Did Steven Moffat or Russell T Davies have the better Doctor Who Christmas specials? Two opposing sides battle this question out in a Doctor Who Debate!
For this debate, we tackle the question of which era of Christmas specials were superior, the 2006-2009 David Tennant Christmas specials from Russell T Davies, or the 2010-2017 Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi Christmas specials from Steven Moffat. Each side makes two arguments for their position, before a final conclusion and rebuttal. Many points are raised, many sources are pointed to, many takes are shared — but it’s up to you to let us know what you think, and who won the debate!
Still images are occasionally used in place of video clips, to account for the YouTube copyright system. The debate countdown clock turns orange when a clip is being shared for the audience’s contextual benefit (rather than being a quote one of us actually said in full during our debate time). The debate clock keeps running during a video clip if it’s a quote the debater spoke aloud, but preferred the original audio being used. The cloister bell sounds if one of us goes over our allotted time!
1:11 Neo: Argument #1
6:09 Tomtit: Argument #1
12:06 Neo: Argument: #2
17:06 Tomtit: Argument #2
22:21 Neo: Conclusion
25:44 Tomtit: Conclusion
This is a transcript of the video. In the video, sources are cited as they come up, but in the transcript, it’s just the spoken word that’s been reproduced.
One show. Two fans.
One question. Two perspectives.
This is DOCTOR WHO DEBATE, where we each take a side……and tackle a controversial question about Doctor Who.
(Is there any other kind?)
This time, we’re asking: Which era had the best Christmas specials? Steven Moffat’s, or Russell T Davies’?
On Moffat’s side — me, Neo, arguing Steven Moffat’s Christmas specials with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s Doctors were the best.
And on RTD’s side — me, Tomtit, arguing Russell T Davies’ Christmas Specials with David Tennant’s Doctor were the best.
Each of us will take turns over two rounds.
Where we each have five minutes to argue our case.
Then, we give our closing statements, and rebut each other’s points.
There will be no judges present…because that’s where you come in!
Yes! You, dear viewer, choose which case convinced you more. The quality of our arguments, how well we use our time, anything you deem worthy of judgement.
We would love to hear your thoughts, so sound off in the comments and join the debate.
Now, let’s begin the debate.
Strax: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose. It proved to be a tactical disadvantage because it enabled me to punch him in the dark!
NEO: ARGUMENT #1
What comes to your mind when I say the word ‘present’? In December, perhaps it’s a Christmas present, an enticing, lovingly-wrapped box under a Christmas tree resplendent with festive decorations. Or perhaps you’re more like the Doctor, and have a mind for time — do you think of the literal present, this moment right now?
That kind of present certainly doesn’t feel like a gift a lot of the time. So let’s instead cast our minds back to the past. Years and years ago. Back to 2010. But let’s stay on that Christmas theme. Even Australians such as I will of course admit that the cold, snow and ice are so indelibly linked with Christmas. So let’s imagine a whole land of ice. Let’s call it Iceland. Let’s imagine Iceland in 2010. Do you remember anything about Iceland, in 2010? Do you remember those volcanic eruptions that billowed out ash clouds of such intensity that all United Kingdom air traffic was halted?
Well, let’s think back to Doctor Who now. In 2010’s April, the fresh team of Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan were in America promoting the series, stuck, grounded, because of those halted flights.
Warm old Los Angeles…and the script Moffat had to write was for that year’s Christmas special. He told Doctor Who Magazine ‘you don’t get less Christmassy than that! Two days of writing nothing, and I took emergency measures. I downloaded every Christmas song I could find, closed all the curtains, and turned up the air conditioning to Doctor Zhivago, and sat at my desk in a big coat and mittens.’
Affix that image in your mind. Steven Moffat, in warm Los Angeles, holing himself up in a freezing hotel room, blasting Christmas carols, tapping away at his laptop in a huge coat and mittens. This, this is clearly a man who cares about Christmas, and who made specials special by engaging with Christmas themes.
A Christmas Carol riffed off the Dickens tale, folding time travel into how the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future worked, telling a story about being halfway out of the dark — Christmas as the marker of halfway through winter, and the Doctor marking the Scrooge-esque character as capable of turning to the light, of becoming good. It’s full of wonder, like a fairy tale full of flying fish, shark sleigh rides, uplifting music, a festive spirit of empathy and forgiveness, and the singular, once-a-year magic of Christmas.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe riffs on CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with young children in a countryside mansion during World War 2 escape through a portal into a magical winterland. As in the novel, a magical figure — there Santa, here Doctor — assists them. Various characters wrestle with the bittersweetness of trying to preserve happiness and magic during Christmas even when circumstances are tough.
The Snowmen takes place in Victorian England, the setting perhaps most associated with Christmas fiction, with the Doctor sulking over having lost loved ones — something a sad but very present reality with Christmases, the marker of ones that are no longer with us. And there monstrous telepahtic snowmen as the villains, and Jenna Coleman’s governness comments on how Christmas is a time one must make family their business.
The Time of the Doctor has fairy tale style narration, awkward family interrogations at Christmas, and makes Christmas town the one place he finally settles down for the long term. Christmases may be marked by loss, as covered here and in The Snowmen and Last Christmas, but they’re marked by family, forgiveness, and new life as well.
New life here being the Doctor’s, with that next Doctor’s first special being Last Christmas. ‘Every Christmas is last Christmas’ characters conclude over the course of this story, understanding the importance of gatherings at Christmas as always marking potentially the last time you may be with a loved one, the last time you might share Christmases with them, and thus every Christmas having its singular, bittersweet magic. Oh, and there’s Santa, his sleigh, elves, Rudolph, they’re all in it too.
The Husbands of River Song has a Christmas panto-esque villain, and expands on Last Christmas’ theme of Christmas gatherings as offering second chances. The Return of Doctor Mysterio riffs off blockbuster movies so prevalent in December, featuring a young boy accidentally granted superpowers one Christmas night, culminating in another Christmas romance. Twice Upon a Time swaps Last Christmas’ north pole for the south one, seeing two Doctors sulk in the snow, stressing the importance of memories — and how many strong memories are always formed at Christmas? — memories as the marker of a person, and emotionally climaxing in the legendary 1914 Christmas armistice, where two opposing sides in a war stopped fighting, exchanged gifts, and sang together for one magical Christmas day.
Even in those stories with less overt Christmas elements, their tones and themes are still so keyed into the Christmas spirit. Moffat’s Christmas specials are superlative not just out of being good Doctor Who episodes — but for being Christmas specials special at Christmas.
(sleigh bells chime)
TOMTIT: ARGUMENT #1
Following the transmission of ‘Rose’ in March 2005, Doctor Who was immediately renewed for a Christmas special and a second series. As someone who prefers to start planning for Christmas the week beforehand, I can’t relate. But this didn’t happen because Doctor Who is automatically great — it happened because of RTD’s voice and the strength of his and Julie Gardner’s team. The stripped down, visceral marketing with its focus on RUNNING, MOTION, ADVENTURE, ESCAPE, these very tactile RTD-ish ideas without any frills to distract from them, and most of all this image of popstar Billie Piper, and the implied collision between the real world and the fantastical world her presence heralded, secured a spot in the biggest time slot of the year.
To determine which era had the best Christmas specials, there’s so much variance that the only approach that makes sense to me, outside of tallying an average numerical score for each showrunner, the IMDB approach — is to identify the Christmas sensibility that animates each showrunner’s work and makes for the best festive viewing, and for me, RTD is yet undefeated at depicting the bright — and the dark — sides of Christmas.
I think it’s very relevant that the very idea of doing an Xmas special is a direct result of RTD’s singular aptitude for capturing the cultural zeitgeist — if you look at the BBC Christmas programming only a year prior, you’ll see no original material in the sci-fi vein of Doctor Who, just sitcoms, soaps and talent shows as far as the eye can see. If Russell T Davies hadn’t wedded Doctor Who to soap-opera land so successfully, would a Xmas special have been considered? The one thing we know for sure is that RTD, famous for his avid, vivacious consumption of television, is nothing less than the PERFECT person to slot Doctor Who into the festive TV landscape.
In The Christmas Invasion, we have the newly minted Tenth Doctor and Rose returning to the Powell Estate, somewhere the Doctor hadn’t spent time in since the Slitheen two-parter, Rose hadn’t been without immediately trying to get back to space, and most importantly the VIEWERS hadn’t been since series 1 ended — the first Christmas special most embodies Christmas through the act of forcing our perspective back to the ‘home base’ of the first series, the Powell Estate — we are very much ‘coming home for Christmas’ as the viewer.
Because Jackie and Mickey were such vivid characters in the first series, and the Estate is such a visually distinct location, especially in the context of Doctor Who, this feeling is very, very real. And, obviously, very very Christmas, with so many families gathering to celebrate the occasion for better or for worse — this is reflected with RTD’s characteristically subtle touches, with Jackie’s well-intentioned but brazen interjections ultimately worsening Rose’s personal stress and the Doctor’s global crisis – and Mickey trying to navigate the awkwardness of Rose’s continued absence and her bringing a stranger in in the form of David Tennant — all this stuff is surely relatable to some, and believable to all, but we’re happy to be back with the Tylers, and key to all of this is that RTD’s Who actually had a real world to return to.
Following the seismic departure of Rose, our perspective belongs more with the Doctor, so we end up glimpsing a window into someone else’s life, the one-off companion Donna Noble who ended up as the primary inspiration for the long term companion Donna Noble. If Rose’s family was realistic but comforting, Donna’s family is… realistic. I practically break into a cold sweat every time Sylvia Noble is on screen. Donna’s trainwreck of a life in this episode is a fantastic portrayal of the occasional tension in events like Christmas, where the seasonal pressure to be merry sometimes clashes with the inherent sourness in familial relations, and we have the Doctor doing some domestic labour and ‘grunt work’ of Christmas – waiting for the ATM, attending the wedding reception, etc, etc. The Runaway Bride is a masterwork of omnishambles Christmas — the domestic labour, the discomfort, the absolute mortification of Donna’s fake wedding engagement — it all produces a kind of solidarity between the viewer and the Doctor and Donna, like two misfits bonding at a party. Again – REALNESS, AND identifiability.
RTD’s last three Christmas specials show the Doctor at his loneliest, unable to retain that sense of community, so he passes through more like a Christmas wraith, gifting salvation to the supporting characters like Mr. Copper, Jackson Lake, or the amnesiac Donna. The style changes accordingly, emulating other Christmas stories like the traditional blockbuster film broadcast of a disaster film, the Dickensian Christmas and even the momentous scope of the Bible itself.
The one thing these specials have in common is a huge, shouted-from-the-mountaintops sense of clarity and urgency, which is important because frankly many of the viewers will be drunker than usual. The fact that these specials were so temporally fixed is something that will be slightly lost to time as viewing becomes more dependent on binging and catching up. When watching a Doctor Who marathon a Christmas special might just be an episode that is just a little lighter or frothier than usual, and most of the non-plot-heavy ones are unlikely to appear in lists of favourite episodes.
But the time they are broadcast sets them apart so drastically — more people watching, and probably lots more distractions around the house. Russell T Davies’ specials are SO good at responding to that — each one so vivid at a time when life becomes more vivid. These special’s collisions with the real world extend to their guest stars — Doctor Who extending an olive branch to other corners of television and saying ‘come join in!’ The likes of Catherine Tate and Kylie Minogue are fully permitted to do what they’re known for, not relegated to the likes of joke parts or voice roles. A story like Voyage of the Damned simply has power as ‘the one with Kylie Minogue,’ in a way few ordinary episodes do, and, well, Tate is fondly remembered as well, but that’s a different case… plus, these specials simply do things bigger than the show normally does — a full on Independence-Day-style alien invasion, the TARDIS in a car chase, a giant Cyberman, the sorts of things that stick with you.
Due to the greater viewership, they even have their own kind of internal continuity and grammar. Killer trees and Santas become recurrent motifs to reward attentive viewers and perhaps jog the memories of less attentive ones. Characters point out that Christmas has become a hotspot for alien invasions, the best example being the empty street in Voyage of the Damned, and the Doctor has his own thread of his troubled relationship with Christmas dinner — first attending it with the Tylers, declining the Nobles, finally accepting it with Jackson Lake, and the heartbreaking realisation that as much as he would like to spend dinner with the Nobles in The End of Time, he simply can’t. Such is RTD’s skill that one could ONLY watch the Christmas specials each year and get a good feel for the arc of the show, an experience I’m sure many non-fans have had.
So, that is one reason why I believe that RTD’s specials are unrivalled as festive viewing — he captures the zeitgeist during a zeit when the geist is stronger than ever, connecting the context of the season and the content of the series in an alchemical way through themes of connecting with family and stylistic clarity that paradoxically make some of the broadest episodes of the series also some of the most memorable.
STRAX: You better not shout, you better not cry, you better watch out, I’m telling you why.
A Sontaran warfleet is coming to reduce your planet to atoms!
NEO: ARGUMENT #2
Earlier I spoke of Moffat’s eight Christmas stories. Now I want to speak of Moffat himself, of his belief in Christmas, of the way he’s compelled to wield the spirit of Christmas for good.
Both Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies are atheists, and we were blissfully spared any clumsy attempts at a special where the Doctor visits Bethlehem two millennia ago, or some such. Where both men may arguably differ is on the topic of humanity. Now, there’s plenty of Tenth Doctor speeches about how inspiring he finds humans, plenty of that sort of thing, but — and to make it clear, I’m not criticising this, I’m just musing on it in the context of Christmas — but there are things like RTD’s ultimate fate for humanity being cannibalising themselves into mutilated monsters at the end of the universe, spurned by empty promises of a mythical paradise waiting for them. These occasional cynical, even misanthropic touches often make for very compelling and mature writing from Davies — I personally am a huge fan.
But when we’re talking Christmas, and I look at Steven Moffat…in Steven Moffat, I don’t see this cynicism, I don’t see an ounce of misanthropy. I see am overwhelming sincere love of Christmas, belief in the Christmas spirit, and a desire to do genuine good, to serve anyone watching the show, by spreading that Christmas spirit.
You point to RTD as having bought back the show, of inventing the Doctor Who Christmas special in the first place as important. Sure, that’s definitely true. But is it always the initial inventor of something that gets valued the most? I mean, it’s not Saint Nicholas we remember so much as Santa Claus, Father Christmas. I’ll agree on RTD as the kind of originating Saint Nicholas figure here, but I really believe Moffat is the Father Christmas.
Think back to that image of Moffat writing A Christmas Carol, forcing some cold and Christmas into his life in a Los Angeles April. Keep that image in mind as I read out some quotes from the man.
MOFFAT: ‘I think you have to be emotional. You have to laugh and cry a bit. ……. [A Christmas Carol] should be seen on Christmas day, when you’re prepared to believe in any amount of magic’
MOFFAT: ‘The Doctor at Christmas – it always just feels so right. When I was a kid, Santa and the Doctor somehow lived in the same place in my head – two generous madmen that I loved so much. So now that the Doctor is a regular feature of Christmas the world is just that bit more right’
MOFFAT: ‘I keep saying this is a children’s programme. Whether it really is or not, I don’t quite know, but there’s no question that, as a character, the Doctor has a powerful relationship with children.’ End quotes.
NEO: Undeniably, Christmas day is most special for children. It’s children who are compelled by the story and magic of Santa Claus, it’s children we buy the most presents for, it’s children who race out of bed all too early in the morning to try and kickstart the magic of the day. And Moffat really understands this.
A Christmas Carol drew from Moffat’s childhood nightmare of sharks somehow evolving to leap out of the sea and attack him in his bedroom. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe drew from Moffat’s chidlhood nightmare of a wooden king reprimanding him for sleeping facing the wall rather than the door (some irrational fear of his). The Snowmen, The Time of the Doctor, and The Return of Doctor Mysterio all very much centre children as well. Now, I’m fond of a lot of what RTD did with his specials, but aside from — what, more or less a plot device in the Next Doctor — where are the children on Christmas day?
Yes, he has evil Santas, but Moffat has the real Santa. Yes, he has a Victorian setting, but Moffat engaged with Victorian values. Uh, intentionally I mean, with Dr Simeon. RTD had Christmas dinners, but Moffat went so much deeper than that, locating a bittersweet and nuanced reason we should all treasure Christmas, every Christmas is last Christmas, how we should treat Christmas as marking mortality. You say RTD is skilled at depicting the darkness and reality of Christmas, but I see so much strength in those arenas right here with Moffat.
Both men understand the value of these episodes that, as you say, would be viewed by so many more people than usual, by whole families rather than just the Doctor Who fans within them. But where RTD used that to make stories that would engage them and get them to stick around for later series — the Kylie Minogue casting, the fakeout marketing about a future Doctor — where RTD did that, Moffat used the Christmas specials to make CHRISTMAS stories that would engage people, not just stories in general. I have enormous respect for RTD, but when it comes to which era of Christmas specials were better, I simply believe it’s the one that truly put Christmas into them.
TOMTIT: ARGUMENT #2
So, I think RTD’s specials are superb at capturing the spirit of revelry and communal celebration of that ‘Pagan rite,’ to borrow a gorgeously epic phrase from The End of Time, through their stylistic boldness, overall accessibility and varied approaches to family, but what I really like about his specials is their multifacetedness, befitting of a multifaceted writer — because in RTD’s specials, alongside their overall-goodheartedness exists a ready willingness to engage with the darker sides of Christmas — because to me Christmas is an event which inhabits many different shapes and shades.
I’ve touched upon the subject of the actual act of watching Doctor Who, in a group, on Christmas Day (well, Boxing Day for Australians), because it’s something that fascinates me — getting an outside perspective on Doctor Who is such a strange and sometimes uncomfortable experience, but one I really value, and RTD’s specials play into that so well. On Christmas Day what often ends up happening for me is I end up seeing Doctor Who through someone else’s eyes, and the effect this produces is one I can only describe as de-personalisation.
And de-personalisation is a theme that pops up again and again in RTD’s Xmas specials — the birth of a new Doctor always being a moment of extreme depersonalisation, as seen in The Christmas Invasion. Donna’s fake marriage and love being thrown out from under her, the motif in Voyage of the Damned of Earth history being misinterpreted is a great example of it, having Mr. Copper gleefully exposit comically incorrect facts about the Earth while we look at it from the outside — the depersonalisation continues to accelerate. I don’t have to explain how Jackson Lake’s mistaken belief that he’s the Doctor fits into this theme, and the ‘new man goes sauntering away’ speech solidifies it as the major threat of that particular special.
I think this is a canny recognition of how Doctor Who and Christmas are like matter and antimatter coming into contact — the inherent sadness of the Doctor not having one fixed family, and the inherent otherness of Doctor Who as a programme jutting against the seasonal revelry in general. The casting of Catherine Tate in The Runaway Bride is another great example of it, as she is clearly cast as a character belonging to a completely different sort of show — she might as well represent the family member at the Christmas-do who hates Doctor Who. Though ironically Tate has become so culturally associated with Donna Noble that this fact may be somewhat weakened by the passage of time.
Secondly, and it’s almost a cliche at this point — the consumerism of modern Christmas — it runs through RTD’s specials as an undercurrent simmering under the surface. From the moment that store-bought Christmas tree starts tearing through the Tylers’ flat, it’s not JUST a campy setpiece, though it is that, but something intuitively creepy because it’s part of the viciousness and inhumanity of mass production that we let into our homes. A very small moment I’m fixated on is the moment in The End of Time Part One where Wilf is bewildered that Donna bought him a book about millionaire Joshua Naismith. It’s a plot beat first and foremost but I can’t help but read it as another moment of — there it is again — depersonalisation, and a sublime moment of a sort of tragic cringe. When you have so many products and gifts vying for your attention the human element gets lost and one is liable to end up with a Naismith moment one their hands, where there could have been something personal, handcrafted, or just more specific.
The Master works as a presence in that story because he’s just as fixated on excess as RTD is, his rants reading like a parody of Charles Dickens’ passages in A Christmas Carol about ‘the moist and pulpy figs and modestly tart French plums,’ only while in that novel the sensory overload is positive, here it’s grotesque and horrific. The sheer volumes of food consumed, the displays of wealth, all things RTD doesn’t let us forget. The setting of the Starship Titanic is a whole display of it — spectacle and banal comforts overwriting the human. The pivotal moment of tragedy in The Runaway Bride is when Lance berates Donna for being what he sees as a purveyor of consumerism — ‘I was stuck with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavour Pringle. Oh, I had to sit there and listen to all that yap yap yap. Oh, Brad and Angelina. Is Posh pregnant? X Factor, Atkins Diet, Feng Shui, split ends, text me, text me, text me. Dear God, the never ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia. I deserve a medal.’
In classic RTD style — being an atheist preoccupied with religion — his Christmas specials are obsessed with the profanity of humanity and the idea that we can’t transcend ourselves, just like Lake can never be the Doctor. Ultimately though, his specials show human beings as good and if anything it’s the Doctor who is vain, shallow and self-obsessed. Donna may be a purveyor of banal, trash culture, but it doesn’t make her less of a human being and the idea that it does is what makes Lance such a detestable villain. And the Tenth Doctor, a rather messianic figure who was effectively born on Christmas, curiously, is shown to be borderline monstrous, most notably when he commits genocide against the Racnoss (with exploding Christmas baubles!) and it’s Donna who gets to rightfully point this out.
And who can forget the actions of Harriet Jones at the end of The Christmas Invasion, committing her own act of genocide against the Sycorax in what RTD has explicitly cited as a way of venting his frustrations and feeling of betrayal by Tony Blair’s role in Iraq — the Doctor not being free of responsibility in this act either. RTD’s specials show a consistent scepticism of power in all its forms which would surely resonate stronger with those outside of the privileged to whom Christmas is tinged with a somewhat bittersweet quality. The image of the Doctor and Rose standing in the snow — which is actually the remnants of dead Sycorax — is as cynical and blackly comic an idea as RTD would ever come up with.
STRAX: When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbing along…I use the twittering avian for target practice!
THE DOCTOR: Strax…Christmas is fun. Come on now…
David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor Just Committed Genocide. Harriet Jones unilaterally destroying a retreating ship. The remains of that ship’s dead inhabitants floating down onto our heroes. The Master eating some homeless people.
Look, I’m all for a bit of dark and edgy, but these, these simply are not things I want to see on Christmas. When Moffat incorporates darkness into his Christmas specials, he does so in a way appropriate for those general audiences we both place a lot of importance onto — mortality of family members, loved ones ageing and growing weaker, troubled relationships with family…this is the kind of darkness that I say makes for a strong multi-faceted Christmas special. Not war criminals and…cannibalism.
The temporal location of the specials, the fixed points in time they occupy, the specific Christmas days they aired on, I agree these are important things, even though they apply less to international viewers like ourselves, and apply less in general given the popularity of binge viewing these days. But it’s this temporal factor, the specials literally, of course broadcasting on Christmas day, it’s this that I think strengths the argument for Moffat’s era. Yes, in terms of publicity, Russell T Davies worked magic — the stunt casting of Kylie Minogue, the canny fakeouts about the Next Doctor, having the new Doctor born on Christmas day. But Moffat worked magic in terms of Christmas itself.
You know what, I’m so secure in the magic festive factor of Moffat’s Chritsmas specials, that I don’t feel compelled to say a great deal more on them. So I just want to leave you with some images. I compelled you to picture Iceland at the beginning of all this. Now I want you to picture Sardicktown, from A Christmas Carol. Picture the end of the episode, where snow first begins to fall. Picture Katherine Jenkins singing, the tears on Michael Gambon’s face, the town’s denizens coming out to marvel at the snow, and then the wonder of a flying sleigh pulled by a shark.
Then, years later for the Ponds, picture the Doctor turning up at Amy’s doorstep, wiping away a tear as they happily invite him into the place set for him at Christmas dinner. Picture Clara climbing a staircase into the clouds, bedecked in Christmas snow. Picture another Clara gently opening an aged Doctor’s Christmas cracker for him.
Picture Nick Frost’s Santa deactivating Rudolph’s red nose like a car alarm. Picture Nardole, in a very, very snowy street, coming across a Doctor with antlers on his head. Picture the Doctor stumbling into a boy’s comic-filled room on Christmas, eagerly taking a bite of cookies set out for Santa. Picture warring soldiers coming together to sing For Auld Lang Syne. And, finally, picture Moffat, in April of 2010, in sunny old Los Angeles, making himself a Christmas capsule, drawing all the Christmas magic into a hotel room as he can, before setting out to make Christmas as magic for the rest of us as it is to him.
THE DOCTOR: Christmas presents! I love opening Christmas presents — although, I’m always slightly disappointed when they’re not bigger on the inside…
I’ve had so much to say about Russell T Davies’ specials — because they offer so much to say — but I haven’t had time to address some of your pro-Moffat points. So now would be the time to do so.
Moffat snuggling in LA with Christmas films: a rather sweet image, to be sure, but to your point that everyone associates Xmas with cold and snow and that snowy Christmas specials are therefore better — well, personally, growing up I always found it annoying and frustrating that Christmas media was so saturated by the white Christmas, it always made me feel as if the party was happening somewhere else. This is perhaps why Voyage of the Damned spoke to me so much on a visual level, it’s such a fiery, burnt orange Christmas special, it stands apart from the coldness of the Moffat ones, A Christmas Carol being one of the coldest of all.
Yes, A Christmas Carol, a story which…yes it’s very beautiful, with career-best work by Toby Haynes and Michael Pickwoad…but what you see as a story about empathy and forgiveness, I see as really a quite creepy work about the Doctor stomping around with impunity in someone else’s life, and using a terminally ill woman as a prop to make him nicer. And its literary debt to the Dickens novel I feel is really skin deep. That special is more Tom’s Midnight Garden than A Christmas Carol — Tom’s Midnight Garden being a novel Moffat has admitted to stealing liberally from throughout his career, and also one I’d recommend everyone read because it’s a lovely book.
Furthermore, A Christmas Carol and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe may be drawn from Moffat’s Childhood nightmares, but frankly, are they Christmas nightmares? Really? A shark, and wood? Wood maybe, if you go from Narnia, to trees, to wood, but that’s a few too many degrees of separation for me, compared to the outright killer trees, baubles, and Santas. I’m slightly failing to see your point that Moffat’s specials are Christmassier… Christmas is something of an afterthought in Time of the Doctor, barely a set decoration in Husbands, and almost totally absent in Mysterio.
As to the lack of children in RTD’s specials… are the kids in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe anyone’s favourite characters? And for that matter, do any kids actually watch the early Christmas specials and think ‘gee, I wish there were more kids in this!’? I mean, Rose Tyler is basically a kid, just one who gets to do all the cool stuff kids don’t get to do. Which makes series 2 seem quite strange in light of that, but I’m supposed to be arguing for RTD so I’ll swiftly move on…
You’ve constructed a sort of hierarchy of edginess — that dark sociopolitical commentary is bad on Christmas, whereas interpersonal darkness is good on Christmas. Personally, I see little basis for this… I agree to some extent that people don’t want to think of inequality and suffering on Christmas… which, to me, is exactly why people SHOULD think about it. I mean, it’s the basis of a whole well-intentioned but vaguely patronising songwriting tradition, from Do They Know it’s Christmas, to The Kinks’ beat-up mall-Santa song. I think it makes the right people feel uncomfortable, and the right people feel seen.
Every virtue you ascribe to Moffat’s specials had already been done by RTD’s. Mourning the loss of a loved one, done in Runaway Bride. Riffing on blockbuster films, done in Voyage of the Damned. If Moffat is the Santa to RTD’s Saint Nick, then shouldn’t Moffat’s specials be… more popular? I mean, RTD’s specials had measurable cultural impact, the iconic first moments of David Tennant, the Kylie factor, the DEATH of Tennant… whereas however good Moffat’s were, he did drop the ball where it counted with the slightly unfortunate effort of a second Christmas special, being The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, which I wouldn’t be surprised if turned a few households OFF of the annual Christmas Doctor Who viewing tradition, as it did mine.
It’s not the openness, positivity and communal suitability of RTD’s Christmas specials that make them great. It’s not their inescapable cynicism, their leaning into depersonalisation, perspectives on consumerism and power. Rather, it’s the interplay between those two that creates a truly EARNED feeling of hopefulness through the promise of characters like Donna Noble or Jackson Lake, whose so-called profanity is what makes them heroic. The history of Christmas in previous centuries has been the history of the battle of the so-termed Pagan elements of festivity, and no small measure of debauchery, and the puritanical desires for the opposite, which for the reasons I’ve mentioned, I believe RTD’s specials embody perfectly through their epic tales of the inerplay between the Doctor and the human race.
JENNY: There’s a man on Praed Street with an invisible wife!
…maybe he just doesn’t have a wife…
Note: the debrief itself is not transcribed here. Following the debate, Tomtit and I had a debrief discussion, where we explored the stances we took in the debate, our thoughts on each other’s arguments, our thoughts on our performances, our thoughts on each other’s performances, what wasn’t said in the debate, and so on.
As this was an organic conversation, I didn’t have working notes to finish up a transcription.
It starts at 30:00 in the video. The YouTube video does have the automatically-generated YouTube captions, for what it’s worth.
Moffat, Steven. “Halfway Out of the Dark…” Doctor Who Magazine, vol. 429, 16 December 2010, p. 6.
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Moffat, Steven. “Peter Capaldi & Steven Moffat Talk DOCTOR WHO, Their Favorite Episodes, Doctors, and More.” Collider, 14 July 2015, https://collider.com/doctor-who-peter-capaldi-steven-moffat-talk-favorite-episodes-doctors/
Moffat, Steven. “19 things we learned from the set of the Doctor Who Christmas special.” Radio Times, 25 Dec. 2017, https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/scifi/2017-12-25/doctor-who-christmas-special-set-visit/
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