Weeks ago, listening to “What Christmas Means To Me” while decorating got me thinking about what Christmas means to me. I decided to spend the month of December reflecting on it with a series of posts and I decided to use Doctor Who Christmas specials as the lens through which to do my reflecting…and now we’re here! I feel like I blinked and I’m writing the fourth piece and Christmas is this week! Ahhh! Showrunner Chris Chibnall has shifted the Doctor Who special to New Year’s Day as opposed to Christmas but – as Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has become my favorite Doctor – I didn’t want to leave the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham out of the fun here. Enter Titan Comics to the rescue! Jody Houser (writer), Roberta Ingranata (artist), and Enrica Eren Angiolini (colorist) took the fam on an amazing Christmas adventure last year in Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Holiday Special. Yay! So, What Does Christmas Mean To Me (Vol. 4)? Well, let’s crack open a couple comics and figure it out.
Before I begin discussing this two-part story, I think a few words about the comic are warranted. As regular readers know, I love Doctor Who and I love comic books but I’ve never written about Doctor Who comics before. My love of the show took me first to the novels. Because I loved them and because I tend to go ALL IN when I find something I love I…well…I bought a few Doctor Who novels and then a few more annnnd now they have their own bookshelf. With this in mind, I was hesitant to try the comics. There are A LOT of them, you know? But I love Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor sooooo much! I’d watched her first series several times. I’d read her novels. The second series wasn’t on Blu-ray yet. But there were these comics…
Well, thank you Jody Houser because the first collected trade, Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Vol.1: New Beginnings, immediately led me to Vol. 2: Hidden Human History and then to Vol. 3: Old Friends. The two-part “Holiday Special” and all the subsequent single issues (the Thirteenth Doctor teams-up with the Tenth Doctor!!!) have been waiting for me in my file every month as I immediately added Doctor Who to my pull list at my local comic shop before I finished Vol. 1. (These comics may be so good I may be looking into all the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctor comic adventures from Titan now, too…who can say for sure?)
Jody Houser’s love and knowledge of Doctor Who are apparent on every page. I’ve read other comics she’s written so I knew I enjoyed her work but her clear love of the Doctor make this comic a dream come true. Every week, when I get my comics, I save the ones I want to read most for last. In thirty years of (admittedly intermittent at times) comic reading, Jody Houser’s Doctor Who is the only comic I can’t wait for. I read it as soon as I get home, no matter what else is going on in my life. Her vision of the characters and their world is organic, complimenting the show perfectly while taking the narrative to places only the comic medium can. The dialogue she writes doesn’t just capture the spirit of the characters but fits so well I hear Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gil, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh as I read without even trying. While I never feel as qualified to talk about the art of a comic, Roberta Ingranata brings to life all the warmth and fun of the show while creating worlds and creatures that aren’t bound by special effects budgets. That’s why comics of other worlds and alien races (like Guardians of the Galaxy or Silver Surfer) can be so exciting! The only limit is the artist’s imagination! I adore the vastness of how she renders the Doctor’s world.
“Holiday Special” begins with the fam in the TARDIS control room discussing what’s next on their holiday tour agenda. When Ryan suggests another amusement park, Yaz reminds him how terribly their last go turned out. However, it soon becomes apparent the Doctor, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz all remember the trip very, very differently. This leads the Doctor to realize someone altered their memories with new ones, seemingly designed to make sure they’ve no interest in going back to…wherever they were ever again. Even the TARDIS’ memory was corrupted!
This doesn’t stop the Doctor for long though and she uses her knowledge and memory of the stars to figure out where they were. Soon, the TARDIS is materializing on an unnamed-yet-festive planet and the fam is off to investigate. There they meet Friffle…again. They learn the last/first time they were there, Friffle told them of Mr. Henderson, who’s been coming to this planet to recruit a workforce. Those who go with Mr. Henderson never return. Once again, the Doctor promises Friffle they will get to the bottom of this and find those taken by Mr. Henderson.
Back in the TARDIS, on their way to the mysterious Mr. Henderson’s world, the Doctor creates “neurological trackers” for them to wear. These necklaces will keep their memories from being tampered with again – and they look like Christmas lights! The Doctor tells them. “If anything suspicious happens, they’ll light up, Informative and festive.” Ryan asks Yaz, “Is that…are you okay wearing that?” She tells him, “I’m Muslim. We’re not exactly allergic to tiny lightbulbs.” He replies, “Ha! Right.” I already loved Jody Houser as a writer and her Doctor Who was love at first read. But this makes me love and respect her even more!
This is just a tiny, one-off dialogue exchange and it brings with it a cute laugh. But it is so, so important! It can sometimes feel confusing and intimidating – in the sea of holidays surrounding the Winter Solstice – to know exactly what to say. (The whole “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” being a ridiculous debate trudged up to provide talking head fodder each year.) What’s so beautiful about this exchange is it shows us how to approach these situations and assures us there’s nothing to feel confused or uncomfortable about. Ryan doesn’t know something, so he asks! And Yaz explains! In his question, Ryan a) acknowledges Yaz’s faith, b) acknowledges its importance to her, c) seeks to be respectful, d) asks her if this is something she’s ok with as he doesn’t know, and e) listens to and follows her lead. In her reply, Yaz a) assures him it is and b) does so playfully, putting his anxiety in the question at rest without making him feel judged or ignorant. Each is heard. Each is validated. So, if you ever find yourself worried about this, remember – WWJHCD? Or, you know, “What would Jody Houser’s characters do?” Then you’ll be all set ;D.
The TARDIS materializes on Mr. Henderson’s even more festive planet and, as they approach just the most Christmas-y village ever, they soon find themselves surrounded by beings who resemble toy soldiers. These soldiers are far from “fun for all ages” though as they’re soon holding Team TARDIS at gunpoint, their aggression growing with each mention of “Santa.” The fact that they mention how much Mr. Henderson looks like Santa when he appears doesn’t do them any favors and the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan quickly find themselves imprisoned.
Their cell is double deadlock sealed so the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is no use, but they are soon rescued by Baxter, an elf sent to the planet by Jeff. Baxter gets them out of their cell and they begin to investigate what’s really going on with this Mr. Henderson. However, when we’re talking about what Christmas means to me, one of the running bits Jody Houser weaves through the whole adventure gets to the heart of it.
When they first arrive on Mr. Henderson’s mysterious planet Ryan says, “Feels crazy to even ask this Doctor…but is Santa, you know…real?” The Doctor replies, “What does real even mean? Children all over the world believe in Santa, write him letters, send him their wishes. By some measures, you could say that Santa is more real than any of us.” As the Doctor continues to walk ahead Yaz turns to Ryan and says, “Notice she totally didn’t answer the question.”
Then, since the Doctor doesn’t remember their first encounter, she is wary of trusting Baxter when he arrives to break them out:
The Doctor – “Stepping out from the shadows is a good first step. A name would help too.”
Baxter – “The name is Baxter. Jeff sent me.”
The Doctor – “Jeff sent you?! Why didn’t you say so from the start?”
Yaz – “I don’t think we’ve met a Jeff. Have we?”
Graham – “…”
Ryan – “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
Later, as they crawl through the air vents on their way to Mr. Henderson’s office, Graham asks:
Graham – “I do have one question, Doc. And maybe it isn’t my place to ask…”
The Doctor – “What is it Graham?”
Graham – “Baxter’s boss, your friend, Jeff…is he, by chance…Santa?”
The Doctor – “What kind of name is Jeff for someone like Santa?”
Graham – “I suppose it is a bit…ordinary.”
I LOVE THIS SO MUCH!!!! In the Eleventh Doctor Christmas special “A Christmas Carol,” after he comes down the chimney, the Doctor assures Abigail’s nephew, “Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Or, as I’ve always known him, Jeff,” is still coming later that night. BOOM. Hahaha, I love it! What a brilliant callback! It doesn’t stop there, though.
As they search Mr. Henderson’s office, it becomes apparent a) something weird and Christmas-y is going on and b) Yaz isn’t buying the Doctor’s brush-offs on the whole Santa question:
Ryan – “Listen to this. ‘Dylan Fry, age seven.’ ‘Jordan Fry, age four.’ ‘Lily Jenkins, age ten.’ Kids names and ages, hundreds and hundreds of them.”
The Doctor – “Is this list naughty or nice? Never been on the naughty list, me.”
Baxter – “Is that a fact?”
Yaz – “So we have a bunch of Santa suits and a list of children. Are we sure this isn’t Santa we’re dealing with?”
Baxter – “[sadly] Very sure.”
Graham – “Someone taking advantage of the myth, though.”
Yaz – “If it is a myth.”
While the Doctor never tells Graham, Ryan, and Yaz whether or not Santa is real, between Baxter the elf and Jody Houser’s brilliant invocation of the Eleventh Doctor, the nod and the wink here are telling readers yes, Santa does exist, and the Doctor is friends with him (and, if we’re to follow through with the rest of what the Eleventh Doctor says in “A Christmas Carol,” the Doctor had a wild time at Frank Sinatra’s hunting lodge in 1952 with Santa, Frank, and Albert Einstein XD). The whole thing is super cute and it fills you with all sorts of warm and fuzzy Christmas feels when you read it. But it also gets to the heart of Christmas!
Christmas is all about believing! That’s part of the magic! And yes, sure, you can make the case that believing in Santa, while fun, is all “kid stuff.” But believing is one of the most important things we can do in life, no matter what age we are! Whether it’s that a child born in a manger without a roof over their head can herald a Kingdom forged in love that will transform the world or that a merry man can travel the world in one night and slide down chimneys to leave presents under trees or that reindeer can fly or snowmen can come to life or that the warmth, love, and happiness we tend to feel in greater degrees this time of year can stay with us all year round – Christmas invites us to believe.
As we grow up, we tend to look at the objects of that belief in metaphorical light. Santa’s not real, no matter what the Doctor may say. Reindeer can’t fly. Snowmen don’t come to life. And that Kingdom of love seems even further away now than it did 2,000 years ago. But it’s fun to imagine all the same. However, this sort of thinking doesn’t only ruin Christmas’ invitation, it limits belief with a minimized modern understanding. Originally, to believe in something had nothing to do with accepting something as factually true. The latter was incidental. The former, life changing.
As Marcus Borg explains in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, “The change is pointed to by the root meaning of the word believe. Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its root mean ‘to give one’s heart to.’ The ‘heart’ is the self at the deepest level. Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self.”
Believing in Santa, believing in the magic of Christmas, believing in the light returning to the darkness and the herald of a Kingdom which will remake this world in love, believing in all that is beautiful and bright which this season teaches in its stories, specials, carols, cards, movies, and messages is far from “kid stuff.” Rather, it can change the world. If we believe in all that, if we really believe in all that and we give our heart to it, then it’s no longer the stuff of children’s imaginations. It becomes the fabric of our lives. When Mr. Henderson and his cronies question the Doctor, she tells him, “Well, I believe in children’s dreams. And laughter. And general jolliness. Bringing joy to others through space and time, despite impossible odds. So if you consider my agreeing with those things as ‘Being with Santa,’ well…then I suppose I am.” I’m with you Doctor! I’m with Santa, too! I believe.
What does Christmas mean to me? In part, it means believing. It means giving my heart to the ideas of love, generosity, companionship, gratitude, selflessness, compassion, happiness, joy, and the impossible-being-possible that fill this season. It means pledging the deepest level of my self to those ideas. As this month of reflection (and lots of Doctor Who) has led me to see, Christmas means a lot. Christmas is bigger on the inside – big enough to hold all the religious meaning that birthed and grounds the season while also accommodating the beauty and fun of all the traditions we’ve added over the centuries. Christmas is spending time with all the irreplaceably important people in our lives, celebrating the love that binds us. Christmas is a shining beacon of improbably happy endings. And Christmas is believing in happiness, joy, and the magic to remake the world. All these things and more, that’s what Christmas means to me!
Whatever Christmas means to you, may you find it at the end of this long year of previously unimaginable struggles. May the light and warmth of love surround and fill you and all those you hold in your heart, too. Merry Christmas!
If you’re in the mood for more pop culture reflections on what Christmas means to me check out:
A Very Doctor Who Christmas “Voyage of the Damned” to find the Tenth Doctor on board a spaceship version of the Titanic seemingly destined to meet the fate of its namesake and read about how Christmas means happily holding layer upon layer of meaning, religious and secular, cultural and personal, accumulated over thousands of years.
A Very Doctor Who Christmas “A Christmas Carol” to see the Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond, and Rory Williams’ version of the Dickens’ classic play out on Sardicktown in the year 4398 – with flying sharks! – and ponder how Christmas means a time to be with those we love and celebrate all the ways we are connected, over the holiday season and always.
A Very Doctor Who Christmas “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” to see my stirring defense of one of Doctor Who’s most derided Christmas specials (I don’t care what anyone says I LOVE IT and I think it’s one of Doctor Who’s BEST CHRISTMAS SPECIALS EVER) where the Twelfth Doctor and Nardole’s adventure is basically Doctor Who + a superhero movie + a Hallmark movie = a reminder that Christmas means improbably happy endings.
When She-Hulk Met Santa Claus! in The Sensational She-Hulk #8 tells the tale of the time when She-Hulk met Santa Clause and they teamed up to try and find the evidence needed to convict one of New York City’s most infamous serial killer and ended up underscoring how Christmas means justice.
Harley Quinn and Chaos for Christmas! in Harley Quinn Holiday Special #1 has all the holiday hallmarks we know and love – dozens of pets in need of adoption, a child acting up, breaking and entering, family drama, and an ax hungry for blood being wielded during Christmas dinner – which, naturally, all shows how Christmas means magic.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special drops us in the midst of Peter Quill, Nebula, Rocket, Groot, Astro, Kraglin, Mantis, and Drax rebuilding Knowhere when Mantis and Drax decide they need to find the perfect Christmas gift for Peter which reminds us all Christmas means presents in the best possible way!
The Star Wars Holiday Special looks at the SINGLE MOST MALIGNED STORY in alllllll of Star Wars history, canon, and pop culture, and I argue there’s something good, something special mixed up in that mess. This shows us how Christmas means family time, awkward and uncomfortable as well as the fun and joyful.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 137.
2 thoughts on “A Very Doctor Who Christmas! – The Thirteenth Doctor Holiday Special”
“Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self.”
I really like this understanding – it makes much more sense than the idea of intellectual assent. It’s like a person is saying – “This is where my heart is”, rather than, “My understanding of the world is this”.
Thanks for another really thought provoking post.
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I love this understanding, too! I’ll never forget reading it for the first time. It was sincerely a life changing experience and it affected, in a very healthy way, how I approach so many things.
To frame/capture it as “This is where my heart is” is SO BEAUTIFUL, too! I love that frame and I will certainly invoke it in the future.