‘She’s not fighting your battles.’ On the surface, after two episodes of reinvention this comes across as the first “trad” episode, consciously evoking Hinchcliffe’s House of Horror: the Victoriana, classic horror story tropes given a sci-fi polish, the companion in period costume, even a warning that ‘time is in flux’ and Rose’s present, like Sarah Jane’s in Pyramids of Mars, is not immune. Plus, it’s the first Christmas episode since The Feast of Steven. Everything about it is reassuringly cosy, like a comfort blanket for the old fans who might have been discombobulated by Rose and The End of the World.
All that’s in the mix, but unsurprisingly I don’t think it’s quite like anything in the classic series. It’s much more like The Curse of Karrit Poor segment of the League of Gentlemen’s Christmas special (that is, a comedy inspired by Hinchcliffe Who, but also Sherlock Holmes, Amicus movies and A Ghost Story for Christmas, a strand Mark Gatiss revived in 2013). The grisly idea of space ghosts reanimating cadavers is offset by a light comic tone that shouldn’t scare the kids too much: if Graham Williams had been interested in continuing to do “gothic” it might have generated something like this – although even the first half of The Stones of Blood is scarier.
In an odd way, it’s closer to the Hartnell “celebrity historical” comedies like The Romans or The Myth Makers, where the TARDIS nips back in time for a bit of light-hearted fun with a personage before things take a more serious turn in the final act. The Doctor’s double act with Dickens (which name-drops the most famous 1970s Ghost Story for Christmas, The Signalman) pokes gentle fun at fandom. I like Callow as Dickens, but I don’t think this episode gives us much sense of his character (listless arch sceptic) beyond what is explicitly stated in the dialogue. He’s just there as someone recognisable that the Doctor can “bring him back to life” for Rose. Hence various sombre critiques of the RTD historicals as heritage tourism rather than period insight (The Gunfighters instead of The Massacre).
That’s a bit mean: I think Gatiss tries to illustrate that times do change, that the past isn’t just the present with bonnets and big blousy shirts. Gwyneth and Rose share a scene where they bond over universal constants like love and death, but Rose can only smile indulgently when Gwyneth imagines herself reunited with her dead parents in paradise (although surely not if, as the text implies, she’s been working with Sneed to bump off those who know too much: ‘What about Mister Redpath? Did you deal with him?’). Rose’s patronising attitude to Gwyneth, suggesting she doesn’t understand the choice the Doctor asks her to make, is telling. It’s a strand RTD develops across Piper’s two series, as Rose and the Doctor become increasingly convinced of their own brilliance.
Other strands are developing here, too. Gwyneth has ‘the Sight’ and perceives Rose is increasingly thinking about her dead father, setting up Father’s Day and the idea that, perhaps, she’s already considering trying to change history. The Time War also crops up again: the Gelth claim to be refugees from it, playing on the Doctor’s guilt to manipulate him into helping them establish a bridgehead. This has been criticised as Gatiss inadvertently demonising asylum seekers. However, given the Gelth’s connection to Gwyneth it’s just as likely that she’s sensed his regret and the Gelth came up with a ruse to exploit it. Finally, there’s out first clear reference to ‘the Big Bad Wolf’ that looms across this series.
After a very strong start (Rose taking her first step into the past with a footprint in the snow; the ghost in the theatre; Rose and the Doctor disagreeing on morality; zombies rising in the morgue) like The End of the World it stumbles in the last act. It’s never a good sign when a script has to fall back on ‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth’, and Gwyneth’s death is particularly half-baked (she has to be dead otherwise the Doctor would never have let her sacrifice herself, but her zombification isn’t like the effect the Gelth have on any of their other victims). What it’s got going for it is Mark Gatiss’ ability as a pasticheur, Euros Lyn’s direction, which makes this feel intimate and cosy like a good Christmas ghost story, and performances that carry it through the rough patches. The end result is a stronger Christmas episode than many of the Christmas specials.
Next Time: Aliens of London