Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Christmas Invasion

And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Well, I don’t know about you but in between playing with my new Remote Control Dalek, I did sit down and watch The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor Who Christmas Special. And I say that as if we’re actually used to having a Doctor Who Christmas Special – like it’s a tradition or something. Yeah, as if. But perhaps it will be.

This one was full of the Christmas buzz, like opening up an extra present in the evening. Partly down to being starved of new Doctor Who for six months, but I’m sure it was also due to the fact that we were getting a new Doctor as well. In the wake of David Tennant’s introduction, somebody commented “Christopher Who?”, which is a little mean-spirited, but he was more immediately likeable and his performance, in my eyes, more immediately established him as the Doctor. Where Eccleston was hampered was by only really coming home to me as the Doctor somewhere in Dalek, a few episodes after we knew he was going to be leaving the role. Tennant’s main disadvantage, when he was first announced in the role, was that I hadn’t seen him in anything else and he didn’t seem to have enough of a face to hang much character on – but that turned out to be more of a Christmas hamper, and he really delivered the goods. (Ha ha.) Especially as he spent half of the story asleep – something that severely undermined Davison’s debut in Castrovalva. But Tennant gets away with it, and his Doctor strikes me as having the youth of the Davison Doctor, but he backs it up with force of personality and a surprisingly substantial presence.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wanna see an older Doctor (calling Ian McDiarmid!), but I’m more than happy to see Tennant take up residence in the role for a good while. Welcome to the TARDIS. And, yay! he’s a more proactive Doctor than his predecessor, actually being instrumental in the resolution of the whole thing – even if part of it was just down to pressing one button and chucking a satsuma at another. But he gets serious points for the sword fight, the Lion King line and the nod to Arthur Dent, to name but a few golden moments.

There seemed to be a light sprinkling of Hitch Hikers throughout the whole thing, from the more obvious dressing gown to the question as to whether the Doctor might have been a diphallic terrata like Zaphod, the comical moment as the Guinevere satellite bumps into a whopping great alien spacecraft and some more comedy with the alien translation devices.

But hark at me – it’s as if he was the only good thing in it. And that’s simply not the case. Far from it. It wasn’t all roses, but it felt like the best of the Davies-scripted stories we’ve had so far. So what was right and what was wrong? Well, all of it obviously J

Billie was great as ever as Rose, giving it her all, with some potent emotional scenes and her comical appeal to the Sycorax leader. Her only downside was that her character had apparently gone a bit feeble in the face of the alien invasion, presumably a touch of Seasonal Adjustment Disorder kicking in just in time for Christmas. She was never this helpless in The Parting Of The Ways, when the Doctor packed her off while he prepared to face death etc. Can’t help feeling it would have been better if she’d had the Doctor carted into the TARDIS and tried to do something – which still would have served the plot in exactly the same way and we still could have seen her fighting to hold herself together emotionally. And she does really really labour the point as she works out why she’s suddenly hearing the Sycorax leader speak English, when the rest of us had worked it out about a year ago.

There was Mickey and Jackie too, of course. And Jackie had a few funny lines, but I still look forward to a time when the show isn’t exceeding the recommended dosage of these two. Please. Kill Mickey. Convert him into a Cyberman and let us enjoy the inevitable round of Metal Mickey jokes. Give us something.

But no. Instead the halfway decent UNIT commander gets it in the neck – with a Sycorax whip. At least Adam Garcia was more memorable in this as the PM’s aide than he was in Coyote Ugly, but then if you’re going to have lots of women dancing on bars in your movie, you really can’t expect me to notice the male lead. But none of these supporting cast types can match Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister.

Brilliantly played and with such conviction that I actually want to vote for her. Yes, even at the end when she does the ‘bad deed’. Which, to be honest, while it leads to a great scene and the Doctor’s clever use of those six words – “Don’t you think she looks tired” – I found myself thinking was the right thing to do. That is, the right thing for a PM to do in those circumstances. As much as the Doctor was getting all self-righteous and pacifistic - by no means an un-Doctorish thing to be – the fact is the Sycorax were not themselves rendered suddenly peaceful and would likely have ranged elsewhere in the Universe to try their hand at subjugating some other planet. It struck me that Harriet Jones was only taking care of unfinished business and making the really tough decision that the Doctor avoided. Hm. Food for thought, and makes a change from turkey.

The Sycorax themselves were not the greatest of aliens in terms of cultural and sociological concept and their invasion plans, let’s face it, sucked. But I loved their design. Until I discovered the mask was just a mask. That was a big disappointment, when the leader removes his mask and reveals something less than brilliant underneath. Possibly a metaphor for the bluff that formed such a part of their less than brilliant invasion plan, but from purely a design point of view, a bit of a let down. And there is no way on Earth anyone would believe they were aliens just from seeing them on the telly.

But there we reach the level of those same kinds of minor niggles that cause the whole thing to unravel like a stubborn paper chain when you’re trying to hang the Christmas decs. Why do the British government have an alien translation device that works so well with an unknown language? Why doesn’t anyone think to physically stop their loved ones from marching off – especially the kids who aren’t too old to be picked up by an anxious mum? Why do none of the hypnotized people tumble off the edge when hit by the shockwave from the arriving spaceship? Why do the Sycorax have a button on the outside of their ship that conveniently releases a bit of the material around the edge? (I mean, it’s handy for the Doctor but I can’t envisage a use in, er, normal operations.) Why, in short, oh why.

One of the two biggest whys though had to be: what was the deal with the ‘pilot fish’? Clearly this was a plot device so that we could have the Santas wreaking havoc and a manic killer Christmas tree, all in fine Doctor Who fashion – but it smacks too much of the Avengers movie, in which many admirably bizarre things happen for no good reason. First of all, I couldn’t help feeling they should have been Autons. That, or so completely unlike Autons that I wasn’t left thinking they should have been Autons. Second and chiefly of all, on first watch I was left feeling that their plan might have actually made less sense than those of the Sycorax. It didn’t help that they seemed to know all about the Doctor’s presence, while the Sycorax appeared to know nothing until the TARDIS showed up on their scanners; while at the same time, when faced with the Doctor and his dreaded sonic screwdriver, they ‘beam up’ with the same effect as the Sycorax teleport device. Do they live on the same asteroid ship, making use of the Sycorax technology, or what? Why do they leave the Christmas tree at the Tyler household door instead of just walking in and shooting everyone with their flame-throwing trombones? It’s a reasonable question, and the public have a right to know. :) At the end of the day, it’s all good fun of course, and I only wish they had been better embedded in the plot as a whole.

The second of the biggest whys has more to do with production than plot though, and why the swordfight scenes out on the exterior of the very lovely spaceship had to appear cheap compared with the impressive interior shots, with the great arena lined with its ranks of Sycorax. Clearly the outside scene was vital if the leader was to be plunged off the edge with the deft application of a satsuma in the right spot, and if they were that necessary, why weren’t they handled with greater care and attention. Cutting off the Doctor’s hand as a nod to Star Wars is one thing, cutting off the combatants’ legs so we can’t actually see anything of the setting is just unconvincing and comes across as a deliberate and transparent attempt to save money. For such a crucial part of the climax, it looked a bit rubbish.

And I lied: there’s a third big why. Why do so many scenes have to be drowned out by such intrusive music? I know it’s Christmas, but turn it down a bit, people, some of us want to listen to the dialogue.

Despite being so bung full of all these flaws, it succeeds really well because it’s delivered with such energy and enthusiasm, and the idea of scale – that it’s happening on a global level – is, bearing in mind it’s telly, as well-realised, with the simple inclusion of US news bulletins and a shot or two of people set to leap off foreign landmarks, as in Independence Day. And maybe it’s like some of those Christmas presents – even the ones you had to go and exchange – it’s the thought that counts. On a second watch, without the initial buzz, some of the appeal fades, but that’s unavoidable, and the important thing is, the shiny bits still shine.

The whole thing is tailed off with a medley of teasers for the second series, possibly giving away a bit more than I’d have liked, but whetting the appetite sufficiently. And when the Doctor at the end of The Christmas Invasion declares that there’s so much out there he’s looking forward to seeing, I’m thinking “You and me both, mate”, and part of that promise of pastures new rubs off on this Christmas special.

Let’s see this new more proactive Doctor in more challenging adventures and I think future shows can afford to set the bar higher, but in the meantime I enjoyed this particular Christmas present, thanks very much. Now pardon me, while I go and play with my Remote Control Dalek.

Happy New Year.

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