What could be the possible connection, you ask, between Doctor Who and Christmas? Well, admittedly, before 2005, not much. In 1965, one of the episodes of the serial was broadcast at Christmastime, prompting the much-beloved “breaking of the fourth wall” by William Hartnell playing the Doctor, who wishes the viewers “incidentally, a Merry Christmas to all of you at home!” Although the tape itself was wiped, we have a surviving copy of the audio, which some enterprising fans recreated as animation.
The line has taken on almost mythic status in fandom, with one of my favorite reworkings of the Doctor Who theme, “Mr Dalek’s Bad Wolf Xmas” by Tony Gallichan, incorporating it.
“The Unquiet Dead”
One of the very first stories from 2005, the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, and Rose accidentally arrive in 1869 Cardiff around Christmastime, where Charles Dickens is giving one of his Christmas Carol lectures. Snow swirls, corpses reanimate by gaslight, Dickens conducts a séance, and a Welsh maid saves the world.
“The Doctor Dances”
In one of the strongest stories of the 2005 series, “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances,” the Doctor finds himself in a very good mood after having saved wartime London from a bomb, reunited a broken family, revived dozens of Londoners who were under a botched nanogene transformation that made them into zombies, and reformed the rakish character of Captain Jack Harkness, ex-Time Agent.
When Rose remarks on his good mood, he makes a strange allusion to the fact that he may be Father Christmas or at least acted like him in the past. Steven Moffat’s suggestion that Santa Claus may be a Time Lord makes perfect sense: To deliver all his presents in one global nighttime, Santa would have to visit 1,500 homes a second, allowing for chimney descents and breaks, and would have to travel at roughly 5,000 times the speed of sound. Easy, when you have a TARDIS! Herbert Palmer (1880-1961) recalled Santa Claus as being “even stranger than God in being able to visit tens of thousands of homes at the same time” (Armstrong 60).
“The Christmas Invasion”
Christmas 2005 began the now-beloved custom of the Doctor Who Christmas Special, which broadcasts on Christmas Day in the UK on the BBC (and now can be seen at almost the same time in other countries). “The Christmas Invasion” was a regeneration episode, introducing the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, for the first time. Like many regeneration episodes, the Doctor spent most of his time in bed before being revived by tea, fighting a duel with the Sycorax, and prevailing because he had a satsuma (a type of small orange, a clementine). There were, of course, Christmas elements, such as outdoor brass band Santas (actually murderous aliens), Christmas trees that tried to kill people, and a final and endearing Christmas dinner bringing together Jackie and Rose Tyler, the Doctor, and Mickey Smith.
A memorable part of this sequence was the opening of Christmas crackers, which are a popular UK tradition. These have roots in the Victorian Christmas. Thomas Smith, London baker and confectioner, visited Paris in 1840 and was impressed by bonbons wrapped in twists of paper. With an eye for business, he created his own version, refining it based on sales, and by 1846 had added riddles or corny Christmas jokes to the inside of the twists of paper. He then added the distinctive “crack” to improve sales, experimenting with different chemicals to produce the desired “crack” in 1860. In 1847 he had officially marketed the first “cracker”—his sons took over the business and it continues into the 21st century.
“The Runaway Bride”
In 2006, the Doctor interfered with the Christmas Day wedding of Donna Noble. In terms of Christmas, it saw the return of the Santa aliens, the “Pilot Fish.” In the UK, when you go to see Santa, you go to his “grotto.” I admit the fact he inhabits a “grotto” threw me for a loop the first time I heard it. Probably not without reason, “grotto” to me connotes mermaids. All a grotto is in this case is a winter wonderland of glitter and fake snow, but for awhile I wondered if Father Christmas had a Deep Sea Theme. That would be in keeping with the “Pilot Fish”!
“Voyage of the Damned”
After “The Runaway Bride,” the Doctor left Donna, who preferred not to travel with him, but in 2007 he would unwittingly meet her grandfather, Wilf, on the streets of London at Christmastime. The Doctor was there after having landed on the futuristic Titanic which, unbeknownst to them, was about to crash into the Earth. The Doctor and friends were being taken on a tour of the quaint Earthling customs by Mr. Copper, an “Earthologist.” Unfortunately, his credentials are faked, as can be surmised from statements like this, “Now human beings worship the great god Santa, a creature with fearsome claws, and his wife Mary . . .” He also explains that Boxing Day is a violent holiday and that the people of Great Britain eat the people of Great Turkey.
The Doctor saves the life of Queen Elizabeth II, who makes a cameo (well, an actress playing her does—this is not the first time in Doctor Who that this has happened!). Thus the Queen is alive to make her famous Christmas Day speech. This tradition began in 1932, when King George V, the present Queen’s grandfather, broadcast a Christmas message over the radio. The speech was written by Rudyard Kipling and it was broadcast from Sandringham, in Norfolk, where the Royal Family spends its Christmas holidays. The monarch’s message is “at the cutting edge of modernity while sending out a seemingly age-old message”; “human warmth, affection, and even foibles in the monarch were suddenly shown to his people” (C:aSH 146). George VI, he of The King’s Speech fame, first made his Christmas speech in 1939 on the eve of war, including lines of a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins. “I said to the man who stood by the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to youbetter than light, and safer than a known way.’” Then the King added, “May that almighty hand guide and uphold us all.” Queen Elizabeth first made this broadcast on Christmas Day 1952. From 1957 onwards, the message has been seen on TV. It is filmed the week before and is broadcast at 3 pm. I look forward to seeing it for the first time this year.
“The Next Doctor”
“The Next Doctor” very much takes Dickens as its inspiration, being set some time in the 19th century, though possibly in an alternate timeline as the rather unforgettable incident with the Cyber King lurching over the Thames should leave a bit more of an impact in the timeline. Its plot, concerning orphans, workhouses, greed, and corruption, is Dickensian at the very least. The Doctor must try to work out who the Victorian man calling himself the Doctor really is. The setting is much the same in tone as “The Unquiet Dead,” and the Doctor at the end pauses to stay for Christmas dinner.
“The End of Time”
Although set at Christmas, this 2009 Christmas Special is the Doctor’s swansong, involves the Master turning into a giant grasshopper and shooting electricity from his hands, and really doesn’t have much to do with Christmas. It is memorable for the fact the café scene between Wilf and the Doctor was filmed in August at the Kardomah Café in Swansea.
“A Christmas Carol”
Steven Moffat’s first Christmas Special in 2010 featuring the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, and his companions Amy and Rory was much more aligned to the Christmas tradition, and it is worthwhile at this stage to look at the filmic adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in order to appreciate what Moffat did with his version which we do with the help of James Chapman and his essay on the very subject.
The first filmic adaption of ACC was the 1901 Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost. The 1935 Scrooge was, according to Chapman, “very much a product of the British cinema of its time in its construction of the ideology of consensus” (17). Its American counterpart was the David O. Selznick A Christmas Carol from 1938. It “exemplifies all the expensive production values and technical artistry of a major Hollywood studio at its peak” (18).
The first postwar version is from 1951, known as Scrooge in the US and A Christmas Carol in Britain. It is itself a very British film, called a “Gothic” Dickens and using filmic techniques of film noir. Scrooge can be argued in this film to represent the British Conservative Party. The chillingly memorable scene when “the Ghost of Christmas Present . . . opens his robe to reveal two starving children (‘This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want’) it is impossible not to associate this with the Beveridge Report,” which of course led to the formation of the British National Health Service (23).
The first TV version arrived in 1947 on NBC, followed by a plethora on TV, seemingly a new one every year, during the 1950s. Carry On Christmas (1964) and Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge (1970) are given short-shrift by Chapman. Meanwhile, the animated Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) are applauded, the latter being called a “postmodern text”! The final postmodern version, if you want to call it that, is Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988).
Meanwhile, Moffat’s version shifts the setting from 1830s London to a steampunk planet which looks recognizably Dickensian (from the vaguely 19th century costumes to the streetlamps around which fish and sharks congregate in the sky). The Doctor’s role here can neither be defined wholly as Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, or even Dickens himself. He is not trying to reform his version of Scrooge, Kazran Sardick, for moral purposes; he is trying to use manipulation of time to change Sardick’s character in order to save Amy, Rory, and hundreds of others who will be killed by the unreformed Sardick’s actions.
The 1984 version of ACC, filmed in Shrewsbury and starring George C. Scott, “provides a psychological ‘explanation’ for Scrooge’s miserliness in that he was denied affection from his father” (Chapman 28). This is exactly the tack Moffat’s version takes, the Doctor traveling back in time to meet Sardick as a child and countering the influence of his tyrannical father. In the way that the 1984 version critiques Thatcherite Britain, the unreformed Sardick “believes that there is no such thing as society, that responsibility rests with the individual and not with the state” (28). There is a version here of Scrooge’s lost love, Abigail, an un-aging, beautiful and innocent commoner with quite a set of pipes who has been frozen in time to pay debts. The Doctor solidifies his relationship with the boy Kazran; then the Doctor performs the function of the Ghost of Christmas Present by taking the now-teenaged Sardick to the “contemporary” Christmas-ish celebrations of Abigail’s family. In the process of trying to reform Sardick, however, the Doctor experiences the unintended consequences which turns Sardick against him—he allows for Sardick to fall in love with Abigail knowing he will never able to be with her.
The allusion falls apart slightly when Amy performs the function of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, up to a point, by showing Sardick the consequences of his actions should he let everyone in the spaceship above die. Nevertheless, of course, the Doctor’s intervention has paid off; Amy, Rory, and the others are saved, Sardick has become “good” or at least compassionate, Abigail dies but the characters of Dickens merge with the contemporary Santa Claus as the Doctor and his friends ride through the night sky in a sled pulled by a flying shark. I think the Moffat version of ACC completes Armstrong’s statement, “As an imagined ideal, Christmas attained the power to stimulate and intensify a range of emotions, including familial love, benevolence and anticipation, but also loneliness and disappointment” (46).
The Chimes of Midnight
Finally, it is worth mentioning a Doctor Who audio play written by Rob Shearman and featuring the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann, and India Fisher, playing his companion Charley Pollard. This is a beautiful play centered around Christmas celebrations in an Edwardian household, which turn sour when murder is enacted over and over again. The element of time, ghostly messages, nostalgia, and exploitation of the underprivileged all link the play to the Dickensian tradition.
One of the central characters is a scullerymaid who is cast as the scapegoat, whose secret connection to Charley’s childhood is masterfully revealed. Whether he realized it or not, Shearman was alluding to the often awkward fashion in which Victorian and Edwardian servants celebrated Christmas. “Servants were important to the domestic celebration of Christmas because they carried out much, though no means all, of the physical work of Christmas in the home” (Armstrong 78). One of the best authentic voices we have for the period, the maid-diarist Hannah Culwick, notes exhaustion in her diary during Christmastime, with no time to spare for celebration. Most of the time, servants did not get time off to visit their families. On Christmas Day 1872, for example, Culwick wrote, “I often think what a delightful pleasure that must be, going home for Christmas, but I’ve never once had it” (78). A woman in service in Lancashire in the 1900s, Elizabeth Roberts, wrote, “One Christmas I was at Longbridge and Christmas Day come and I was a bit homesick, yo know, and our Christmas Day’s dinner. I washed up and all that, and she said, ‘Has tha finished now?’ I said, ‘Yes, madam,’ so she said, ‘Well if thou get all the paper there, you’ll see a lot of paper there and there’s a big needle there and a ball of string, if you down to the paddock (that was the toilet) sit there and take the scissors and cut some paper up and thread it for the lavatory.’ And I sat there on Christmas Day and I think I cried a bucketful of tears. Christmas afternoon and I was sat . . . sitting cutting bits of paper like that . . . til about half past four when I went in for m’tea. Sitting there on the lavatory seat” (Golby 87).
A grotesque and amusing element of The Chimes of Midnight is the centrality of the plum pudding (characters die by being choked on by plum pudding). “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs Baddeley’s plum pudding” the characters repeat mindlessly. I wonder if this is an allusion to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which carries on a yearly Twelfth Night tradition of the eating of the Baddeley Cake. This was a stipulation from the will of Robert Baddeley, an 18th century actor.
Christmas: A Social History.