To start on a positive note, I’m glad to say that finally Tennant seems to be coming into his stride in the role of the Doctor – apart from one or two inappropriate bursts of manic energy, overall he gave a far more restrained performance than in many previous episodes, and I’m glad to see his hairstyle was more restrained too (combed flatly forward rather than gelled up into a spiky quiff as in the previous series).
This episode’s good points first (seeing as it’s the season of goodwill). The plot, though ludicrous, seemed fairly tight and to fit together adequately, with some attempt at explanations towards the end. The Queen of the Racnoss was well realised – if one overlooked the blatant black lipstick up close – bearing a passing resemblance to Tim Curry’s Devil in the Eighties film Willow. It would have been nice to have seen her scuttling about, but you can’t have everything. The Racnoss spaceship was well-designed too, and it was a nice festive juxtaposition to have it shimmering in the Cardiff night sky like a star. The Santas are always effective, even if rehashed from last year’s Christmas Invasion (they’re obviously freelancers too). There were occasionally strong and successfully witty exchanges of dialogue between the Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna, who didn’t turn out to be as irritating as she could have done. It was also nice to hear a mention of Gallifrey towards the end. The scenes with the Doctor showing Donna the creation of the universe was extremely well done, not rushed, quite slow-paced and very convincing – reminding me of the Fourth Doctor showing Sarah-Jane the devastation of Earth by Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars (though as opposed to Tom Baker’s gloomy gravitas in said scene, this time we get a slightly annoyingly enthusiastic and awestruck take from the current TARDIS incumbent. However, Tennant’s line about the human race’s way of making sense of the chaos with ‘Christmas trees and calendars’ was actually quite touching and accidentally poetic). And, even though I’m not really bothered about action scenes in Who, the TARDIS was put to very good – and pivotal – use, especially in the well realised taxi chase scene. In short, this episode, though ultimately superficial and camp (see below), is still an improvement on last year’s far more pedestrian and Star Trek-esque Christmas Invasion. This time, not a simple alien invasion, but something more intrinsic and complex – though why wasn’t the Queen flushed down the plughole, which would have been a nice touch, rather than blown up in her spaceship by a tank (cue the old UNIT denouement cop outs)?
On the downside – and with all RTD stories, there’s always one of these (bar perhaps Tooth and Claw) – the script, though fairly breezy and amusing in places, is still littered inevitably with legion popular culture references and maddening bursts of the very kind of mundanity one watches Dr Who to try to escape from. Yes, Lance’s mocking of Donna’s spoon-fed philistinism – so endemic a part of our modern culture – was admittedly quite funny, and yet RTD is not a writer who actually offers any really viably challenging alternative to such mediocre TV fodder, in spite of his holding free reign on one of the few series’ with potentiality to do this. This was exemplified by the complete crassness of the Big Brother scenario in the first series’ season finale – surely even Channel Four’s ratings for said ‘programme’ couldn’t ensure a four billion year run? (No doubt only the equally interminable Coronation Street could manage that). In short, RTD just can’t do polemic – or possibly can, but just can’t be bothered. Ironic then that a writer who consistently brings in banal pop culture references into his stories, and who opportunistically cashes in on the popular consciousness in terms of scenarios whenever he can (ie, Big Brother, Weakest Link and Trinny and Suzannah) – to save money on sets and time on the hard work of mapping out decent polemic – should in turn mock the very sources of his plagiarisms whenever the whim takes him. This is clearly a writer who doesn’t really take anything that seriously – including, unfortunately for us, Doctor Who. If he’s not pointlessly dragging in the most infuriating aspects of modern culture into the series (the Tylers, Kylie references and so on), he’s then sending them up and laughing at his own mock-creations (Jackie, Micky, Donna and so on). If the Graham Williams’ Whoniverse was like the Home Counties, then RTD’s is firmly entrenched in the peroxide blandness of Essex. Well, not all British people are from Essex – or Cardiff for that matter. Self-indulgence then is RTD’s greatest flaw. It sometimes seems as if he is making the series just to play to his mates over some beers.
Apart from one particular flourish of Gershwin-esque music at the Thames Embankment scene, which was fairly ok (though utterly ill-suited), Murray Gold has continued to excel himself with another truly atrocious and inappropriate score, dominating practically every scene so you sometimes have to strain to hear the dialogue (yes, I know Dominic Glyn and Mark Ayres used to do this too, but at least their scores were evocative and imaginative). I think Murray Gold is the lovechild of Keff McCulloch and whatever troglodyte bangs out the excruciating scores for Harry Potter. This is Doctor Who – not a Hollywood blockbuster! Some atmospheric music please – and less intrusively at that! Murray Gold should simply not be allowed to write another score again. He gets worse and worse and clearly has absolutely no feel for Doctor Who at all. His music is generic, tinny and dramatically dampening; it shows little originality or sign of true engagement with what he is scoring. It’s just bad music. Get rid of it.
The real solecism of this episode is of course the continuing re-emergence every now and then of the Doctor-Rose ‘romance’. This is just getting beyond the joke now. She’s gone for God’s sake. Just drop that thread – it was tedious and irrelevant anyway. The Doctor’s tearful look at the end of the episode when mentioning her name again could only be the expression of someone mourning a lost love affair – there’s no other way to interpret it, and apparently all concerned with the production of the programme today have absolutely no problem with this needless and undermining intrusion into the traditionally Sherlockian Doctor. Well, it’s a great pity it ever happened in the first place, and I just hope to God the same cheap plot device doesn’t resurface with the new companion in 2007. The writers just have to rise above such easy slush, and get on with decent story telling and more intelligent focus on the Doctor’s true character and nature.
What with heartache, a Doctor drooping like a lovelorn dog, stray brides and romantic flashbacks in discos… I don’t know. What’s going to be next? Four Daleks and a Funeral (well, he’s got those glasses)? Who, Actually? Well, we’ve already had Doctor in Love.
Overall then an inevitably break-neck and frivolous episode but admittedly fairly successful as pure children’s entertainment. And thankfully, apart from the slightly lewd comment from the Doctor whilst Tate’s cleavage bulged into view, ‘they’re bigger on the inside’, no other inappropriate sexual innuendoes were evident this run. Hopefully we’ve seen the end of the Kenneth Williams’ Doctor, and are going to see more of David Tennant’s from now on.