21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Christmas Invasion

2005: Crazy days – well to Doctor Who fans anyway.

Considering that between 1990 and 2005, we'd had one measly bonafide story, the prospect of a brand new series with excellent ratings and feedback was about as likely as Gordon Ramsay becoming a monk.

Nevertheless, the unthinkable happened, as 2005 not only boasted a swanky new set of episodes, but also TWO brand new Doctors. The cherry on the Tunis Cake was a Christmas special. Now that put the cat among the pigeons. Normally, the much vaunted BBC Christmas special centrepiece had been awarded to Only Fools And Horses. By 2005 though, the revival of Doctor Who had proved to be such a big success that the BBC bosses were using the good Doctor to bring in the numbers instead of Del and Rodney.

What better way to launch the new Doctor than by plonking him in a prime time spot on Christmas Day? Actually, viewers had already had a sneaky glimpse of the new man if they'd tolerated annual charidee yawnathon, Children In Need. The 2005 edition boasted a mini prelude to the new episode, in which Rose reacted with baffled horror to the over-excited new fellah in the leather jacket. It's an excellent little prologue, exploring Rose's incomprehension at the Doctor's new regeneration. Already David Tennant is stealing the show with his infectious portrayal of the Doctor, running through a zillion and one different emotions in a matter of minutes: Delight at his new appearance. Sorrow at Rose's rejection. Vulnerability as the effects of the regeneration set in. And finally slightly unhinged mania as he pilots the TARDIS as if he's Lewis Hamilton on the racing track. My favourite is actually his rather sad reaction to Rose's rejection – even though he tries to make her laugh or get her into the party mood by hopping, she's not falling for this, and so the Doctor sadly decides to take her back to Christmas on – well, guess what – the Powell Estate.

Wow, we haven't been there, for all of one episode.

Piloting the TARDIS with giddy abandon to The Christmas Invasion, it's a story that successfully bridges the gap between the last remnants of the Eccleston years and the new dawn of the Tennant era. On paper, it's very simple: Aliens invade Earth on Christmas Day . There's no real deep subtext here, although there's the odd interesting snippet about political power and the burden of leadership, but on the whole, it's an accessible 60 minutes to enjoy while you're trying to recover from the over-abundance of sprouts.

But do you know what? The Christmas Invasion is magnificent. It's a feature film for the small screen (comparisons with Independence Day will start ringing in some people's ears) with its lavish visuals and speedy, pacy plot. In Doctor Who terms, it's the final draft of Aliens Of London/World War Three. The plot parallels are there if you look hard: Aliens invade the country to the reaction of scrolling newspaper reports and aghast dithering amongst the country's leaders. The new Prime Minister also happens to be Harriet Jones, who's somehow managed to reach the top of the ranks to usher in what the Doctor once called 'Britain's Golden Age'.

The main difference is that this time around there's no Doctor to help save the nasty old aliens – in this case, a grunting army of warmongers called Sycorax. Due to the regenerative trauma, the Doctor is, for the most part, relegated to the part of Lazybones, either sleeping off his regeneration in Jackie's spare bedroom or in the TARDIS.

Some fans have said that this was a mistake, but I think the idea works well. For one thing, it strings out the mystery of what the new Doctor will be like. For another, it highlights how impotent the human race can be without the Doctor to save them. It all reaches a head when the Sycorax use a sample of human blood to work their witchy magic on a third of the human population by hypnotising them into walking towards the edge of a nearest high-rise building. Even Harriet is reduced to making a frantic, earnest plea on live TV, replacing old misery face's annual speech. The next reason that this plot device works is that it makes the reappearance of the recovered Doctor just that much more powerful (“Did you miss me?” he smiles ruefully in the TARDIS doorway).

Bonjour, Doctor Number Ten.

Still a very popular incarnation of the Doctor, David Tennant has received great acclaim for his portrayal of the Time Lord (a role that he probably wanted to play since the age of three), even beating Tom Baker in a couple of Best Doctor polls. At this point in reviewing time, it's difficult to tell what sort of Doctor he'll turn out to be – he even admits so himself, as he strides about the Sycorax spaceship musing on his unknown identity.

We do get a few clues as to his personality traits, which will properly manifest themselves more fully in future stories. For one thing, he can talk for the galaxy, gabbing away to the dozen and fitting in about 100 words in 10 seconds. He's positively full of life and brimming with good cheer. It's nice to see that RTD has stuck to the age-old principle of creating a Doctor who's totally different from the man he used to be. Whereas Doctor Number Nine was a battle-scarred, aloof angry man, this new Doctor seems to be far more at home with people – whether he's making goofy wisecracks about The Lion King or whether he's actually enjoying a sit down meal with Rose, Jackie and Mickey – something that the previous incumbent would never have done in a million years.

The new 'People Person' Doctor's story is an interesting one with that in mind. Doctor Ten has a great talent for getting on with people and being the life and soul of the party, but somehow, he's always on the outside looking in. By that I mean, he always ends up on his lonesome, as his various companions will leave him – to the point where he ultimately dies alone in The End Of Time. It's a curious reversal of the Ninth Doctor's progress from keeping “stupid apes” at bay through to accepting them, making friends with them, and then finally accepting his place in the world.

Doctor Ten, however, is on a downward slide from his first manic adventures – after losing Rose, he becomes more cautious and guarded, to the point where by he's lost Martha and Donna, he chooses to travel alone, while making some very unwise decisions in the process. From people person to troubled wanderer, it's a fascinating mirror of the Ninth Doctor's journey. Mind you, the new Doctor's already sowing the seeds of his own downfall from the word go.

A notable personality trait that stands out in The Christmas Invasion is the Tenth Doctor's reckless arrogance. This is seen in the final few scenes when Harriet elects to destroy the Sycorax ship with a little help from Torchwood. In a scene that's reminiscent of the climax of Doctor Who And The Silurians, the Doctor throws his dummy out of his pram at the wholesale destruction of an alien race. Whereas the Third Doctor reacted with frosty anger towards the Brig, the Tenth proceeds to bring down Harriet with a full blast of righteous, and somewhat arrogant bellowing (“Don't challenge me Harriet Jones, 'cos I'm a completely new man!”). We then see a sneaky, coldly duplicitous side to the new Doctor, as he discreetly whispers in Harriet's right hand man, Alex Klein, “Don't you think she looks tired?” The Doctor doesn't attempt to reason with Harriet, or understand her argument that he isn't around all the time – and by doing so, he leaves a vacancy for a certain fellow Time Lord to step into the breach, ultimately leading to a big battle that involves a harmless old man and a deadly phone kiosk. And we all know what happens after that...

It's a brave move to have a Doctor who's already dismantling his days from the offset. Altogether, David Tennant is an excellent choice for the new Doctor. He'd previously been seen in 2005 as Casanova in RTD's adaptation, and just as in that mini-series, Tennant throws himself into the part with great gusto and enthusiasm. You can tell a mile off that he's having a whale of a time with the part, and in future stories, he'll bring lots of subtle depths to the incarnation, notably in stories like The Runaway Bride, Midnight and The Waters Of Mars.

But – sorry, folks – there are a couple of problems. One is the choice to give the new Doctor a fake Mockney accent. I think Tennant should have kept his natural Scottish accent, since the Mockney drawl sounds a bit squeaky at times. The motivation for this was that apparently the Doctor latched onto the first accent that he came across (Rose) like a newborn chick. Which makes sense, but I think that the Scottish accent would have sounded more natural.

Another problem is that Davies insists on giving the Tenth Doctor a multitude of annoying catchphrases, like he's a one-man Simpsons cast. Take your pick from “Bwilliant!”, “Molto Bene!”, “Weeellll...” and “Allons-y!” The last one's a sore point for me, since me and my Dad always used to say this, ever since I was a kid, when Dad would guide me about London saying his native language “Allons-y!” Our catchphrase has been stolen! Even without this bit of nostalgia, giving the Doctor regular phrases seems a bit too cartoony for my liking, and turns him into a bit of a cipher.

The final problem, for me, is that the new Doctor takes a bit longer to settle in. His first full season is annoyingly inconsistent, since the script-writers seem hell-bent on making him a cross between Timmy Mallett and a five-year-old boy who's had one too many fizzy drinks. For a wise old Time Lord, it's a characterisation that doesn't quite square, and in stories like New Earth and The Idiot's Lantern, the Doctor comes across as a bit of an annoying chump. Even in stories where he's less wacky and in-your-face, he'll score an own goal with a ridiculously OTT speech (think of his confrontation with the Beast in The Satan Pit or Lumic in The Age Of Steel) that reduces his credibility. Thankfully, he'll eventually calm down and achieve the right balance, but in his first few stories, he's sometimes a bit too much to take.

But all that's to come. For now, there are the goodies of The Christmas Invasion to unwrap. The story begins with the usual trappings of Christmas, so that means killer robot Santas and lethal Christmas trees that could slice you up into little bits of turkey meal. These sequences are very effective – the appearance of the robot Santas are freakishly macabre, with the same sort of blank menace that the Autons had. The Santas are referred to as Pilot Fish for some odd reason, which conjures up images of the Marillion singer at the controls of a Jumbo Jet.

All of the Christmas motifs are wrapped up in the first 15 minutes, before the main action begins. The action unfolds like a time bomb slowly waiting to go off. Every new revelation seems to land the human race in deeper schtuck than ever before. From the moment that Guinevere One is sent into space to make contact with new beings, the fate of the human race is placed into gradually worsening jeopardy. From contact with the Sycorax through to ominous warnings about cattle, slavery, blood control and the prospect of mass suicide, the whole globe is facing its biggest crisis yet.

What I like about these sequences is how they're played for real. In particular, Penelope Wilton turns in a great performance as a leader who's completely out of her depth. Petitioning for cottage hospitals is one thing, but dealing with a big alien threat is another. Wilton plays Harriet with a twitchy, nervous edge – the jovial Harriet that we once knew is only fleetingly seen when she confesses that she won by a landslide majority to the Doctor. Otherwise, her awkward body language and stern expression convey a woman that's in way too deep, and Wilton judges Harriet's baptism of fire with total precision. In a way, you can understand where Harriet's coming from at the end, especially in her forceful riposte to the Doctor (“And what does that make you Doctor? Another alien threat?”). She's attempting to protect her own, no matter what the consequences are – she even quietly says “I'm sorry” as the Doctor and his small entourage walk away with expressions of disgust.

Another character to feel the impact of the Sycorax invasion is Daniel Llewellyn, one of the most hapless characters in Doctor Who. Llewellyn's one of those luckless blighters whose good intentions don't mean a damn in the real world. As project leader of Guinevere One, Llewellyn naively includes a plaque on the probe that contains samples of music, water and the clincher, blood. Fair do's, it's not as if it's you'd expect some wicked alien to steal your blood sample for world domination bargaining power, so cut the poor scamp some slack. But like Harriet, Llewellyn's a character who is in way over his head – he even reacts with bemused incredulity at Blake's nonchalant comment about how Martians look. Llewellyn's played by award-winning stage actor Daniel Evans. Even though it's not a particularly big, meaty role, Evans still makes the most of this part, and plays it with a twitchy awkwardness that makes you feel sorry for the guy – especially when he realises that the whole sorry mess is unwittingly his fault (“Oh my God,” he says when learning about the blood connection: the poor chap looks like he's going to start crying).

It's the dialogue and acting that make an absurd scenario seem very real and dangerous. Furthermore, the Sycorax are brilliant monsters, and it's a great shame that they've never come back to trouble the Doctor again. The Sycorax work because they are complete monsters – there's no motivation or hidden agenda. Just power-mad evil rotters who don't know the meaning of compassion. With their strikingly unusual appearance (I like the way in which their initial alien head is just a helmet - “They might be like us... or not” whispers Llewellyn), deadly weaponry and guttural speech, they qualify for one of the best original monsters in the Tenth Doctor's era. Sean Gilder as the Sycorax Leader is fantastic in what's a pretty thankless role when you consider that it requires him to stomp about yelling alien garbage at the top of his voice. He conveys a sense of dangerous, raw power in his tone of voice and body language – a real triumph of a performance.

The Sycorax probably sent the kids scurrying behind their big piles of Christmas gifts. In fact, The Christmas Invasion, whilst being a jolly, fun romp, is – at times – refreshingly mordant. The deaths of Llewellyn and Blake are both shocking and brutal as the pair are reduced to smoking, broken skeletons by the Sycorax Leader's energy whip. Rule one: when characters start begging a baddie for compassion, their seconds are numbered. Elsewhere, we have the prospect of several million deaths and the grim revelation that the drifting snow at the end is, in fact, ash from the Sycorax mothership. Some Doctor Who Christmas specials have been too twee and sickly, but The Christmas Invasion deftly avoids that pitfall while telling a hugely enjoyable story in the process.

The story is brought to the screen with considerable finesse by James Hawes, who had previously impressed with his direction for The Empty Child two-parter. Hawes achieves some awesome visuals and magnificent effects – the opening out-of-control TARDIS, the destruction of the Gherkin and the whizzing Christmas Tree are three good examples of Hawes' fine direction. He manages to make a sword fight look less clunky than it should be, and also, his casting choices are generally spot on – Adam Garcia and Chu Omambala bring their limited characters to life with great conviction, for example. Packed full of action, excitement and scares, Hawes' lavish production is on the same page as Davies' finely drawn script.

Not too many niggles this time around. About the only notable offender is oddly, Rose, who's come down with a bad dose of Mickey Me-itis. In Boom Town, Mickey had stomped about the place yelling and wailing about how he was playing second fiddle to the Doctor – while the world was falling in around him. Well now, Rose is suffering from the same complaint. The whole world's erupting in chaos, and yet Rose is too busy weeping in her mum's arms about how the Doctor's left her (to the sounds of Murray Gold jumping up and down on his orchestra with a Pogo Stick). Billie Piper is still excellent in the role (especially her amusingly awkward confrontation with the Sycorax Leader), but unfortunately Rose is starting to become a bit more self-centred and annoying, a trend that regrettably continues at times this season.

Murray's music is still too loud and too relentless. There are times when the action's crying out for a bit of silence, but no - Murray's right in there, dictating how the viewer should feel with his loud, bombastic noise. Cool psychedelic Jingle Bells-inspired cue for the Christmas Tree score though.

Otherwise, The Christmas Invasion is the perfect gift and caps off what's been a hugely successful 2005. It's by far my favourite of the Christmas specials, achieving the right mix of drama and Christmassy fun. David Tennant makes a great first impression, and at this point, it feels like Doctor Who viewers are at the dawn of their very own Golden Age. Merry Christmas!

Or as me and my Dad would say, Joyeux Noel!

* For a very early Christmas present, any Doctor Who fan should enjoy reading one of my in-depth guides to the Third, Fourth and Fifth Doctors.


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