Doctor Who: Short Trips: O Tannenbaum – Written by Anthony Keetch, Performed by Peter Purves & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – Download (Big Finish)
I have long associated Christmas with Doctor Who. Not only was it a time when I could expect a few items under the tree that I never would have been able to purchase on my own (I remember being particularly excited when Peter Haining’s The Key to Time peeked out from behind a torn corner of Christmas wrapping), it was also a time when we just seemed to have the programme playing on the TV a lot. I’m talking about a period long before the Christmas specials – long before the new series started, even. It just seemed to be “Chrismassy” to have Doctor Who on in the background. I remember one Christmas in particular – I think it might have been around the turn of the millennium. For some reason, late in the morning, my brother pulled out my VHS copy of The Romans of all stories, and fed it into our battered, old video machine. For the next several hours, my whole family – who never, ever watched the show – sat with me and watched an old, Hartnell-era, black-and-white Doctor Who serial. It was magic.
And before the TV show came back in 2005, there were the audios. The One Doctor had a lovely little vignette as a hidden extra which hearkened back to the First Doctor breaking the fourth wall and addressing his fans directly, just to wish them “Merry Christmas”. Flip-Flop, Death in Blackpool and Relative Dimensions all have wonderful Christmas elements to them. In more recent years, Big Finish have done Christmas specials in some of their other popular ranges, including Dark Shadows, Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes. And Iris Wildthyme will always have The Claws of Santa. But above all, like most long-term Big Finish fans, I still listen to The Chimes of Midnight every Yuletide season. I know it’s a terrible cliché, but never has a truer one been spoken: Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without The Chimes of Midnight.
And then there are the Short Trips. In many ways, these are perfectly suited to Christmas stories: most of them are short clips of life in the TARDIS, and they give us a chance to explore the eclectic characters who are ever moving through the Doctor’s life. Generally speaking, they don’t take themselves too seriously. For the most part, they are just the kind of story I can imagine hearing on the radio on Christmas Eve or on a lazy Yuletide afternoon, after the turkey has gone in the oven but before the doorbell rings and the cousins start arriving.
There’s no doubt that sometimes Christmas Doctor Who stories suffer from having to wedge in some kind of holiday reference. On TV, we’ve had to deal with robots dressed up as Santa Claus, a man basically living out of the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, and many other somewhat halfhearted Noël references. Anthony Keetch’s O Tannenbaum– a tale that has living Christmas trees as its primary antagonist – certainly also falls into this trap. But what Doctor Who fans have learned to do over the years is look past the artificial Christmas trappings in order to find something that makes these stories a bit more magical than most.
The First Doctor and Steven arrive in a lush forest in the depths of winter. As they explore the landscape, they slowly begin to notice something strange about the snow-covered conifers that surround them, though Steven has a hard time putting his finger exactly on what it is. Stumbling across a cabin in the woods, the two travellers meet Gretta, a wide-eyed little girl who tells them that her father has still not returned from going out to chop firewood earlier in the afternoon.
Just where Gretta’s father is and how the trees (including the sparkling Christmas tree on the main floor of the cabin) figure into the story is perhaps no less artificial than previous Christmas outings with the Doctor. But there is also a secret buried deep upstairs in this cabin, something that – on the surface – no little girl should ever have to deal with at Christmastime. It is this confrontation, and a recognition that it is often during special family moments like this one that we become acutely aware of our own mortality, that is really at the heart of O Tannenbaum. In the end, this is not a story about mysterious invaders in the shape of Christmas trees. It is a story about a family having one last Christmas together before they lose one of their number forever. With all this in mind, one would expect an intense sadness to be ever-present in the story. But it’s not like that at all. Rather, O Tannenbaum is about celebrating life, not mourning the passing of it.
Peter Purves has been doing these First Doctor stories with Big Finish for so long that, as I was listening, I found myself forgetting that this was not a full-cast drama. It’s not even a “Companion Chronicles”-style story with a few central actors. Rather, it’s one lone voice exploring some of the deepest meanings behind Christmas. As it revolves around the main characters of the First Doctor and Stephen, O Tannenbaum harkens back to the very first Doctor Who Christmas special of them all – not the post-regeneration “Christmas Invasion”, but 1965’s “The Feast of Steven”: that one week where all the crisscrossing mayhem of The Daleks Masterplan just stopped, and the characters got to have some fun for a change. O Tannebaum is certainly quieter (and much darker) than The Feast of Steven, but the message remains: sometimes we need to turn our backs on the whirligig of time and just focus on each other. It’s not the holly and the mistletoe that makes stories like O Tannenbaum solid Christmas fare; rather, it’s the way the characters interact and the way life (including all its abject horrors) can just stop for a little while while we sit and reappraise the world around us. Peter McAlpine