Please note that spoilers follow.
Russell T. Davies took a number of risks with Doctor Who’s The Christmas Invasion. Christmas specials are odd creatures. For many BBC shows, they are outside the normal parameters of a show’s season. The audience may not be interested in complicated inter-season plots, and you have the added requirement of making the story relevant to Christmas. Although he set the story during Christmas and included a number of fluffy/creepy Christmas themes (the Christmas tree of death was a hoot!), he tied the story deep in the Doctor Who canon by setting the story immediately after the first season’s The Parting of the Ways, making The Christmas Invasion David Tennant’s regeneration story.
Consider that a moment. In Doctor Who, regeneration stories are tricky creatures. They are, essentially, pilot episodes in their own right, establishing the traits of the lead character to an audience who doesn’t yet know him. Thus The Christmas Invasion required fans of the program to tune in. This may have been a Christmas special, but a piece of fluff this was not.
A similar tactic used by Russell T. Davies in drafting the Children in Need special a month beforehand. A bit of explanation: the Children in Need special is a charitable telethon held on the BBC every year, featuring a number of celebrities hawking for the charity. Some of the television shows produce special segments to keep the viewer numbers up through the telethon. Doctor Who’s last Children in Need special, in 1993, was a throwaway mess. For 2005, Russell T. Davies threw in a five minute scene immediately following the ninth Doctor’s regeneration. While regular viewers who missed the scene and watched the series could still follow the action, the scene augmented fans’ enjoyment of the goings on. It’s a demanding philosophy, but one which I think will pay dividends.
Recovering from his sudden regeneration, the Doctor can do little but rest in the sanctuary of Rose’s mother’s (Jackie) apartment, watched over by Rose and Mickey on Christmas Eve. But events are conspiring to keep the Doctor from resting easy. Harriet Jones, former MP for Flydale North from Aliens of London and World War Three and now Prime Minister of Britain, is on the verge of announcing Britain’s successful landing of an unmanned probe on Mars, courtesy of the British Rocket Group, and either this, or the Doctor’s presence, attract the interest of aliens out to enslave the Earth. If you think you can skip this Christmas special and still understand the second season of new Who, think again.
David Tennant established himself for many fans during the Children in Need special when he showed a compelling range. For CBC viewers with only The Christmas Invasion to go on, he must introduce himself again. He does a good job, I think, despite limited screen time and a script that required him to lie flat on his back for most of the story. Fortunately, he’ll have a whole season to get the fans to love him, and he shows enough to leave us wanting more. As for allowing us to enjoy the episode itself, Davies wisely allows Billie Piper’s Rose carry the action for him, and established guest characters Mickey, Rose’s mom Jackie and Harriet Jones give the audience links to the first season of the new show.
I have no complaints about the acting; everybody gives their best, and veteran director James Hawes (of The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances fame) keeps the story moving well. As for the story itself, however, it needs a little work. I’ve complained before about Russell T. Davies’ lazy plotting, and evidence abounds here. After Rose and Mickey are attacked by aliens in Santa suits, the Doctor tells them that they’ve been attracted by his unstable regenerative state, which could be enough to power their ships for years. However, the Doctor warns the humans that these aliens are “pilot fish”, small fries arriving ahead of the shark. And sure enough the shark arrives as a threat to all of Earth, hypnotising a third of the world’s population to stand on the rooftops, ready to jump.
Question: if the “pilot fish” are related to the shark, just what attracts the aliens to Earth? The Doctor? Or the Guenivere probe to Mars? I also thought that the main aliens were cardboard in character, and the resolution of their problem pat and anti-climactic — especially disappointing after the creepy Santas.
However, as lazy as Davies is in terms of plotting, he knows how to pace, he knows dialogue, and he knows emotional resonance. His characters, Rose, Mickey and Jackie, all thrive on the banter he provides, and the story of their relationships — Mickey and Jackie struggling to accept that Rose is still lost to them — is genuinely compelling. Davies also has fun with David Tennant’s Doctor, giving him rapid-fire lines and a take-charge attitude that is laugh-out-loud funny at times (the Doctor struggling to tell Jackie to shut up is a highlight) and always brilliant. The actors have a genuine rapport, but it’s Davies makes it easy for them.
And the final, controversial decision of Harriett Jones to fire on the fleeing spaceship is a strong moment for the show. The Doctor’s anger is genuine, and his engineering of her downfall inspired, but I for one could understand and agree with Harriett’s decision. Davies is capable enough to show us that both characters were right, in their own way, and leave the audience struggling with the moral implications.
As a Doctor Who geek, I quite enjoyed the extra continuity references, the U.N.I.T. personnel, the line “Martians don’t look like that” and the inclusion of the British Rocket Group (a nice tip of the hat to Quatermass fans). Also look for Tom Baker’s scarf, Patrick Troughton’s checked pants, and the coat that David Tennant himself wore while he starred in Davies’ acclaimed miniseries Casanova. These moments are of benefit only to eagle-eyed fans, but they don’t distract from the casual viewer’s enjoyment of the story.
As Christmas specials go, The Christmas Invasion succeeds in giving us something fluffy for the holidays, but it also does more. It’s a vital contribution to the series’ canon, and it entices viewers to tune in come March. David Tennant is offering much promise for the new season and we, like Rose by the end of the story, know we want in on the ride.