The Christmas Special, and why it matters

In the first instance, this.

It’s less than a fortnight until the Christmas episode, and we still know bugger all about it. Here’s a quick fact check:

  • ‘Last Christmas’ (and you didn’t say that, you sang it) sees the Doctor meet Santa, who seems to have turned up in time to put wrong things right, like a sort of bearded Mr Pink-Whistle, without the cat. He’s accompanied by two elves (one of whom is Dan Starkey, usually seen surrounded by prosthetics, serving tea for the glory of the Sontaran empire).
  • In the clip above, Santa chats to Clara for a while, before the Doctor shows up, whereupon the two drop into the sort of intense, absolutely serious conversation that made Airplane! so intentionally amusing.
  • We have no idea yet what the Doctor is going to face, although it looks like the designers have taken inspiration from H.R. Giger.
  • There is a tangerine, which has already been labelled an object of Deep Significance.

It’s the first time we’ve actually seen Saint Nicholas actually appear onscreen, but on the other hand –

 

Look. I don’t want to be all Captain Grumpy again. But at the risk of pouring cold water over this roaring hearth of publicity, the episode is already in potentially murky waters based on that Children In Need clip alone. I’m alluding, of course, to the suggestion that many people believe Father Christmas is fake. Yes, there’s a lot of clever-clever winking and cries of “Of course he’s real!”. But Clara’s assertion that her annual yuletide benefactors were ‘Mum and Dad’ is going to raise awkward questions, at least from the youngest of viewers. Normally I have to stop my children from watching Doctor Who because the monsters were too frightening; only in recent years have I had the cause to worry about sexual content, but at the risk of overreacting I’ve already made the conscious decision not to show the Children in Need preview to any of them until I’ve seen what follows. The implications contained in this scene alone make ‘Last Christmas’ sound like a story that we’ll have to watch on our own first, which surely isn’t the point of a family show.

That may sound overly harsh, if not a little cantankerous (although let’s be honest, that’s more or less what you’ve come to expect from me). But just this once, there’s a reason for it. Here’s something that might not have occurred to you – and apologies if you’ve read the ‘Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe’ review, but I’m going to repeat myself – watching a Doctor Who winter special is, to a certain extent, rather like going to church on Christmas morning.

Why is this? Well, one thing consistent church attendance has taught me is how we cater for people at different times of the year. And there’s something in particular about Christmas where church gets perhaps a little more accessible. Or at least it should. Because the fact is that some people come to church at Christmas and then that’s their fix for the next twelve months, apart from the occasional wedding. And perhaps because of that we need to make things a little easier and more comfortable, and a little less automatic. We need to give context, explain things and show that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways: cut off, exclusive, or inapproachable.

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The Christmas Special has become, to a considerable extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. It’s an episode viewed by people watching with relatives or friends, dragged in because The Gruffalo’s Child has finished and the remote is buried beneath mounds of wrapping paper. Elderly aunts and uncles may watch out of pure curiosity, having not seen the TARDIS materialise since Pertwee.

That we are now in this position is a bone of contention for some, but it is what it is, and when it comes to December 25 it can go both ways. Some stories (‘Voyage of the Damned’ springs to mind) are immediately accessible, generally occurring at pivotal, transitional moments where the Doctor is between companions or arcs. Others (‘The Time of the Doctor’, ‘The End of Time’, ‘The Snowmen’) are nigh-on impenetrable for newbies or visitors, relying heavily on knowledge of previous stories. (The first example above is particularly guilty in this department, hearkening back as it does to stuff that happened in 2010, and haphazardly tying every single plot thread together in a jumbled, confusing mess.)

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should. It matters because there’s an ambassadorial aspect to being a Doctor Who fan. You’ll often find yourself in the position of having to describe or even defend the show to people who haven’t watched it in years – if they’ve ever watched it at all. Christmas is a chance to do just that. They watch the Christmas special and perhaps they’ll tune in to the next season. Then they might go back and explore Tennant or Smith. Then you convince them that actually, the original series is not only worth a look, it surpasses everything they’ve done since the revival. Before you know it they’re watching recons and downloading Big Finish audios by the terabyte. But it’s hard to actually get the non-fan interested if all they’ve got to go on is an inaccessible story. And more than this, you don’t want to spend half an hour on Christmas night actually answering the rhetorical “I don’t know what you see in that…” when you’d rather be getting drunk and playing Pictionary.

Seriously, Steven. You owe us. It’s been nearly three years since the last decent Christmas episode, and goodness knows we could do with a bit of light relief after watching the stilted farewell between the Doctor and the increasingly irritating Miss Oswald (right after her dead boyfriend turned into a firework). I know I place too much value on what folks say online, but it would be nice, to be honest, if I could switch on my computer on Boxing Day and read comments from people saying “I’ve not watched Doctor Who in years, but I switched on last night and was pleasantly surprised – it was lighthearted, appropriately seasonal, and it didn’t take itself too seriously. And Peter Capaldi really was very good.”

Although presumably his initial response to the sight of Father Christmas will be “Jeff?!?”.

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