With the 2011 ’Doctor Who’ Christmas special, ’The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ just around the corner , Starburst takes an affectionate look back at the Doctor’s most recent Santa-friendly shenanigans…
When ‘Doctor Who’ emerged in 2005 from its near-as-dammit sixteen year sabbatical, blinking and nervous in the harsh light of prime time Saturday night TV, its patient and long-suffering fans crossed their fingers (and very probably their legs) and hoped for the best. They wanted it to be good, they wanted it to be faithful to their memories of the so-called ‘classic’ series and they also hoped this much-anticipated resurrection wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan and that the show might stick around this time after the false start and false hopes of the Paul McGann TV movie in 1996. Not even the most optimistic of fans could have predicted just how successful new ‘Doctor Who’ would be, almost instantly, the phenomenon it became, its popularity and ubiquity even outstripping the glory days of 1960s Dalekmania and the giddy heights of trendy fashionability it scaled during Tom Baker’s early years in the 1970s. Certainly no-one could have foreseen that, within a few years, the show would be the centrepiece of BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule with specially-commissioned, high profile festive episodes which could command lunatic audiences of around 12 million. No-one saw that coming. Now, in 2011, the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special is firmly embedded in the nation’s consciousness and has become as recognisable and reassuring a piece of Christmas TV entertainment as ‘Morecombe and Wise’ in the 1970s and ‘Only Fools and Horses’ in the 1980s and 1990s.
In passing, it’s worth noting that 2005 wasn’t the first time the TARDIS had landed on TV on Christmas Day. Way back in 1965, when the world was less than half its present size, the first Doctor (William Hartnell, in case it had slipped your mind) was locked in mortal combat with the Daleks in an insanely long serial entitled ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, a convoluted and occasionally random Universe-trotting romp whose seventh episode - 'The Feast of Steven' - ended up on Christmas day purely by virtue of the fact that the day itself was a Saturday that year. Rather than bump ‘Doctor Who’ from the schedule the production team decide to shunt aside the continuing storyline for a week and offer up a frothy and disposable lightweight comedy episode which saw the Doctor and co, on the run from the Daleks, pitching up in 1920s Hollywood and later indulging in some Police Station hi-jinks. ‘The Feast of Steven’ is one of the hundred-odd episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ which didn’t survive the infamous purge of the original series’ black-and-white tapes in the 1960s and 1970s and whilst other lost episodes have resurfaced in all parts of the globe since, ‘The Feast of Steven’, by its very nature and because of its seasonal disconnection from the ongoing Dalek narrative, never made its way to any of the show’s foreign broadcasters so, of all the episodes still missing from the BBC archive, it’s the one most likely to stay that way.
So it falls to ‘The Christmas Invasion’, David Tennant’s debut episode, to claim the title of ‘first’ proper ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Special. The week after the broadcast of ‘Rose’, the first episode of the reborn series, all Hell broke loose when it had to be announced that ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston was quitting the role after filming just one series (and, a bit embarrassingly, after just one episode had been shown). In a neat bit of damage limitation then-BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey, who had been instrumental in getting the show back on screen in the first place, revealed that the series would be back for two more seasons and - joy - a Christmas special. Showrunner Russell T Davies was later to remark that this was the first time he’d ever heard of the idea of a Christmas special but even if this is true (and Davies would be the first to admit than many of his declarations about the show during his time in charge were gleeful distortions of the truth or, from time to time, downright lies just to protect the sometimes-paranoid veil of secrecy which surrounded the series) Davies rose to the not-inconsiderable challenge of introducing a brand new Doctor to an audience which had only just familiarised itself with the whole idea of the show and had quickly established a deep affection for Christopher Eccleston’s tough interpretation of the Doctor as the fractured, emotionally-damaged survivor of a great Time War which had wiped out his own people, the Time Lords.
In hindsight - and with the benefit of no proper precedent established the audience’s expectations of a ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas episode, ‘The Christmas Invasion’ is a bold and daring piece of Christmas TV, an episode which has a lot to do and goes about doing it in ways we might not necessarily expect. Davies just carried on telling the story of the Doctor and Rose as he had left it at the end of the previous series, with the newly-regenerated Doctor crash-landing on Earth, plunging straight into a regeneration crisis just as the skull-faced red-robed Sycorax arrive in their hollowed-out asteroid spaceship and take control of the human condition via blood control. Billie Piper's Rose Tyler has become so established in the role already and the actress so popular with the public that Davies finds it easy to allow her to pretty much carry the dramatic weight of the first half of the episode as she battles to understand what's happened to the Doctor and finding herself drawn into the centre of the Sycorax invasion. It doesn't seem to occur to 'The Christmas Invasion' to go down the 'guest star' route; this is business as usual with no front-of-house star names pulled in to rope in extra viewers. Davies just builds confidently on the new continuity he's developed for the show by reintroducing Penelope Wilton's MP-cum-Prime-Minister Harriet Jones from year one's Slitheen two-parter; we know who she is and she's another familiar face to draw us into the adventure alongside Rose's hapless boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke) and her Mum Jackie (Camille Coduri). With the Doctor laid out in Rose Tyler's flat wearing a pair of pyjamas belonging to one of Jackie's gentlemen friends, Davies skilfully keeps the audience agog for more of the new Doctor, so far glimpsed only briefly, but entertains us with killer spinning Christmas trees, hypnotised humanity literally teetering on the brink and vicious aliens who kill with electric whips. When the new Doctor finally makes his proper entrance, symbolically stepping out of the TARDIS after emerging from his crisis, he's the new man in every way, bantering with Rose, not taking the Sycorax too seriously and finally defining himself as a man of action instead of the moody brooder of his previous incarnation as he engages the Sycorax leader in a bout of slightly clumsily-edited swordfighting. Davies even subtly lays further groundwork for the second series to come when PM Harriet Jones uses the weapons technology of the top-secret 'Torchwood' organisation to destroy the retreating Sycorax ship, much to the Doctor's disgust. The episode wraps up to the strains of Murray Gold's pounding, joyous' Song For Ten', with the regenerated Doctor carefully selecting his new clothes from the TARDIS wardrobe and finally laying the ghost of his predecessor to rest by doing the one thing the ninth Doctor could never bring himself to do - he "does domestic" by enjoying Christmas lunch with Rose and co before promising Rose (and us) further adventures out amongst the stars.
'The Christmas Invasion' remains one of the very best 'Doctor Who' Christmas Day episodes because it has no artifice, no sense of itself as being 'special' despite some Christmas trappings. It's just the show picking up where it left off, busily introducing the new star and telling a rattling good classic 'invasion Earth' story without beating us around the head with its stunt casting.
One year on and 'Doctor Who's landscape is a little different. The Doctor and Rose have been tragically torn apart in the final minutes of the second season finale 'Doomsday' and the Doctor is bereft, alone again on the TARDIS. But at the very end of 'Doomsday' the Doctor is confronted by a strange woman in a wedding dress who's just appeared from nowhere and is standing there in the TARDIS looking suitably baffled and not especially happy. This is comedy actress Catherine Tate and the entire 'Doctor Who' audience at home has fallen off its chairs...
'The Runaway Bride' arrives on Christmas Day and Davies has started to get the hang of this Christmas episode lark by now. Realising that the heart-broken Doctor needs a bit of fun after losing Rose he crafts a slick, fast and furious romp of a story clearly inspired by goofball Hollywood comedies like 'What's Up Doc'. Although Catherine Tate's misplaced bride Donna Noble at this point was only intended as a one-shot character the chemistry between her and Tennant is already evident. Where Rose spent much of her time mooning over the Doctor, Donna is a bit older and worldly-wiser. She's not impressed by this "spaceman" who, it seems to her, has kidnapped her from her Big Day and the sparks fly between the pair in an entirely different way to the relationship between the Doctor and Rose. The problem with 'The Runaway Bride' is that there's not really all that much to it. A couple of months before broadcast, the BBC held a special 'Children in Need' charity concert at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff with composer Murray Gold and the Welsh National Orchestra, hosted by Tennant and featuring Davies on stage amongst others, showcasing the often-stunning music Gold had already provided for the series. A clip from 'The Runaway Bride' was exclusively previewed to a breathless audience - the awesome FX sequence where the TARDIS bounces along a motorway and the Doctor battles to rescue the terrified-yet-furious Donna who has been abducted in a taxi by a robot Santa Claus (you had to be there). On stage shortly afterwards Davies promised that this sequence, still one of the most ridiculously thrilling in the new series' history, was "only the beginning" but the reality was that it was pretty much downhill after this tour de force and certainly there was nothing of any comparable visual scale anywhere else in the episode, despite the appearance of a giant spider-alien hidden below the Thames. It's a clever, pacey script but it lacks much of the spectacle of the previous year's episode; there are some good set pieces - the Christmas bauble attack at the wedding party is the natural successor to Jackie Tyler's confrontation with a killer Christmas tree the year before - but there's maybe a bit too much talking and rushing about and, impressive as Sarah Parrish's Empress of the Racnoss costume is, it's not exactly mobile and it just sort of stands there making threats and not being hugely menacing.
With ratings still well above 9 million 'The Runaway Bride' proved to be another runaway hit and it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas with the Doctor was going to become something of a tradition. The guest casting of Catherine Tate had generated a lot of additional publicity for the episode so it was hardly surprising when the show's casting director Andy Pryor cast his net a little wider for the 2007 festive special. Eyebrows were raised and they stayed raised when it was announced that Australian pop superstar Kylie Minogue would be joining the 'Doctor Who' crew for the filming of 'Voyage of the Damned.' Taking his lead from the classic 1970s disaster movies like 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'The Towering Inferno' the Christmas TV screenings of which had informed many of his own seasonal memories, Daveis created a big, loud, bombastic adventure in which the Doctor, travelling alone again after his latest companion, medical student Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), had opted to bail out on him when she realised that her feelings for him were never going to be reciprocated, finds himself on board a massive alien spaceship replica of the Titanic which is paying a flying visit to Earth at Christmas. But perfidy is afoot and the vessel is scuppered in an elaborate insurance scam; hundreds die (well, it is Christmas Day...) and the Doctor must try to help a bunch of survivors, including waitress Astrid Peth (Kylie!), navigate their way through the flaming debris before the ship can plunge into the Earth's atmosphere and cause catastrophe down below. The ship's angelic 'host' service robots have been reprogrammed to kill, too...
Running to a near-feature length seventy-five minutes, 'Voyage of the Damned' is a big, bloated unsubtle beast of an episode, difficult to love but easy to sit back and enjoy, clearly designed for an audience fuzzy from too much festive fare. Packed with peril, stunts, great special effects and a typically commanding performance from Tennant (whose near-Godlike portrayal of the Doctor is becoming a concern for some jittery fans) the episode threatens to come off the rails towards the end when Astrid (a decent enough performance from Kylie) sacrifices herself to save the Doctor and becomes, literally, 'stardust' and the Titanic, hurtling out of control towards the Earth, swoops above Buckingham Palace as it comes out of its death-dive and the Queen stands outside in her night-dress, waving up towards the Titanic, shouting "Thank you, Doctor." Not sure what Davies was on when he came up with that one but it probably ranks alongside burping wheelie bins as 'things that looked good on paper'...
Lightweight, disposable, eminently forgettable and a cause of some irritation to the hardcore fan community, the episode proved hugely attractive to the broader audience and was an enormous success on the night, pulling in over 13 million viewers. 'Doctor Who' was going to have to go some to top that...
In many ways, the following year's episode was a bit more restrained. Without the star power of Kylie to pull in the punters, Russell T Davies needed a new 'hook' to lure in the unsuspecting and, with David Tennant having announced that he was stepping down from the role during a live broadcast from the 'National TV Awards' earlier in the year, the title of the 2008 Christmas special - 'The Next Doctor' - was guaranteed to get tabloid tongues wagging and increase the steadily-growing speculation as to the identity of Tennant's successor. The titular 'next Doctor' was in fact David Morrissey, togged up in the archetypal costume of a 'classic' Doctor - frock coat, cravat, waistcoat - as if to play up to the audience's subliminal preconceptions as to what 'the Doctor' traditionally wears. Morrissey's character was, obviously, not the 'next' Doctor (although he had his very own companion, Rosita - Rose/Rosita, geddit? - and his own TARDIS - Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style - an air ballooon!) but rather an innocent caught up in the machinations of the Cybermen in Victorian London whose own memory has been wiped and replaced with the Doctor's memories. The central is he/isn't he mystery dominates the first half of the episode but it doesn't really have anywhere much to go when we realise that Morrissey's character Jackson lake isn't the Doctor and we're left with a fairly routine runaround with the Cybermen and their human colluder the devilish Mercy Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan) and a climax which involves a Transformer-like Cyberman dreadnaught robot stomping all over Victorian London.
Despite the unlikely spectacle rounding off the episode, 'The Next Doctor' is generally a more thoughtful piece than 'Voyage of the Damned', less concerned with playing to the gallery and very clearly sowing the first seeds of melancholia in the Doctor as he approaches the end of his tenth incarnation. The Cybermen are pretty generic but the scene where they emerge from the snow and electrocute the funeral procession is not only shocking in itself for prime time Christmas Day but will have surely reminded ancient fans of the first appearance of rather more primitive-looking Cybermen back in 1966 in 'The Tenth Planet.' With over 13 million viewers turning in yet again for 'The Next Doctor' 'Doctor Who' had by now clearly established itself as an essential element of the BBC's Christmas night output.
2009's offering was to be a very different proposition altogether. The year had been something of a TV famine for 'Doctor Who' fans with the show on reduced duties to allow David Tennant to pursue his Shakespearean commitments on stage so only two new episodes - 'Planet of the Dead' and 'Waters of Mars' - aired in 2009 prior to the Christmas special. This was 'The End of Time Part One' and this Christmas the usual trappings of the festive season were pretty much crowbarred into a narrative which was designed to steer the tenth Doctor to his regeneration in its sequel episode, screened on New Year's Day. Sadly Davies is clearly running out of steam here as there's really not much plot beyond the Master (John Simm) being resurrected, battling briefly with the Doctor before being captured by evil businessman Joshua Naismith (David Harewood) who is determined to exploit the power of some sort of 'stargate' mcguffin. But there's still much to enjoy with the return of Donna (Catherine Tate) who'd been forced to leave the TARDIS at the end of season four after the Doctor's latest battle with Davros and the Daleks as well as her feisty Granddad Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) whose appearances had been such a joy in season four and who now found himself promoted to companion role for the duration of the episode and its sequel. Wilf's participation and his presence in the Doctor's life was to turn out to have devastating consequences, of course... Christmas was a side-issue throughout the episode though, represented in a few scenes at the Noble's house and by the presence of a few Christmas decorations in Naismith's stately home. Fortunately the episode fizzed with Davies' trademark strong characterisation and dialogue, especially in one memorable exchange between the Doctor and Wilf, two old men emotionally talking about their lives in an entirely naturalistic fashion.
David Tennant's farewell to 'Doctor Who' was widely tipped to score stratospheric ratings but ultimately 'End of Time Part 1' interested 11.57 million - impressive enough but significantly down from the 13 million plus who had enjoyed the previous two rather more routine Christmas romps. It's arguable that, with David Tennant all over the BBC schedules like a rash during Christmas 2009 - there were even special 'Doctor Who' BBC1 idents for the season - viewer fatigue had set in and people felt they'd seen so much of Tennant that they really didn't need to see him again on Christmas Day itself.
2010 was 'all change' for the series. Davies moved on, to be replaced by Steven Moffat and Tennant's replacement - Matt Smith - moved effortlessly into the role, winning over critics and audiences alike with his wild, eccentric portrayal of the Doctor, far more redolent of 'classic' Doctors than the more modern interpretations of his two predecessors. Moffat's vision for the series was to be markedly different too; where Davies' run had largely been tough and muscular, Moffat saw the show as more of a 'cosmic fairy tale', the Doctor now readily identified as "a mad man in a box" and with stories which relied on quirky time travel paradoxes and clever plot twists rather than the loud spectacle Davies had often favoured. This was never better demonstrated than in last year's Christmas night episode, 'A Christmas Carol', a very literal fantasy retelling of the Dickens classic. Despite some superb FX sequences this was a much more intimate tale, a love story across Time as the Doctor arrives at Sardicktown on Christmas Eve and finds the miserly Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) causing misery across the festive season. With his companions Amy and Rory trapped aboard a space cruiser spiraling out of control in the choking fog which cloaks the city, the Doctor determines to teach Sardick the error of his ways by taking his younger self back in Time on a voyage of personal discovery where he'll live out a doomed relationship with the beautiful cryogenically-frozen Abigail Pettigrew (Katherine Jenkins). An encounter with a flying shark aside, there's no real danger in 'A Christmas Carol' and we're already worlds away from the sort of brash, daring stories Russell T Davies preferred to tell. 'A Christmas Carol' is a bit sickly sweet but its heart is in the right place and Murray Gold's new composition for Jenkins, 'Abigail's Song', is a thing of musical beauty and a genuine tear-jerker...so I'm told. 'A Christmas Carol' was another ratings winner, with over 12 million tuning in to the Christmas Day broadcast, the highest figure yet for a Smith episode.
Which brings us neatly to 'The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe', Moffat's Christmas offering for 2011. Advance publicity suggests another sweet, heart-rending story laced with the peculiar new themes of magic and fantasy Moffat has injected into the show and, with a captive audience sitting there bloated by turkey and mince pies, the episode looks set to command a substantial audience yet again as 'Doctor Who', seven years on, has now clearly firmly cemented its position as one of the BBC's ratings bankers over the festive period and as a result the show looks set to delight viewers with new Christmas thrills for years to come.