After the explosive drama of the Series 1 finale, “The Christmas Invasion” serves as a cool-down episode for Doctor Who, where Harriet Jones’ short-lived tenure as Britain’s prime minister comes to an abrupt end. Mainly though, fans remember this special as the official debut of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor.
Way back in 1966, when Doctor Who was still young, William Hartnell’s health was declining and the crew needed a way to replace him as the Doctor, as organically as they could, so they came up with the concept of regeneration: if a time lord’s body is dying, they grow themselves a new one, with a slight change of personality being the consequence. The regeneration concept was successful and it’s definitely aided in the franchise’s longevity since then. Over a dozen actors have taken up the role of the Doctor: it’s easy to get attached to certain Doctors and it’s always sad to see them go, but it’s also a lot of fun to see each actor bring something new and different and special to the part, making the role their own. In particular, David Tennant went on to be one of the most liked Doctors in the revival.
With that much having been said, as much as I like Ten, Series 2 is probably the weakest season in the RTD era. Series 1, 3 and 4 are all seasons with tightly written story arcs and a lot of fun, ambitious episodes. The first half of Series 2 is pretty solid, but the second half contains some episodes that are really very bad (like “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Love And Monsters“). Not to mention, it feels like this season spends way too much time on contemporary Earth. After the show established what it could do in Series 1, it feels like we ought to be going on more trips through time in Series 2, venturing into the past and the future; instead we spend even more time in London than we did before. The final stretch of the season even has four episodes in a row set on contemporary Earth (“Love And Monsters”, “Fear Her”, and “Army Of Ghosts / Doomsday”), and it gets pretty dull. Thankfully, Series 3 and Series 4 are a large improvement.
Compared to a few other incarnations, who hit the ground running in their first episodes, the Tenth Doctor gets off to a pretty slow start. Like the classic serial, “Spearhead In Space”, the Doctor spends most of this episode laid up in bed, recovering from a really rough regeneration, which means it takes a while for us to get a full picture of who the Tenth Doctor is (in my opinion, he really comes into his own during the stretch of episodes from “Tooth And Claw” to “The Age Of Steel“). For most of “The Christmas Invasion”, the focus is actually kept on the vacuum the Doctor has left behind, along with Rose and Harriet’s failed attempts to fill in for him.
There are several stories in the RTD era that emphasize how important the Doctor is to the series, where stopping the villain of the week is far more dangerous than usual because the Doctor is incapacitated (like “42“, “The Family Of Blood“, “Blink“, and “Last Of The Time Lords“). In “Turn Left“, the world slowly starts to come to an end because history changed and the Doctor died, leaving the Earth defenseless, and in the following two-parter, the Doctor’s friends team up to summon him to Earth, so he can save them from being exterminated by the Daleks. The RTD era repeatedly stresses that the Doctor’s friends can emulate him and follow in his footsteps, like Jack and Martha do, but no one else can ever really replace him – he just has too much knowledge and experience (and a convenient way of cheating death). When Rose tries for about thirty seconds, she gets completely humiliated in front of an audience of alien tyrants (poor Rose). Once he’s back on his feet, Ten makes short work of the Sycorax: utterly cowing them. The Sycorax were able to frighten and intimidate the humans on Earth, who knew nothing about them or the extent of their power, but in reality, they are some pretty pathetic villains (the Daleks and the Cybermen would destroy them in a day).
Ten proves to be a stark contrast to Nine, who was pretty stoic and reserved half the time. The Tenth Doctor is hyper, cheeky, talkative and manic. He likes to banter away and engage the people around him, whether it’s making small talk or having a good intellectual debate, and he loves to psychoanalyze people. He loves to get inside his enemies’ heads, mock them, and take the wind out of their egos. Thanks to Rose’s influence, Nine gradually came out of his shell and exposed his more vulnerable side over the course of Series 1, and his regeneration into Ten has cemented the Doctor’s growth into a more personable guy once more.
The way Ten handles the Sycorax also establishes his character over the next three seasons. The Ninth Doctor was a brilliant detective who usually did most of the work thwarting his adversaries, but he also often encouraged and empowered the people he met to stand up for themselves and take the final step towards finishing the job. Ten fights the Sycorax leader in a duel (the daredevil in him clearly loving every minute of it) and resolves the problem on his own, making it clear he’s going to be a more hands-on Doctor than Nine was. In his rare moments of seriousness, Tennant lends the Doctor a real sense of gravitas and a steely resolve. As much as the Doctor gives off the impression that he’s a quirky, zany, rebellious time lord, we’re shown again that he is exactly the sort of authority figure he claims to dislike, and in his first episode Ten demonstrates that he can be ice cold when you provoke him far enough: whether it’s letting the lead Sycorax drop to his death with an edgy one-liner, or arranging for Harriet to lose her position. By the end of this episode, Ten enjoys a lovely Christmas dinner with Mickey and the Tylers, signifying that they’ve become his new family on Earth, which sadly won’t last beyond Series 2.
In the wake of the Doctor’s sudden and unexpected regeneration, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) tries to be strong and brave, but really she’s falling apart. In “The Parting Of The Ways“, Rose finally accepted she was in love with the Ninth Doctor and she was willing to risk her life to be with him, and then immediately after that, everything about him changed. She misses him terribly, and she barely knows anything about how regeneration works. Rose serves as an audience surrogate in this episode, for all the people at home who still don’t know how to feel about Christopher Eccleston being replaced with a completely different actor and need to gradually accept Tennant. Rose’s pessimism and defeatism feels a bit strange though, coming off the heels of the previous episode where she refused to give up, even when she had very few plans, she was up against terrible odds, and it was clear she and her friends would all die.
In “The Christmas Invasion”, Rose makes it clear, several times, that she’s given up, there’s no hope, and without the Doctor they’re all totally dead. At one point, she sees Harriet begging the Doctor for help on TV and something in her snaps, leading her to sob to her mom about how the Doctor has left her for good. Finally, she decides that they should all just hide in the TARDIS until the Sycorax thing blows over, and even then, she continues to grouse. Basically, without the Doctor there to back her up, all of Rose’s confidence has abandoned her, which feels rather telling in retrospect, considering that “Army Of Ghosts” will later reveal that Rose is way too reliant on the Doctor to give her life meaning. That problem will only lead to heartbreak down the line, but for the time being, it’s good to see Rose eventually accept Ten as the man she loves, and eagerly anticipate their brand new adventures together. It’s also sweet to see that, even while Mickey’s own broken heart is still healing, he and Jackie are Rose’s support system and they help her to stay strong in trying times like these.
Harriet Jones is granted her own subplot in “The Christmas Invasion”, which serves as a far darker parallel to Rose’s predicament. Like Rose, Harriet finds herself contending with a vicious group of alien slavers looking to expand their empire, while the Doctor is nowhere to be found. She tries to be a strong and unwavering leader, when truthfully she feels completely lost. When faced with the unknown, Harriet eventually reveals herself to be surprisingly ruthless and underhanded. She’s always been portrayed as a proud patriot who will put the British Isles above all else and do whatever she has to do to protect her nation, “The Christmas Invasion” simply shows the ugly side of that. And I’m kind of glad Russell added in Harriet’s last-minute treachery, because otherwise this lightweight Christmas special would be way too thin on plot.
The dangers of unchecked nationalism serves as a loose arc in Series 2, along with the dangers of unchecked hubris; Russell would bookend it in the finale by formally introducing Torchwood, an organization that still clings to the long dead ideal of a British empire (which ironically ends up harming Britain in the present). Harriet destroys the Sycorax ship while they’re retreating, killing everyone onboard, knowing the Doctor would disapprove of her slaughter. She offers some weak defenses for her actions, but she does make one good point: the Tenth Doctor has a very condescending and paternalistic view of the human race. He wants them to rely on him, and only him, to solve any alien problems, because they’re too stupid to handle it themselves (which is expanded upon in “The Poison Sky“). But he won’t always be around to step in, and humanity needs to learn to fight its own battles (“Torchwood: Children Of Earth” got as bad as it did because the Doctor was completely absent). The Doctor dispatches Harriet mainly out of disgust at her actions, but also because she dared to go against him and presume she knew better than he did, which implies that Ten has quite a bit of arrogance himself.
James Hawes steps up to direct this Christmas special, and I have to say, his vision for this episode is a lot less impressive than his work on “The Doctor Dances“, though to be fair, the script for that two-parter was a lot sharper than the one for this episode. James Hawes’ direction is decent and it gets the job done, but there are barely any moments that grab you and pull you into the story, though there is one hilariously shot scene where Rose, Mickey and Jackie are accosted by a killer Christmas tree and Jackie gets reduced to tears in the corner (that scene is comedy gold). Throughout the second half of Series 1, starting around “Dalek”, Doctor Who’s visual effects steadily improved as the crew grew familiar with the technology, until we arrived at the fantastically moody finale, “Bad Wolf”. “The Christmas Invasion” takes a large step backwards, because the green screen and CGI in this episode is really not good, including one scene where the Doctor’s hand gets chopped off, which the CGI is really not ready for yet. Like a lot of the more inconsistent elements in Series 2, the visual effects improve and stabilize in Series 3.
Murray Gold’s score is very pleasant listen to, since he writes a lot of different variations on “The Doctor’s Theme“, Nine’s leitmotif (now passed down to Ten), in this episode. While Murray’s score was mostly synthesized in Series 1, he’s given a properly large orchestra to work with in Series 2, which leads him to not only re-record some of his tracks from the previous season like “Rose’s Theme“, but to also write more lush and layered scores for the rest of the RTD era and Moffat era. Murray’s strident, militant theme for UNIT (which sounds like an expansion of his Slitheen theme) is introduced in this special and I love it, particularly the revamps he would give it in Series 3 and 4, while Harriet Jones’ titular theme is also given a more grandiose and bittersweet reworking for the Christmas special’s coda.
Compared to other episodes like “Rose”, “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, “The Christmas Invasion” is one of the weaker introductions to a new Doctor so far in NuWho, because it feels like a lot of this Christmas special is lacking in sustenance. But it does have charm to it, and it does get the Tenth Doctor’s era off to a promising start.
* David Tennant was a lot paler in 2005.
* “Well, he’s got two hearts” “Oh, don’t be stupid” “He has” “Anything else he’s got two of?”
* “Oh, yeah, that’s fascinating, because I love hearing stories about the Tardis. Oh, go on Rose, tell us another one because I swear I could listen to it all day. Tardis this, Tardis that”.
* “I’m gonna get killed by a Christmas tree!”
* “We haven’t got much time. If there’s pilot fish, then- Why is there an apple in my dressing gown?” “Oh, that’s Howard. Sorry” “He keeps apples in his dressing gown?” “He gets hungry” “What, he gets hungry in his sleep?” “Sometimes”.
* Here’s another RTD era writing trope for you. Every time there’s an invasion story set in the modern day, there has to be footage of reporters on TV dramatically declaring that the end has come and everyone is going to die. It was a pretty cool move in “Aliens Of London”, but Rusty breaks it out every time there’s invasion, and by the time you get to “The Poison Sky” in Series 4, it’s gotten pretty old hat.
* “You seem to be talking about aliens as a matter of fact” “There’s an Act of Parliament banning my autobiography”.
* “Maybe they’re not actual Martians” “Of course not. Martians look completely different”.
* “Did you think you were clever with your stolen words? We are the Sycorax, we stride the darkness. Next to us you are but a wailing child. If you are the best your planet can offer as a champion then your world will be gutted, and your people enslaved”.
* “Am I ginger?” No, you’re just sort of brown” “Ugh, I wanted to be ginger. I’ve never been ginger. And you, Rose Tyler, fat lot of good you were. You gave up on me!”
* “Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their potential. From the day they arrived 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’. But the point still stands, leave them alone!” The Tenth Doctor has great taste.
* “Want to know the best bit? This new hand? It’s a fighting hand!”
* “No second chances, I’m that sort of man” The first appearance of edgy Ten.
* “Don’t challenge me, Harriet Jones, because I’m a completely new man. I could bring down your government with a single word” “You’re the most remarkable man I’ve ever met, but I don’t think you’re quite capable of that” “No, you’re right. Not a single word, just six” “I don’t think so” “Six words” “Stop it!” “Six. Don’t you think she looks tired?” Tennant’s intensity level in that scene makes it very clear why he was hired.