Saturday, December 14, 2013

Doctor Who Saturday: The Magic of Christmas (Specials)

Hi there!
I'm Dave-El and this is I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You, the blog that is figgy pudding free!

Once more we find ourselves around the calendar and back on a Doctor Who Saturday.

We are now 11 days away from Christmas Day 2013. Christmas, a time of peace, warmth and good cheer but, for Doctor Who fans, tinged with more than a bit of sadness. Yes, Christmas Day will bring a NEW Doctor Who Special as it has since 2006 which is normally a cause for joy and celebration. But this year's Christmas special is different.

It is the end of Matt Smith's time as the Doctor.

Matt Smith, the impossibly young actor cast to replace the very popular David Tennant, has ingratiated himself with Whovians the world over with his boisterous enthusiastic embrace of the Doctor, making the role so uniquely his with an effective blend of wonder and weariness, of delight and intensity, of child-like joy and ageless force. I, for one, will be sad to see him go.

But has always with these sorts of things, the sadness of a Doctor leaving is mingled with the tantalizing excitement of a Doctor arriving.

Today, I wanted to review the Doctor Who Christmas specials, both for my perceived level of quality of the story as well as just how strongly (or not) they connect to any actual Christmas themes.  And it is a bit ironic that for the first one, the focus was on the arrival of a new Doctor, some guy named David Tennant.

"The Christmas Invasion" by Russell T Davies was set around an alien invasion of Earth while the Doctor was incapacitated, still recovering from his regeneration. The trappings of Christmas are there (trees, snow) but Davies' up ends these tropes (killer trees, snow that is really the ash of an exploded spaceship) and ultimately, it's less about Christmas than it is about Rose Tyler (and by extension, all of us) finding out what this new face and body the Doctor now has might mean for the future. David Tennant is out for most of the episode but he totally owns what he does appear in. All in all, an effective intro for the 10th Doctor but only so-so as a Christmas special. 

File:Sycorax - The Christmas Invasion.png
"We wish you a Merry Christmas!
We wish you a Merry Christmas!
We wish you a Merry Christmas!
Now we'll conquer the Earth!"

"The Runaway Bride" finds Russell T Davies again dressing up a story with Christmas stuff (Santas) that are not all that Christmasy (killer robot Santas). The fact that the episode happens around Christmas is more an accident of the calendar than anything. Mind you, "The Runaway Bride" is a most enjoyable romp and one I don't mind seeing over and over again. David Tennant and Catherine Tate play off each other very well; in retrospect, it's easy to see why Russell wanted to bring Donna Noble back. But the connections to the Yuletide holiday are tenuous at best.

The Doctor and Donna see the credit card bill for this year's Christmas shopping

"The Voyage of the Damned" finds the Christmas connections even more forced and the spirit of the season takes a pretty big beating in Russell T Davies' story as the death toll keeps mounting up higher and higher numbers. I liked seeing the Doctor thrust into a Irwin Allen-like disaster movie setting but this is a far cry from a special evoking the spirit of Christmas.

File:Voyage of the Damned.jpg
The Titanic presents such amenities as swimming pools, fine dining, casinos, crashing into the Earth and ballroom dancing.

"The Next Doctor" was the Christmas special by Russell T Davies that most seems like a Christmas special. Of course, snow (actual snow!) falling on 19th century London can't help but call forth Dickensian concepts of classic Christmas. Still, Christmas could be removed from the equation and "The Next Doctor" would still stand as a action packed adventure with equal measures humor and drama capped off by an amazing performance by David Morrissey as the erstwhile "Next Doctor". Still, even if the elements of Christmas are incidental, I still consider "The Next Doctor" as the best Christmas special of the David Tennant/Russell T Davies era.

File:Next Doctor.jpg
Miss Hartigan realizes she can't return the Cybermen she got for Christmas because she doesn't have a receipt.

"The End of Time Part One" is a Christmas special only in the sense that it happens to take place at Christmas. Russell T Davies' main mission here is to write as big a send off as he can for David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. There is one scene at the beginning where Wilfred Mott is in the church while the children's choir is singing; the beauty and melancholy that sometimes goes hand in hand in with the season are very well expressed. Otherwise, it is all a bit overwrought (but perhaps that's allowed when sending off a Doctor) and just a set up for Part Two which aired the next week.

"Mele Kalikimaka!"

"A Christmas Carol" is the first Christmas special of the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era and the first special to plant a star firmly on the top of the Christmas tree. As we saw in "The Next Doctor", nothing better evokes a Christmas than setting a story in Victorian England, even if that Victorian England is an alien world where fish swim in the fog. And as you can tell from the title of the special, Moffat has the Doctor dive into the deep end of the Dickensian pool to change the mind of a Scroogian bitter old man in time to save Christmas...or specifically, save the lives of everyone on board a crashing starship. All in all, a solidly entertaining outing that really needs Christmas in order to be most effective.

The Doctor learns that, somehow, the true meaning of Christmas involves sexy police girls and Roman Centurions.
Then he resolves to never think of that again.

"The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardobe" seeks to elicit the same sense of wonder and magic as "A Christmas Carol" but here, Steven Moffat is trying too hard. There are moments where the Doctor comes off as a magical pixie. And this time, instead of sharks in the fog, we have...alien trees. The whimsical is cranked up to 11. Well, it's Christmas. If you can't be whimsical at Christmas, when can you? Fair point that but the treacle of "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardobe" threatens to overwhelm the story...and often does.

The Doctor has given the kids
an intra-dimensional portal to an alien world.


"The Snowmen" brings us back to London and the 19th century so the classic imagery of Christmas is on full display. But this time Steven Moffat's story is in service to larger goals beyond the holiday season. This is the story that puts the Doctor on the track of the Impossible Girl and the Great Intelligence is re-introduced, both of which will impact the next series of episodes right through to "The Name of the Doctor". Moffat once again has the Whimsy Machine turned up on high but the story is on more solid footing than the previous Christmas special.

File:Doctor Who "The Snowmen" (Screenshot).png
Yes, the Doctor should decorate the TARDIS for Christmas
but really, who has the time?

So let me wrap this up by ranking these specials in my order of preference, measuring both my opinion of the story AND how well it makes for Christmas time viewing. 

1) "A Christmas Carol"
2) "The Next Doctor"
3) "The Runaway Bride"
4) "The Snowmen"
5) "The Christmas Invasion"
6) "The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe"
7) "The End of Time Part One"
8) "The Voyage of the Damned"

Of course, your mileage may vary.

In the meantime, get your Whovian heart into the spirit of Christmas with a re-watching of any of these specials and then get that heart ready to break on December 25th when Matt Smith flicks that sonic screwdriver one last time.

And get that heart ready to soar as the Doctor looks out of the eyes of Peter Capaldi and we remember that the Doctor lives on.

Merry Christmas, Whovians, one and all!

And be good to one another!


Next week for Doctor Who Saturday--

The Return of
the Nemesis Who Stole Time

Tomorrow on the blog:
Pope Culture!

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