There’s never really been time for seasonal celebrations in the Whoniverse. The classic run only aired on Christmas Day once, during the 12 week-long story The Daleks Master Plan, with a Christmas specific episode titled The Feast of Steven. The footage is currently missing, as is much of the William Hartnell era, thanks to the BBC wiping tapes to re-use at the time. They weren’t to know it would be one of the most popular shows on Earth. It’s especially frustrating for this case in particular because an episode like that never aired again during the classic run. In fact, no episode was ever broadcast on Christmas Day again…until 2005. That’s when showrunner Russell T Davies, who had recently revived the show for a new generation, aired the first of his dedicated Christmas specials The Christmas Invasion. These specials continued throughout his 5-year stint as showrunner, becoming something of a running joke for characters on the show itself and cemented the beloved day as a British Christmas Tradition.
The Christmas Invasion
There is something very human about this episode. That shouldn’t be a surprise given it focuses on human characters, with The Doctor out of commission having just regenerated, but it’s how it shows the humanity within people that makes it wonderful. With Earth under threat of alien invasion on Christmas day and ⅓ of the world’s population being held hostage on rooftops via blood control, it’s up to the human race to save themselves. But how do you handle such a crisis? Do you attempt peaceful negotiations or plan a “defensive” attack and face the potentially deadly consequences? Of course, The Doctor awakes but British Prime Minister Harriet Jones still makes her final decision and she faces the career-defining ramifications.
It also serves as a spectacular introductory episode for The Tenth Doctor. David Tennant slips into the role comfortably, bringing an element of comedy, but still brings an air of gravitas that demands attention whenever he speaks. He does so in just 15 minutes of screentime, so it’s no surprise looking back that he became one of the nation’s favourite Doctors. There are plenty of noteworthy performances throughout the rest of the episode too, particularly from Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones (former MP for Flydale North and current Prime Minister). It’s clear that she’s afraid but it’s never for herself, rather for the people of her country and the rest of the world, but it’s masked by a steely resolve. Meanwhile Billie Piper as Rose Tyler brings a layer of dramatic emotional devastation over losing the Doctor that she knew whilst still having the courage to stand in his place as Earth’s spokesperson and defender. It’s an episode about having hope, even when it feels like there’s none left, and what’s more Christmassy than that?
The Runaway Bride
The Doctor’s own humanity is front and centre here. For the first time since he met Rose, he finds himself alone whilst mourning a great loss. When Donna Noble materialises in the TARDIS on her wedding day, he becomes swept up in a plot that dates back to the dawn of time even though he doesn’t have to. He only initially gets involved out of curiosity but, as the plot progresses,it becomes clear that he’s sticking around to save Donna’s life because (despite not wanting to) he cares. It’s clear from the mournful looks he gives her, and the ones that he keeps to himself, that he needs to save someone…anyone. There’s a sweet and simple moment where they’re sitting on a rooftop having just escaped a robotic santa in the TARDIS where The Doctor puts his coat around her. It’s a tiny gesture but, given his desire to be uninvolved, it’s clear how meaningful this act is.
It all builds to the moment where The Doctor faces off against the enemy, defeating her in an act of pure rage. He isn’t doing this because he’s worried about humanity or even because he’s worried about Donna, he’s doing it because he feels alone and doesn’t care what happens to him. For him, this is a moment of acceptance of his place in the universe and his final sacrifice for humanity because the pain of his losses is too much to bear. Donna stops him but she still refuses to travel time and space with him. It’s rare that someone turns him down and it clearly stuns him. He once again finds himself all alone, which breaks his hearts because life is only truly an adventure if it’s shared.
Voyage of the Damned
In times of struggle, there should be no class divide. In times of crisis, everybody is human…or alien as the case may be. Once again The Doctor finds himself stumbling alone into an evil scheme, only to find himself surrounded by a delightful cast of characters. On the space cruiseliner Titanic, whose crew features robotic angels set on murdering everyone, there is no shortage of class representation. There’s the rich businessmen who feel like they deserve their wealth, the waiting staff who have very little and the farmers who toil away endlessly to earn theirs. It’s easier to sympathise with some of the characters more than others but it’s not difficult to hate the villain behind the whole scheme – a morally bankrupt CEO. It doesn’t matter how many people die, even if it’s everyone on Earth, so long as he gets his paycheck. Whilst this portrayal of CEO’s is comical, the underlying truth unfortunately is not. For the rich, it’s all about getting richer.
Meanwhile, the story manages to grapple with grief and loss. The cast is larger than just The Doctor and his companion but each character is fleshed out in a way that makes them easy to root for…even the stockbroker. It wouldn’t be a Christmas special without death and this one is no exception, featuring several of them, with each more devastating than the last. They are all inspired to sacrifice themselves, because that’s what they feel The Doctor would do, and his guilt is evident but grief can and should be felt at Christmas. Not everybody makes it from one Christmas to the next and that hurts but it doesn’t mean that feeling should be avoided. Celebrate Christmas for those you’ve lost with those you haven’t.
The Next Doctor
Sometimes Doctor Who is just a classic Doctor fights the monster story with a lot of heart. Battling the cybermen in 1800’s London alongside a man claiming to be The Doctor is one such tale. The major draw at the time was the spectacle of it all and the tease of a Doctor we hadn’t yet met. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was beloved by the nation (still is) so his leaving the role was a major deal. The announcement was made prior to the airing of this special so it wasn’t improbable that 11 (or even 12) could have popped up. Of course, this turned out not to be the case but that’s a shame because David Morrisey is one of the best Doctor’s we never had. He embodies the very heart of the character. He’s charming, suave, and charismatic in a way similar to classic incarnations like The Fifth Doctor. His impassioned speech to a crowd of Victorians about how The Doctor has saved humanity countless times and has never been thanked turning into a raucous applause for the man himself is a beautiful moment.
The previous two specials have left The Doctor alone and grieving but here he finally gets a moment of peace. For the first time since The Christmas Invasion, he is convinced to enjoy a Christmas dinner. Given everything he’s been through, and everything he’s about to go through, it’s a brief moment of levity that brings joy to the soul.
The End of Time
It’s apt that this is ultimately a story about fate and acceptance. This two-parter was a major event at the time as, for many people, it was their first regeneration. David Tennant had been the titular timelord for 5 years and was adored by the general public but his fate was the same as every other actor to play the role – to leave. This idea is baked into the plot, which sees him facing off against The Master on a global scale. It’s been prohpisied that he’s going to die but he isn’t ready and is barely holding back his frustration. It perfectly echoes the emotions of the audience who were’nt ready to let him go either.
However, as it must, his fate arrived all the same. The Tenth Doctor, though upset, understands and accepts that it’s his time to go. He takes an emotional walk down memory lane, seeing where all his companions are and how they’re doing, seemingly to put himself at ease. The universe is currently resting easy, as are those in it that he cares about, so there’s no stone left unturned for him. The episode only shows Ten’s companions (although The Sarah Jane Adventures later clarified it was all of them) which makes a great deal of sense because it brings everything full circle. It’s obviously sad to see him go but visiting his companions serves as a reminder of all the good times. It’s almost like a clean slate, so that The Eleventh Doctor can burst onto the scene without baggage and embark on his own adventures. What a dynamic entrance it is too filled with excitement and wonder. This wasn’t to be the final festive regeneration (in fact it’ll be a little bit of a recurring thing) but it was the first and it knew the weight it carried. It was big, bold and beautiful.
One thought on “Doctor Who Christmas Specials: The RTD Era”