Within just four years, the Doctor Who Christmas Special has become embedded in the public consciousness as the thing to sit down and watch together after the turkey and Christmas pudding. It’s as important to the Christmas schedules now as Eric and Ernie were in years past, and that means that it comes with a lot of perhaps unrealistic expectations. So would this year’s festive outing live up to the hype?
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Well, it started out with a mystery, and that’s always a wonderful place to start. Our tenth Doctor meets a man who answers to the name ‘Doctor’, has a companion, talks about the TARDIS and sonic screwdrivers with confidence and is utterly unphased by the prospect of a bizarre cyberman/animal hybrid.
To the Doctor, there is no doubt that this is a future embodiment of himself – but that theory quickly unravels. This Doctor doesn’t recognise him, and his screwdriver is only sonic in as far as it makes a sound when you use it to hit something. Oh, and the TARDIS is a hot air balloon, albeit a nice Victorian one like the one in which Dorothy Gale attempts to get home.
The second storyline concerns this year’s villain Miss Hartigan, and how she is in cahoots with the Cyberman who fell through space and time during Davros’ attempts to destroy reality itself. Their goal is the same as always – to delete humankind, and convert them to the emotionless ways of their metal kind. Miss Hartigan believes that she will be spared from this process… we suspect otherwise.
The two plots are slowly drawn together as our Doctor establishes what has happened to the Next Doctor. He is, in fact, Jackson Lake, one of the Cybermen’s first victims: his wife was killed, and his son abducted. When an info stamp streamed images and facts about the life of the Doctor into his mind, he escaped into a fantasy world to avoid facing the grief of reality – and became the Doctor.
The two states of the Next Doctor/Jackson gave David Morrissey free rein to show off his range – one moment he’s bouncy, optimistic, brave and just a little arrogant (a true Doctor, therefore); the next, the tragedy that has befallen his family starts to take hold, and he is a broken man. Another great performance came from Dervla Kirwan as the cool but deeply angry Miss Hartigan. Suitably creepy and calm as a human, and immensely masterful as the Cyberking, Kirwan was a classic villain.
Despite the excellent cast, though, this was a Christmas special which, I’m genuinely sorry to say, failed to spark my imagination. If this had been a mid-season episode, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid – it was good, but it was not ‘special’. The details of how the Cyberking came about, worked and was destroyed were all sketchy at best, but we’ve come to expect that with Russell T Davies, and we overlook it when we are gripped emotionally. But it was that very thing that, for me, was sadly missing.
It seems harsh to compare The Next Doctor to The Christmas Invasion (which is not just the best Christmas special, but one of the best New Who episodes overall) but all of things that made that so wonderful – suspense, jeopardy, invention, humour and heart – were in rather short supply here. And I had such high hopes! Last year’s blockbuster special The Voyage of the Damned was entertaining, but a bit OTT for me – this, with its Victorian setting and truly impressive supporting cast appeared to be much more promising. It pains me to say, then, that this was something of a swing and a miss.