By Lia Sanders
As the hype around the Radio Times’ Christmas double issue shows, television is a big deal in what we now think of as the traditional British Christmas; as the old joke goes, the box provides families up and down the country with an excuse not to talk to each other.
However, it is not simply enough for television to fill the silence. While we know that certain old favourites will be reeled out year after year (think The Snowman and The Good Life Christmas episode), the new Christmas specials have to tick certain boxes: a nod towards the season; an emphasis on love and charity prompting feel-good feelings; maybe even enough sad bits to prompt a healthy cry, releasing all those pent up feelings that have been stewing ever since Aunt Edith made a snide comment about your Christmas jumper.
But it feels like this year television producers have gone a bit off topic, using all that extra time to develop their own plots and on-going dramas in a way that was rather confusing for a nation watching with one eye and a half ear. According to this criteria, here’s my Christmas day TV round-up.
3pm: The Queen (charmingly described by RT as “Her Majesty addresses the nation and Commonwealth”)
My family always watch the Queen’s speech, occasionally standing to attention with glasses in hand (ironically, I like to think). As those who saw The King’s Speech will be aware, this is a tradition which has been going for far longer than our current monarch. It started with the radio broadcasts of the Queen’s grandfather George V but really became established as part of the Christmas day celebrations with the outbreak of World War Two. Normally I don’t really listen to the Queen’s message that attentively – like Christmas day mass it is one of those things that you feel you have to get through to get on with the day of self-indulgence that is the 25th of December. Besides, the whole thing is rather distracting: there are so many shots of cheering patriotic crowds or air planes dashing through the skies that it really is rather difficult to focus on whatever Her Maj is saying. However, this year I rather enjoyed her message about taking time to reflect on one’s life.
[Family takes a break here to act out the last season of Downton Abbey using a variety of hats.]
4.30pm: An Adventure in Space and Time
This film was made as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Doctor Who this year. Written by the multi-talented Mark Gatiss, it focuses on the creation of the phenomenally successful television show and the experiences of the first doctor William Hartnell (played by David Bradley). Reading reviews about this beforehand, I had assumed that the star of the show was Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), sometimes called the ‘godmother of Doctor Who’, she was the show’s first producer. However, I was struck by how unimportant Lambert actually seemed in the creation of the programme. The idea for a sci-fi show focused on the adventures of an elderly and mysterious elderly man is one which is attributed to BBC’s Head of Drama Sydney Newman (Brian Cox). Lambert has an attachment to the show but for her it is a stepping stone to greater things, making her decision to leave the show seem like a betrayal.
Hartnell is the real focus of the film: the man who defined the part of the doctor, ensuring that behind his gruff exterior there is “a twinkle in his eye”. Appropriate for Christmas day fare, it has an element of the softening Scrooge as we see Hartnell become a far more approachable person through the part he plays and the sense of fulfilment he gains from that; the boundaries between the Doctor and Hartnell blur as he adopts a pastoral attitude towards the cast and crew. One of the most touching scenes has Hartnell lead a class of star struck children in an attack against the Daleks as they play in a park. Tragically juxtaposed with this increasing sense of belonging, however, is the steady decline of Hartnell’s health and his inability to keep playing the role. By the end my brother and I were weeping, not with the oddly uplifting or cathartic tears that you’d expect from Christmas TV but with depressing ones (depressing tears, you say?) that spring from watching the unheroic story of old age decline.
An Adventure in Space and Time can’t really be blamed for this lack of Christmas feeling, seeing as it as a repeat and not originally intended viewing on this day. Others are far more culpable.
7.30pm: Doctor Who – ‘The Time of the Doctor’
Doctor Who Christmas specials have managed to firmly establish themselves in the hearts of the nation, earning a place in the day almost as significant as the Queen’s speech. They don’t shy away from sadness (think Kylie’s death) or major plot points, but they always keep a properly ‘Christmassy’ feel to them (usually because the monsters are disguised as something to do with the season, from killer Christmas trees to creepy snowmen). Over the years the Christmas special has introduced new doctors and companions and even set us up for David Tennant’s exit. However, this is the first time that the Christmas special has ever seen the regeneration of the Doctor. It is perhaps for this reason that they opted to make Matt Smith’s last episode a lot less sad than it could have been. This is no bad thing; it would be a mistake to aim to make every character’s end on the show as sad as Tennant’s was.
But instead of a dose of Christmas pathos we have EVERYTHING. The weeping angels are needlessly (and unscarrily) brought back, along with the Silence, Daleks and Cybermen. It is all too much. Following the feature length episode for the 50th anniversary, there’s a whole new plot about the saved planet of Gallifrey to pursue. Furthermore, they decide to bring back in lots of stuff about the crack in space and time and about the doctor’s name from series six. This means there is a lot of thinking to do, as we are forced to cast our minds back to episodes of almost three years ago. Perhaps this will be an episode that fans look back on as one which holds the key to many future Doctor Who plot lines. But in the stupor of Christmas Day it meant it was very easy to literally lose the plot if one looked away for a moment to garb another mince pie.
8.30pm: Downton Abbey
However, Doctor Who getting slightly distracted from Christmas due to all its other exciting plot lines was nothing compared to Downton Abbey’s failure to acknowledge the season in any way. For the second time their Christmas special has been set at the height of summer. This was no huge problem last year; there was a sense of jubilation in the air as we felt things were at last looking up for our much bashed about Abbey inhabitants. This happy Christmas glow was, admittedly, punctured by the death of Matthew Crawley minutes before the episode ended. Yet at least this was an attempt to play with the conventions, rather than disregard them. This year things were even worse as it felt like just one double length normal episode. There was no sense of proper resolution or even a delightful vintage wallowing in Christian feeling. Instead the episode ends on the least wintery of all possible images as the servants paddle at the seaside on a gloriously sunny day.
At this point I gave up in despair and go to bed to Game of Thrones. Nothing says Christmas spirit like torture, incest and infanticide.