Doctor Who must be the only show that can dish up slaughtering Santas and killer Christmas trees in such a manner that you don’t instinctively reach for the remote, but instead surrender to its kitschy convictions: It tacks a silent “f” onto “universe”. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Despite being the 10th Doctor story and the debut of the Season Two production block, “The Christmas Invasion” feels like a coda for Season One. It begins with a “tracking shot” from outer space that zooms down onto the Powell estate and into Jackie’s flat identical to the first shot of the first episode, “Rose.” It picks up mere moments after “The Parting of the Ways,” with new Doctor David Tennant stumbling out of the TARDIS still wearing his predecessor Christopher Eccleston’s clothing. Jackie and Mickey both still live lives of tedium, with Rose always at the front of their thoughts. It features the return of Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton) from “Aliens of London.” And costar Billie Piper still has long hair and dresses like a teenager.
The recently regenerated Doctor aside, all appears to be late December business as usual, but discretely hovering high above the Earth is an alien spacecraft…and a satellite probe bound for Mars attracts its attention. With the Doctor out of commission, who on Earth can possibly save the day?
“The Christmas Invasion” follows the long tradition of the first stories of each new Doctor—he’s regenerated, is physically and/or mentally incapacitated, and his companion’s in the dark over what’s happened to his/her best friend. (Actually, the formula morphed into this over the years, with “Castrovalva” first exhibiting it to the greatest degree.) Sometimes these tricky beasts work (like “Castrovalva”) and sometimes they don’t (“Time and the Rani”). Although it’s structurally influenced by Pertwee’s “Spearhead from Space”, it trumps its predecessor by being far more sure of itself. “Christmas” is arguably the definitive post-regeneration tale.
For the first 35 or so minutes, we only get a few glimpses of the new Doctor, with the bulk split between Rose dealing with the situation as best she can and the new Prime Minister, Harriet Jones, dealing with Earth’s first publicly acknowledged alien invasion. Neither is equipped to handle their predicaments and both call out to the Doctor for help. And what is this “Torchwood” the PM keeps mentioning? When Harriet is backed so far into the corner that she’s got no choice but to go on live television and plead for the Doctor’s help (Superman II, anyone?), it’s as if she’s speaking for us, the viewers: “Yeah! Where’s my new damn Doctor?”
A great aspect of the story is the failure of the TARDIS’ translator “gift” to aid the situation. Covered in 1.2, “The End of the World,” the Doctor explained to Rose that alien languages are translated by the semi-organic time machine “getting inside your head.” (This concept was first explained more loosely in “The Masque of Madragora”, predating even The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’s babel fish.) The TARDIS being psychically linked to the Time Lord, and being as he’s out of it on just about every level, it’s simply not working. The humans are so reliant on the tricks of the Doctor’s trade, they can’t even communicate with the alien Sycorax sans his lucidity. The entire scenario is a clever set-up for his re-entrance—all thanks to a tipped-over thermos of English tea.
And a grand re-entrance it is: “Did you miss me?” Tennant shines, stepping into “his” Doctor with wit, style and confidence. He takes direct charge by ripping the Sycorax leader’s “laser whip” (what else is it?) from his grasp and then breaks the goon’s staff in half—the Sycorax are stunned by this newcomer’s temerity. All the more amusing is that he’s simply out of the loop. Or is he? Hordes of looming warriors threatening mankind…what more need he know? Old hat, new Doctor…
Holding court, the Doctor dances around the room: he flirts with Rose, greets Mickey, reintroduces himself to Harriet Jones, tastes a dab of human blood, presses a great big threatening button (“which should never ever, ever be pressed”), quotes The Lion King and challenges the Sycorax leader to a duel as Earth’s champion. Unfortunately, the duel is weakly choreographed, but the moment it leads to - the chopping off of the Doctor’s hand and its immediate re-regeneration—is a bit of Who magic and something we’ve never seen before, yet is totally fits in this universe. While narratively sound, some clumsy editing/coverage mars the sequence. One moment the Doctor appears to be on the edge of the ship, the next he’s further in and surrounded by Sycorax; this goes back and forth for several shots, and the perspective of the whole thing is pretty off. In all fairness, it’s so much fun, I didn’t notice until the third viewing or so. And the Doctor’s name-dropping of Arthur Dent (“Now there was a nice man!”)? Given that Douglas Adams wrote and script-edited for the series in the ’70s, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Doctor Who and Hitchhikers exist in the same universe.
With the bad guys vanquished, the Doctor & Co. return to the planet’s surface, seemingly ready to move on with the holiday celebrations. Russell T Davies, show runner and writer of the piece, said he felt a Christmas special was always in danger of working out too nicely. He slams on the brakes, bringing the vibe to a halt by having Harriet call upon the mysterious Torchwood to activate a Death Star-like weapon, which destroys the fleeing Sycorax ship. We’ve come to really like Jones at this point and it’s a shock to not only see her commit genocide, but to subsequently see her broken and humiliated by the Doctor over the issue. As he said earlier of his new self, “No second chances - I’m that sort of man.”
For the first time in the new series, we see a room inside the TARDIS other than the console room—the wardrobe. A catchy pop tune (“Song for Ten”) by composer Murray Gold fills the soundtrack as the Doctor rummages about, searching for an appropriate look. His chosen outfit lacks the streetwise, contemporary feel of Eccleston’s garb or the eccentricity of some of the older Doctors: a long, brown waistcoat and a pinstripe suit to match; subdued and yet classic. (Allegedly Tennant declared, upon accepting the role, that he “wanted to wear a big coat.”) The only real “modern” touch is the pair of incongruous All Stars he chooses for footwear.
He rejoins Rose, Mickey and Jackie for the festivities—a departure from Eccleston’s Doc, who steered clear of familial merriment. The phone interrupts and the party moves outside—snowfall? Nothing so romantic—it’s ash from the destroyed Sycorax ship. The insecurity that follows with the Doctor and Rose each worried that due to his regeneration, maybe they’ve lost interest in one other, is another Who first, and really encapsulates in a just a few seconds how far the series has come over the years. Tennant’s final line—“And it is gonna be…fantastic”- is a warm, linking tribute from Davies to Eccleston, the Doctor we just lost and barely got to know.
Some time has passed between the end of “The Christmas Invasion” and the start of “New Earth”: London looks sunnier and Rose has had enough time to get a swank new wardrobe and cute little haircut. Maybe since the Doctor changed, she felt the need to upgrade as well? Looking a tad more sophisticated and grown up, she bids rushed farewells to Jackie and Mickey (note Mickey’s “Love you” to which Rose replies, “Bye”), and pops into the TARDIS.
Rose: So where are we going?
The Doctor: Further than we’ve ever gone before.
The year is 5,000,000,023 in the galaxy M-87 on the planet New Earth. The place? New New York. The episode is a direct sequel to 1.2, “The End of the World”, which saw the end of the Earth in the year 5 billion. Two characters from “World” return: The last human, Lady Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker), and the mysterious Face of Boe (who’s a bit reminiscent of the Guild Navigator from Dune). “New Earth” is, more than anything else, a funny, flashy romp that works best if you don’t look too closely at the goings-on—this logic should be applied to most any sci-fi TV that whips out the ol’ body switching/mind swapping routine. The point is to have fun—if you’re not in the mood for fun, this likely won’t do much for you.
From the moment the time travelers materialize on New Earth, it’s clear that either the series has had a budget increase or the effects artists have tweaked their trade. It’s a gorgeous opening sequence full of wonder and amazement and also technically the first time in the new series we’ve set foot on alien soil—Doctor Who has never looked as slick as it does in these shots. When Rose tells the Doctor, “Traveling with you…I love it,” she also speaks for us.
The pair harmlessly flirt and reminisce in a manner that was almost off-putting to me at first. Given the sort of twists Davies injects into the concept, I’d expected to have at least another episode of Rose adjusting to the new-new Doctor. Not so—seems she’s completely forgotten his pathos-soaked 9th incarnation. This new guy is, above all else, a hell of a lot fun to hang with. In hindsight, my expectation was just that; Davies chose a new direction and Doctor, then ran with it and never looked back.
The Doctor receives a puzzling summons to a nearby hospital on his trusty psychic paper. (Note the flexibility of this gadget—the Doctor gets loads of convenient mileage out of both it and his ubiquitous sonic screwdriver as the series progresses.) Once they arrive, the classic “split the Doctor and companion apart” routine kicks in. The Doctor meets the Sisters of Plentitude, cat-like beings who function as doctors and nurses while Rose is tricked into a reunion with the bitchy trampoline Cassandra, looking as she did 23 years ago when Rose witnessed her destruction. But you don’t live to be the last surviving human without having a cache of tricks up your, um, slab of skin. (Odd that Cassandra spends all her time in the nude.) It doesn’t take long for a few levers to be thrown and Cassandra’s mind is projected into Rose’s body—with Rose’s mind “buried” somewhere inside.
From here on out, Billie Piper sails. We’ve come love her as Rose, but Billie as Cassandra is after-hours delight. She hits the right notes and sells every bit of deliciously devilish dialogue. (I’d like to think the script was a gift of sorts from Davies to Piper for sticking with the series after Eccleston departed.) Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers not only the source of the summons, The Face of Boe, a centuries-year old being nearing death, but also that the Sisters are alarmingly proficient in their curing of what ails you. Take the Duke of Manhattan for instance—a man literally turning to stone, cured within a matter of hours. (I wonder why there’d be any disease whatsoever in the year 5 billion, but hey - that’s the kind of thinking that ruins a story like this.)
Further examination “New Earth’s” “plot” would be an exercise in boredom. There isn’t much of a plot and this is the kind of stuff better viewed than written about: witty dialogue, ghoulish leper-zombies, and heaps of running around. Most worthy of a mention is the brief period where Cassandra jumps into the Doctor—material that Tennant camps up like he’s guest starring in a John Waters flick.
To save the day, the Doctor rounds up all available medicines, mixes them in a vat and sprays it all over the zombies: “I’m the Doctor and I cured them!” And what of the Face of Boe? Well, it is a very expensive-looking prop—he delivers a “textbook enigmatic” message that he and the Doctor will meet a third and last time “when the truth shall be told” before disappearing into thin air.
In the final moments of the story, the Doctor takes a dying Cassandra back in time to a moment earlier in her life, so that she can have a sort of circular effect on herself. (Surely this violated at least half a dozen laws of time?). Zoe Wanamaker plays a poignant scene of finality and is given the chance to at last appear onscreen in the flesh.
NEXT WEEK: The Doctor and Rose travel to 1879 Scotland and meet Queen Victoria, battle a werewolf, and encounter some Matrix-ized monks in “Tooth and Claw”.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.