Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE CHRISTMAS INVASION - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE CHRISTMAS INVASION

Tony celebrates Christmas.
“The same, but different” is the principle behind regeneration. It’s a formula of genius that has kept Doctor Who fresh for sixty years, but back in December 2005, it was a principle that could theoretically have been brand spanking new to a large percentage of the show’s new audience, captivated as they had been by the relatively ‘grown-up’ Doctoring of Christopher Eccleston.

The Christmas Invasion pays almost immediate homage to the “same, but different” idea with an almost replay of the opening to Rose, the first Eccleston episode, zooming in from space, to Earth, to London, giving that familiarity of a new beginning. But equally, it almost immediately gives way to newness in terms of the consequences of the Eccleston series. Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith have had no word from Rose since the Tardis took her off to the Dalek apocalypse and the death of the Ninth Doctor.

That gives an additional pathos to Jackie having wrapped Rose a Christmas present, and when the Tardis arrives on the Powell estate on Christmas Eve, Jackie and Mickey come running, just in time to be babbled at by a funny-serious wrong man in the Doctor’s leather jacket, who wishes them a merry Christmas – and then collapses, prompting a somewhat grating “Doctor who?” to take us into the first real opening credits of the Tennant era.

David Tennant is on record as being a big fan of The West Wing, and having asked for his opening story to follow some of the precepts of that show’s pilot episode.

For those who, for reasons of some deprivation or profound moral failing, haven’t yet checked out the pilot episode of The West Wing, stop reading now and do that – it’ll make your life immeasurably better. But the point is that the lead character (the President, in the case of the West Wing) spends all but the last handful of minutes off screen, or taking no active part in the story.

The result is that it creates an understanding of his importance by having everyone who benefits from his presence having to cope for a day without him – only to have him barnstorm the last handful of minutes and completely blow the audience away with his personal magnetism.

You might, in hindsight, think that what we’ve come to call a “Doctor Lite” story was an incredibly risky way to not only a) introduce the first new Doctor of the new era to have to pick up from a direct predecessor, b) prove that the concept of a Doctor Who Christmas special could be a worthwhile thing that would unite families around their TV screens, and c) tell a sustainable over not just a 45-minute New Who episode, but an extended, 60-minute one.

You might think that if you hadn’t just spent a whole series being wowed at what Russell T Davies can do and frequently does with Doctor Who.

Fortunately though, there’s also a long tradition in Doctor Who of “this regeneration’s going a bit wrong” stories being the way in which the audience is introduced to a new Doctor, discovering the quirks and differences of the new incarnation as the Doctor discovers themself.

But of all the “unconscious and discovering themselves” regeneration stories, only Spearhead From Space really managed to pull off the trope and still be a stone cold classic adventure.

Annnnd now The Christmas Invasion. And weirdly, they both succeed for a handful of similar reasons.

In Spearhead, the regeneration – and the alien gittery – is largely covered by having a friend of the Doctor’s, who has known him before, in a position of authority. See also, The Christmas Invasion. For Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Harriet Jones (now Prime Minister) stands in as the front-line force with whom the aliens have to reckon, while in The Christmas Invasion, there’s also a fantastic opportunity to slightly correct the course that was driven by Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor – and to acknowledge the fact that lots of new Who fans were grieving that their “proper” Doctor was gone out of their lives, replaced by the relatively unknown quantity of David Tennant.

While Jackie and Mickey are becoming adept at coping with alien – and particularly, Doctorish – shenanigans, and are mostly (as in The Parting of the Ways), there for Rose, Rose herself goes on a fan-journey. The shock of the Doctor’s changing, the sense that he’s “left me, Mum,” the ramped-up threat that he might actually die on her, and perhaps most interestingly, the sense that “without the Doctor, I’m useless. I don’t know what to do!”

That’s a regression for Rose, who back in her first episode was the one who saved both the Doctor and the Earth. It takes her most of the episode to step into the role again and “be” the Doctor, albeit the Alien Gits of Christmas Present, the Sycorax, laugh their bony bottoms off at her attempt to act tough. It all feeds that narrative of the missing lead, the lead who could sort all this out and save the world. The lead who is sleeping.

Meanwhile, the actual story of the episode is certainly strong enough to hold the interest of the audience through a Christmas special. Drawing on elements of Davies’ style and his stories from Series 1, Harriet Jones is elevated to the premiership, there’s a more active return for UNIT (almost blasé now, but back then, we cheered our faces off), and the plot itself resonates with events at the time, when we were sending probes, rather than billionaires, off into space.

What, the plot reasoned, if some aliens found one of those probes and decided we were easy prey? What if they did it at Christmas? And what if they did it while the Doctor, who would normally see off a threat like theirs before breakfast, was sleeping off a regenerative crisis? How would humanity cope?

There’s a degree of realism about the absolute pain in the bum it would be trying to decipher a real alien language that puts the alien peril of The Christmas Invasion in the same, recognisable world as the continued use of specially shot news reports of the invasion and the modernity of the idea of the Earth sending out space probes (another Pertweean riff, incidentally).

So while the Doctor sleeps and the Powell Estate Gang try and figure out what to do about their dangerously ill Time Lord, the world is in the hands of UNIT and particularly, of Harriet Jones, Prime Minister. And it’s during this period that Russell T Davies reveals a skill he was later to deploy with devastating skill in Torchwood – and particularly in series 3, Children of Earth.

Davies takes a simple idea – that we send samples of blood into space on probes – twists it through a glass darkly and turns it into a global-level curse, with roughly a third of the world’s human population obeying a compulsion to get to the edges of the tallest available buildings and wait there, very visible hostages to underline the seriousness of the Sycorax threat.

People try and reason with the Sycorax, and are unsentimentally killed in front of us – a touch of extra darkness to go with our turkey sandwiches.

And then there’s the frankly bonkers camp sub-plot about “pilot fish” – robot Santas trying to kill off the Doctor’s protectors so they can run their batteries off his post-regenerative energy. The killer Christmas tree would in any sane universe be a push too far into sheer festive camp.

But this is RTD’s Doctor Who (a thing of burping wheelie bins and red alerts being camp in the rest of the universe). Yes, there’s a certain ungovernable crassness about it, but firstly it amps up the festive nature of the threat, and secondly it riffs on those Classic Who moments that were at least equally as naff, but in which the naffness added to the timeless horror – The Master’s suffocating black armchair, for instance, or… well, more or less everything in The Happiness Patrol.

It all builds to the climactic moment of Rose’s attempt to speak as “her” Doctor would have spoken, banishing the alien bullies while people around the world are one step away from death, and the alternative is to have half the world’s population voluntarily sold into slavery. And then…

Oh, then.

Then the time-wasting element of the translation of the Sycoraxic language into English by machine proves its worth, as the Sycorax leader switches, halfway through a sentence, from speaking Sycoraxic to speaking English. Which means the Tardis’ telepathic translation matrix must be working. Which means the Doctor must be firing on all synapses again!

There’s a joyous, cheesy moment where everyone turns to look at the Tardis doors, just as they open – and there’s our new Time Lord. Properly. Fully. No longer unconscious or gasping. Just a grin and a “Did you miss me?”

And even though he’s more or less brand new, it’s impossible to escape the fact that actually, yes, we did.

What follows is a joyously bravura handful of heartbeats as Tennant’s new Doctor rules the screen. The Sycorax weapon we’ve seen kill two people is neutralized and snapped without so much as a second thought. The Sycorax leader’s roar of protest is mercilessly aped. And then the motormouth Doctor sets about testing who and what he is, which includes neutralizing the blood control threat while babbling like a Douglas Adams character.

Within minutes of his proper arrival, Tennant’s Doctor absolutely nails some new rules to our frontal cortices about who the Doctor is now. Much more talkative, much more comic – and then, as it turns out, much more active, taking on the Sycorax leader in a swordfight “for the planet.”

When he loses a hand in that fight, he regrows it right in front of us, as a trick of regeneration. And as soon as the Sycorax leader yields the contest, the Tenth Doctor snaps back to chirpy, chatty mode. But when the leader makes to double-cross him, he’s destroyed with no pity, and, because it’s Doctor Who under Russell T Davies, with a satsuma.

What that shows is a deep fork in this new Doctor’s nature. Most of the time, he seems chirpy and cheery, and altogether much more socially easy than his predecessor (after all, he goes on to have Christmas dinner round at Jackie’s). But beneath that surface, there’s still very much the force to be reckoned with on a cosmic scale. There’s still The Oncoming Storm.

He tells the Sycorax to inform the universe that the Earth is defended, and as they naff back off to the stars with their tails between their legs, there’s every chance The Christmas Invasion could end on an undiluted high.

Except Davies wants to give us one more lurch before the happy ending.

Harriet Jones has heard the Doctor’s words, about the Sycorax going back to the stars and telling everyone about the Earth. In fact, that’s the last conversation they have as friends. And then her right-hand-man tells her that the “Torchwood” she’s been mentioning as a potential solution to the invasion throughout the episode is ready.

There’s a moment, a long, long moment when Penelope Wilton acts her heart out as Jones. The Prime Minister knows the decision she’s about to make will sunder her relationship with the Doctor, probably forever.

But she’s also governed by the reasons she eventually gives the Doctor for what happens next. The doctor comes and goes, and the whole episode has taught us – and Harriet – what happens when he’s not here. So she gives Torchwood the order to fire, and they do, destroying the retreating Sycorax with technology salvaged from another, earlier alien spacecraft.

And just as, when the Sycorax leader tried to betray the Doctor’s benevolence, he found this was not a Time Lord to disappoint, and was dispatched with a scowl and a satsuma, so Harriet Jones discovers the same thing in the Doctor’s icy launching of her downfall with those six words: “Don’t you think she looks tired.”

It’s tempting to see this as another Pertwee riff – when the Brigadier destroys the Silurians in their caves, the Doctor is disgusted with him as a representative of humanity. If he could have done so without personal consequences, would the Third Doctor have brought down his friend’s military career with a handful of words?

We’ll never know, because that Doctor had nowhere to go, and no way to escape the planet. The new Tenth Doctor brings down a former friend with his icy newness, and walks away without another thought, for Christmas dinner, party hats, snow that isn’t snow, and a re-sealing of the bargain between himself and Rose Tyler – that they will go and see all the sights there are to see in the great wide heavens.

And while it would be a great disservice to Christopher Eccleston to say that we’ve forgotten him by the end of The Christmas Invasion, the truth is that the episode does everything we could hope for, and everything we need – it showcases this brand new Doctor in a wide range of moods and modes, and it makes us eager to take his newly regenerated hand and run off to the stars, for an adventure that’s the same, but different, built on decades of legacy, while at the same time being absolutely new.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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