"You are kidding me."

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Now we know we're not the audience that was intended for this episode. We're not lolling round the fire dazed by turkey and that murky green liqueur from the back of the drinks cupboard. Instead, we're watching it, gimlet-eyed, in the cold light of the new year. (Well, not that cold. After all, it's midsummer and we've got the office fan on. But you know what we mean.)

So we're willing to cut it a little slack. Hey, it (was) Christmas. That means panto, slapstick and all-around silliness, right? No objection, your Honour - provided they're done well.

But they aren't.

The first time we saw this, we detested it beyond measure. Hated it, hated it, hated it. On a second viewing, much to our surprise its virtues became more apparent. Some of the things Russell T Davies is trying to do definitely do work. But it's still not very good.

The previous year's Christmas Invasion was a triumph. Problem is, you can't repeat that by simply doing everything you did last time. The killer Santas and Christmas trees that were so brilliant before are here as stale as a month-old mince pie. The running and screaming in the streets are also yawnsomely familiar from last year, and the Doctor and Donna trying to get out of the reception venue only to find that the Santas are advancing on all sides is a direct lift from Rise Of The Cybermen. Socks again?

Then there's the villain. Yes, it's very funny that they wash the spiders down the plughole, and for once we're going to let the stupidity of a hole to the centre of the Earth and draining the Thames slide (Christmas, remember?). And we quite like the Earth forming around the spiders, even if it's not stunningly original. But the Racnoss Empress? Oh, dear God. Casanova alumna Sarah Parish gets handed the poisoned chalice, and she drains it to the dregs and hurls the cup into the fireplace. We've never, ever seen such rampant scenery-munching. Add that to a scripted part of awesome dreadfulness ("Floating so high on Christmas night!") and the fact that hiss and wriggle though she might her many feet stay hilariously concreted to the floor, and our minds are made up. It's a weighty honour, and not one we bestow lightly, but yes, we think she's worthy. She's the Worst Villain Ever (Cheese Division).

And what about the celebrity casting? We find Catherine Tate's comedy characters a bit on the repetitive side, but there's no doubt that she can act, as the criminally underrated Wild West shows. Sadly, though, her talent's for the most part thrown away here, because for the majority of her screentime she's been given a character so relentlessly and irritatingly one-note we were ready to strangle her with her own veil. She's angry. She demands things. She points out over and over and over that she's supposed to be getting married and is in her wedding dress. Please stop! We get it! And just when you think it's all over, it all ramps up again at the reception. And just when you think it's really really all over, she starts in again on Lance and the Racnoss. You know Spam? The way the manufacturers think of it as food, and expect other people to think of it as food too, but it just isn't? Well, that's exactly what all of those rants remind us of. Russell T Davies clearly thinks they're funny, the actors play them as if they're funny, but they're just not all that funny. It's a sad, sad sight.

Then there are all the other random annoyances. Like Murray Gold's music, which in its whoopy zaniness actually manages to out-bad everything he's done before. And the seemingly endless TARDIS chase: we hope all those critics out there of The Chase are choking on their bile, because that's Fellini in comparison. And the sonic screwdriver - to fulfil our Reviewing Duty, one of us was deputed to note down every time it was used, and she got writer's cramp: thirteen times, by our count. We know it avoids boring problems like opening locks, but really, that's just taking the piss.

Even all of this stuff we'd be willing to forgive (it's Christmas, etc), if it all added up to an entertaining episode. But it doesn't. We don't really care about the fate of Donna's nasty family. We don't really care about the fate of the invisible spider babies. We don't really care about the fate of Lance. We don't really care about the fate of the Empress. In fact, we were faintly bored all the way through. Watching the splendid Sarah Jane Adventures, which despite being designed for an age group aeons below ours still glued us to the sofa, really highlighted for us just how little The Runaway Bride managed to engage us.

As ever, though, it's not all bad. The star is pretty. We love the Henrik's signs (guess the insurance came through, then). The view of the Earth forming's gorgeous. When Catherine Tate's allowed to stop droning on about pockets, she's a very sympathetic and believable character, and there's real emotion in her exchanges with the Doctor.

Best of all, there's the Doctor. Russell T Davies goes to a lot of trouble here to show us that without Rose, the Doctor's a much darker man. Back in The Christmas Invasion, he gives the Sycorax the opportunity to redeem himself, but when he doesn't, it's two strikes and he's out: the Doctor decides that that's the kind of man he is. Rose has been a softening influence on him, but she's gone now, and we get to see a bit more of the implacability that's been lurking. When Donna asks the Doctor to help with the injured people at the reception, he brushes her off with a reference to the bigger picture; later, Lance also refers to the bigger picture. Twinning him with a villain, not to mention the repeated mopy scenes about Rose, is an ever-so-subtle hint that the iron has entered the Doctor's soul, and Donna reinforces this in her last scene with the Doctor. It's not that she's afraid of time travel: she's afraid of him. She's seen the Dark Side, and she doesn't like it. (In this she's probably a bit more perceptive than Rose, who we think less accepted that side of the Doctor than refused to recognise it.)

So it's clear that the loss of Rose has left us with a very different Doctor: darker, more complex, still grieving. And David Tennant hits this out of the park. He's still just as sublime at the zany and the caring stuff (we're particularly fond of his delivery of "With this ring I thee biodamp"), but he turns on the dark stuff without breaking stride. We never thought he couldn't - that amazing swimming pool scene in School Reunion was definitely proof of that - but it's nice to see him get the chance. Long may it continue.

A sparkling but musty vintage with complex undertones and a bittersweet finish. Best enjoyed with: Christmas pudding with a very large slosh of brandy.

MORAL: O, what a tangled web we weave when we get stuck in the middle of a planet.



If Lance needs to get Donna down the aisle to maximise the potency of the huon particles (or something), why's he so reluctant to propose? It's not as if he'll even need to go through with the wedding.


Donna's hair is straight until she gets it wet, when it reverts to Catherine Tate's natural curls. However, after she's dried off her hair has mysteriously straightened itself again.


"This time it's personnel"? Shoot. Him.


When the Doctor flings open the TARDIS doors, he says "Donna Noble, welcome to the creation of the Earth". She introduced herself as "Donna" - how does he know her surname?


The wedding's on Christmas Eve, right? So how come Donna invites the Doctor in for Christmas dinner? And at night, too?

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