It’s officially December so that means it ‘tis the season. As I was decorating a few days ago I was, naturally, rocking out to some Christmas carols. When “What Christmas Means To Me” came on I danced and sang along as loud as I could. I didn’t get much decorating done for those ten minutes (because who only listens to that tune one time??) but the break was festive and fun and totally worth it. It’s always been a favorite Christmas song of mine and every time Steve Wonder’s classic is covered it makes me happy because it means I have even more chances to hear it randomly playing in a store or on the radio. Anyway, as I was singing along it got me thinking about what Christmas means to me (my love!). I thought it would be interesting to reflect on that with a series of posts through December. And then I thought using Doctor Who’s Christmas specials as a frame for those reflections could be fun. So, What Does Christmas Mean To Me (Vol. 1)? Well, let’s turn to “Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned” and talk about it!
As I write this, I’m looking out the window as the first snow of the season falls. Cliché or not, Jimmy Durante and the Gilmore girls are right – there’s something magical about the first snow. So naturally, as I watched it fall, I put on Frosty the Snowman. Before that, I enjoyed A Charlie Brown Christmas, my all-time favorite Christmas special! However, I’m here to talk about the oh-so-festively titled “Voyage of the Damned.” This Christmas special has a special place in my heart as it’s the first Doctor Who episode I watched with Dad. The BBC was doing one of their all-Doctor Who-all-the-time Christmas marathons a few years back and Dad joined me for this one. It was Christmas morning and we watched it by the light of the tree as we waited to go to Grandma’s for Christmas dinner, while Mom and David were busy getting ready for Grandma’s. Of course he dug it! So whenever I watch this episode I think of Dad entering the world of Doctor Who for the first time and I think of us sitting together and talking on Christmas morning. I’m not sure if this is one of my favorite Doctor Who Christmas specials because of the narrative or that memory. Probably both…with a heavy emphasis on the latter :D.
Written by Russell T. Davies, “Voyage of the Damned” was Doctor Who’s 2007 Christmas special. Shortly after Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) decides to stop travelling with him, the Doctor (David Tennant) finds himself travelling alone once more. With the shields temporarily down as he performs some routine maintenance on the TARDIS…the Titanic crashes into it!!! A quick repair and a bit of investigation later, the Doctor discovers he isn’t onboard the actual Titanic but a nuclear storm drive powered interspace craft from the planet Sto. Modelled after the original Titanic, it’s come to Earth on a luxury cruise to observe “primitive cultures.” The Doctor pops back to the TARDIS quickly to change into his formal wear before he begins to mix and mingle with the folks travelling aboard Sto’s homage to Earth’s infamous vessel.
Wandering around the dining hall/ballroom he finds himself in, the Doctor soon meets Astrid Peth (Kylie Minogue), a member of the serving staff. As she confesses to taking the job aboard the Titanic out of a deep desire to travel, the Doctor realizes she’s a kindred spirit. So, despite the staff being forbidden shore leave on the cruise, the Doctor uses his psychic paper to get himself and Astrid into the Red 6-7 tour group, departing by teleport to see “old London town” on Christmas Eve. They teleport down with their tour guide Mr. Copper (Clive Swift); Bannakaffalatta (Jimmy Vee), a Zucci; and Foon and Morvin Von Hoff (Debbie Chazen and Clive Rowe), two humanoids from Sto who won a trip on the luxury cruise from a radio call-in contest.
Incidentally, when the get to London the Doctor is alarmed to find the streets deserted, when they should be bustling with busy, last minute Christmas shoppers. This leads to one of my favorite one-off jokes in Doctor Who as the Doctor asks the man running a newspaper stand, Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), what’s going on:
The Doctor – “Hello there! Sorry, obvious question, but where’s everybody gone?”
Wilf – “Oooh, scared.”
The Doctor – “Right, yes. Scared of what?”
Wilf – “Where have you been livin’? London? At Christmas? Not safe, is it?”
The Doctor – “Why?”
Wilf – “Well it’s them, up above! Look, Christmas before last we had that big, bloody spaceship. Everybody standin’ on the roof. And then last year, that Christmas star electrocutin’ all over the place, drainin’ the Thames. And this year, Lord knows what. So everybody’s scarpered. Goin’ to the country. All except me and Her Majesty.”
Ahhh, hahahaha, I love this bit. So many crazy things happen at Christmas in Doctor Who! And I love that they play to it in-universe in this way XD. (This special has a ridiculous amount of great lines in it.)
Anyway because it’s Doctor Who and because it’s Christmas, their fun filled tour of London is cut short as the group is abruptly teleported back to the ship. A scheme of corporate sabotage leads to the ship being struck by meteors while its shields are down. The initial strike kills many onboard and leaves the survivors trying and figure out a way off the Titanic while the ship falls towards Earth. Given the nuclear storm drive powering the vessel, such a crash would be a cataclysmic event wiping out all life on Earth. Which, as luck would have it, sets up another fantastic line in this episode:
As the Doctor is questioned by the elitist corporate tool Rickston Slade (Gary O’Brien), he offers just the most badass introduction of himself, “I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m 903 years-old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?” Woo! Hell yes! You tell ‘em Doctor!
This episode really shows the Doctor doing what he does best – inspiring and uniting a group of people. The Doctor becomes the web that pulls this disparate group of survivors together in the time of crisis. He provides hope. He provides a plan. And he makes them believe they can do the impossible. Yet it also underscores his limitations. Despite all his ingenuity and his grand heroics, the Doctor can’t save everyone (hence the haunting title) and the weight of all those losses are etched on the Doctor’s face as the episode comes to a close.
There is SO MUCH that can be deconstructed in this episode from the use of religious symbolism and iconography to the indictment of unchecked capitalism and corporate greed to how it examines the complexities of dealing with loss, grief, and mourning to its presentation of wrestling with our own limitations. And the list goes on. We get some really fun, festive Christmas party scenes in the Titanic’s dining/ballroom, too! But when we’re talking about what Christmas means to me, the tour Astrid and the Doctor take of Earth gets to the heart of the matter.
As tour group Red 6-7 prepares to leave, Mr. Copper says, “To repeat I am Mr. Copper, the ship’s historian, and I shall be taking you to old London town in the country of U.K. ruled over by good King Wenceslas. Now, human beings worship the great god Santa, a creature with fearsome claws, and his wife, Mary. And every Christmas Eve, the people of U.K. go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner, like savages.” The Doctor asks, “‘Scuse me, uh, sorry, sorry, but, um, where did you get all this from?” Mr. Copper says, “Well I have a first class degree in Earthonomics.”
Later, as they climb through the wreckage Mr. Copper says, “Rather ironic but this is very much in the spirit of Christmas. It’s a festival of violence. They say that human beings only survive depending on whether they’ve been good or bad. It’s barbaric!” The Doctor chimes in, “Actually, that’s not true. Christmas is a time of peace and thanksgiving and, what am I on about? My Christmases are always like this.”
So yeah, it’s hysterical how wrong all of that is (and I love how it makes you consider all the history we’ve gotten wrong in our lives and all the history we have wrong right now that we’re not even aware of). BUT what’s important here is, even with allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll *deep breath* lllllllllllll those ridiculous inaccuracies, they still have a good time in ol’ London town! Bannakaffalatta and the Von Hoffs and especially Astrid are in awe of the experience of being on a different planet and standing under a different sky and breathing different air. Yes, Mr. Copper doesn’t tell them a single accurate thing pretty much the entire time BUT they still have a grand time together (you know, before the explosions and whatnot). While they had no clear understanding of just anything about Earth or Christmas, they still had a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Earth. That’s important! Even in light of all the inaccuracies, it’s important.
This time of year always produces that tension between the true meaning of Christmas and the commercialized bastardization of Christmas. We’ve the religious/historical dimension and we’ve the secularized/cultural dimension and it can often feel like we’re trying to fit two things together when there’s only room for one. But maybe, maybe that’s not the case. Maybe it’s ok to enjoy both parts of Christmas. Maybe, like Red 6-7, we can have a special, memorable, life-affirming experience even if our historical frame is wrong about Christmas.
I’ll be the first to say, I’ve often rallied against the “orgy of consumerism” we’ve turned the day we’ve marked off to celebrate the birth of a man who stood against all forms of ownership into. Jesus of Nazareth was all about love, communion, nonviolence, total giving, and no ownership. That was the stuff of the Kingdom of God. An explosion of buying and exchanging wrapped merchandise doesn’t really fit the mold. I’ve also found myself, in moments of frustration, lamenting, “This [fill-in-the-blank with random present] certainly doesn’t prove to [fill-in-the-blank with random loved one I’m shopping for] that I love them! So what am I even doing?!?” And, as I said above, my all-time favorite Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas which is one of the most eloquent, thoughtful, and theologically informed movements of reframing the meaning of the Christmas season I’ve ever seen. So I get that caution and I get that critique, I do. I think it’s very important to be mindful of, as Linus puts it, “what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
But I also really love buying presents for people. I love looking through the stores. I love browsing with my loved ones and their personality and interests in mind. I love when inspiration hits and I know I’ve found the right thing! I love wrapping presents and I love that look of surprise and delight when they are unwrapped and I see I did, in fact, hit the mark :). I love Christmas decorations and lights and music and cookies and movies and specials and all of that. I love the sense of happiness, family, community, joy, and love that can be found even within the commercialized, secular part of the Christmas celebration. As long as I remain mindful of the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth, I think there’s a welcome place for the other face of Christmas in my life, too. None of that is anchored in Jesus’ mission and message, not really. But that doesn’t mean there’s not the potential to find a different sort of beauty and meaning in it all the same.
So yes, all the lights and all the decorations and all the madness of shopping and wrapped merchandise is 100% completely missing the point of the life, mission, and message of Jesus of Nazareth. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no value in it. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it like Red 6-7 did their tour, even if, historically speaking, how we celebrate Christmas in a cultural sense is as far off from its original meaning as Mr. Copper’s understanding of Earth history and culture.
What does Christmas mean to me, my love? In part, it means Christmas is big (I could say it’s “bigger on the inside” but I’m trying to resist the easy joke). We could even say, Christmas is bigger on the inside (nuts, I couldn’t resist). It can hold a lot. We can have its original meaning but we can also have everything it’s come to mean in so many ways over the last two thousand years, too. We can enjoy all of it! There is so much history, so much culture, so much meaning, so much beauty, and so much light in so many different ways inside Christmas. When it comes to what Christmas is all about, as the Doctor says (with one final great line), it’s a long story:
Mr. Copper – “Doctor, it must be well past midnight, Earth time, Christmas Day.”
The Doctor – “So it is. Merry Christmas!”
Astrid – “This Christmas thing, what’s it all about?”
The Doctor – “Long story. I should know, I was there. I got the last room.”
Are you in the mood for more merry and bright Doctor Who Christmas fun?? Well you’re in luck! Check out: