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Misplaced Childhood by Graham Sleight

Shameful confession time: long ago, I shared a flat with someone who worked on the policy staff of the UK Conservative Party. He maintained that there was one infallible technique used by himself and his colleagues to determine how any given issue would play out. They would read a certain conservative columnist's writings in a certain national newspaper and believe the opposite. I doubt very much that Russell T Davies read my earlier, pretty positive review of the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, but he seems to have gone out of his way, in the recent Christmas special, to isolate those elements of his writing I was most critical about, and do them a whole lot more.

My earlier argument was that Davies was a great writer of punchy dialogue line-by-line, and of set-pieces—as he's put it in a couple of interviews, of "big pictures"—but that he didn't seem able to weld these to a structure which withstood a moment's thinking about. His Doctor Who stories, fatally, often did not believe in themselves as stories, only as exercises in the arrangement of props to illuminate character; and so his finest hours in the first season were those where he was able to dig into character with as little sf material as possible. I'm thinking, for instance, of the last scene of "The End of the World", or the dinner scene in "Boom Town". Davies's virtues and flaws were particularly evident when, in the last episode of the 2005 series, he unleashed a fleet of half a million Daleks on Earth just to effect the end of a particular story arc and one of the Doctor's periodic regenerations into a new form (that is, into being played by a new actor). Australia was bombed out of existence, but no-one in the story cared about the consequences and the Doctor scarpered—presumably leaving the Earth in smoking ruins—as soon as his story duties were concluded. It's the Hollywood solipsism: events only matter as far as they affect the protagonists. In a sense, that's inevitable: events are only storyable through character. But the Davies approach tends to create stories which most easily render sense as narratives of personal growth, as if living were just a therapy session.

It was the same with "The Christmas Invasion", an hour-long show broadcast in the primetime slot of 7pm on December 25th. It was stuffed with striking images but curiously hollow, a facade with no building behind it. Ostensibly the show was there to introduce the new Doctor, played by David Tennant, after the regeneration that ended the 2005 season. The series has a mini-tradition of making post-regeneration stories which depict the new Doctor, as it were, waking into his true self. When it works ("Castrovalva", 1982), the results can be delightful; when it doesn't ("The Twin Dilemma", 1984) it can, direly, set the tone for a whole era. So the first half of "The Christmas Invasion" features Tennant asleep in his pyjamas at the London flat of his companion Rose and her foghorn-voiced mother Jackie. Rose, reunited with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Mickey, goes for a wander in the centre of town and is menaced by gun-wielding Santa Clauses. Meanwhile, Jackie's Christmas tree also takes on a malevolent consciousness. Tennant wakes from his slumber just long enough to inform Rose et al that these phenomena are "pilot fish"—warnings of a much bigger threat swimming along behind.

Well, "pilot fish" is as brazen a pretext as anyone has ever come up with for plot foreshadowing without any attached logic, and these first-act perils proved to have very little to do with the episode's real threat, the alien Sycorax arriving to invade Earth. The Sycorax ship's arrival over London was almost a shot-for-shot clone of the aliens arriving over Manhattan in Independence Day, right down to its sonic boom shattering the windows of a London skyscraper just like ID's demolition of the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, the Sycorax have activated one of their pre-planned strategies: manipulating the blood of a portion of the population so that, zombie-like, they climb to the top of tall buildings waiting to jump. There's no doubt that this was a memorable big picture, or that it was well-executed (by James Hawes, director of the two-part Blitz story which was the high point of the series's earlier run.) But as a tactic to effect an invasion of the planet it's nonsensical—especially when it turns out that it's just a bluff which can be reversed once the awakened Doctor gets to the Sycorax ship, by pushing a big red button. Tennant gets his big entrance half-way through, has a few catchy lines of dialogue, battles the Sycorax leader with a sword, and (a couple of deus ex machinas later) despatches the aliens. The problem is that, perhaps infected by the high expectations of this show and the brittleness of the script, Tennant just didn't seem to believe in what he was doing.

I've seen Tennant be very good indeed—in the National Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman a couple of years ago, and also in Davies's BBC 3 series Casanova—but this role (or this script) played to the worst in him. Each line seemed to require a different delivery, and he took this bait. Admittedly, giving him the opening words of Elton John's "Circle of Life" to speak as cod-philosophy, or a line comparing his dressing-gown and pyjamas outfit to Arthur Dent's, may have been inviting this sort of centreless performance. But there was a sense that this was just an exercise in acting for him, in exhibiting as many shards of persona as possible. Tennant is an enormously charismatic and appealing actor who may well outgrow these first impressions, but this was, simply, a performance that felt like a performance, childhood for the sake of it rather than because that was what the character felt. I very much hope that this isn't a marker for the forthcoming Season 2, since the teaser trailer for it looked very promising.

There were other mixed signals too. Penelope Wilton, reprising her role as Harriet Jones MP from the first series, was quietly funny and determined, making more hay with the joke from her earlier appearance that she needed to introduce herself to everyone even now she was Prime Minister. But an awful lot of her screen-time was devoted to broad hints about a government anti-alien project called Torchwood, evidently setting up the spin-off series of the same name which Davies and co have announced. It was Torchwood which, towards the end of the show, zapped the alien craft, leaving its ashes to drift down in a parody of Christmas snow. That provided an excuse for some more of Davies's heavy-handed satire (remember "massive weapons of destruction" in series one?), with the Doctor destroying Harriet's career with a remark that could be equally applied to Tony Blair. And a lot of Harriet's actions and demeanour were simply unbelievable in a Prime Minister, not least the televised address to the nation in which she informed her people that she had no solution to the alien invasion unless the Doctor gave her a call.

Once again, this exemplified the weaknesses in Davies's writing. Yes, it's the sort of thing one would, in a childlike way, love to see. Yes, it's plot-as-revealer-of-character. But, unlike the finest moments from the first series, it doesn't feel reality-tested: one can't believe that a real human in that job would act that way. Just as one can't believe that Harriet would be able to activate the Torchwood zap gun (bought from the Death Star yard sale, to judge from the effects) without consulting her cabinet, talking to the military and so on. Instead, she does it with a single unsecured phone-call while standing in the middle of a street.

All this isn't to say that there weren't fine things about the episode. Hawes's direction, and particularly his use of light and shade, were extremely fine. Jackie's flat was beautifully lit – not least in the shot of the sleeping Doctor through the Christmas tree-shaped hole in the wall. The Sycorax were strikingly designed, and the CGI of them and their ship was convincing in a way that not all the Series One effects had been. And even if the script failed to hit the emotional notes it was evidently aiming for, Billie Piper's performance was as impressive as ever.

The response, I'm sure, to a critique like this will be that a Christmas special just needs to be a bit of fun, something to keep the kids quiet for an hour while the turkey goes down. The nods and the winks, the plotting shortcuts, the cartoonishness, the continuity, all just serve to give pleasurable little jolts of fun. But the same argument is trotted out in defence of Doctor Who's 20th anniversary special, "The Five Doctors" (1983), which ushered in the series's great mid-80s decline. Childishness can be excessive, or misplaced, even in a show "for children". When a series becomes too pat, too interested in nods and winks, it can exhaust viewers' patience remarkably quickly. When the Doctor fights the Sycorax leader, at one point he gets his hand chopped off, and viewers of a certain age will have been reminded of the pivotal moment in The Empire Strikes Back. But the hand regrows almost instantly, as a side-effect of the regeneration process. Adventure needs to hurt as well as console, as even George Lucas knew and Russell T Davies seems to have forgotten. "The Christmas Invasion" was nothing but consolation.

And a Merry Christmas to all of you at home! by Tim Phipps

I've been a Doctor Who fan ever since I was able to read. It's only fair you know. The first book I ever remember reading entirely by myself, and on my own initiative, was a novelised Doctor Who story. I was barely over six years old.

In later life, the appeal of the TV show dimmed—I always felt like I was loving one moment of a given episode in spite of the rest of it. Too often, great storytelling was overshadowed by poor execution. Budget restrictions frequently hobbled the show's creative ambitions. The same problem, obviously, never afflicted the books, and so it was with the books that my fannish allegiance remained.

In short, the TV show has an honourable tradition of showing enormous potential, and then doing something silly with it. And as a result, I've approached the recent revamped TV series with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

I mean, how would else are you meant to approach an old love after sixteen years' absence?

In 2005, the BBC produced the first new, regular Doctor Who to be screened since the series' cancellation in 1989. The role of the Doctor went to Christopher Eccleston, an acclaimed and well-known actor (enormous potential!), who decided not to film a second series before the first episode had even aired (something silly!)

Despite Eccleston's departure, the show's success allowed two further seasons to be commissioned on the back of it. The task of carrying on that success now falls to a production team armed only with a new lead actor—David Tennant. His first episode, "The Christmas Invasion," was aired on BBC1 on Christmas Day. It was given a primetime slot—7pm, when UK TV stations would more usually schedule either the terrestrial TV premiere of a big family film, or a ratings-grabbing special episode of a national soap opera.

This, in case you haven't got the hint yet, is about as high-profile a TV timeslot as you can imagine.

The production team had an awful lot riding on this episode. They had to introduce the audience to a new lead actor. They had to convince the audience that he is an actor worth watching. They had to make the audience take an interest in the series that's due to start airing in March. Failure to do any of these things would create a serious risk that the series commissioned to air during 2006 would be dead before it even began. To all intents and purposes, with all that it had to achieve and with all that the production team had riding on it, "The Christmas Invasion" may as well be a pilot for an entirely new series. And it's a series I really, really want to see.

The 2005 series got far more right than wrong. But it was being made in Britain, and that hampered it from the start. I'm aware that this is slightly inflammatory, but I'm about to make it worse with some gross generalisations about British TV.

Nobody in Britain really makes SF TV. Nobody in Britain really makes CGI-dependent TV. And certainly nobody in Britain makes anything approaching the technical complexity of the 2005 Doctor Who series. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the 2005 series was as successful as it was. The technical achievements were, by British TV standards, of the highest quality. But there were still flaws.

It's clear from "The Christmas Invasion" that things have been tightened up since the last series. The music is noticeably far less intrusive, for example. Where dodgy Radiophonic Workshop homages made "Father's Day" nigh-on unwatchable last year, "The Christmas Invasion" has a more subtle score that complements the action rather than detracts from it. The soap opera elements were less pronounced than those during Eccleston's tenure. Several episodes in the last series were spent dealing with the consequences for Rose's family of her decision to travel with the Doctor. And, frankly, after a while it grated.

"The Christmas Invasion" doesn't rely on this kitchen sink drama to anywhere near the same degree. Partly, this can be attributed to the fact that the audience are now familiar with the recurring characters of Mickey (Rose's ex-boyfriend) and Jackie (Rose's mother) and so don't need quite so much time to be spent establishing their relationships. But it also feels like Russell Davies, the producer and writer, has rediscovered the joy of minimalism. There is a point where Rose's reaction to the regeneration seems to resemble that of a spurned lover. But this is dwelt on for all of ten seconds before the script moves on. Similarly, when Mickey finally asks Rose, point-blank, if she loves the Doctor, she doesn't reply but just rests her head on Mickey's chest silently.

Subtlety! Oh, how I have missed thee.

And the 'satire'! Does anyone remember the woeful 'massive weapons of destruction' pun from "Aliens of London" that had so many people spitting teeth? Thank heavens there's nothing like that here. Harriet Jones, the Prime Minister, destroying the retreating Sycorax ship is a fairly blatant reference to the sinking of the Belgrano. But referencing an incident from twenty years ago is much less distracting than attempting to satirise current affairs. As a result, it can remain unnoticed until the viewer indulges in some post-watching analysis.

And so these things—the music, the more understated personal relationships, the greater tact and subtlety of the real-world parallels—seem to be due to the production team having gotten into their stride now. But having established that the production team are doing the same things as last year, except with greater skill, what of the real new variable? What of the new Doctor? Is David Tennant actually watchable?

Utterly so.

The script keeps the Doctor out of the action for the first two thirds of the episode, building anticipation for his actual appearance. The Doctor spends most of that time unconscious, only recovering briefly to look rather agonised and to find an apple in his pocket. Meanwhile, we're forced to watch as humanity tries—and fails—to talk itself out of trouble with the Sycorax, an alien race of scavengers. By the time the Doctor regains consciousness, we've seen Rose stumble in her attempts to save the day.

This—and I must stress this—is an Important Thing. Because, at the end of the episode, the Doctor saves the day. Not Rose.

In probably the greatest departure from the tone of the 2005 series, it's the Doctor who takes centre stage in beating the aliens. It makes me want to know how they're going to deal with the Doctor and Rose in future episodes, and makes me hopeful that Tennant's Doctor will be a little less impotent than Eccleston's. There is no deus ex machina here, and certainly nothing so clunky as the literal deus ex ending to the previous season's finale. This time, there's just the Doctor, his wit, and a big sword fight. And that brings me neatly to the best things about this particular episode—the wit, and the big sword fight.

The wit oozes from the performances and the script. Not necessarily funny wit, but the kind of wit that deals efficiently but sensitively with moments of character—on repeat viewing, you'll be surprised at how short some scenes are. But there's humour, too—the Sycorax leader telling Harriet Jones that they know who she is, the Doctor's roaring at the Sycorax in a mock-monster voice, David Tennant's pronounciation of the words 'big threatening button', the Lion King speech, Jackie's terror at being menaced by a Christmas tree ... the list goes on.

But this isn't a laugh-riot. There are genuinely dark moments, like aliens holding the planet to ransom by positioning a third of the world's population on the brink of suicide. And two men getting killed and leaving behind piles of smoking bones. I mean—come on! Smoking bones! At half past seven in the evening on BBC 1 on Christmas Day! The production team deserve a gold medal for that alone.

There's no way you can see this as some schmaltzy Christmas tale. All of its joy is tempered by death, or despair. The achievement and excitement of sending a probe to Mars ends in discovering a lethal alien species. The Sycorax's defeat is followed by the Prime Minister killing them as they retreat. When the Doctor and Rose are reunited and resolve to continue travelling together, the conversation takes place amid the falling ash of the destroyed Sycorax ship.

It's one of the great rarities in Who—great potential, with no excessive silliness. Even the Killer Santas armed with flamethrowing tubas and fully automatic trombones are great. No, really. And so is the spinning, razor-edged Christmas tree. Yes, these things are utterly daft—but that's not really a criticism in and of itself. Some of the show's greatest moments stem from daftness (see, for example, the entirity of "City of Death").

Above all, the Santas and the Tree are memorable. In ten or twenty or however many years' time, when today's kids have grown up and start casting their mind back to dim memories of old TV, they won't get the Belgrano parallels. They won't care about the 'big threatening button' pronounciation. But they'll remember 'the one with the Christmas tree'. Or 'the one with the killer Santas'. And it's at our peril that we forget that Doctor Who is intended for kids more than it is adults. They're the audience that really matters.

So perhaps it was inaccurate of me to say that 'the big sword fight' was a reason for greatness. Perhaps I should have said, instead, 'the set pieces designed to stick in the mind of kids long after Christmas Day itself has been and gone' were reasons for greatness.

But somehow that doesn't have quite the same ring to it as 'the big sword fight'.

Tennant's performance is wonderful. For a full ten minutes, he's the absolute centre of attention, and he holds that attention well. He's clearly a lot more at ease with comic performances than Eccleston ever was—Tennant's range stretches beyond manic grins and mugging. Yes, Tennant chews the scenery, but his performance is laced with a clear enjoyment that Eccleston never quite managed. Tennant's comic timing is also better ('Am I ... ginger?'). His enunciation is better ('Aw, blood control! I haven't seen blood control in years!'). And his teeth are better (I don't have a quote for that one. Sorry).

And if there were any fears that Tennant can't do 'serious' as well as Eccleston ... well, he manages to look completely serious whilst wearing a purple paper hat and Jarvis Cocker glasses. And that alone earns him another tick in the box, so far as I'm concerned.

There are naff bits, yes. It's almost inevitable in Who. I'm sure a tiny bit more detail on the background to the 'pilot fish' wouldn't have gone amiss. The gag about the Royal Family being 'on the roof' seemed a bit out of place—not for the inbreeding connotations, but merely because the line felt amiss in a Prime Minister's speech. In fact, that entire speech, including her slightly-too-desperate appeal to the Doctor, just felt a little too far out of being believable. The sword fight itself, also, feels incredibly lame after you've been brought up on a diet of Buffy and Angel's spectacularly choreographed fights. The editing seems absolutely all over the place, with huge chunks of movement missing here and there.

But the naff is far outweighed by the good. Consider this—above all, despite all the killing, despite all the fighting, the Doctor solves everything without gratuitously taking life. The Sycorax kill without provocation, the humans kill a retreating enemy, but the Doctor only takes life in self-defence. For me, that's what the series should be about. Threats and bullying are treated with irreverence and disdain, but every life matters. Always. And the Doctor will defeat the bullies, the aliens, the aggressors, but he'll do it without fighting fire with fire.

The Doctor finds another way. And in letting him do that, Russell Davies has brought my show back.

As a pilot for the next series, as a piece of TV that kids will remember long after it's aired, as an episode with as much heart as the whole of the last series put together ... well.

It is, as they say, fantastic.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K., and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, and Interzone.

Tim was born at a very early age, and plans to die shortly. He suspects that only people who know him will get the joke in the second half of that sentence. For anyone else wondering, the joke is that he's not very tall. In idle moments, Tim also wishes that he hadn't subcontracted the writing of his jokes to a cut-rate Tommy Cooper knockoff.

Tim doesn’t write as often as he should, because every time he does he fears disappearing up his own wormhole.
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22 Apr 2024

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