Post-regeneration stories are tricky. They have to establish the new Doctor's personality and quirks while capturing everything that makes him The Doctor, deal believably with the companion's reaction, and tell a compelling story on its own, and then somehow balance all these elements so they're all satisfying. Oh, and also, having every cell in your body renew itself and turn you into a different person causing a lot of stress and trauma, so there's that, too. It's a lot like the pilot of a TV show: there's a lot to do and very little time to do it in.
The first two post-regenerations, in Power of the Daleks and Spearhead In Space, managed to pull the balance off very nicely, but the other classic stories tended to struggle. Robot did a terrific job of establishing the new Doctor, but stuck him in a lousy story. Castrovalva had a pretty good story, but dragged in the middle, and focused on the companions, leaving Five to really establish himself in Four to Doomsday. (which he did very nicely) Twin Dilemma certainly had a grabber with a crazy, homicidal Doctor and a companion trying desperately not to get killed by him, let alone everything else, but stuck them in one of the most boring plots in one of the shoddiest productions of the entire series. Time and the Rani is so bad it kicks puppies and kills kittens. And the TV movie spun its wheels for over a hour before the plot was actually able to get off the ground (and not terribly coherently at that).
So the fact that The Christmas Invasion pretty much gets everything right isn't just cool; it's pretty unlikely, and all the more satisfying for it.
It opens with a terrific scene of the TARDIS materializing on Christmas Eve just outside Jackie's apartment... way up in the air, after which it bounces and crashes to a halt on the street. Then Ten pops out for about two minutes of hilarious dialogue before going totally unconscious. Rose then has to somehow explain that this skinny blond dude actually is the Doctor, in a new body.
The plot then gets started, and it's a pretty good First Contact story -- our first contact with aliens being a group that has the ability to control blood, and threatens to kill every human on earth with Type A blood. It's not the most original tale in the world, but it's a solid story, nicely paced and well played.
But while that's going on, just to keep the energy up, there's the scene with the "Pilot Fish", which is one of the highlights of the entire story. Less than ten minutes in, Mickey and Rose are attacked by an unseen group of assassins in Santa costumes with creepy Santa masks on. And then, when they do reach the apartment to make sure the still-unconscious Doctor is safe, they're attacked by the Christmas Tree. It's a thrilling scene that doesn't really have much to do with the plot, but it's exactly the scene a Doctor Who Christmas Special really needs.
And then the Doctor jumps up and saves the day, and again, Tennant only has a couple of minutes to be Doctorly, but he makes the most of every second.
Still, one of the best things about this episode is how good it is when Tennant isn't onscreen. The characterizations of all the politicians and UNIT and scientists are great, but the best is Harriet Jones, returning from Aliens of London/World War III, now Prime Minister. She still has that wonderful habit of introducing herself and her title to everyone, and them responding "Yes, I know who you are." She's grown into her role as PM with genuine presence, dignity, and decisiveness, but still pours coffee for others without thinking a thing of it. Davies and Penelope Wilton give her quite a lot of depth, and she's a joy to watch throughout.
Billie Piper is great as Rose as usual, and her chemistry with Tennant is evident right from the beginning. She gets a particularly great piece to herself, though, when she tries to bluff and bluster enough to get the aliens to fly away, and succeeds only in making them laugh. (which, I might add, is great alien laughter: creepy and inhuman, but clearly laughter. Bravo to the sound effects crew.)
Mickey's character arc is turning out nicely by this point. In Rose, he was cowardly and frightened. Here, he's still understandably scared of things, but bravely stands up to an assault from a killer Christmas tree and refuses to turn tail and cower when he's onboard the alien craft. His scenes with Rose are very effective, as she continues to mistreat him (although not as badly as before) and he responds classily but with a proper undercurrent of jealousy.
And then Tennant comes in full force for the last twenty minutes, and he's absolutely sensational. Not surprisingly, he's side-splittingly funny, and charming and appropriately smug at times. But there's a moment late in the story, after the swordfight, when he turns on a dime to a darker, colder intensity than Eccleston ever hit before returning to his joyous normal self. It's a gripping moment that shows how fully he nails the Doctor right from the beginning.
Then, having defeated the invaders, Davies includes a genuinely shocking coda that makes an otherwise fun romp suddenly turn very, very dark like it's the early 70s again. Harriet Jones' decision is overzealous and painful, but the Doctor's response is itself a pretty intense overreaction, and as usual, he doesn't stop to think of what the consequences will be before running off into the universe again. It's a great ending, complex and thoughtful.
The Christmas Invasion doesn't quite hit the heights of Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, but it's very worthy of its immediate predecessor in the series and a pitch-perfect first episode for Tennant, who was born to play this role.
* * * ½
- I love every line Tennant says in this story, but far and away my favorite is the way he says "A great, big, threatening button."
- The Doctor's method of getting Jones removed from office is inspired.
- For all the things the episode gets right, it somehow messes up the climactic swordfight. The dialogue is great, but the choreography of the fight feels clumsy and off. Mostly, they're trying to fight with broadswords in ways that broadswords are not meant to be used. Broadswords are all about power and force, and hopefully disarming your opponant. The original Star Wars films look like broadsword fights; Highlander mostly looks convincing. But if you are going to try to make it fast and full of finesse, watch the fights in First Knight: they're fast and smooth while still remembering that broadswords are freakin' heavy and difficult to use. Here, it looks like the actors are having to pour their whole beings into just managing to hit their marks.
- Hooray! We get to see another room in the TARDIS! And it looks predictably great.