Just How Bad Was This Year’s Christmas Doctor Who?

Excruciating mawkishness at Christmas

“Help! I’m stuck in a ginormous turkey. Need a script doctor. Who? Moffat. Nah, I’d rather have Terry Nation.”

Yes, I know it was a few days ago now but I’m still recovering from the trauma. My kids are too. They found the mawkishness so excruciating they had to hide behind the sofa. Just why was this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special so painfully bad?

The easy answer is to blame Steven Moffat. He, after all, is the series producer and he did bash out this particular episode. But I personally think the rot goes much deeper than that. Moffat, remember, is perfectly capable of writing a properly scary, weird, well-crafted Doctor Who episode: viz, the Weeping Angels, one of the greatest ever. But he is operating within a culture of grotesque decadence and complacency. Like some bloated, pox-ridden Mughal Emperor, the whole Doctor Who enterprise has long since grown so delighted with its own charm, wit and quirkiness that it has abandoned all its self-critical faculties. Pampered, cherished and indulged by the BBC, virtually guaranteed decent ratings, Doctor Who now thinks it’s so big and clever it has no need to follow the conventional rules of dramatic entertainment like, say, having a half-way comprehensible plot or coherent characters or a narrative structure. Instead it has become a tedious cycle of mild peril interspersed with escapist whimsy and lots and lots of immensely-pleased-with-themselves in-jokes.

Matt Smith hasn’t helped. His Who makes everything seem so easy you really wonder why you bother watching because you know whatever trouble he gets into – *brief furrowed brow moment* – is very swiftly going to be followed by some fly remark and cavalier trick pulled out of the hat which resolves the problem in a trice. His latest assistant, Clara, is – remarkably – more annoying still. Yes, she’s hot – as many of Doctor Who’s assistants have been of late. But surely the most important requirement of a Doctor Who assistant is not that they act as eye candy for dirty old Dads like me, nor provide chaste love interest for the Doctor, but rather that they get into deep trouble and require rescuing.

Yeah, OK, so it may be very post-modern and PC and Grlll Power, and all, that to have female assistants who are, like, bold, and sassy and totally unflappable in all situations. But where exactly is the drama in that, let alone the plausibility? Clara (at least to judge by her accent and dress sense – though, unaccountably, she lives in what looks very much like a fairly rough council block) is a middle class human girl who – unlike a Time Lord who has travelled through millennia’s worth of space – probably hasn’t grown up seeing Daleks, Cybermen etc as a routine part of her life. Yet not once – in the Doctor Who Christmas Special at least – did Clara display any noticeable perturbation at the divers monstery horrors she witnessed. Well, certainly no more concern that you’d show, say, if you’d gone to Waitrose to buy some eggs and realised they were completely out of Burford Buffs with the extra-delicious, extra-yellow yolks.

And we haven’t even got to the prevailing sentimentality yet. OK, so it didn’t quite reach Song of the Oud levels of dripping mawkishness, but for about a decade now – I blame Russell T Davies for starting this trend – your typical Christmas Doctor Who episode has been so sodden with cheap, easy-won, spray-on heightened emotion it makes the Death of Little Nell look grittier than the ear-removal scene in Reservoir Dogs. This one was no exception.

A fortnight before I watched the episode, I wrote this in the Spectator:

I hate the idea that a Dalek garlanded in tinsel might burst into the Cratchit household with a fat goose dangling from its exterminator gun while the White Witch’s frozen heart melts and all the crippled children are released from the snowy mountain — or whatever mawkish crap they’ve got planned for us this year.

All right, so I didn’t get the plot details exactly right. But don’t tell me I didn’t nail the tone.

There’s a certain kind of very stupid person – several whom, no doubt, will be queuing up to post below this blog – who responds to critiques like this with: “Yes. But it’s meant for children. Not for grown-ups.”

To which I’d reply, well yes – and so, originally, was The Simpsons. And so was Lord of the Rings. And so was The Railway Children. And so was Harry Potter. Do you think in any of these cases Matt Groening or JRR Tolkien or E Nesbit or JK Rowling said to themselves before setting about their endeavours: “The great thing is I can make this really rubbish because it’s only for kids.”

Name any great work of children’s literature, any great children’s film or play – I certainly can’t – which is hugely enjoyable if you’re a child but which makes no sense whatsoever if you’re a grown-up. Any children’s entertainment worth its salt will appeal to both children AND adults a) because the poor adult has to sit there watching it with/reading it to the child and b) because children – despite the patronising assumptions of idiots like the ones who are about to troll this blog and claim otherwise – are, in their way, just as discerning in their critical faculties as adults. Yes, their tolerance for dross may be infinitely higher – hence their ability to watch any old rubbish, especially if the alternative is bed – but they do very much know the difference between excellent and bearable.

Indeed, I’d argue that writing children’s fiction is the most demanding of all literary callings because there is no hiding place for the author. In grown up fiction, you can distract with technique; in children’s literature, unless you get your plot and structure bang-on, your ruthlessly critical young audience will see right through your pitiful inadequacies. It’s why I’ve never tried to write a children’s book.

So no, I don’t think the team responsible for the slow-motion atrocity that was this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special deserve any mercy, excuses or forgiveness. They were blessed with a prime-time slot; they were handed the vast ready-made audience that comes with the Doctor Who brand; and they blew it, big time.

The only good thing came right at the end. Peter Capaldi: the new Doctor. I like the cut of his jib. He’s bound to make it edgier, darker, surely? And at least, whatever else he is, he is definitely not Matt Smith.