would be mounted from the centre of England's power for centuries.

And at the centre of England's power, Penelope Wilton is magnificent as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister. The "yes, we know who you are," joke is pitched perfectly for her: it isn't overplayed, it doesn't outstay it's welcome, and it's actually complimentary, saying how much she has achieved even as it reminds us, and her, of her former status as non-entity in "Aliens of London".

The script goes out of its way to show that she is kind and wise. She makes tea for Mr Llewellyn when no one else remembers; she is appreciative of Alex her "right hand man"; she says to the President what we all wish someone had said to the President.

And then she murders the retreating Sycorax.

Oh, how I remember the arguments on the online forums about that. Was she right, was she wrong; back and forward.

The case for Harriet Jones is that the Sycorax attacked us, they had demonstrated their hostile intent, and their leader had sworn peace on his people's life and then betrayed that oath and tried to stab the Doctor in the back. They could not be trusted. And worse, the Doctor had just made it quite clear to her that the universe was full of such dangerous and hostile enemies.

Destroying the Sycorax was justified punishment of an aggressor; it was pre-emptive defence against a hostile and treacherous enemy; and it was a statement and warning that Earth is not to be taken lightly.

I don't agree. None of that justifies shooting them in the back as they were trying to run away.

Harriet was wrong. It was human. It was so understandable. But it was wrong.

And it was the Doctor's fault. He frightened her. He didn't bother to take care of her. He was too caught up in his happy family reunion with Rose to notice that Harriet needed a Doctor too. It must take enormous strength of character not to take revenge, to do the right thing, to forgive – in case we forget that that is the meaning of the Christmas story. Harriet needed support, not a lecture.

His bringing down of her government is petty, too. It doesn't put anything right. And who gave him the right to unseat her? Why is his justice any less arbitrary than hers? Okay, at least she can walk away from it, but…

There is justice in punishing Harriet for killing the Sycorax, but the Doctor isn't acting from justice, he's acting from anger. He has every right to be angry about the ship, but he gets more angry when she throws his own failings in his face: he was the one who said Earth had to get used to alien attention, he was the one who failed to save the Major and Mr Llewellyn. Neither of them will back down. This is how arguments between people who should care for each other spiral out of control.

"I should have stopped you!"

"What does that make you? Another alien threat?"

He is an alien; he is threatening her. Of course her own threat is implicit – she has just shot down a spaceship the size of an asteriod.

But his threats (to bring down her government) get worse (whereas she only tells him to "stop it!" leaving her own threat only implied). It prefigures Queen Victoria's reaction in "Tooth and Claw" and the coming of "Torchwood" (evil mark one version).

It's a really bold Christmas Special that challenges us with such complicated questions. Because the Doctor is acting on the side of "good", but does he have any right to do so? From a certain point of view, he is a big alien bully intervening arbitrarily.

And also, isn't he just ripping up the Web of Time? Which, from a Time Lord's perspective, ought to be even worse. What happened to Harriet Jones, three times elected Prime Minister? Some might say that that timeline only existed because of his actions in "Aliens of London" anyway (and hence the Eccleston incarnation only "remembering" who she is once he's changed time to put her in that position) but that still shouldn't give him the right to mess with time at a whim. Indeed, arguably the gap that he makes in history here creates the opportunity that the Master later seizes. Still, start as you mean to go on, eh Doctor.

As a sign of the power of the Time Lord, those six words are outstanding. She does look tired. And she surely didn't help herself by appealing for "a doctor" on live TV during the crisis. (Lovely aside about the Royals on the roof, though.) But they're also a first sign of how dangerous he is, how far he will go if no one is there to stop him, how far eventually he does go. Themes that will be developed in "The Runaway Bride" (and revisited in "Turn Left") and ultimately in "The Waters of Mars" and, of course, "The End of Time".

It is a brilliant moment. Without it, this is a happy jolly tale of bad magicians and a good wizard who defeats them (honestly, they accuse him of witchcraft after the whole "blood control" curse thing!), with a group hug and a jolly Christmas dinner after. With it, there is real bite to the drama, and real cost to the events here.

"This isn't snow; it's ash." The very nastiness of the black humour is what stops "The Christmas Invasion" from being like anything else on at Christmas. It turns the festive treats into killers and murder victims and shows us the flaws in our heroes even as they seem to save the day. And it does it without us ever feeling that this is not heroic.

A little slice of genius. A Christmas Cracker.

And with that, a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home.

*I am indebted to Lady GoreGore for this festive reminder that it is Adam and Christmas Steve not Adam and Christmas Eve with my gay daddies!

1 comment:

NoetiCat said...

The Christmas Invasion is my favourite RTD Christmas Special by miles - it also got my Mum into Doctor Who. :)