I didn’t mind this at all. The 2008 Christmas special, the first episode of the “specials year”, comes under a lot of flak for being an underwhelming beginning to what had been promised as a thoroughly whelming year of specials. To some extent, it didn’t live up to the expectations many were casting upon it, and admittedly it was fairly nondescript as far as Christmas specials go, but I don’t think it was a bad story by any means. It was entertaining, fun, engaging, and had a few very profound moments. For a lighthearted Christmas special, it was fine, although I can agree that, given the hype around the specials year and given how much time the producers had to write and produce these specials, fans would be justified in having expected something better.
The premise of a man in Victorian London who claims and appears to be the Doctor, only with inexplicable loss of memory, I found very interesting. It wasn’t certain at first whether we were seeing a future incarnation of the Doctor or an impostor, but, of course, we soon find out the horrible reality of Jackson Lake, his encounter with the Cybermen, his absorption of the Doctor’s persona, and the loss of his wife. The tale of how Lake became the Doctor was horrifying, and so touching. It was an uncharacteristically poignant and tragic note in what, until then, had seemed to be a quirky and lighthearted Christmas episode. Morrissey’s acting when Lake realised how he became the Doctor, what had unhinged him so much that he believed he was someone else, was incredibly moving. Indeed, Morrissey’s acting throughout this episode was excellent, easily one of the best aspects of the story. Jackson Lake was a great, charming character who elicited affection from the audience, although, if I’m honest, I don’t think I fancy him as the Doctor: he’s a bit too much of a dashing hero for my liking.
The plot itself was a bit unspectacular, a bit unimaginative and derivative. I came away with the impression that the writers have already run out of interesting things to do with the Cybermen. The most interesting thing about the Cybermen in this story was that one of them had a transparent helmet, allowing his pink brain to be seen. Also they were trapped in Victorian London, which makes a nice change of scenery from 21st Century London, although I suppose that has more to do with the setting. The giant Cyberman stomping over London was… inoffensive, but wasn’t as awesome as RTD evidently thought it was. The Cyber King was pretty ill-conceived, though, I thought. Cybermen don’t have kings. They have Cyber Leaders, Cyber Controllers, Cyber Commanders, yes, but not kings. A king is an exalted nobleman ordained to rule by divine right. Cybermen are above such things as tribal elites and human social hierarchies. All Cybermen are uniform and thus equal; any rank among Cybermen is due to military utility, not natural hierarchy. That’s why I facepalmed when the Cybermen sang out “All hail the Cyber King!” This isn’t the bloody Lion King. Apart from that, I thought the Cybermen were generally fine. I thought the images of the Cybermen appearing out of the snow were very evocative and echoed back to those iconic images of the first Cybermen in The Tenth Planet. Also, those Cybershades were very freaky.
As a final thought, I loved that the Doctor received acclaim from the people of London for saving them. It was heartening to see that, and the Doctor looked genuinely pleasantly surprised, given that we never see the Doctor receive such public recognition. In general I thought this episode was enjoyable enough for a Christmas special, although it’s probably not one I’d watch again in a hurry—it seems like one of those stories that can quickly become tiresome if watched too much. Against the other Christmas specials I’ve watched in this marathon, I’d probably place it on par with The Christmas Invasion, and below both Voyage of the Damned and The Runaway Bride. Voyage of the Damned is easily the best Christmas special yet, in my estimation.