You can tell so much about a man from his intertextual references. The 2011 Doctor Who Christmas Special is peppered with the blasted things, many of which are more or less throwaway – the opening, which lumps together Star Wars and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, is both brilliant and utterly irrelevent, while the links to C.S. Lewis are fun but superficial only – World War II setting, evacuee children, the portal to a forest world, trees that talk to each other – rather than exploring the deeper themes of the Narnia novels.
What this episode is really about is trees. Doctor Who and trees have history: the Doctor’s (other) nemesis the Rani used landmines that turned people into trees (Mark Of The Rani, 1985.) Also, when taking Rose to see the destruction of the Earth, which you have to admit is a fairly impressive first date, the pair encounter Jabe, a sentient tree from the Forest of Cheem (The End Of The World, 2005.) Jabe gets an indirect mention in this episode too. Christmas trees on the other hand are to be feared: particularly deadly variants have appeared in previous Christmas Specials. These trees are sinister in a different way, but they’ve also attracted the attention of some unscrupulous humans from Androzani Major (a clever reference to The Caves Of Androzani, 1984, which was once voted best episode of all time.)
The plot is unusually weak for Doctor Who, with an ending that is both unsatisfying and hole-ful. A fundamental attack on sentient life goes unpunished, and while the victims are technically saved, they are only saved in a metaphysical, insubstantial way. Meanwhile the human tragedy, which is really moving throughout the episode, is resolved far too easily.
If, however, you can put the ending to one side, what you are left with is a box of delights. Matt Smith’s Doctor is on good comic form in his misguided attempts to become “the Caretaker,” and once again his clowning is offset by unexpected moments of empathy. A confrontation between Madge, played by Claire Skinner, and three Androzani troopers led by comedian Bill Bailey, is funnier still. There’s great dialogue, setting, atmosphere, characters and acting throughout, and the right mix of comedy and tragedy.
Of course, you don’t need the Doctor to tell you never to cross a Christmas tree: