Magic Bullet Productions

Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion

By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 335

"The Christmas Invasion" would easily be guaranteed a sugnificant place in the Doctor Who history-books by virtue of being David Tennant's first episode-length appearance in the programme (following the short Children In Need sketch), and being only the second story which could be charitably deemed a Christmas special (as well as being the first to be officially designated as such, as "The Feast of Steven" fell within the normal run of Doctor Who and was not specially commissioned as a supplementary epsiode). However, it does work quite well as an entertaining story in its own right, picking up and developing the storylines of the earlier series.

Christmas specials are, normally, the low point of a television series, generally being an excuse for substandard writing, either involving trite and saccharine messages about the spirit of Christmas, or pantomimesque romps: "The Feast of Steven" falls rather into the latter category, if proving more entertainingly surreal than the average holiday offering from the likes of Bad Girls. "The Christmas Invasion", however, is nothing like "The Feast of Steven", and also proves a nice antidote to Christmas saccharinity, skewering the holiday-special cliche of snow miraculously falling at Christmas (cf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Amends") by having the "snow" in question turn out to be ash from the destroyed Sycorax spaceship. The production is once again flawless, with Clearwell Caves making a welcome appearance (although the one major sticking-point from our perspective is that the credits sequence has reverted to the 1980s trend of crediting the lead character as "The Doctor" rather than the more traditional "Doctor Who").

The story is clearly situated within the series' continuity, picking up on and developing themes and ideas introduced in "Rose" and "Aliens of London/World War Three". The opening sequence is a direct parallel with "Rose", with a shot of Earth from space zooming rapidly down into the London landscape and cutting to a scene of everyday domesticity in the Tylers' council flat. The Doctor holds Rose's hand at a crucial point in the same way he did in "Rose", and repeats Eccleston's best-known catchphrase ("Fantastic!"). The revelation that Mickey works as a mechanic was foreshadowed in earlier episodes, when we see car pictures in his flat and on his T-shirts, and learn that he owns at least two well-maintained classic cars. The story also works as a kind of response to the "Aliens of London" two-parter in that it covers much of the same ground as these stories (near-contemporary setting, politicians dealing with invading aliens, the return of Harriet Jones, and mixing comedy and political comment), but does so much more satisfyingly. "The Christmas Invasion", like the earlier stories,has an element of political wish-fulfilment (Harriet Jones' message to the American President, that he is not her boss and is under no circumstances to turn the encounter into a war, would have most Britons cheering) and allegory to recent and contemporary events (the shooting down of the Sycorax ship, both a direct reference to the Belgrano affair and a less direct one to the xenophobic policies of present-day governments). While "AOL/WW3", however, somewhat let itself down in the final analysis (particularly when the Doctor announces that Harriet Jones is a heroic leader who will usher in a new Golden Age of Britain, which sits ill with anyone who remembers the similar rhetoric about Tony Blair in 1997), "The Christmas Invasion" subverts the idea of Harriet Jones as the Good Politician through showing her cowardly attack on the retreating Sycorax, and through revealing that the "Golden Age of Britain" was in fact only a media catchphrase during the short-lived honeymoon period of Jones' premiership. Whether Russell T. Davies always planned to build upon "AOL/WW3" in this way, or whether the present story is a rethinking of the earlier story in light of how the new Doctor Who series has developed, the fact remains that the changes are a welcome development.

This story also makes it explicit that Doctor Who, or at any rate its contemporary episodes, takes place in an alternate universe slightly different to our own. The history of space-flight presented in the story is somewhat at variance to that in the real world; we also meet a UNIT officer who talks quite casually about Martians and alien invasions, and the Internet technology that we see is superior to that in the real world (thanks, no doubt, to Van Statten and the addition of alien technology), possibly explaining why Mickey is able to perform such monumental online feats in "World War Three". Moreover, the story builds on a rather famous throwaway line from "Remembrance of the Daleks", to make it clear that this is not just a Who-specific universe, when it is revealed that the British Rocket Group of the Quatermass serials are behind the Guinevere One probe (and the tie-in website gives the organisation a history of funding cuts and privatisation which is wryly in keeping with that of real-life postwar quangoes), and also that the Doctor has met Arthur Dent (although admittedly the Doctor might be joking, or referring to an encounter in the Land of Fiction, the fact that his earlier incarnation once read a book by Oolon Colluphid suggests that The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy does take place in the same universe).

The cast are generally good as always, particularly the recurring members. Harriet Jones is excellently portrayed by Penelope Wilton, who even manages to look paler and more hunched-- and thus, indeed, tired-- towards the end of the story. She continues with her established dottiness, perpetually flashing her ID card at people and getting some of the best lines in the story, such as "there's an Act of Parliament banning my autobiography," and "did we ask about the Royal Family? Oh. They're on the roof." (which, it must be admitted, wouldn't really be said in a political broadcast at a time of crisis, but can be forgiven on the grounds that, firstly, it's funny, particularly as it casts witty aspersions on the size of the gene pool among the British aristocracy, and, secondly, the sequence is a humorous inversion of the Queen's Christmas Speech). On the estate, Jackie Tyler seems to have mellowed considerably since the earlier series, probably due to the events of "Father's Day" and "The Parting of the Ways": where Mickey is still a bit jealous of Rose's relationship with the Doctor, Jackie has accepted the situation, putting up with the sudden intrusion with aplomb and without hostility, admitting publicly that she rather fancies the Doctor herself (pruriently remarking "is there anything else he's got two of?"), and being ultimately much more willing to allow Rose to live her own life as she chooses to do it rather than trying to control her. It is admittedly a trifle odd that the Tardis' repeated appearances on the Powell Estate never seems to excite much of a reaction from the residents, but, as anyone who lives in one knows, the inhabitants of big cities tend to develop defence mechanisms against looking too closely at things that seem out of the ordinary, and also most people are uninclined to investigate anything with the words "Police," "Council," "Thames Water" or any other such official designation on it.

The story also introduces a new alien race, the Sycorax. These come across as an amalgam of familiar telefantasy and, indeed, Doctor Who villains: visually, they resemble a combination of the Klingons, the Drakh of Babylon 5, Hordak of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the cover of the BBV CD The Faction Paradox Protocols: The Eleven-Day Empire (although how much of these resemblances are down to the writer, and how much to the costume and makeup departments, is unclear). The whip their leader uses is rather like the Holowhip seen in the Red Dwarf episode "Holoship". The fact that the Sycorax use blood in showy voodoo rituals appears to be a direct reference to the Faction Paradox novels and audios (although, as fans of the series have pointed out, the Sycorax could well be Faction imitators or wannabes). As a side point, it is worth noting that Fifi, the doglike creature seen in "The Happiness Patrol", was identified by the Doctor as a female Stigorax. While the idea that the Guinevere One probe might contain a vial of human blood may be gruesome, it is not all that far-fetched, as stranger things have been launched on space probes as far back as the 1977 Voyager programme (including audio records, DNA sequences and stylised repesentations of the solar system). They are, however, quite cleverly used, being built up in ways which make them look like terrible, menacing and fierce monsters who can kill and manipulate in mysterious ways, but then, once the Doctor turns up, they are exposed as being a bit pathetic as alien races go, with their leader being defeated in the end by a satsuma-- which is both a subtle message for child viewers about how the greatest fears often are irrational ones, and a turn of events which makes Harriet Jones' wholesale destruction of their ship (with Torchwood using a laser which bears a strong resemblance to the Death Star's), that much worse, as the aliens she attacks are not even a genuine threat to Earth.

One slight problem with the story is that there seems to be some confusion with regard to the relationship between the Sycorax and the "killer Santas" seen earlier on. It is unclear whether the Santas are Sycorax scouts (which would make the story simpler and explain why the teleport effect is the same for both), or, as the Doctor's reference to pilot fish would suggest, a second alien species (although it's possible that the reference is, if one may pardon the pun, a red herring meant to make us think that they are a different species to the Sycorax, to maintain the surprise when the seemingly animal-skull-faced Sycorax turn out to be humanlike creatures wearing masks), or robots (since the Christmas tree is mechanical, and since it is unclear whether the metal face plate is a mask or part of a robot). However, the ambiguity does at least serve to keep the viewer in suspense about the relationship of the two groups of aliens, and also keeps the story from getting bogged down with explanations.

Finally, of course, this is the first time that we see the tenth Doctor in action for a full-length episode. Comparisons to his immediate predecessor are inevitable, but it must be said that the differences between the Tennant and Eccleston Doctors are noteworthy: whereas Eccleston's Doctor, traumatised by his experiences, insisted on seeing everything in terms of good versus evil, and was continually trying to fool himself into seeing happy endings where there weren't any (ultimately to his own detriment), Tennant's Doctor seems less inclined to rely on such emotional crutches. He also, unlike his somewhat trigger-happy predecessor, recognises that sometimes the subtle is a more effective weapon than the cataclysmic (as witness the "don't you think she looks tired?" sequence, in which he effects regime change by psychological warfare rather than by force, although it must be said that it seems unlikely we have seen the last of the Rt. Hon. Jones). Unlike the ninth Doctor, the tenth also cheerfully Does Domestic. The idea of a romantic hint to his relationship with Rose is also less problematice than it was in the previous season, possibly because Tennant is closer to her own age and his Doctor is more of an affectionate character, where Eccleston occasionally came across as sinisterly obsessive in his feelings for Rose.

The change to a more cheerful and less driven Doctor is also brought home by the way in which the fight sequence on the Sycorax ship riffs on The Empire Strikes Back: whereas the Doctor, like Luke Skywalker, loses a hand in a fight with a skull-faced villain, the Doctor, rather than becoming withdrawn, antisocial and overfond of black clothing, regrows the limb (interestingly, the same one identified in the Children In Need special as being a bit dodgy) better than before, suggesting that he is the type to bounce back from adversity. One has the suspicion that the Doctor is going to become more of the central figure of the next season: whereas the idea of having the morally conflicted Eccleston as a figure for viewer identification is dubious (meaning that Rose has to become the focus of our attention and sympathy instead), Tennant's Doctor seems much better adjusted thus far. The idea that the Doctor has some kind of somatic link with the Tardis, which dates back to "The Tenth Planet", recurs in the fact that the Tardis' translation function doesn't work until the Doctor himself is fit again, and we also see another bit of the Tardis, the wardrobe room, also updated for the new milennium: in it, the Doctor discovers a Hawaiian shirt (likely a reference to former producer John Nathan-Turner), and an eighteenth-century jacket very like Tennant's costume for Casanova.

"The Christmas Invasion" is thus a superior take on both the regeneration story and the Christmas special (neither of which are normally noted for their depth, wit or subtlety), and suggests encouraging things about the directions which the new series will be taking next year.