When it comes to Doctor Who these days my feelings are pretty simple: I decide whether to give the show a thumbs up or a thumbs down before I dive into the bottomless pit of any particular episode’s flaws.
The show often doesn’t make much sense on a story level, and it hasn’t pretended to in a while, so if you go into it with that in mind it’s a pretty entertaining emotional journey about an old man with separation issues who happens to looks like a hot 30 year old.
So the Christmas special, yes or no? My answer is, “Yes, quite a bit actually.” With that in mind, pardon me while I take a swan dive into the gaping chasm of the details.
One thing about my understanding of Doctor Who that needs to made perfectly clear is that it’s not (in any way) really science fiction. Or to put it another way Doctor Who is science fiction the way the Avengers movie is a reality show about six people living in a flying house and working for the government.
There have been science fiction-y periods in the show’s history. Classic Who could veer in that direction, and Jon Pertwee even joined U.N.I.T. in the sixties and showed us all how utterly unfair it is when a karate chopping alien goes up against foes that are simply human. And Tennant at least landed in the occasional human-run outpost to fight demons (or water) and cry.
With the arrival of Steven Moffat as the show runner we’ve left most of that behind. If I had to pick one word that is the core of the show now, I’d choose “whimsy”, and it’s become so married to its fairy-tale view of the universe that I’m not sure it’ll ever come back. To be honest we haven’t even seen a good old fashioned air-lock in quite a while, although last Christmas we got sentient space-trees.
I don’t mind that much to be honest. I don’t think that’s what the show is for. It ha imagination to spare, and throughout the history of the show nothing has been more dangerous (and dull) for the Doctor than being forced to be real.
That said, I think that even in the context of a fairy tale there’s a real lack of structure on the show. Even Hansel & Gretel has its own sort of internal logic, as long as you can accept that the witch likes to bake gingerbread so she can ultimately bake children. Doctor Who doesn’t often generate logic though. In fact as the episodes progress they fall apart with abandon and maudlin emotion. Oh, and whimsy. Lots and lots of whimsy.
It works for the most part, but the Christmas special was truly much more about the grumpy old man in the box than it was about carnivorous snowmen. (Why would they need those teeth? I know—more whimsy.) But by the time we get to the point where the characters tears turn out to be just the thing to save the day (not a spoiler in any real sense, because it just happens), I find myself thinking it would be nice to see the main plot be rectified and be important. I feel like it’s just too easy to tie things up with a bit of emotional ball-busting that manages to therapize everyone even as it kills the villains.
“Hooray! That bit of cheese you’ve held onto all these years (that your mother made the day she died) managed to be just the thing to cure my case of the blues. Oh, it also disabled the Cybermen? Fantastic!” Not that Cybermen are much of a threat when they can be beaten by “The Power of a Father’s Love”™
Okay, I’m being a bit dismissive again. And I did like the episode! I mentioned that, right?
So here’s a thing I liked: having a magical staircase to the Tardis was lyrical and lovely. The only thing that makes it painful are the laughable attempts to have the fairy tale element make “sense”. Although, to the writer’s credit, the episode did at least try to use the stiffened water-vapor explanation as a tool to slow down the monster. The technical term for that is probably “Sciency-Wiency”.
I am sort of sad that we got to see exactly none of the Doctor’s supposed long period of not saving the universe. That seemed lazy and dishonest even on an emotional level. And how long was this supposed retirement? 10 years? 20 years? 100? I think it would have added to the depth and the poignancy if the episode hadn’t started out with him hunched over like Scrooge, and then just given the whimsy addict another draught of that delightfully enticing potion. (Ho, ho! Tee Hee!) What if the Doctor had found out the universe didn’t actually end if he wasn’t around? I guess we’ll never know…
There’s no doubt you have to love Doctor Who on its own terms, but unmoored from traditional storytelling of any sort, it’s quickly becoming its own television genre. Maybe I don’t completely understand it, but my guess is that it shows that as humans we’re far more compelled by emotions than by logic, and despite our gadget ridden culture we’re still more interested in the man in the box than the box itself.
The fact that Doctor Who has, over the last decade, gone from from a cancelled cult TV show to a worldwide phenomenon has brought me no end of joy. It is, in fact, a Christmas miracle!