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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who: "The Christmas Invasion"

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who: "The Christmas Invasion"

“The Christmas Invasion” (season 2, Christmas special; originally aired 12/25/2005)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Look at these people. These human beings. Consider their potential. From the day they arrive on the planet and, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen. More to do than… no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King.

There’s a longstanding, rather odd Doctor Who tradition that the newly regenerated Doctor doesn’t actually appear all that much in his first adventure. Much like David Tennant here, Jon Pertwee was asleep in a hospital bed for most of the first third of “Spearhead From Space,” while Peter Davison spent a distressingly high percentage of “Castrovalva” unconscious in a box. Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann were recovering from amnesia for good chunks of their debuts, while Colin Baker had to play the Doctor as borderline psychotic for reasons that we will charitably assume made sense at the time. Only Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, and Matt Smith were really allowed to hit the ground running with their Doctors more or less fully recovered within minutes of their regenerations—perhaps not coincidentally, “Power Of The Daleks” and “The Eleventh Hour” are in the very top tier of introductory stories, while “Robot” is a solid little story that benefits immensely from Tom Baker’s immediately established performance. So then, why doesn’t every Doctor get to make the biggest, splashiest entrance possible? Why does Doctor Who so often seem to insist on sidelining its lead actor in his debut performance?

Like most things in Doctor Who history, there hasn’t really been a consistent reason why this has happened. One obvious possibility here is that the Doctor’s reduced role in his debut story is essentially a stalling tactic, providing the creative team and the new lead actor with more time to figure out just what this new incarnation will be like. In practice, however, the introductory story isn’t always the first one that a new Doctor films. In this instance, “The Christmas Invasion” was indeed David Tennant’s first outing as the Doctor, but it was part of the same production block as the subsequent “New Earth” and “Tooth And Claw,” so everyone involved likely already had a fairly good sense of who the 10th Doctor was going to be. Indeed, for all the new Doctor’s protestations that he has no idea who he is, both Tennant and Russell T. Davies display a clear sense of this new incarnation’s identity.

As portrayed here, he appears to be a much lighter, demonstrably joyful incarnation than his predecessor; this is a Doctor who hugs old friends and joins Rose for Christmas dinner, suggesting the 9th Doctor’s “no domestics” rule no longer applies. Yet the darkness of the 9th Doctor is not erased, but rather submerged, which arguably makes this incarnation more dangerous than his predecessor ever was. The 9th Doctor wore his sorrow and his anger on his leather-jacketed sleeve, but it’s far harder to predict when the 10th Doctor will shift from charismatic goofball to vengeful god. This Doctor is both an inversion and an extension of his previous self, and Harriet Jones learns just how terrifying that combination can be.

All this talk of the 9th Doctor helps suggest the likelier explanation for the 10th Doctor’s extended incapacitation, which is that it was for the benefit of those watching at home. After all, for a sizable chunk of the audience, Christopher Eccleston was the first Doctor they had truly cared about. Half a year had elapsed between “The Parting Of The Ways” and “The Christmas Invasion,” but it makes sense for this story to delay awhile, to pay its respects to the short-lived 9th Doctor before forging ahead with his successor. Both Rose and Harriet Jones refer to Eccleston’s incarnation as their Doctor, and Eccleston’s legacy is properly acknowledged and put to rest when Tennant uses the word “fantastic” at episode’s end. This is a new Doctor, but he’s still the same man, and “The Christmas Invasion” takes its time to convince the audience of that fact. In narrative terms, this handling of the transition fits well with the notion that regeneration really is akin to death; it makes sense that the Doctor can’t just blithely walk away from so traumatic an experience.


Still, what really sets apart “The Christmas Invasion” from previous post-regeneration stories is not the Doctor’s protracted absence—again, that’s nothing new—but rather who steps into the spotlight while the Doctor isn’t himself. This story is unique in the show’s history in that the incumbent companion had spanned the entirety of the previous Doctor’s era, meaning she was just as well-established as the Doctor himself. As current showrunner Steven Moffat has noted, Rose was arguably the true protagonist of Doctor Who, with the Doctor only reclaiming his position as the unquestioned star upon Billie Piper’s departure. (There’s some precedent for this in the classic series, as one could argue that William Hartnell’s original Doctor doesn’t fully take on leading man duties until after the departure of original companions Ian and Barbara.) This story explores at length what the Doctor’s absence means to Rose, and what we see here doesn’t reflect terribly well on her. All the initiative and verve that she displayed in the previous season deserts her here, as her lone coherent plan consists of hiding in the TARDIS and sitting out the possible destruction of Earth. It’s only when Rose stands before the Sycorax commander that she regains her resolve; her attempt to bluff the invaders is doomed to failure, but at least she is willing to stand up and do what the Doctor would do, because she knows there is no one else.

“The Christmas Invasion” heavily plays up the theme of abandonment, as Rose breaks down in tears over the loss of her Doctor. But what sort of abandonment is this? There’s enough ambiguity here that one might interpret Rose’s feelings for the Doctor as platonic or perhaps familial—given her backstory, it would make sense for her to see him as a surrogate father figure—but this episode shades heavily towards suggesting that Rose truly, properly loves the Doctor. Mickey is positioned in this story right where a jilted ex-lover would normally go, and a tearful Rose tells Jackie that “He left me,” both of which imply that there’s a romantic dimension to the Doctor and Rose’s relationship, at least as far as Rose is concerned. I’m being overly cautious here because, as I detailed in last week’s review, there was basically zero precedent in 2005 for love between the Doctor and his companion—with the deeply controversial exception of the 8th Doctor and Grace’s relationship in the TV movie—so even the suggestion of it here is a big deal. The 9th Doctor did kiss Rose, albeit to remove the time vortex, and he did tend to display what humans would call jealousy whenever she interacted with Mickey, Adam, or Jack, but his fundamentally alien nature made his true feelings toward Rose difficult to pin down. The 10th Doctor doesn’t really clarify any of this, but the mere fact that he cheekily refers to himself as “sexy” indicates that he’s far more comfortable with these concepts than were most of his past incarnations.


In the midst of all this character work is the titular yuletide invasion. This story feels like something of a remix of “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three”—as do all of Russell T. Davies’ present-day alien invasion stories, to one extent or another—and the connection feels especially strong with the return of Harriet Jones and the heavy use of news broadcasts to add global scale to the threat. As director, James Hawes is a much better fit for Doctor Who than was Keith Boak, and Hawes manages to make elements like the killer Christmas tree seem, if not actually scary, then at least not as ridiculous and cringe-worthy as they might have seemed in the Slitheen two-parter.

The Sycorax themselves aren’t particularly memorable monsters, but the story doesn’t need them to be. With their cavern-like starship and use of pseudo-magical, blood-based technology, they are distinctive without distracting from what’s going on with the Doctor and Rose. Davies’ cleverest touch is to leave the Sycorax language untranslated while the Doctor is asleep, as the commander feels so much more alien and menacing when we don’t actually know what he is ranting about. The second that the TARDIS starts translating and the Doctor arrives on the screen, the show feels safe again, which rather ingeniously plays on the psychology of the viewers. Obviously, the Sycorax don’t look like “real” aliens—we know for a fact that they don’t look like real Martians, for a start—but they feel far more plausible and unsettling when they actually speak an alien language. Once the Sycorax leader starts speaking English, it suddenly feels like there’s nothing to worry about, because the audience is allowed to remember that this is all make believe. Technically speaking, I suppose this reveals the essential silliness of Doctor Who—and make no mistake, this is a proudly silly show—but, in the moment, this undermining of the Sycorax only serves to emphasize just how powerful the Doctor is. He is playing with the Sycorax from the moment he opens the TARDIS doors, give or take the moment when he kills the commander with a well-aimed Satsuma.


The Doctor’s subsequent line, in which he coldly declares that he’s not the sort of man who offers second chances, has to be the most important thing that the Doctor says in “The Christmas Invasion,” and we’ll have to pay attention over the coming weeks as to how well the Doctor stands by that unforgiving credo. Again, this is the sort of statement one could imagine the 9th Doctor making, but it’s harder to imagining him following through on it like his successor does here. The previous Doctor, for all his grim bluster, was often too wracked by self-doubt to take decisive action, particularly once Rose helped him reconnect with his compassion and (if you’ll forgive the anthropocentrism) his humanity. Yes, he let Lady Cassandra die in his second story, but it wasn’t long before he couldn’t even bring himself to shoot a Dalek. Again, I think “self-doubt” is the key concept here; the 9th Doctor’s arc was about becoming the Doctor once more after his actions in the Time War. His parting gift to his successor is a renewed belief in himself as the Doctor, and we see both the light and the dark side of that on display in “The Christmas Invasion.”

The Doctor’s six-word ouster of Harriet Jones shows just how far we have come since “Boom Town,” in which the last Doctor was shaken by the self-serving arguments of an admitted murderer. Harriet’s decision to destroy the retreating Sycorax is at best morally dubious—and it’s questionable whether the British Prime Minister really has the authority to take such unilateral action on the entire world’s behalf—but some of her arguments carry weight. The Doctor’s defeat of the Sycorax was treated as such a foregone conclusion that he barely bothered to take them seriously, which does rather ignore the fact that Daniel Llewellyn and Major Blake had suffered horrible deaths at the hands of the Sycorax leader just moments before. The Doctor wasn’t to know of those deaths, but that’s the point: His perspective is that of an alien wanderer, someone who is removed enough from the everyday affairs of mortals that he doesn’t always notice when they die. The Doctor places Earth under his protection, but it is protection under his terms. It’s worth debating whether that’s really a good deal, especially when Earth can’t always rely on him to show up in time, but this isn’t a Doctor who seems interested in debate.


“The Christmas Invasion” is at best a solid episode of Doctor Who, but it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that. This story is one of several of Davies’ efforts that could be described as “epic,” and that doesn’t just refer to the scale of the Sycorax threat. This is a story full of big speeches, big emotions, and big moments. There’s precious little subtlety in the Doctor’s monologues about his search for identity—the Doctor saying the Sycorax summed him up when he calls him this world’s champion is rather clunkily on-the-nose—and Rose’s emotional breakdown when she thinks the Doctor has abandoned her is played a bit bigger than it really needs to be. The Sycorax themselves are strictly functional monsters, although they do at least set up the Doctor and Harriet Jones’ rift, which stands as the most intriguing element of the episode, if only because it’s not immediately obvious what we in the audience are meant to make of it.

After the madcap fearlessness that typified Davies’ final three episodes for the 9th Doctor, this feels like the show playing it safe. That’s understandable, really. Hard as it is to imagine now, the Doctor Who creative team couldn’t have known for certain in the fall of 2005 that audiences would stay with the show after Christopher Eccleston’s departure, so it made sense to tread lightly here. Yes, there was a period, however brief, where people weren’t entirely sure the world would accept David Tennant as the Doctor. No, I can’t quite believe it either.


Stray observations:

  • I go back and forth over whether the Doctor’s six-word plan to end Harriet Jones’ career actually works as a story beat; after all, it hinges on her aide Alex spreading the rumor that she looks tired, and he just heard the Doctor explain exactly what he was going to do. On balance, I think this still works, mostly because of Penelope Wilton’s acting. Her frantic, paranoid response to the Doctor’s whisper is enough to make Alex believe the Doctor was right. Again, this sequence feels like it could have been played a shade more subtly, but, yeah, it works. Anyway, Harriet Jones might deserve to lose her leadership simply because of that televised address, in which she admits to the nation that she has no idea what to do and begs for the Doctor’s help. It’s hard to imagine someone showing less command of the situation than she does there.
  • Fun (to me) fact: The pre-credits “Doctor who?” joke is my brother’s least favorite moment in the show’s history. I’ve been treated to probably a solid hour of ranting about its cringe-worthiness over the years. I’m not much of a fan of it either, just because the title drop really makes no sense as a response to the situation. Jackie might not believe that this man is the Doctor, but it’s not as though she could plausibly think that Rose is talking about some other Doctor or something. A sensible follow up to her question “What do you mean, that’s the Doctor?” would be something like “It looks nothing like him” or “That’s clearly a different man, even if they’re wearing the same clothes.” Also, I’ve always though the more logical phrasing of the question is “Doctor what?” instead of “Doctor who?” but maybe that’s a cultural thing.
  • The Santa-suited “pilot fish” represent the episode’s most obvious acknowledgment of the Christmastime setting. While it’s a bit silly that they would disguise themselves in that way, the actual explanation for them—they are energy scavengers who detected the Doctor’s regeneration energy—is a logical one that allows them to go after the Doctor in the first part of the episode and then plausibly disappear when the Sycorax appear.
  • “Ah, not bad for a man in his jim-jams. Very Arthur Dent. Now, there was a nice man.” I’ve always considered this line proof (in the loosest possible sense of the term) that Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy take place in the same universe. This is the clearest reference, although then-script editor Douglas Adams had Tom Baker’s Doctor read Oolon Coluphid’s Origins Of The Universe and Matt Smith’s Doctor points out a Hooloovoo in “The Rings Of Akhaten,” both of which originate in Adams’ books. Tonally, the alien universes of Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s are a good match, and you really only have to negotiate around the whole “Earth being blown up” thing for the universes to fit neatly together. Then again, considering Adams had to un-demolish Earth for So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, I’d say that really isn’t much of a stumbling block.
  • This Week In Mythos: The word “regeneration” is actually used onscreen after simply being described as a way of “cheating death” in “The Parting Of The Ways.”  Major Blake makes an oblique reference to the Troughton- and Pertwee-era monsters the Ice Warriors when he says the Sycorax look completely different from real Martians. Also, I totally forgot to mention in last week’s review that “Boom Town” features a comprehensive explanation of just why the TARDIS looks like a police box; the episode even uses both the standard term “chameleon circuit” and the TV movie-approved “cloaking device” to describe it.
  • It really is just ridiculously British that the Doctor is revived by tea. But then, this is Doctor Who. We all knew what we signing up for, people.

Next week: We kick off the second season proper with “New Earth” and “Tooth And Claw.” But first…

Doctor Who: Children In Need” (originally aired 11/18/2005)

Available on YouTube.

As a general rule, companions take the Doctor’s regenerations in stride, even when there’s no obvious reason why they should. Peri objected to the 6th Doctor on aesthetic grounds, and the Brigadier and Mel needed some convincing when they first met the 3rd and 7th Doctors, respectively, but you really have to go all the way back to Ben Jackson in “The Power Of The Daleks” for the last companion who refused to believe that the new man in front of him was still the Doctor. This mini-episode offers a useful reminder of just how traumatic the Doctor effectively exploding and being replaced with someone else should be to the companion. Billie Piper intentionally removes all the energy from her performance, playing Rose as though she’s a terrified child. When she regains her nerve, she proceeds with the accusations, suggesting that this impostor has somehow kidnapped the Doctor and switched places with him. Sure, the 9th Doctor prepared her for the fact that he was going to change, but those were just words, and Rose was barely following him anyway.


Even when she accepts that this man really is the Doctor, she doesn’t like it. This does vaguely recall Peri’s objections in “The Twin Dilemma,” but that was played as banter, disconnected from any identifiable emotion. (It was still one of the better moments of “The Twin Dilemma,” for what little that’s worth.) Here, Rose displays fierce loyalty to and love for her Doctor, and it’s not hard to see her objections as the show’s attempt to anticipate the complaints of Eccleston loyalists. In that regard, it makes sense for the production team to explore and resolve the most serious of Rose’s issues in this mini-episode; the 9th Doctor still looms large over “The Christmas Invasion,” but his memory doesn’t dominate the proceedings like it does here. Tennant is allowed to make an early case for himself as the Doctor, projecting an eccentric goofiness that immediately makes him feel more in line with the classic series’ Doctors than Eccleston tended to. Filmed midway through production of the second season, this mini-episode sees Tennant flatten much of the characterization that he would have already brought to the 10th Doctor throughout the second season. This is a more generic Doctor than his Doctor ultimately became, which makes sense; the newly regenerated Doctor is still cooking, as I’m sure I once heard someone put it.

Filmed for the BBC’s annual, enormously popular Children In Need telethon, this special actually had slightly more viewers than “The Christmas Invasion” itself, with an estimated 10.7 million people watching David Tennant’s first few minutes as the Doctor. This is one of only three instances in which the new series has produced a canonical mini-episode for the telethon: The multi-Doctor story “Time Crashed” followed in 2007, and Matt Smith filmed the prequel “The Great Detective” for the 2012 Christmas special. (This isn’t counting 2011’s “Space And Time,” which was for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.) It’s a shame the show hasn’t been able to do more with the format, as it’s the perfect venue to explore subjects that couldn’t sustain entire episodes or are just a little too big to be scenes in full-length stories. As a part of “The Christmas Invasion,” this conversation with Rose and the Doctor would have killed all momentum leading into the rest of the story, but it’s perfectly positioned here as a slice of pure characterization. That said, the narrative seams do start to show at the end when the Doctor suddenly goes bonkers; David Tennant does his best here, but it’s still an unconvincing end to what is otherwise a charming vignette.


Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • “Slight weakness in the dorsal tubercle.” Nice little bit of foreshadowing there to the Doctor’s impromptu amputation in “The Christmas Invasion.” I’ll assume his new fighting hand had no such weakness.
  • “Let’s go and find Captain Jack, he’d know what to do.” “He’s busy! He’s got plenty to do rebuilding the Earth!” Yes, Doctor, that sounds completely plausible. That’s definitely an accurate description of how you and Jack left things at the end of “The Parting Of The Ways,” and that sounds exactly like what Jack would want to spend the rest of his life doing. Absolutely. I see no reason why we need ever discuss this subject again.
  • Since they do basically form one continuous story for the Doctor and Rose, I would love someday to watch “Bad Wolf,” “Parting Of The Ways,” this mini-episode, and “Christmas Invasion” in one long, continuous sitting, possibly with the credits edited out so that it feels like one gigantic episode. I can’t even begin to imagine just how jarring the tonal shifts would feel with all of them strung together like that.