Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Doctor Who Christmas Special - Top Ten Requirements of a Dr Who Xmas show



Did this year's Dr Who Xmas Special tick all the boxes?

Part One

Ever since 2005, Doctor Who Christmas Specials have been as much a part of the BBC's Christmas Day festive schedule as EastEnders, The Royle Family, Strictly Come Dancing and The Queen's Speech. It is regarded by the Beeb as one of their BIG Xmas presents as they lavish a lot of money, time and publicity on the one hour spectacular.

So what is the recipe for the perfect Dr Who Xmas Epic? Like a perfect Christmas Cake or Pudding, there are some key ingredients that prevent the resulting concoction from falling flat or leaving a nasty taste in your mouth.

I have identified ten key ingredients in making a Doctor Who Christmas Special ... and the 2010 edition A Christmas Carol certainly met all ten requirements that make up a perfect Xmas treat.

Wonderful Christmastime in 'A Christmas Carol'
This one is first and foremost a deal breaker ... and the simplest to understand. A Doctor Who Christmas Special has to be about Christmas, be set at Christmastime and revolve around all things Christmas with Christmas Carols, Christmas Trees and Christmas Lights.

Matt Smith himself made the point perfectly, "It's as Christmassy as it comes in Doctor Who land. It's loosely based on A Christmas Carol with a time-travelling twist. Steven Moffat has managed to reinvent it. I think those two things marry quite well together - Doctor Who and Christmas."

As The Doctor, Matt also utters the unforgettable festive line, "Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Or, as I've always known him, Jeff."

In fact, A Christmas Carol is by far and away the most Xmassy of all six Who Xmas Specials. To be fair, the previous five could have as easily been set in the summer since their Christmas content appeared to be tacked on like a fancy bow wrapped around a Christmas present.

Christmas Specials are a time to experiment with the Who formula and tweak a few basic tenets. Since the Doctor cannot change, the Xmas show's variation has to come from his companions (or usually the lack of them). Previous specials have dispensed entirely with 'returning' companions and have introduced one-off characters to fill the void such as Astrid Peth and Jackson Lake. This explains the perilous back seat that Amy and Rory take in this Special, while The Doctor roams time, space and an assortment of Christmas Eves with a new set of willing cohorts.

The 2010 Special companions Kazran (through the ages) and Abigail Pettigrew may enjoy their trips with The Doctor but they are fated to being temporary passengers on the TARDIS. Christmas companions should never return, yes Donna Noble we are talking to you.

In order to appeal to the widest demographic and not alienate (which is difficult for a sci-fi TV series that relies heavily on alien-based life-forms) a larger than usual family audience, an Xmas Special should have a standalone storyline.

The narrative must be able to exist wholly within the parameters of its sixty minute running time. Christmas evening is not the time or place to have millions of non-Who fans asking for clarification of obscure plot points, interlinking back stories and trivia references that are a staple of a die-hard Whovian's diet.

Apart from the Amy / Rory honeymoon running gag (which is neatly disposed of within the script), Christmas Carol is as outstanding an example of a one-off episode as you could hope to bump into on a cold Christmas night. No loose ends, no need for any exposition ... sixty minutes of pure family entertainment.

A Dr Who Xmas Special requires a ferocious new monster (not old foes like the Cybermen) and - to keep the kids happy and calm at Yuletide - a fluffy cuddly creature to offset the terror of the 'ferocious new monster.'

Those galactic guppies - the Fog Fish - may not have been fluffy or cuddly but they were certainly cute in the same vein as those adorable Adipose. I, for one, was glad that these peace-loving Pisces did not suddenly transform into something more sinister and evil and dangerous.

The scary remit was left to a fearsomely fanged shark, although I was a little upset that there only appeared to be the one Great White patrolling the misty skies. And quite why this Shark growled (yes it did! Listen the next time you watch it) I do not know - unless it was a steroidal dogfish off its leash.

The Doctor: "I bet I get some very interesting readings off my sonic screwdriver when I get it back from the shark in your bedroom."
Young Kazran: "There's a shark in my bedroom?!"
The Doctor: "Oh fine! Focus on that point."

A third new 'monster' introduced in the Special was the Face Spiders. This unseen menace probably gave over-attentive tots the heebie-jeebies and had them checking their bedroom cupboards and mattresses when they went to bed.

There are two parts to a Christmas Special - the 'Christmas' bit and the 'Special' bit. And for me, the 'Special' bit means spotting the obvious and sometimes more obscure references to other TV shows and films.

2010 provided us with a bumper crop of popular culture references to pick over. Writer / producer Steven Moffat produced a unique take on Charles Dickens' classic that only Doctor Who could achieve.

In interviews before the press screening, Moffat had promised, "It's all your favourite Christmas movies at once, in an hour, with monsters. And the Doctor. And a honeymoon." So heaven's only knows how many references he threw in for good measure. With the obvious Xmas Movie 'mentions' from It's A Wonderful Life to quite probably Bad Santa, Moffat did not let us down with a Christmas list of homagiography.

Right from the James Bondesque high-octane pre-credits action sequence with a Star Trek flair (or should that be flare) the show was filled to the gunnels with knowing nods and clever touches.

The giant shark gliding silently through the sinister fog must have reminded every adult viewer of Spielberg's Jaws. So much so that I half expected Moffat to provide a few suitable throwaway lines of chummy dialogue, "You're gonna need a bigger TARDIS!" or "That was no Time Travelling accident!"

Kazran or Arthur Dent?
"Christmas is Cancelled!" is ripped heart and soul from Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. For a few scenes Michael Gambon even played the evil Kazran like a bare-faced pastiche of the cruel-hearted Sheriff and chewed the scenery for all his Rickmansworth.

Moffat must have loved playing tribute to former Who writer and story editor Douglas Adams. Having young Kazran cavort around time and space wearing his dressing gown and PJs just like the equally befuddled Arthur Dent in Adam's classic A Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a masterstroke.

Another nice touch was mimicking the romantic buggy ride (albeit without shark propulsion) from Oklahoma! Although with the mad Doctor at the reins it was more a case of 'a Surrey with a lunatic fringe on top.'

I wasn't sure if outfitting the planet's population in Roy 'Chubby' Brown goggles and headgear was a literal 'tip of the cap' to the stand up comedian or a nasty coincidence.

End Of Part One 

Keep posted for Part Two of the Top Ten Requirements of a Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Posted by Colin M Jarman

Photos copyright BBC TV
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1 comment:

  1. PrioritiseIntegrity8 March 2011 at 20:59

    My sincere opinion is that the Christmas theme for Christmas specials really compromises the story, and even the series.

    Regardless of what one thinks of Christmas, or the excesses of Christmas, it doesn't make sense to try to incorporate Christmas into such a short-run series as Doctor Who.

    An historical adventure set directly or peripherally in relation to Jesus would be interesting, though - and would avoid the full extent of soppiness (which is the Achille's Heel of the Reboot IMO.)

    The other possibility would be to be conspicuously anachronistic by setting the story at Easter, Guy Fawlkes Day, Halloween, Labour Day, Chinese New Year, Passover etc