Saturday, 22 January 2011

DOCTOR YULE – Christmases in the TARDIS

Spoilers ahoy!

The tinsel is boxed away, the decorations are back in the loft and I’m avoiding the bathroom scales, so then with the world returning back to the usual routine, it’s high time we had a look at this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special and indeed took a trip back in time, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Past, to see where else the TARDIS has fetched up in the festive season.

Back in the early part of the 21st century, few could have predicted that the massive success that the rebooted Doctor Who would attain. Even dyed-in-the-woolly-scarf fans didn’t predict that half a decade later our beloved old programme would become a flagship show for BBC1 – the most we hoped for was that the episodes produced would be half decent somehow. And many suspected that the Russell T Davies version probably wouldn’t last long. Yes RTD himself was one of us but we really weren’t expecting that the rest of the nation would embrace the Doctor’s return with such enthusiasm and passion.

But aside from the joys of seeing toy stores full of Who toys and hearing children across the land impersonating Daleks once again, perhaps the real measure of the show’s success is that the Christmas specials are now a traditional part of the Christmas Day schedule. Incredibly it seems now that the festive episode of Doctor Who has the same cache as the Christmas specials produced by telly titans of the past like Morecambe & Wise and Only Fools & Horses, and has become a similarly hugely anticipated highlight of Yuletide TV.

However despite going down well with the general public, with this year’s offering beating even old enemy Coronation Street in the Christmas rating war, it’s fair to say that the specials have been something of a mixed bag. And this isn’t a reflection on Doctor Who as a whole, more the tendency for the festive specials of any TV show to be an excuse to muck in a light-hearted fashion about rather than deliver a storming episode.

Now those who prefer their sci-fi all serious and po-faced, may well say that the inclination to light-hearted tomfoolery is an inherent weakness in new Who. However humour has always had a place in the show, but more importantly the modern incarnation has been carefully tailored to it’s time slot. An essential part of Doctor Who is, for want of a better term, its ‘Saturdayness’ and if you consult my series of articles on the history of the Doctors, you can discover for yourself how the show began to hit the skids with general viewers when it was moved from its traditional early Saturday evening slot.

Now while good old Russell T Davies, may have leant to far in the direction of comedy on occasions, he understood from the get-go that if the show was to be a success he needed a Saturday night slot. And more importantly he understood that with the mechanics of modern telly viewing, the show itself must deliver what a weekend audience wants – fun, excitement and nothing too heavy. Now that’s not say that Doctor Who can’t explore deep issues or complex ideas but more that he was very clear that this should be a show that appealed to all ages and, more importantly, would find favour outside the usual genre audience.

So although some fans may have wanted the new Who to be a serious and weighty programme; mooting something similar to the radical reboot Battlestar Galactica would receive a couple of years later. But had the TARDIS ventured into such hard sci-fi areas, it’s highly unlikely the show would have won the legions of new fans it currently is enjoying, and the Davies template for the show managed to pull off the trick of updating the format while still retaining the flavours of the original in its heyday, Saturdayness and all.

Now as Christmas Day is effectively a childhood Saturday to the power of ten, a day packed with sweets, toys, games and loafing in front of the idiot lantern as a family, a good Christmas episode should reflect this in the same proportions. And true to form the previous Christmas Day outings for the Doctor have been geared up for an audience enjoying that festive sense of delightful freefall once all the stresses of cooking the Christmas dinner and sorting out presents are out of the way and want nothing more than something big, flashy and a bit funny to goggle at while happily demolishing chocolates and emptying the drinks cabinet.

But as well as aiming for a concoction of super-Saturdayness, RTD was also firmly of the opinion that if you are doing a Christmas special then it should be, well, Christmassy. And his successor in the producer’s chair, Steven Moffat is very much of the same mind, promising us that this year’s Yule offering would be the most “Christmassy Christmas special ever” and furthermore it would be “all your favourite Christmas movies at once, with the Doctor and monsters”. But before we put these claims to the test, let’s have explore the previous entries into this sub-genre of festive Who

Now technically the very first Christmas special was actually in 1965 – in the First Doctor’s third series, the longest ever single Doctor Who story was broadcast, the twelve part The Daleks’ Masterplan. This epic saga began in mid-November and concluded at the end of January 1966 which meant that Episode 7 was shown on Christmas Day and as this was the first time in which a Saturday happened to a Christmas Day, this episode entitled ‘The Feast of Steven’ took the form of a knockabout interlude in which the Doctor and his companions blunder into a film set and cause havoc and concludes with the TARDIS Crew having Christmas dinner with William Hartnell breaking the fourth wall in order to wish all the viewers at home a Merry Christmas.

However presumably the audience of the day, like fans who revisit this story today, didn’t take kindly to the on-going narrative of the story effectively being put on hold for a week in this episode, and so the experiment was never repeated (although some fans might claim that the 10th anniversary team-up tale The Three Doctors is essentially a pantomime).

But moving swiftly on, the modern tradition of a slice of Doctor Who to go your mince pies begins with 2005’s The Christmas Invasion. Forming the bridge between seasons, The Christmas Invasion really plays more like an extra ‘proper’ adventure than a Christmas special while still celebrating the season. In fact the only real downside, is that the new Doctor spends most of the story in a post regenerative kip. And apart from begin David Tennant’s first foray as the Eleventh Doctor, this episode formed the template for what would follow – set a Christmas time, sporting suitable festive elements - snow, robo Santas and a killer Christmas Tree and all wrapped up in a suitably big and eye-catching threat to the world.

And indeed, The Runaway Bride (2006) follows pretty much the same formula, even down to the climax featuring reference to what would be the coming season’s big story arc. Now for me, this outing suffered from adhering a tad too closely to the previous year’s special, with the roboform Santas reappearing and a snow dusted finale. However it did establish a new element which would continue for all the other Christmas adventures until this year – that the Doctor would be companionless – though this would seem to be more an accident born of changing cast rosters than design.

Although perfectly serviceably, this outing seemed a lot more conscious of being a Christmas special – a lot more overt comedy and big set pieces to provide undemanding fun for a turkey sated audience. The casting of Catherine Tate was very divisive, and though personally I thought she was better than expected I can understand why some viewers wanted no truck with Donna Noble; Tate’s comedy isn’t to every one’s taste and has a high irritation factor and for older fans the casting of the comedienne looked a little too much like the stunt casting JNT used to indulge in (see The Regeneration Game series for more details). But over all, The Runaway Bride was fun enough viewing for a Christmas Day night and although nowhere near the best Doctor Who stories, in the context of a festive special it was ok.

However this adventure does contain a major continuity bugbear for fans of the show familiar with the mythology of the show – basically the expanded universe created in the Virgin and BBC novels takes extrapolates from the 3rd Doctor Story Inferno (which centres on a scheme to drill to the Earth’s core) and 4th Doctor adventure State of Decay to give us an entirely different creation story for the planet we call home.

Now here isn’t the time or place to go into unravelling the lore surrounding what lies at the centre of the Earth (if you really want to know all the messy details, some one fire up a question along those lines via Formspring), and generally continuity issues between different stories in different eras of Doctor Who can be easily trumped by playing the Time War card. And The Runaway Bride is no exception… but it still nags at me as the chunk of mythology that is being overwritten has massive potential for future storylines and the changes aren’t exactly key to this episode’s plot either. But enough fanboy carping!

But that said, we now come to The Voyage of the Dammed (2007), which it’s fair to say is one of the least well regarded Christmas specials. Now really this should have been a cracking episode, as on paper it has something for every one – art deco gold robots, a starship modelled on the Titanic, and Kylie Minogue in a maid’s outfit. Unfortunately though, it turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, not exactly bad, but somehow unimpressive and very forgettable. Although the Host, the afore mentioned gilded service droids, looked fantastic, the big villain Max Capricorn was less than inspiring – again on paper he looks an intriguing choice of foe but what we got on screen just didn’t properly gel.

The real problem with Voyage of the Damned is that while it’s geared up to hit the entertaining froth for Christmas Day mark, it really doesn’t contain enough of the old festive spirit or atmosphere to justify not telling its tale in a straighter, more serious fashion. Nor does it have enough fun with its core concept – setting the Doctor down in an old school disaster movie.

Furthermore several elements were looking rather shop soiled – turning the crashing space Titanic into a threat to all life on earth felt a bit tacked just to keep up the newly minted ‘tradition’ that the Christmas Special should feature a BIG MENACE to planet Earth, and Astrid’s ultimate fate was almost insulting in that it was so blatantly stolen lock, stock and barrel from the Moffat two parter, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, in the preceding season. So all in all, it’s not surprising that while most TV viewers are savvy enough to allow a show a certain amount of leeway for a Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned received a host of ‘must do better’ remarks red inked in its margins.

However some lessons it seemed had been learned as the following year’s Yuletide adventuring, The Next Doctor (2008), was a definite step forward. To begin with we have a setting that is properly fermented in the Christmas season, and racked up extra festive points by being set in Dickensian times. And the Christmas spirit was further bolstered by spinning out a story full of heart, not to mention a lovely present for old school fans with a cunningly worked in montage of all the old pre-reboot Doctors appearing. But best of all we have a wonderful performance from David Morrissey as the titular ‘Next Doctor’.

We have Christmas atmosphere galore and a solid story line that could cut the mustard as ‘proper’ Who and the two entwine to together to finish on a properly heart warming finale. And all in all, The Next Doctor is looking in good position to confidently bag the title of Bestest Doctor Who Crimbo Outing…

But while it was great to see a Christmas special featuring one of the biggest names in the Doctor Who League of Famous Monsters, and furthermore it not be the somewhat over used Daleks, the Cybermen sadly were somewhat underused in this story, relegated to playing second fiddle to the ruthless Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). Now this doesn’t necessarily make for a poor outing for the metal monsters – much the same occurred in the classic Second Doctor adventure The Invasion, and in their past they have shown themselves more than willing to ally with local forces to carry out their schemes. But what sinks this venture is the Cyber King itself.

If you are at all familiar with Cyber-History, you’ll know that Cyber-plans aren’t always exactly the logically executed schemes, often being highly convoluted for no good reason. For example, fans have often wondered what the tin men were playing at with their covert to the point of lunacy machinations in The Wheel In Space. Looking at their varied attempts for dominating the universe, one can’t help but notice that the Cybermen don’t really go in for all out massive invasions or full frontal assaults in the same way the Daleks or Sontarans do; rather they usually cook up a tactical and stealthy plan to bring their targets to their knees and then swarm in en masse.

Hence their gigantic dreadnaught doesn’t really seem to fit their style. And even for viewers aren’t au fait with all their previous appearances, stylistically the concept of the Cyber King just didn’t seem to fit them, looking a tad more Transformers than Doctor Who.

The overall effect was not unlike happily stuffing your face with a most delicious Christmas pud only to nearly choke on a silver sixpence. Many, myself included, felt that perhaps a new alien race menace would have suited the giant steampunk colossus better or that the episode would have been better served with the Cybermen unveiling some form of gigantic war tank to crush to crush London.

But that said, we are still under the holly wreathed conventions of a Christmas Day special, and if we only have to play the festive card once to let the Cyber King’s appearance passed then The Next Doctor is still snowbound streets ahead of the competition. But at the same time, the inclusion of the Iron Cyber-Giant does mean this outing is merely very good, rather than the enduring classic it could have been with a minor tweak.

2009 brought us not one but two specials over the festive period, The End of Time, the Tenth Doctor’s swansong which screened on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Now as the Tennant Doctor made his debut upon a Christmas night, it looked a fine plan to rest the series for a year.

Now as this two parter is providing the epic conclusion to the Tenth Doctor’s life, the usual festive flavours very much took a back seat. And for all those frustrated with the seasonal fripperies of years past, it looked like this time around they’d get what they had wanted from the beginning a bumper helping of ‘proper’ Doctor Who unfettered by the need for snow, Christmas trees and other Yule related gubbins.

However this year the series has been ‘rested’ and instead of producing the usual season the plan had been to do four specials placed throughout 2009, culminating in the big regeneration at Christmas.

And so before weighing up these particular festive episodes, we must examine the lead up to this two parter…

The first of the quartet, Planet of the Dead, aired at Easter and was a lot of fun. Yes, it had the air of a seasonal special in that it was flashy and entertaining but it was for my money a solid enough adventure albeit one at the ‘romp’ end of the dramatic spectrum. It‘s real downside though wasn’t the playful tone but that bar a touch of foreshadowing at the finale, it was really just business as usual for the Tenth Doctor. Like many fans, I was hoping for the beginning of the end to kick off with this story but I did accept RTD’s pronouncements that this was meant to be a last bit of fun before the final darkness.

Much later in the year, we got Waters of Mars. Now this was much more like it, the holiday special cloves were off and the episode closed on a highly ominous note. As you’ll see if you look back at the review I published not long after it aired, it looked like that the Doctor’s decision to change a fixed point in history was going to have serious consequences and the stage was well and truly set up for a climatic conclusion to the Doctor’s tenth incarnation.

Unfortunately, what we actually got rather squandered this superb set up. And I wasn’t alone in being rather disappointed that ‘the End of Time’ in the story turned out to, well, exactly nothing to do with the Doctor breaking the laws of history in Waters of Mars. The consequences of messing about with a fixed point in time provided the ideal plot device to return the Master and the Time Lords, and I’m amazed no one at the BBC didn’t tell Davies that he was missing a great story opportunity.

Instead we got the usual merry-go-round from RTD – moments of brilliance sunk in a poorly paced narrative, smothered with indulgent silliness and big set pieces to paper over gaping plot holes. It is somewhat ironic that his final Who script reflected not only all the strengths of the new series but also all its weaknesses. For a long time my opinion of Davies scripted episodes has been that he tends to throw too much into his plots in an attempt to please all tastes but often this results in stories that don’t fully satisfy anyone, particularly as the tone of different scenes often ends up jarring and there are annoying gaps in the narrative’s logic.

And The End of Time is a shining example of this approach. Again I wouldn’t denounce The End of Time as total tosh or a crime against this venerable show, but equally it is a mixed bag. Some of you will love it, others hate it and many more, like myself, will peg it as not bad, but could have been so much more *.

Now often the festive specials can compare poorly to the series proper, particularly when they are view outside their Christmas slots and their license to indulge in fun and frolics is less easily forgiven. And although The End of Time waives its festive rights to tell a ‘real’ Doctor Who story, it still ends up looking a little too panto for its own good. The trouble is with hindsight it’s clear that the four specials should have been far more closely linked together. Planet of the Dead should have sown the seeds for the final two, Waters of Mars in all fairness could probably stay as it is, and The End of Time should have had a massive temporal crisis freeing first the Master and second the Time Lords.

However even if a rogue TARDIS landed in BBC Cardiff to allow RTD to go back in time and properly structure this mini-season of four specials, the biggest problem would still remain. And that is quite simply that Big Russell had already written a brilliant swansong for the Tenth Doctor that would have tied up all the threads and themes of his and Tennant’s tenure on the show together into a satisfying climax. Yes, I’m firmly of the opinion that the Tenth Doctor should have regenerated at the finale of Series Four – we had the return of Davros and nicely integrated crossovers with Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures and guest appearances from previous companions. And with all the old gang together, and a plot that contained many nods to the events of the last four years, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End would have made the perfect finale.

So then, at long last we come to this year’s offering. As we’ve seen there was definitely room for improvement on the Davies era, and more to the point, crafting a tale that is properly festive and top quality Doctor Who at the same time isn’t an easy recipe to get right. Could Moffat find the right balance of ingredients and deliver a real Christmas cracker of an episode?

Well, from the outset and considering Moffat’s statements this year’s special, I was all prepared for something that would successfully deliver the Saturdayness squared Christmas but not necessarily a truly great episode of Doctor Who. However when December rolled around and we discovered the episode was to be entitled A Christmas Carol and a teaser trailer had the Doctor proclaiming “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past”, I must admit my heart sank a little.

Now on one hand, as the Dickens classic is largely a tale of time travel, I was surprised that no one before had thought of basing Doctor Who adventure upon it, as our favourite Time Lord has the perfect compassionate nature to fulfil the roles of the Ghosts and means to visit Christmases past, present and future thanks to the TARDIS. However on the other hand, riffing on the tale of Scrooge is probably the oldest cliché in the book for a TV Christmas special.

And indeed, when the episode kicked off, it looked like this was exactly what we were going to get. But to borrow Zaphod Beeblebrox for a moment, on the third hand, if anyone could do this tired concept justice and do it well to boot, it would be Stephen Moffat. So then the first twenty minutes or so brought us a suitably Dickensian alien world and Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), an embittered covetous old sinner who would get on famously with the pre-haunted Scrooge. Therefore when the Doctor suddenly appears turns up in Sardick’s childhood video diaries, many, myself included, were expecting the usually three acts of A Christmas Carol to play out...

But this being a Moffat script, very soon there were twists brought into play that steered this Christmas Carol well out of Dickens’ much trodden turf and into interesting, fresh territory. Yes, there were still visionary visits to the past, present and future but this wasn’t to be just a retelling of Dickens’ tale, this time around transplanted to a fogbound planet where fish fly.

As a scriptwriter, Moffat loves to subvert expectations and craftily misdirect the viewer at every turn, and this story is no exception. And this tricksy mindset, makes him the prefect writer to play about with the possibilities and puzzles time travel. First he blindsides us with the Doctor blithely rewriting Kazran’s past but then hits us with the marvellous twist that his actions leave us in a present where the old Sardick is still embittered but for different reasons.

However some have said that the plot has a fatal flaw in that the Doctor doesn’t notice the whacking great LED counter on Abigail’s cryogenic chamber which ticks down ominously every Christmas Eve. And certainly given that we all know the Doctor, in any incarnation, just can’t keep his mitts off any technological gubbins he comes across, it does seem strange he overlooked this chunky read out. However, first off one thing Moffat has established with the Eleventh Doctor is that he is fallible and gone are the days of the “Ain’t I brilliant! I can do EVERYTHING!” Tenth Doctor. And indeed the Doctor does, if you pardon the pun, clock it but is distracted.

More importantly though, we have to remember that the counter is highly prominent for our benefit – it’s featured heavily in the scenes to clue us in that this is something the Doctor hasn’t spotted. So then the fact that our Time Lord hero overlooks it until it’s too late isn’t exactly a plot weakness, and if there is an error here, it’s more of a set design fluff in making the counter so eye catching than an oversight in plotting.

But let’s face it, whether can one chooses to forgive it or not, either as a plot misstep or a design issue, the counter consternation is a minor nitpick compared potential deal breakers like the Cyber King or some of the Doctor ex machine nonsense plugging plot crevasses we’ve had to endure in previous years through out the rebooted series in general. And that troublesome readout aside, Moffat has delivered an episode that entertains and surprises and is thoroughly Christmassy but also Doctor Who through and through.

And although Amy and Rory were somewhat sidelined, I’d have to say that I’d prefer Gillan and Darvill to have less screen time and stay relevant to the story than to have more scenes that are distracting from the flow of the narrative. Certainly looking at the Ghosts of Doctor Who Past, many otherwise decent stories in both classic and new Who have been brought low by the inclusions of scenes where the story line flaps about looking for something for the supporting cast to do.

But on the flipside, we got two marvellous turns from the guest cast. Michael Gambon was superbly nasty and snide as the mean spirited Kazran, no doubt relishing a chance to show the younger audience more familiar with him as the avuncular Dumbledore a different darker performance. And Katherine Jenkins, gave a wonderfully natural performance as Abigail Pettigrew, a turn that is all the more remarkable as this was her first proper acting role. And the sight and sound of her singing to a dying flying shark must go down as one of the most remarkable scenes I saw all last year, truly surreal and strangely beautiful.

All in this was a solid outing and, to my mind at least, the best festive special so far. I’m less sure it quite lives up to the hyperbolic quote from Mr Moffat given at the opening of this article – after all it does rather depend on which are your favourite Christmas movies. But equally it’s worth noting that a committed humbugger of my acquaintance, a man who has no truck with Christmas, has hailed it as one of the best episodes of new Who so far, and for an episode to be so Christmassy and elicit this reaction is a truly telling testament to the quality of this tale, and higher praise would be hard to find.

However, it’s also true that this year’s festive episode does still fall foul of the dread Curse of the Christmas Specials - in that I can’t see it playing well once the decorations are back in the loft. However, unlike its predecessors, this isn’t because we must allow the story some special festive license to be a bit silly and generally forgive it being a bit knockabout in its execution. No, this time the reason is that A Christmas Carol is so properly Christmassy, it should only be viewed during the festive season. And that’s a subtle but important distinction to make. Indeed if you have delivered a proper Christmas episode, telling a good tale rich in the festive spirit, then really it shouldn’t work at any other time of the year. And certainly I’ll be dusting off this episode in the run-up to next Christmas with all my other festive favourites.

And finally, there’s one last thing to be said on the subject of the Christmas specials; a factor that tends to somewhat diminish them all, even the wonderful A Christmas Carol. And that is the fact that after the credits roll, we get a teaser trailer for the forthcoming series – a handful of moments packed with fleeting glimpses of what is come, leaving us focusing on what the future holds rather than reflecting on what we have just seen.

However whereas in previous years, the festive edition has been overshadowed and indeed, in some cases quickly forgotten, A Christmas Carol will linger in the memory and knowing how far ahead Moffat starts laying out his story structures, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some of the events we witnessed this Christmas Day won’t take on new meaning and significance in the coming adventures...

* The funniest and indeed most succinct summing up of The End of Time comes at the opening of A Disappointment Episode 5 – find it here!

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