Memory & The Doctor Who Christmas Special

Memory has played an incredibly important role on Doctor Who recently. A few examples will leap easily to mind, but the longer you think about it, the more you realize just how often the acts of remembering and forgetting have been a vital part of the show over the last few years. They've been featured in the vast majority of the episodes since Smith took over the role three seasons ago. It's a long list:

There were the missing memories swallowed by the crack in the universe: of Rory, of the soldier-clerics on the Byzantium, of Amy's family, of the Dalek and Cyberman invasions. There were the false memories created by the Dream Lord and the "false" memories implanted in the Flesh and the false memories implanted in the Roman version of Rory and in the fake WWII scientist created by the Daleks. Roman Rory had to cling to his false memories of being human in order to save the day. So did the British scientist. The key to defeating Prisoner Zero at the beginning of Season Five was having Amy remember what the alien looked like. The key to saving the Doctor at the end of Season Five was having Amy remember the Doctor. On the Dalek asylum planet, Clara wiped history clean of all memory of the Doctor. On the submarine, she appealed to the Ice Warrior's memories of his daughter in order to avert a nuclear holocaust. Later, she lost her own memories of her trip into the centre of the TARDIS. In the Anniversary Special, the Black Archive wiped memories clean and the various versions of the Doctor forgot their memories of meeting their future selves. The Moment calls the Eleventh Doctor "The Man Who Forgets." Then, there was the "FORGET" button on the space-whale ship. The memory worm in the Victorian Christmas Special. The Silents. And, of course, "Run you clever boy, and remember."

So it seems fitting that Matt Smith's tenure would end on a speech about memory. "We all change," he tells Clara as his regeneration takes hold. "When you think about it, we're all different people all through our lives and that's okay, that's good. You've got to keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

As he says those lines, the score swells. The melody is a song we already know from earlier in the season: the song sung by the young Queen of Years in "The Rings of Akhaten." It's a song about memory. She is the vessel for the history of her people — "every chronicle, every poem, every legend, every song" — and the "Long Song" has been sung for millions of years, passed down from one generation to the next.

A little, you might say, like the title of the Doctor. From William Hartnell to Matt Smith, Doctor Who has been the vessel for our own cultural memory. The young, dashing Doctors of the reboot years might seem a long way from the cantankerous old man who first played the role, but as the 50th anniversary has reminded us, this is a show with deep roots. Half a century later, the heart remains unchanged. "Same software, different face," as the Moment said.

Doctor Who was first conceived in the wake of the Suez Crisis, when the recent memory of the horrors of the Second World War was leading to new innovations like United Nations peacekeeping. The show was founded with those Pearsonian values as central tenets of its philosophy. Fifty years later, they are still at the core of Doctor Who, passed down from one generation of writers, actors and producers to the next.

And so, Matt Smith goes out as the ultimate peacekeeper: spending hundreds upon hundreds of years sitting in the demilitarized zone of the town of Christmas, keeping the horrors of the Time War at bay by putting himself between the two waring factions. All he was misisng was a blue helmet. Children watching the show this holiday season were learning the same lessons the current creators of the show were learning by watching Doctor Who when they were growing up.

In a way, it's a reminder of the very origins of storytelling: the oral histories that came long before written records. Cultural memories. Myths passed down from one generation to the next, always changing but ever the same. "The soufflé isn't the soufflé," as Clara's mum says, "the soufflé is the recipe."

Of course, it's not always easy: even though he promises to remember every line, the very first thing the new Doctor does is forget. Peter Capaldi can't even remember how to fly the TARDIS. And given just how interested Steven Moffat's seems to be in the idea of memory, it will be interesting to see whether the missing knowledge is only a brief glitch, or a more problematic side effect of the Doctor's new regeneration cycle. After all, as the poem in Clara's Christmas cracker suggests, the metaphorical clock has struck twelve. It all starts over again. Who knows what that might mean?

If the Doctor does have more trouble with his memory, then it seems like Clara — who saved the day in the Christmas Special, just as she saved the day in the Anniversary Special and, as it turns out, pretty much the Doctor's entire timeline stretching back all the way to day he and Susan left Gallifrey — might have a lot more saving left to do.

Other thoughts:

- Is Tasha Lem River Song?

- Another brief mention of the memory theme in the Christmas Special: the Doctor says he's keeping the TARDIS around on Christmas as a reminder — of the fact that he sent Clara away? Of his previous, time-travelling life?

- So many death references! The message from Gallifrey is "a tolling bell" according to Tasha Lem's narration in the opening. The bell tolls on the tower in Christmas. Clara calls the turkey, "dead and decapitated." Church.  "Everything ends, Clara. And sooner than you think." Handles — not just his developing a fault, but also the way he echoes Yorick's skull from Hamlet. Bleeding Cool also suggests there are references to "the Sumerian myth of Inana and her journey into the underworld." And points out the links between death and nudity, which also echoes Matt Smith getting dressed in "The Eleventh Hour."

- The Doctor Who Waited. Amy only had to wait fourteen years for the TARDIS to come back with her hero; the Doctor has to wait 300 for the TARDIS to come back with Clara.

- So what about the Valeyard? The new order of regenerations means that the Valeyard must have been created between David Tennant and Matt Smith. There certainly didn't seem to be any sign of that at the time, but in "Nightmare in Silver," when the Doctor is facing off against the Cyber-controller inside his own head, you do see all of the version of the Doctor flash by in the background. There's a burning explosion thingy between Tennant and Smith. Was that supposed to be related to the Valeyard?

- There are a lot of parallels between the Christmas Special and "The Town Called Mercy." Like when the Doctor calls himself "the new sheriff" of Christmas, his duel with the wooden Cyberman echoing his duel with the cyborg, the clock tower, etc.

- There's another echo of "The Rings of Akhaten," too: Barnable hides behind the TARDIS much like the Queen of Years did.

- And an echo of Bad Wolf. The Doctor sends Clara away in much the same way he sent Rose away. And Clara ignores him when he tells her to stay away just as much as Rose did.

- I've been a fan of Steven Moffat's run, but one of the first things you learn in screenwriting class is that you should always look to raise the stakes. Moffat seems intent on lowering them every chance he gets. Barely anyone ever has to die anymore — Strax can just zap them back to life — and now the biggest hurdle in the history of Who — the Doctor's regeneration limit — is dealt with in one quick episode. It seems to me it would have had a lot more emotional weight if they'd built up to it over a full season — or at least a few episodes — instead of just bringing it up half an episode before solving it. Plus, the Doctor gets to change what seemed like a fixed point in history — his own death on Trenzalore — just one episode after he gets to undo his terrible actions in the Time War, which came just one episode after he went inside his own timeline — which is supposed to be a big, dangerous thing to do — and didn't seem any worse for wear. Not to mention that he also got to find a way out of his own death in Season Six, too.

- He's STILL wearing Amy's reading glasses when Clara comes to him as an old man.

- Amy and Rory and Clara all play a really big role in his life considering how little time he spends with them in the hundreds of years the Eleventh Doctor's regeneration lasts.

- Clara prays to the crack to save the Doctor; Amy prayed to Santa about the crack and got the Doctor.

- The Doctor does his "drunk giraffe" dance move with the children on Christmas. It's the same move he did at Amy & Rory's wedding.

- The truth field seemed under-used to me. And apparently it doesn't extend into the TARDIS? They do seem to be on the surface of Christmas when the Doctor promises never to send Clara away again, and then he immediately sends her away again. Or did he mean "again, after this time"? In which case, truth fields kind of suck.

- The children of Christmas seem to like Doctor Who fan-fic as much as other Whovians: the puppet show (which echoes the Punch & Judy show from Clara's first Christmas Special), all those drawings (which echo Amy's drawings, of course)... By the end, the town of Christmas was looking a lot like Tumblr.

- So the crack is what Doctor saw in his hotel room in "The God Complex"? That strikes me as pretty lame. After the Anniversary Special, it made so much sense that he would have seen the War Doctor.

- "We saw this planet in the future, remember? All of those graves. All of them mine." The Doctor says that about Trenzalore. What does that mean, "All of them mine"?

- A season later, Clara is still closely associated with the colour red: this time she gets a red paper crown in her Christmas cracker. It flutters to the ground at one point, much like the red leaf that brought her parents together.


Learn more about the Torontonian who created Doctor Who here. Read my previous recaps of Doctor Who episodes, beginning with the 50th anniversary special here. Check out Peter Capaldi's 1980s Scottish punk band here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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