Hello, I’m the Doctor. Happy Easter.
This is an oddity: an Easter Special. But it’s really not even that. This was the year where they only made a few episodes of Doctor Who, so each one was spread through the year and marketed as specials. As if everyone realised that an Easter Special sounded like a weak remit in comparison to a Christmas Special, it also got marketed as the 200th Doctor Who story as well. That’s a bit odd too. For one thing, the 753rd episode sounds a whole lot more impressive, for another it involves some debatable judgement calls (ignoring the unfinished Shada, counting The Trial of a Time Lord as one story instead of four, ignoring special episodes such as Dimensions in Time, and including Utopia as part of a three-part story), and most importantly Doctor Who since 2005 has been episodic rather than serial in nature, so the concept of a “story” that is formed by an episode or collection of episodes is outdated and irrelevant to anyone other than a Classic series fan.
None of this is really important, because it’s just a minor bit of window dressing within the episode (the Doctor’s little in-joke about Easter, the number 200 bus), but it is all a symptom of a larger problem with the episode: an attempt to big up what would normally be a mid-season bit of disposable fluff, or a typical romp to introduce a companion. A lot of money was thrown at this, with the foreign filming, but you just can’t make a run-of-the-mill script into event television that way.
That was 2009. But we don’t need to worry about those kinds of concerns any more. This is now just another Tennant episode to enjoy on DVD, so how does it hold up? Well, the first thing to get out of the way is that the people on the bus are largely irrelevant. Very superficially this is an episode that picks up some of the themes from Midnight and reverses them, but the passengers are almost entirely forgettable this time round. That doesn’t matter. The story is not about them, so their motivations and opinions have little impact on the story. I can see every character in Midnight clearly in my mind’s eye, a long time after watching the episode, but this bunch of passengers were a blur to me before rewatching the episode. That’s fine, because this is a story with a wider remit, and the passengers are just there as a generic bunch of humans to be saved. The only interesting thing about them is that they are all on their way home when their lives are turned upside down, so the story for them is about getting home. The Doctor and Christina in contrast have to move forward on their own journeys.
Just as he did in The Next Doctor, the Doctor becomes the companion himself for part of this episode, as Christina chooses herself as the leader. It’s a nice theme because it’s optimistic – however brilliant the Doctor is, there are some humans who can be his equal, if only for a short time – classic feel-good Doctor Who. Slightly more dubious is the nature of Christina’s abilities: she is an accomplished thief. The episode tends to glorify this, even making a parallel with the Doctor’s own theft of the TARDIS, acknowledged for the first time in the new series. A chance to show justice done at the end is lost, with the Doctor helping her to escape arrest. The flip-side to this is that it has the benefit of painting the Doctor’s character as morally ambiguous, which fits within the loose theme of the Tennant specials.
Christina is pretty much a walking cliché of a cat burglar, checking all the usual boxes. Spy’s outfit: check. Aristocracy: check. Goes after the big challenges: check. She’s basically Lara Croft. But the inspiration might go back further than that, because the aborted 27th season of Classic Doctor Who was going to write out Ace and introduce a cat burglar called Raine as the new companion. Christina is clearly set up to be the new companion as well: she is perfectly capable for the role, using her skills to help the Doctor save the day. If anything she is over-qualified to be a Doctor Who companion. Yes, she is morally bankrupt and a pretty revolting example of aristocratic entitlement, which we are supposed to overlook because of the way she looks, but there would be a story arc to explore with a character like that. She wants to go with the Doctor, and then he rejects her.
So this episode does have a point to it, after all, that goes far beyond just giving the Tenth Doctor a last bit of fun, and it is a point that requires the episode to be a light and fluffy, disposable romp, despite its “special” status. This is a very familiar kind of episode, the companion introduction, but the Doctor pulls that rug out from under our feet and says no. Donna has left him a broken man, and he has to face his future alone… RP
The view from across the pond:
In the spring of 2009, Doctor Who ventured into the world of Easter specials. It was a solitary excursion; to date, we have not had another. But it was really nice getting an Easter special with the Doctor traveling via bus. Unlike that rather lame bus in Delta and the Bannermen, this was an actual bus, from earth, that gets pulled through a wormhole. See? An actual bus! Not a cloaked ship in disguise as the worst form of travel on earth. That’s important. When something odd happens to the mundane, it’s exciting. There’s a sense that the wonderful can happen to us! When an exciting thing is changed into a mundane thing, it’s boring. Mundane may be safe, but it does not make for exciting television. We should be very grateful that writers Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts knew the significance of that because they gave us a fun trip to the planet San Helios for our holiday weekend.
San Helios, a planet whose name I love to say, has been ravaged by flying stingrays. One of my favorite things about the earthbound stingray is how alien it looks. Creating a race of them that can fly and devastate worlds is a bit sad, for a species I’m pretty fond of, but the production crew did a great job making these. They are large, armored animals that work on instinct. It’s important to think that through because they are not evil, plotting villains. They are just doing what they do. On the other hand, the Tritovores are a little less interesting for a couple reasons. First, they look just like our old Vincent Price nemesis from The Fly. On its own, that would not be bad thing necessarily; there’s no harm borrowing from the greats, but these creatures act in all ways like earthbound flies. This is where the bizarre is made too normal, which loses something. And we won’t even discuss their diet! But the problem is that the Doctor has to speak their language presumably because the TARDIS is nowhere to be found, which leads to the Doctor speaking this weird face-contorting dialogue with them. What this means is that the TARDIS doesn’t just translate the voice, it translates horribly embarrassing facial maneuvers in the process! I guess that’s convenient. You wouldn’t want to burst out laughing during peace negotiations because of an unfortunate facial contortion! So far, we’ve seen two races from earth in this one story: flies and stingrays; one done reasonably poorly, the other done reasonably well. (And I say “poorly” only in that it felt recycled from other material, not that they don’t look spectacular!)
The story also gives us a healthy dose of UNIT. Captain Magambo is no Brigadier, but she’s not a bad replacement for him. Her reluctance to shoot Malcolm even though he is disobeying her proves she may be a character worth coming back to one day. But it’s Lee Evans as Dr. Malcolm that is truly the epic win for the episode. Fun barely covers it. Evans, who once felt there was really something about Mary, now idolizes the Doctor and looks up to him almost as much as we fans do. That illustrates just how much Doctor Who, since its resurrection in 2005, really “gets it”! Malcolm represents the fans. Gone is the Whizz Kid version of Doctor Who fandom from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy that paints the fans like “nerds” who live in their parents basements. Instead, like so many documentaries have proven, the fans of yesterday have become the scientists of today and Malcolm embodies that brilliantly. He’s fun, smart, and ultimately saves the Doctor by standing up for his hero. He’s a fantastic character and I’d love to see him back. (By contrast, I keep trying to forget Whizz Kid!)
Let’s not ignore those two powerful predictions: your song is ending and he will knock four times. The latter is the more frightening one because it implied the return of the Master even though we were given a red herring with the very next story, The Waters of Mars. As teasers go, it was an above average one that was subverted when the big reveal arrived. In life, having one’s expectation altered can be a bad thing, but when a television show pulls off a real surprise, it ends up being much more fun.
If I have one complaint about the story, it’s a repeat from many others. The Doctor is the hero. He’s the one we want our kids to look up to and emulate. Being rude is not heroic. The Doctor doesn’t like being saluted, but he’s worked with the military enough to know it’s a sign of respect. He may not like it because he does not want to face the possibility that he too is a soldier (a fact explored far more with the Twelfth Doctor) but that doesn’t mean that the military mind sees it the same way. They take it as a sign of respect. So the Doctor being rude because people respect him, even if it is played for laughs, is a mistake. It does not speak well of the Doctor and that’s not the writing we want. But then to compound matters, he’s rude to the one woman who may actually have been an equal for him, Michelle Ryan’s Lady Christina De Souza. (Ryan performed her own stunts during the filming of this episode, so her experience as The Bionic Woman must have taught her a lot!) The point is simply this: a hero is not rude; he’s understanding, self-sacrificing, and representative of what we want to aspire toward. Even if the reason behind the Doctor not accepting Christina was that Ryan could not commit to more of the series, there was a better way to handle that, in story, than his being rude and dismissive of her.
That doesn’t change one fact: the episode is immensely enjoyable. It sated a hunger that had developed during David Tennant’s final year as the Doctor when there were only going to be 5 specials. And who knows, maybe Lady Christina will be back again one day. Along with Malcolm! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Waters of Mars