Tag Archives: christmas

A Christmas Carol

Once upon a time, Doctor Who was a science fiction show. Oh, it was never a dryly accurate thesis on the mechanics of time travel, but nowadays (and particularly around Christmas), Doctor Who becomes little more than fairytale magic. With A Christmas Carol, any semblance of scientific plausibility went out of the window the moment a flying shark came in through it.

G'day, my name's Bruce.

G’day, my name’s Bruce.

I recall enjoying this episode when it was first shown, and even thinking it was the best Christmas special they’d yet done. Well, it’s certainly the most Christmassy, but it hasn’t held up very well on a second viewing. In fact, I was distinctly bored for much of the second half. Around the time when the Doctor visits Scroo-… er… Kazran as a boy, the plot loses any sense of urgency and lumbers along for twenty minutes or so, while the young lad develops a relationship with Abigail, the least-developed character ever, who does little more than come out of a box every so often and sing to some fish.

Young Kazran takes the Doctor to the freezer vault.

Young Kazran takes the Doctor to the freezer vault.

On the plus side, the story is occasionally rather clever and, frankly, makes me wonder why it took five years before A Christmas Carol was adapted for Doctor Who. The moment when the Doctor appears in the video that Kazran made as a boy is sheer genius, as is later using his present (old) self as the boy’s “Christmas future”. Michael Gambon is naturally rather good as Kazran (and his bearded father), and a pleasure to watch even though the character is thinly-written. The love story doesn’t have much substance but it’s nevertheless heartwarming.

One last day together because Abigail has a meticulously punctual terminal illness that doesn't manifest itself physically in any way whatsoever.

One last day together because Abigail has a meticulously punctual terminal illness that doesn’t manifest itself physically in any way whatsoever.

The Doctor’s plan is as contrived as the situation itself, but his goal is as noble as ever and he shows how he can see the good in everybody, even seemingly ‘evil’ people. But, my goodness, he doesn’t half ramble on, blurting out technobabble, talking to himself and spewing out as many words per minute as somebody hearing pips on a payphone. I’ve never really had a problem with Matt Smith before but he starts to grate here. Gillan and Darvill, meanwhile, are practically guest stars for all the screen time they get.

The visual design of the episode is excellent. A little bit Dickensian London, a little bit steampunk.

The visual design of the episode is excellent. A little bit Dickensian London, a little bit steampunk.

This may be a retelling of Dickens classic, but it doesn’t have half as good pacing or structure. I was probably more forgiving of its shortcomings at Christmas, but it’s far too early for that right now. Bah, humbug!

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The Next Doctor

With rumours of David Tennant’s departure from Doctor Who back in 2008/’09, Russell T Davies seemed to enjoy teasing the audience with things like fake regenerations and misleading episode titles… at least, that’s how I remember it. The Next Doctor ostensibly depicts a future incarnation of the travelling Time Lord, who is trying to solve a series of murders and kidnappings in Victorian London. It plays up to this ruse for the first half of the episode before finally admitting that, actually, he’s not the Doctor at all, he’s just a man named Jackson Lake (played by David Morrissey), who’s been infused with the Doctor’s memories in an accident that took his family.

The next Doctor shows off his "sonic" screwdriver by banging it against the wall.

The next Doctor shows off his “sonic” screwdriver by banging it against the wall.

On the basis of this performance, he would have made a pretty good Doctor had they decided to go that way – somewhat like Peter Davison’s fifth, grounded and human but brilliant and inventive. The scenes where the “two Doctors” team up and work together are fun, and the reveal of the new Doctor’s “TARDIS” raised a smile as well. The rest of the episode is, well… the usual routine.

Miss Hartigan is shown no "Mercy" as the Cybermen predictably betray her.

Miss Hartigan is shown no “Mercy” as the Cybermen predictably betray her.

Cybermen in a Dickensian setting at Christmas should be far better than this, but they’re just not very interesting villains anymore. They’re deadly and threatening when they need to be (zapping people with a touch) but useless when they’re fighting the Doctor (with a sword – why not zap him through it?), and their leader, Miss Hartigan, has only vague motives to support her pantomime villain routine. The “Cybershades” are supposed to look retro or something, but they’re just too fluffy and adorable and make little sense. The Cyberking looks amazing and has a great steampunk vibe to it, but it’s similarly implausible. How did something that big hide under the Thames? It’s just another “big threat” for the sake of, with a poor resolution – more magic weapons and silly save-the-day devices.

The Cyberking flattens London. Nobody ever mentions it again.

The Cyberking flattens London. Nobody ever mentions it again.

Still, it’s not too bad. Before it gets boring, the mystery of the Jackson Lake character gives the episode an intriguing focus (he should have had more to do in the final act – put him in the balloon instead, for instance!). It was nice to see the old footage of all ten Doctors projected from the infostamp (that’s the first time that’s happened, isn’t it?). It’s Christmassy, but the Christmassiness isn’t overdone – there’s no embarrassing scene like the Queen waving in last year’s special. But, it is still just a big budget special and these rarely rise above “okay”. Unfortunately, without a regular season and a regular companion, 2009 was all about one-off specials, and the Doctor getting increasingly whiny to the point where I was glad to see him go.

Voyage of the Damned

Voyage of the Damned follows on immediately after the events of Time Crash, a brief but charming interlude that takes place just after Martha leaves the Doctor in the Tardis but just before the Titanic smashes into it, in which the fifth Doctor (played by Peter Davison) appears aboard the Tenth’s Tardis due to some timey-wimey mishap. It’s also the only good thing I’m going to mention in this particular article because, by and large, Voyage of the Damned is a load of rubbish.

The spaceship Titanic orbits the Earth. It's a lovely-looking ship, I'll give it that at least.

The spaceship Titanic orbits the Earth. It’s a lovely-looking ship, I’ll give it that at least.

Quite honestly, I don’t even remember much about it from the first time I watched it. It’s not that there’s anything insultingly bad about it (like, say, a robotic Anne Robinson zapping contestants with a deadly laser), it’s just so mind-numbingly bland and by-the-numbers. I think this is true of most Christmas specials. They can’t dare to be interesting or different because the audience is likely to be stuffed full of turkey and alcohol and unable to parse a challenging plot. So everything happens in a boring and routine way. The Doctor arrives, someone is plotting something, there are some baddies to beat, there’s a crisis to avert, and would-you-believe-it, it’s averted in the nick of time by some babbling reason explained in passing. And now it’s snowing. The end.

Kylie Minogue as Astro... Asterix... Astra... Aspirin... Astrid!

Kylie Minogue as Astro… Asterix… Astra… Aspirin… Astrid!

Kylie Minogue plays the hastily-introduced and killed-off sort of maybe love interest for this episode. Apparently Russell T. Davies really wanted to cast her and wrote the part of Astrid specifically for her, but I can’t tell why. She’s a perfectly fine actress and I can’t blame the shortcomings of the character on her so much as the writing, which is just so bland and forgettable that it’s a waste of her talent and (presumably) high salary. Her death scenes (yes, plural) are supposed to be tear-jerkingly sweet but I found it all sickly and horrible. Wikipedia insists Astrid is an official Doctor Who Companion™, but I’m hesitant to count her as such because she never travels in the Tardis or survives past one episode or is ever mentioned again. She’s no more a companion than Bernard Cribbins’ character is.

IT'S WILF!! London maybe deserted, but Wilf's going nowhere, sunshine.

IT’S WILF!! London maybe deserted, but Wilf’s going nowhere, sunshine.

Voyage of the Damned certainly doesn’t help itself by reminding me of one of my all-time favourite serials, The Robots of Death. In that, robot slaves kill off wealthy travellers, but that had a cracking story, well-written and believable characters and robots that were actually quite frightening. These robo-angels are not scary, the cast of characters are more like caricatures and the writing leaves a lot to be desired. It’s very one-dimensional, the villain plotting from below deck (why?), the insurance scam, the bribed captain, no-one has any substance to them. Everyone has one or two personality features and then just runs around for an hour getting killed. Weapons conveniently present themselves and the ship is saved in a way unrelated to anything that they’ve been trying to do for the past hour (something-something atmosphere, something-something-reignition). Pure fluff.

Bannakaffalatta, the smartbomb cyborg, dies heroically.

Bannakaffalatta, the smartbomb cyborg, dies heroically.

But hey, you know, it’s Christmas. It’s a time to be silly and not worry so much about things like plot and character and drama. We want to slouch in front of the telly on Christmas evening and watch the Doctor doing cool stuff, like walking away from explosions in slow motion (this actually happens) and flying through the air carried by angels like a Jesus figure (this also actually happens). We want to see the Queen waving to him as the Titanic flies over Buckingham Palace (this, inexplicably, also happens). We want “funny” jokes about the UK going to war with Turkey and eating them at Christmas. We want cackling evil villains with stupid plans and no morals. We want to the message of Christmas to be “money solves everything; here’s a credit card, go away and don’t bother me anymore”. That’s what we want at Christmas, apparently.

"Information: this episode sucks."

“Information: this episode sucks.”

Well, it’s not what I want. Christmas is not an excuse for sticking any old rubbish on the telly. These should be stand-out episodes, the best of the best, but I am annually dismayed by how poor they are, and this is something that continues to happen even on Steven Moffat’s watch. Maybe they should stop making these so-called “specials” if they’re going to be anything but. Voyage of the Damned Poor, more like. Thank you, I’m here all week, try the veal.

The Runaway Bride

‘Tis the season to be… invaded, apparently. Earth doesn’t have much luck at Christmas, having narrowly escaped the Sycorax the previous year and now under attack from a Racnoss Empress’s spaceship and her legions of spidery children buried deep within the heart of the planet. The Doctor doesn’t get a tea break either, as this story follows directly on from the season 2 finale, and a mysterious bride has materialised aboard the Tardis. Which is impossible! Except where ancient ‘huon particles’ are involved. Right.

The robo-Santas' services must be cheap for any passing would-be alien invaders to hire.

The robo-Santas’ services must be cheap for any passing would-be alien invaders to hire.

Donna is… well, Catherine Tate. Almost exactly as excruciating as you might imagine. I say “almost” because, when she’s not blustering and yelling and being obnoxious, she’s sort of okay. If nothing else, she’s completely down-to-Earth, less concerned with the impossible things happening around her than she is by her own life and love. She has no idea about the Sycorax invading last year (she had a hangover), and no idea about the Cybermen and Daleks battling it out over Earth (she was scuba diving in Spain), which is pretty funny actually, and it sums up humanity in the new series of Doctor Who quite nicely – oblivious, ignorant, self-absorbed.

The Doctor and Donna infiltrate the secret facility where the huon particles are being manufactured.

The Doctor and Donna infiltrate the secret facility where the huon particles are being manufactured.

I’ll have more to say about Donna in season 4, but for now, it’s noteworthy that she’s not a Rose replacement. This isn’t a doe-eyed young potential love interest. Donna is her own person, here for her own reasons, and is not afraid of bossing the Doctor around. After fifty years of Doctor Who, a new companion doesn’t seem like a significant event, but bear in mind this was the first change of supporting cast since the show’s revival. Rose was Doctor Who for a large part of this new audience, and now that focus has to change. Thankfully, David Tennant plays a strong enough role to carry it, whomever he’s paired with. Donna tells the Doctor he needs somebody to stop him from doing terrible things, and as we’ve seen and will continue to see, that much is true.

Donna makes a leap of faith.

Donna makes a leap of faith.

As this is a Christmas special, it has a bigger budget to play with. This has produced some impressive sequences such as the Tardis chasing the taxi along the motorway and the formation of the Earth from bits of rock in space. The Empress’s make-up and prosthetics are similarly-impressive. The whole planet may be in danger again, but the collateral damage is isolated to a small area of London (the residents of which will probably dismiss the spaceship as a Christmas themed stunt). The order for the tanks to fire on the ship comes from Prime Minister Saxon, who will be very important in the next season, but for now is just some subtle foreshadowing.

The Racnoss Empress. It is mandatory for all spider-like species to be called "rac-something".

The Racnoss Empress. It is mandatory for all spider-like species to be called “rac-something”.

The Runaway Bride hasn’t improved with age, but it’s not terrible either. It’s a solid and well-paced adventure that successfully introduces a new companion without feeling too contrived. It’s good-humoured but with some emotional moments too. There is, however, far too much use of the sonic screwdriver. I know that it’s shorthand for “move the plot along”, but it’s overused now. The villain is striking, but never evolves beyond a carnivorous monster with a disregard for life. Her origins speak of darker times in the ancient universe, and the beginnings of the Earth itself. Like anything else, though, this is brushed off and will likely be forgotten about. For Donna Noble, life goes on… until they meet again.

The Daleks’ Master Plan

Only four of the episodes exist in completed form, but due to the good audio quality and the large amount of visual material available, the reconstructions are the best I’ve seen so far. They even made some CGI Dalek sequences.

As for the plot, it is a long-winded one, entirely hinging on the Doctor stealing a core component of the Daleks’ new time-destructor weapon, thus halting their invasion of the universe and causing them to chase him through time and space for a bit.

The Doctor steals the Daleks' crucial and irreplacable McGuffin.

The Doctor steals the Daleks’ crucial and irreplaceable McGuffin.

There is a low-point in the middle, a dreadful Christmas special shoved into the story, which is the worst episode of Who I’ve ever seen, taking its cues from those awful parts of The Chase but somehow even worse, and ending with the Doctor turning to the camera and wishing us all at home a merry christmas. I guess it was supposed to be charming and whimsical, but in the context of an epic disaster serial, it really didn’t work.

"And a merry Christmas to you at home as well!" 'The Feast of Steven sets the trend for awful Christmas specials.

“And a merry Christmas to you at home as well!” ‘The Feast of Steven’ sets the trend for awful Christmas specials.

The time-meddling monk from a few episodes prior makes an unexpected return near the end, perhaps to pad out the story some more, but this is handled rather well, and I suspect he will return again in later stories for his revenge (I hope so, anyway).

Also, the galactic council, previously seen in the one-off Doctorless episode Mission to the Unknown, returns, headed up by the ruler of the solar system (turned power-hungry traitor) Mavic Chen, who provides backchat for the Daleks and is generally enjoyable to watch in all his scenes. Obviously, he’s betrayed by the Daleks in the end.

Mavic Chen and the Daleks. An alliance that cannot last.

Mavic Chen and the Daleks. An alliance that cannot last.

Again, the scale of the plot is laughably unbelievable. The rulers of the other galaxies are planning to invade the solar system (sol). That’s like the leaders of Asia deciding to invade the inside of my shoe.

Still, despite its length (and awful sagging in the middle), this was an enjoyable serial, with the Daleks at their most ruthless and evil. Plenty of deaths, too. I was hoping Space Police Officer Sara Kingdom would survive for more adventures, but she died rather spectacularly to the ravages of accelerated time. Interestingly, the Doctor did not, suggesting for the first time ever that he may age considerably more slowly than everyone else.

Space Police Officer Sarah Kingdom doesn't live for long. Shame.

Space Police Officer Sarah Kingdom doesn’t live for long. Shame.

As Katerina departs, I will summarise and comment on her (brief!) role.
A temporary companion, she believes the Doctor is the god Zeus. She helps him out of duty, but also fascination at the Doctor’s miraculous ‘temple’. She’s not in it for more than one story, and she doesn’t have much of a character to speak of. It could have been interesting to have an ancient human as a regular, but it never went anywhere this time. She ends up dead, unfortunately. Although her sacrifice was not in vain – she intentionally jettisons herself and her assailant from an airlock of a spaceship, to stop him from taking over. The Doctor had the Daleks’ secret weapon component in his possession, and needed to get away quickly. She basically saved them all, in her service to her ‘god’. Since she thought she was in the afterlife anyway, I suppose it didn’t matter too much to her!