|Tennant based his characterization on fellow Scotsman|
Graham Crowden’s nuanced portrayal of Soldeed in The
Horns of Nimon
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It’s December 25th, 2005. We are in the long winter of years in which the winner of The X Factor gets to be the Christmas number one every year, choking the life out of what had previously been a rather pleasant cultural oddity whereby a motley of novelty acts, trash pop, and hit bands would fight it out for the honor of going on a music anorak’s list of Christmas number ones instead gets supplanted by The X Factor winning everything. So for the record, it’s Shayne Ward with “That’s My Goal,” but in this case it’s everything that isn’t number one, which is to say, absolutely every other song in Britain, that matters.
News, then. Doctor Who has been off the air for six months. In those six months, London was awarded the 2012 Olympics the day before a series of terrorist attacks hit the London transportation system, killing fifty-two people, along with the four bombers. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, revealing a staggeringly poor federal response system. Jyllands-Posten published their infamously controversial set of comics depicting the prophet Muhammad, and Saddam Hussein’s trial began. While in the month of December David Cameron becomes leader of the Conservative Party, Harold Pinter wins the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work on The Abominable Snowmen, and the law allowing same sex “civil partnerships” takes effect.
Let’s go back to the issue of music, however. As I noted, the domination of The X Factor over the Christmas charts brought to an unsatisfyingly corporate end to a quaint British ritual. This construction, of course, ignores the fact that the British charts are already corporate, and, more to the point, endlessly prone to manipulation, most famously with what is widely believed to be the deliberate fudging of numbers to prevent the Sex Pistols from reaching number one with “God Save the Queen” in 1977. Nor is it prima facie the case that The X Factor produces worse number one singles than, say, “Mr. Blobby,” which was in fact the number one in 1993. No, what’s depressing here is the loss of the game – the sense that something that once belonged to the British public now belongs to Simon Cowell.
Ah yes, Simon Cowell. Now there’s an interesting figure. What is notable about Cowell is his ability to combine an unsparing ruthlessness with an instinctive grasp of populism. The result is someone who is jaw-droppingly good at engineering hits, and who has absolutely no compunctions about acting like that’s what he’s doing. The result is something aggressively soulless – a sense not just of utter conformity, but of the most mean-spirited and cynical conformity imaginable. Simon Cowell is a bully who believes he can dictate the nature of popular culture, and, infuriatingly, he repeatedly appears to be correct.
Given this, what jumps out most about The Christmas Invasion is the sort of sweetly nostalgic tone of it. Teased with a Children in Need special, and done with an enthusiastically festive tone, The Christmas Invasion is largely designed to be itself a big, slightly sloppy Christmas treat. This immediately opens up an interesting division that the episode has to navigate. On the one hand, Christmas cheer is defined in part by its recklessly sentimental sincerity. On the other hand, the Land of Simon Cowell is anathema to sincerity. Heck, in many ways the Land of Doctor Who seems hostile to sincerity – surely the sort of hyper-aware trope-savvy audience the series asks for is never going to unironically embrace any sort of emotional celebration, instead “savvily” recognizing Christmas as overblown and altogether naff.
It is no great spoiler to observe that Davies would completely reject this division. The entire point of Russell T Davies is that trope awareness does not mandate cynicism. Davies has no patience for loving things ironically. If Davies is going to write a big Christmas special then it’s going to be big and Christmasy, and that’s pretty much that. The tricky bit is going to be how he crafts that to work for an irony-soaked audience. The answer is fairly straightforward, at least in The Christmas Invasion: Davies decides that the audience’s big present is going to be the Tenth Doctor, and proceeds to spend forty minutes building up anticipation of it.
The structure of this is quite interesting. Notably, the tension isn’t whether the Tenth Doctor is going to be any good. We see him twice in the first ten minutes, and each time he’s perfectly entertaining. Add to that the Children in Need sketch and you’ve got more than enough information to conclude that the Tenth Doctor is, broadly speaking, going to work as a character. Instead the tension is one of simple desire: we spend most of the episode wanting the Doctor to appear, but have to sit through a half-hour long segment where he basically doesn’t save for occasional shots of him unconscious.
From a storytelling perspective, there are scads of good reasons to do this. It keeps the focus on the familiar characters – Jackie, Mickey, Rose, and Harriet Jones – and reiterates the ground the program is built on. It reassures the audience that this is the same program they were watching six months ago, even though the lead role has been recast. It grounds the real story – the phenomenon of regeneration – in a human element, namely Rose’s angst and anguish over losing “her” Doctor. And it hedges against the sense that we might not like the new Doctor by, effectively, forcing us to want him. And those forty minutes are fantastic, including a gloriously cheeky shot in which the Sycorax spaceship basically flies over the EastEnders title card in the most literal invasion of soap operas the series has done yet.
But it also means that in many ways the “real” story exists only in the final twenty minutes of the episode. The first forty minutes are really just there to make us fall in love with the last twenty, which are in turn there to get us to tune in four months later for New Earth. The Christmas Invasion is a story with a job to do, and it just gets on with it. But the nature of that job ends up defining the new Doctor in a terribly efficient and definitive way.
Eccleston’s Doctor was characterized in part by how he resisted the audience. From his brusque demeanor to the unorthodox choices of having him be a leather jacket-wearing northerner, Eccleston’s Doctor frequently pushed the audience away. Even in his first appearance this was the case, with him twice refusing Rose instead of allowing her (and us) access to his narrative. Eccleston was defined by the withholding of information and, to a lesser extent, of narrative pleasure. His big moments often involved the Doctor being ugly.
And for the first forty minutes of The Christmas Invasion, Tennant inherits that show. But in the last twenty we get something that we never really saw with Eccleston’s Doctor: twenty minutes of pure showboating. For the last twenty minutes of the episode we are freely invited to just love the hell out of Tennant’s Doctor while he grandstands like its Williams-era Tom Baker. This is not, to be clear, a problem. Like Tom Baker, Tennant has gobs of charisma and presence, and it genuinely is fun to watch him reel around on screen. Unlike Baker, Tennant is an actor and not a performer, and so eats up things like lengthy monologues. Almost as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he launches into a ninety second monologue in which he’s dazzling, packing in over a dozen distinct moments where he changes what he’s doing with the character. Tennant is a meticulous actor whose modus operandi is making lots of very deliberate and conscious decisions, and accordingly he sparkles with long monologues. (This is part of why he’s so adept with Shakespearean material – he bypasses the difficulty of the language by packing his lines with visible emotional turns and reversals.)
But it is a marked change from Eccleston. Tennant’s Doctor is designed to be adored. Eccleston’s Doctor wasn’t. This is the crux of the difference. This does not, obviously, mean that Eccleston’s Doctor wasn’t adored, nor, for that matter, that everybody in the world loved Tennant’s, but it does mark the basic distinction between the two. Under Tennant, one of Doctor Who’s fundamental pleasures is supposed to be watching David Tennant. The star is himself the object of pleasure.
This risks an almost Cowellian cynicism. Tennant is designed to be loved, so much so that the story gives us no choice but to love him. If you fail to be thrilled and punch the air when Tennant strolls out of the TARDIS with a “did you miss me” then you have fallen outside the implied readership of The Christmas Invasion. The episode does not even consider the possibility that its audience will not be completely sold on the character. And to its credit, it was broadly speaking correct. Obviously with an audience in the millions it wasn’t going to be universally successful, but the fact of the matter is that Tennant’s Doctor hit it off massively with the British public. But so did The X Factor. There’s still something unsettling about being told that this is the new popular character. Under Eccleston the series had to earn our love. Now Tennant gets it gift-wrapped.
But it’s more complicated than that. The twenty minute lovefest culminates interestingly with the most seized upon line of the episode as the Doctor casually kills the Sycorax leader while coldly declaring that this new incarnation gives “no second chances.” It’s an odd moment. It’s smack in the middle of the “we all love the Doctor, don’t we” portion of the episode, and yet it’s also a chilling moment that, when you pause to think about, we really shouldn’t take pleasure in. The Doctor flat-out kills his enemy, with no hesitation and no regret. Yes, he’s provoked. Yes, it’s self-defense. But much like two of the more controversial lines in the Colin Baker era, his “just desserts” line in The Two Doctors and his “you’ll forgive me if I don’t join you” in Vengeance on Varos, the problem is that the Doctor seems to take some pleasure in killing, and to invite us to do the same. Because it’s nestled in amongst twenty minutes of near nonstop squee we don’t notice it, but it’s a jarring moment.
And, of course, it leads thematically into an even more jarring moment, namely his overthrow of Harriet Jones. What is perhaps most significant about this is that in a very real sense, Tennant’s Doctor dooms himself in his first story. The clear implication is that he’s changed history – Britain’s Golden Age isn’t supposed to end this way. This gap in history is subsequently exploited as the Master steps in to become Prime Minister, an event that in turn leads directly to the circumstances of his regeneration. Even beyond the basic plot logic, this sets up this incarnation’s major and canonical flaw: his arrogance. His decision to single-handedly overthrow Harriet Jones is made according to the same logic as the Time Lord Victorious.
Look, after all, at how he revels in it. He doesn’t just overthrow her, he shows off while doing it, demonstrating how effortless the overthrow of the entire government is. The point isn’t just overthrowing her, it’s humiliating her in the process. There’s an angry petulance to it. Indeed, one thing that jumps out is how carefully Davies balances the morality of it. On the one hand there was never any way that the Doctor was going to let Harriet’s action go. Over the course of the episode she goes from Fantasy Tony Blair, telling the President that he’s not her boss, to Thatcher 2.0, re-enacting one of the most infamous moments of her tenure. But so much of it is the Doctor’s fault, both tacitly through his absence and actively, given that he makes a scaremongering speech about how the human race is getting noticed that all but constitutes him telling Harriet that it’s not safe to let the ship flee. The problem is very much of the Doctor’s own making, such that even if we can’t imagine him letting Harriet’s actions slide, we can readily imagine him not screwing up so badly as to cause them in the first place. The tone of the scene is, in the end, more sympathetic to Harriet than the Doctor.
So while we take pleasure in Tennant there’s from the beginning a sense that there is such a thing as too much pleasure to take. We’re invited to love the character, but we’re also made aware that the character can go too far – that the things we love can be turned against us. The result is the most stunning example of starting as you mean to continue that we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. Nowhere else in the history of the program has a Doctor’s first story matched so perfectly with their last one. This is the main theme of the Tennant era writ large from the start.
And, of course, this doubles as a metaphor for the series. As of the Tennant era Doctor Who is a known hit. It’s the biggest thing on television. (Remembering, of course, that there are always several biggest things on television at any given moment.) It also spent its entire first season being about television. Now, as it enters its second season, it remains about television, albeit with one substantive twist: instead of being about everything else on television, it’s about the fact that it is now a major center of gravity on television. The first portion of the Russell T Davies era was about establishing a place for Doctor Who on television. But now we have what must be, for someone who is as voracious a consumer of television as Russell T Davies, one of the most alarming fates imaginable: he’s found a place for his Doctor Who on television, and it’s the absolute center of it. And now the show makes a turn to being about working through the consequences of that fact.