We all know by now that the Thirteenth Doctor has a thing for New Year’s Day, rather than necessarily Christmas – the decisions of TV execs have given her that slot, shifting her out of what had long been a traditional festive celebration and bumping her to the new year to kick off the calendar with a good old dash-about, be it to face her first Dalek in her new body, or a long game by a Master she’s never encountered before.
But here’s the thing. When she first regenerated, and realised it was done, and who she was and what she was, the Thirteenth Doctor’s reaction was absolutely pure Christmas-present joy. That smile, that beaming smile of ‘Santa’s been and look what he’s brought me,’ followed by every child’s exclamation – ‘Oh, brilliant!’ Her very birth in the universe seemed to beg for a Christmas adventure.
It’s just as well then that Titan Comics is on hand, with Jody Houser to write the 13th Doctor’s festive comic-book special, and the artistic team of Roberta Ingranata, Giorgio Sposito and Valeria Favoccia to turn that story into over a hundred pages of Christmassy artwork, coloured by Enrica Eren Angioline and Tracey Bailey.
So – what do you need to feel the holiday spirit?
Well, you need to be on holiday, of course!
This Christmas special opens with Team Tardis going on holiday…because that always works out well on board the brilliant, occasionally cantankerous time-ship.
In the Thirteenth Doctor’s defence though, this time she’s leaving the destination entirely to the Tardis itself, so at least that should be fine. And indeed, fun and games are the order of the day at a kind of super space Disneyland.
Which is all great until Graham tries his hand at a super space Disneyland coconut shy, and loses, and gets captured by the owner of the shy as a kind of prize, revealing a dark underbelly to the whole operation, and requiring the Doctor and Most-Fam to come and free him, along with a host of other unlucky ball-chuckers who’ve been languishing their lives away, waiting to be won.
Here’s where Houser shows her instincts at writing Chibnallian Thirteenth Doctor stories. At many points in history, this story of Graham-abduction would be quite enough to fill at least an introductory episode to a story-arc, or a one-off issue – the Doctor and friends, rescuing their other friend from sinister carnival folk? Absolutely. But in the era of the Thirteenth Doctor, this is barely Act One of the storytelling…because while there’s plenty of time and space in this hundred-and-some page Christmas special issue devoted to the endangerment and rescue of Graham, it leads to a very Thirteenth Doctor-style revelation – none of the Fam remember the same events. In other variations of their memory, different members of Team Tardis are at the centre of the numbskullery and capture, so it’s by no means certain that anything that we initially think happened to Graham…ever did.
It’s an off-kilter, minor-key realisation that the memories of the characters, as represented by the first handful of pages, might not be a true record of events, and it pulls the reader into the drama, because we observe those events without ever doubting them until there’s reason to do so, so we’re in the same situation as the team.
Cue some Thirteenth Doctor scrunchy-face, and some proper ‘Northern Mam’ action, as she works out where they’ve actually been, and goes to talk to what is absolutely, definitely, beyond-any-shadow-of-doubt…probably not an elf.
Houser’s very intuitive here, because the Thirteenth Doctor’s essential characterisation – based as it is like the Tenth Doctor before her in an essential day-to-day optimism – is not by any means easy to capture in comic-book form. Sure, there’s striding about and sonicing things, but underneath that, she has a knack for quietness. For ditching the bravado of the Time Lord, and sitting with people and listening (as was shown in the likes of Kerblam!, It Takes You Away and The Witchfinders). It’s that quiet, respectful listening, as much as her one-shot, no-backup plan-making to save the day that defines the Thirteenth Doctor as different from some of her predecessors, and here, she and the Fam sit patiently, while at least some of what’s gone before them and been replaced with the fake memories of space Disney peril is explained.
What follows that talk is fairly classic Thirteen too – there’s a bit of faffing, an optimistic greeting, capture by the minions of a narky non-Santa, a meeting with an Elf With Attitude and a dab hand with a candy cane, a bit of sonic-twiddling, a great villain-reveal and a silly hat en route to uncovering the sinister plans behind the theft of the Tardis team’s memories. There’s also more nailed-to-the-page Thirteen chat too – reflections on how good her Fam are, and how well she did when she chose her new best friends give a warm hug of Northern charm to proceedings, while a mandatory ‘I’m the Doctor’ speech is given power on the page by an absolutely stand-out panel of artwork.
Bottom line: someone is operating a slave workforce for nefarious purposes – it’s not exactly a sweatshop of elves, working themselves to death to make all the toys in time for Christmas, but if you squint your eyes, you can get there. Has something gone wrong with the Doctor’s mate Jeff, or is there something even odder going on?
Spoiler alert: there’s something even odder going on.
The something even odder involves the logical, folklorically-established enemy of Christmas, delivered in a way which is more than a horn-tipped head-nod to the Nimon – mythology and technology combined for purposes which on the one hand are nefarious, and on the other hand are almost inevitable. There’s even a touch of Monsters, Inc about the inevitable aspect of this storyline, the lengths to which people will go to get what they absolutely need, even if what they absolutely need involves hurting other people, being key to the drama.
Add an infinite wardrobe to the mix and things are getting Christmassy in a Doctor Who fashion. The story makes a certain, inevitable kind of sense, there’s enough for the Doctor to do, and she does it in a believable Thirteenth incarnation style, saving Christmas, saving children from fear, defeating a monster with no option but to be a monster, freeing a slave workforce and leaving a mince pie out for her mate Jeff, should he decide to come calling.
Time Out of Mind then is a selection box of good things, from an initial premise that’s familiar to Who fans from as far back as The Romans – Team Tardis on a holiday that goes a bit wrong – to a distinctly Chibnallian chill as the initial story becomes only a marker of something deeper and darker going on, through a festive adventure very much in the Russell T Davies vein, that pits the newest of the Time Lords and her Fam up against the forces of an existential anti-Christmas evil, allows them to win through with a bit of twiddling, a calm speech or two, a bit of a stand taken and a determinedly silly hat, and then straight on for the pleasure of Christmas Dinner.
If you’re still waiting for the pleasure of a Christmassy tale with the 13th Doctor, pull a leftover cracker, pop a silly hat on your head and have a go at Time Out of Mind – it’ll make your January better. The Son of Fiction