It's Christmas Day 2005 and the Tenth Doctor is about to face The Christmas Invasion - once he gets out of bed that is! Tony Fyler looks back at the start of the David Tennant era.
There have been some very strange Doctoral debuts over the course of the last fifty years. Troughton’s production team, unsure whether the viewers would actually buy the first, audacious use of regeneration, anchored him with one of the strongest Dalek scripts in the show’s history. Pertwee was hospitalised for a good chunk of his first adventure, then had to sell the new setup of the wanderer trapped on Earth in the 1970s. Tom Baker made the part his own immediately, despite a script written mostly for a Pertwee-based omniDoctor. Davison had post-regenerative amnesia and unravelled his own past to find his new self in the mystifying nonsense that was Castrovalva. It got worse – Colin Baker was a violence-prone psycho bombast in a coat that was so naff, even the 80s hated it! Sylvester McCoy played the spoons on Kate O’Mara’s chest, fell over the furniture, explained the plot, such as it was, and wore a sweater covered in question-marks. Paul McGann didn’t appear for the first third of his inaugural story, spent time in hospital and had post-regenerative amnesia, as a nod to a couple of his predecessors.
Then came New Who, with its pacey launch, its quirky but deeply troubled, survivor-guilt Doctor, and his redemption through what is undeniably a love story with his companion, despite Rose’s assertion that he’s “better than that”.
So how in the name of Omega and Rassilon do you top that? Oh, and make the story Christmassy into the bargain, as you launch the brand new Doctor and a brand new British tradition all in one?
You have the Doctor fall unconscious in the pre-credits sequence, wake up once, briefly, then fall unconscious again until the last ten minutes.
Is that really going to work?
This was New Who’s Trouhgton moment. Eccleston and Piper had conquered the cynics, turned a nation of women and girls onto Doctor Who by the equality of the companion, and got us all weeping or clutching our hearts with their chemistry, their loving care of each other, and that goodbye. Now some interloper was coming into the Tardis, all teeth and spiky hair and the body of a whippet on a crash diet. How could he possibly take the place of everyone’s new favourite Doctor? Especially if he was going to lay about in bed for the vast majority of the episode?
The fact that it worked at all was down to the strength of the new format. The ninth Doctor had made friends in high places, friends on a council estate, and…well, not-exactly-friends with Jackie Tyler. The first Doctor Who Christmas Special would be mostly about those ordinary human beings – it would take the more traditional Eastenders Christmas Special and stick some aliens on top, like skull-mask-wearing fairies on a spinning Christmas tree.
The episode revolves around two parallel threats – the Sycorax, who add a hard, pre-Torchwood edge to their threat when people around the world seem about to jump off buildings at their command – and the Doctor, seemingly comatose and drawing the threat to him, and therefore to the Earth. His friends try to protect him, keep him safe, and also in the parallel thread, are negotiating with the aliens – the legacy of the ninth Doctor and his rejuvenated format is everywhere throughout The Christmas Invasion, which is fitting for a nation of fans still in mourning for their new favourite Time Lord.
The fact that David Tennant is made to wait until the last ten minutes to really come into his own and give us a blueprint for his Doctor is an extraordinary risk, and ultimately an unnecessary one – but oh, how it pays off. When the Sycorax begin speaking English, it starts a tingle that swells with the music. The Tardis doors open. And then – and only then – is the ninth Doctor really gone, because there, fully formed, is the potential of the tenth. And off he goes, like a wind-up toy. Where Eccleston’s Doctor was by turns silly and profound, Tennant’s barely pauses for breath, has a streak of comic madness in his face, and seems to treat the Sycorax like a bunch of quaint old springer spaniels, with their blood control and everything. Is you a clever old Sycorax ’en? Yes you is, Big Fella, yes you is…
Then, unexpectedly, he grabs a sword. Still finding out who he is, he challenges the Sycorax leader to a sword-fight! And suddenly the cheerful chatterbox draws in and focuses and becomes our Time Lord Defender, and it’s all so very believable. This is the Doctor. Of course it is. Christopher Who?
This new Doctor’s hand is clearly a fightin’ hand, and he defeats the alien warlord, snarls at him to take his command – and the moment it’s agreed the Sycorax will bog off and leave us in peace, the chirpy chatterbox is back.
Or is he? When the Sycorax leader tries to go back on his word, and armed with nothing but a satsuma, this new Doctor despatches him without even turning round. “No second chances – I’m that sort of a man.”
It’s a stark warning, and it’s necessary because the chatterbox Doctor could all too easily become all froth and fun, but it’s a balancing act Tennant carries off with an aplomb beyond his years. Yes, it’s time for the Doctor to lighten up after his post-Time War angst, but don’t ever cross this High Noon Doctor. You get one chance to be a good person by his definition. If you don’t take it, he will bring down your world without a second thought and you’ll only have yourself to blame.
It’s a warning Harriet Jones should have learned to take. Back home on the Powell Estate, she makes a tough call and kills the retreating Sycorax. It weighs heavily on her, but the new Doctor is merciless. He brings her down with just six words, then swans off for Christmas Dinner – a more inherently sociable Time Lord, we notice, and one who pulls off the ultimate regenerative trick: getting along with Jackie Tyler!
The Christmas Invasion ends by cheekily framing the fan’s dilemma in Rose’s – “I thought you might not want to come…y’know….cos I changed.” But by that point we’ve been thrilled and chilled, we’ve laughed at homicidal Christmas trees and gasped at blood control and electro-whip death. We’ve felt the loss of our Doctor so keenly, and been blown away by ten minutes of this chatterbox, Tigger-bouncing nerdcool new man. Plus whoah, he looks good in that coat. So when he offers Rose – and us – the chance to come with him to new stars, new adventures and new dangers, we, like her, can do nothing but grab the new Doctor’s hand, and step into the box. The universe is waiting, and here we go again.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk
This article was originally published August 21st 2014