Independent and intelligent Doctor Who publishing from I.B.Tauris. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 2010.
In the Doctor Who Magazine preview for The Christmas Invasion (2005), to date the only story to feature the Sycorax, Russell T Davies says the following about them:
I don’t want to give too much away but in terms of design – not just their faces, but their clothes, their ship, their culture – we wanted to move away from militaristic, high-tech monsters. There’s something spookier about the Sycorax. While I don’t think magic exists in the Doctor Who universe, the ‘magical’ certainly does, and there’s a slight supernatural feel to the Sycorax tribe. It really does feel like a great and terrible darkness is descending on the Earth . . . (Cook, 2005b, 23)
That distinction, between magic and the magical, is a very interesting one, and it’d be surprising if Davies, as thoroughgoing a Doctor Who fan as has lived, was not thinking of The Dæmons as he made it. The ‘magical’ is, after all, just a matter of seeming, and like Aliens of London one of the things The Christmas Invasion is about is not trusting first appearances.
It’s a post-regeneration story. In the preceding episode, The Parting of the Ways, the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) changes into the Tenth (David Tennant). At the start of The Christmas Invasion, the TARDIS lands glancingly at the home of the Doctor’s companion, Rose, in contemporary London. For a good two-thirds of the hour-long episode, the Doctorremains comatose in a kind of post-regeneration shock. For that time, Rose is effectively the story’s protagonist. She and her boyfriend, Mickey, go Christmas shopping, but they’re attacked by robot Santas carrying trombones that double as projectile weapons. Back at home, their Christmastree turns into a kind of pine-scented rotary saw and tries to kill them. The Doctor revives momentarily to neutralise the tree, but then slips back into his coma.
Up to this point, the effect of these set pieces is a little strange and estranging. A couple of Christmas icons have been made threatening and otherworldly, but nothing more than that. In another Doctor Who story, it might be expected that these would be knitted into the main plot, but all the explanation that’s given is the Doctor’s suggestion that the Santas and the tree are ‘pilot fish’, tiny scavengers that swim in advance of a far bigger threat. The bigger threat slowly becomes apparent. A UK space probe is destroyed on contact with a vast alien spaceship approaching Earth. Signals are received from red-robed aliens with skull-like helmets. The Prime Minister (Harriet Jones, a returning character from Aliens of London) attempts to deal with the crisis, but the skull-like aliens’ language is difficult to understand. As the translation is slowly unpacked, the aliens’ meaning becomes clear.
They are called the Sycorax and they state, ‘We own you. We now possess your land, your minerals, your precious stones, your women. You will surrender or they will die.’ Harriet Jones sends a defiant reply back, and in response the Sycorax onscreen makes a strange gesture. (One of her aides says it’s ‘Almost like someone casting a spell.’) It seems to have a hypnotic effect on a third of the world’s population. They walk out of whatever room they are in, outdoors, and then up onto the roof of whatever tall building is nearest. There they stand together on the edge of the roof, as if waiting to jump. Jones’ team soon figures out that those affected by this hypnosis all share the same blood-group, A+, but this knowledge is of little help.
The next development is the arrival of the Sycorax ship over London, shattering windows and terrifying the populace. It’s vast, and seemingly carved entirely from rock. Rose decides to get Mickey and the Doctor into the TARDIS along with provisions to sit out the crisis (tea, fruit and so on.) But they soon find themselves transported up to the belly of the Sycorax ship along with Harriet Jones and some of her staff. There, the skull-like visage of the Sycorax is revealed to be a helmet, hiding their real face, all bone and flayed-seeming flesh. Their leader threatens Harriet Jones with ‘the final curse’ – magical language again – that he can force her people to jump. Rose attempts to bluff him with ‘stolen words’ picked up in her travels, but her attempt is transparent. Meanwhile, back in the TARDIS, the smell of tea revives the Doctor and he emerges from the TARDIS, now fully revived, to confront the Sycorax. Almost the first thing he does is to debunk their hold of the humans below. It’s not magic, he says, but ‘blood control’, evidently a common technology that he finds easy to neutralise. (He explains that it’s a trick like stage hypnosis. Although it can make people climb onto the roof, it could not make them go so strongly against their survival instincts as to jump.) So magic is not just explained as science, it’s superseded by science.
The Doctor then challenges the Sycorax leader to a duel. The resulting swordfight (another deliberately archaic touch) leads them out onto the rocky surface of the ship. There, the Doctor falters, and his right hand is cut off. But, because he’s within a few hours of his regeneration, he has enough energy left to re-grow it. ‘Witchcraft,’ says the Sycorax leader. ‘Time Lord,’ replies the Doctor. Again, this is a broad hint that the Sycorax are limited because they can only think in quasimagical terms. The Doctor fights back, defeats the Sycorax leader and orders his people to leave the planet.
Described in those terms, The Christmas Invasion sounds like a relatively straightforward story, in that sense, a suitable one for broadcast on Christmas Day. The presentation of the Sycorax certainly doesn’t involve much moral ambiguity. Their desire to conquer Earth is almost unexplained, and very easy to parse as simply ‘evil’. Nor is there any sense that any individual members of the Sycorax race might have any other shades of opinion from that embodied by their leader. So, in that sense, they are just monsters-who-are-there-to-be-monstrous. They’re certainly well-designed, and presented in one of the new series’ best-directed episodes. But I think they’re elevated above the norm of Doctor Who monsters by what, in other circumstances, might be a flaw.
One criticism that’s been made of Russell T Davies’ writing is that, while he’s very good at creating big set pieces (whether visual, emotional or both), he’s not so good at the connective tissue between them, at giving those set pieces a context that allows them to make sense. The Christmas Invasion is certainly vulnerable to that criticism. As I’ve suggested, the set pieces with the musical Santas and the Christmas tree have hardly anything to do with the real plot, and the ‘blood control’ set piece of people standing hypnotised on their roofs also turns out to be fairly unimportant. But what they are, if nothing else, fine pieces of atmosphere-building. (The first two are also shot at night, which helps.) These days, television series of all kinds seem to be composed more and more of trailers for themselves, short segments that ‘throw forward’ as the jargon has it and tell you what you’ll see if you carry on watching. One of the most distinctive things about Davies’ writing is how much he’s integrated this idea into the fabric of his stories. Doctor Who has always, like much science fiction and fantasy, had a fondness for prophecies and the like.
Davies has taken the trend to new extremes, as my summary of The Christmas Invasion should show. And prophecies do also have the feel of something magical and primitive – so beyond rational explanation. In the case of The Christmas Invasion, the rational explanation about ‘pilot fish’ isn’t half as interesting as the spectacle it’s supposed to explain. Many aspects of the Sycorax’s design and performance dovetail with this: their jewellery, their primitive chanting, even their atavistic fear of the Doctor once he has defeated their leader. Even their name has magical overtones, being the name of the witch overthrown by Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
So The Christmas Invasion seems to me a very conscious effort to go down the same path as The Dæmons as much as Doctor Who can. It partakes of the glamour and strangeness of magic without ever suggesting that this might be a comprehensive explanation for the universe in the same way that science is. One of the important things about stage magic at least is knowing when not to explain things, and Davies does the same with the Sycorax. It actually helps the story that we’re told so little about their origins and motivation. Magic depends on belief, and too many questions harm belief. Because the story doesn’t ask those questions, it’s easy to believe – as Davies said – that the Sycorax are somehow magical. ■
This article is largely extracted from Graham Sleight’s The Doctor’s Monsters.