Welcome to the Convo, where ACG Blog contributors get together for discussion and analysis. Today’s topic is this year’s “Doctor Who” Christmas special “A Christmas Carol.”
Merry Christmas, Whoniverse! Ever since the BBC’s flagship science-fiction program Doctor Who was brought back to our televisions in 2005, there’s been a special episode aired at Christmastime to tide audiences over between the regular seasons that are shown in the spring. While the previous offerings have been fine adventures in their own right, most have had only the trappings of Christmas — snowy countrysides, robot Santas, and the occasional homicidal Christmas tree, but little else that would link their stories to the holiday. Last year’s two-parter, “The End of Time,” was a poignant farewell to lead actor David Tennant, but its tone was about as far from Christmas as could be. This year’s special, “A Christmas Carol,” is the first to feature Tennant’s successor Matt Smith in the lead role as the time-traveling alien Doctor, and the episode more than lives up to its name. It is a fantastic timey-wimey romp, and it is quintessentially Christmas.
The episode takes its name from the classic Christmas story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly visitors, but it offers a “Doctor Who” twist on the story, rather than a simple retelling. In fact, in a clever bit of writing, we are shown the Doctor getting his inspiration for how to deal with the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick by a chance mentioning of the phrase “a Christmas carol.” The context was unrelated to the original ghost story, but you can almost see the wheels turning in the Doctor’s head as he makes the connection. The Doctor met Charles Dickens himself several years ago in the episode “The Unquiet Dead” and professed himself to be a huge fan, so it’s of little surprise that when faced with a Scrooge he decides to reenact the tale. What follows, however, is a version of the classic story that only writer-producer Stephen Moffat could have come up with.
The Doctor is brought into the case by a crashing spaceship, which happens to be carrying his two companions, Mr. and Mrs. Amy Pond. Sardick is the only one who can save them, because only his device can part the clouds enough for the ship to stabilize. When he refuses, the Doctor decides that it is up to him to play the Ghost of Christmas Past to persuade Sardick to become a better person. Although it is not often recognized as such, the original short story was a time-travel adventure — the ghosts take Scrooge into the past to see his former self, and then into the future to see where his present path is leading. In Moffat’s version, however, the time-travel is even more blatant: facing rejection by Sardick in the present day, the Doctor travels back into the man’s past alone and sets about trying to make things right back then. In the present, Sardick is watching a recording of his past self, and so is able to witness both internally and externally as his memories change.
In truth, this bit had the potential to be incredibly creepy, but it was played just right by the “Doctor Who” team. Sardick is startled by the Doctor’s presence in the recording and by the new memories that start flooding in, but he never appears to be scared or violated by them. This is good, for what the Doctor is attempting is a much riskier venture than any we’ve seen before. By stepping in and attempting to willfully mold a person’s entire life history, the Doctor is flirting with the kind of dangers that his Ninth incarnation let loose in the 2005 episode “Father’s Day”, in addition to risking the arrogance of the Time Lord Victorious last seen in 2009’s “The Waters of Mars.” Luckily, Sardick never seems angry at what the Doctor is doing to his life — just exasperated and wishing he had time to sort out which memories are which.
The visits from the Doctor’s Ghost of Christmas Past begin to mollify Kazran Sardick in the present, mostly due to the beautiful Abigail whom the Doctor finds frozen in Sardick’s father’s vaults. Abigail, however, is harboring a secret illness, and although she has had the night of her life many times over with the Doctor and young Sardick, she must eventually be frozen away forever after letting a now lovestruck Sardick know she has but one day left to live. When the Doctor returns to the present day, it is to find a less bitter Sardick who recognizes him as a friend — but one hardened by the loss of his beloved Abigail, and still unwilling to part the skies.
The Doctor’s companions are woefully underused in this story, being primarily stuck on a crashing starship for the majority of the episode. Amy Pond, however, oversees the next step of the Doctor’s Christmas plan, which is to show Sardick up-close and personally the four thousand people in space he is condemning to death. Unfortunately, the caroling holograms she projects do little to sway his mind.
As it turns out, however, Amy’s brief appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Present seems to have been only a distraction for Sardick while the Doctor readied the final apparition. Sardick, perhaps familiar with the original tale, asks bitterly if the Doctor has come to show him a lonely grave as the final ghost showed Scrooge. As it turns out, however, Sardick himself is the terrifying future he faces, as the Doctor has brought forward in time the miser’s horrified younger self. Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Sardick is masterful throughout the entire episode, but in this scene between him and his former self, the actor’s emotion is simply incredible. This, for me, is where the story ends. When Kazran realizes the kind of man he has become (and is brought face-to-face with the kind of man he wanted to be), he breaks down and cries into his younger self’s shoulders. When he stands back up, it is clear that he has rededicated himself and will help the spaceship land.
Of course, the episode doesn’t end there, and some more fancy footwork is required until the day has been saved for real. The most important aspect of this last part is that Abigail must be woken up for her final day to sing to a flying shark – a piece of storytelling that was charming, odd, and unexpectedly integral to the plot. Kazran, Abigail, and everyone else know that Abigail is going to pass away after this last day, because apparently future health care practitioners are good enough to put an exact count on this sort of thing. Not even the Doctor can do anything to help the young woman – but as he reminds Amy, “Everything’s got to end sometime, otherwise nothing would ever get started.” Amy, who has a tendency to take her time with the Doctor for granted, seemed rather unsettled by this line, which I thought was a good note to end the episode on.
All in all, I think the Christmas special was a hit. Fans of the show may notice that under Stephen Moffat, the Doctor’s adventures are getting more “timey-wimey” — aka, relying more on time-travel as an actual plot element rather than just a framing device that gets our characters to the start of an adventure and takes them away at the end. This current Doctor, whose previous incarnations frequently claimed to not be able to leave a timeline once they’d become part of events, seems to not be bound by such rules. Instead, time-traveling jaunts back and forth in Kazran’s life (along with the occasional side trip to visit the pyramids or Marilyn Monroe) seem perfectly acceptable. There’s a danger in this, both for the accompanying arrogance of the Doctor’s character and for the storylines which no longer are possible if the Doctor feels free to hop in his TARDIS and go anywhere at any time. In previous adventures, Moffat has portrayed the Doctor as perpetually out-of-sync, regularly missing appointments with Madame de Pompadour and Amy herself due to overshooting his arrival in the time-traveling TARDIS. It’s hard to imagine the Doctor of “A Christmas Carol,” with his propensity to hop back in the blue box to try something different, ever being so out-of-sync again.
But this lovely program is entering its forty-eighth year, and I am well aware that plotlines and characters evolve — or all the best ones do, at least. If the madman in a box is becoming even madder, I for one am excited to see where that leads. And if the preview for series six that aired at the end of the Christmas special is anything to go on, the Doctor’s adventures from here on out will be mad indeed. Geronimo!
I never like when this happens. I love “Doctor Who,” I really do, but sometimes an episode is simply just too bad or questionable or full of holes that I have to become — wait for it — miserly. This, unfortunately, was the case with this year’s Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol.” Thankfully, I do feel less guilty about the review I’m about to write because of Joe’s nearly unequivocal endorsement above.
Don’t get me wrong; there were many things I enjoyed about “A Christmas Carol.” Amy and Rory dressed up as a policewoman and Roman centurion for honeymoon games, for example, which was amusing enough to raise a grin but sly enough to slip past young viewers. Plus, come on, we all knew what those handcuffs were going to be used for. I quite liked the smooth reference in Abigail’s song that “Silence will fall all around.” As an Arthur Darvill fan I was pleased to finally see his name in the opening credits, a place extremely deserved. Michael Gambon was exceptionally skilled in portraying a quasi-Scrooge, continuing a long and proud tradition of exceptional performances on the show. And of course it was beautifully designed and executed; each set, each shot and each costume was a triumph, especially considering the increasingly slashed show budgets.
There are equally nitpicky things I was not happy about, too. The Blinovitch Limitation Effect, for example, which was critical during “Father’s Day” but has apparently gone completely out the window now. How could it possibly be cost-effective to keep people frozen as collateral over long periods of time? Also, I hated basically everything about the fish, from their unnecessary part in the plot to the contradiction that the air is so full of water they can swim and yet everyone walks around dry as a bone. Of course, those are the kinds of things I’m willing to overlook. Unfortunately, “A Christmas Carol” had some rather major structural problems I simply cannot ignore.
I’m a big fan of timey-wimey shenanigans done well. See “Blink”; “The Big Bang”; River Song. But this was simply too unbelievable and too difficult to follow. A fast pace is part of “Doctor Who,” I know, but there was simply so much flying by me this time that I had to give up and simply focus on holding on for dear life. I was following it right up until the Doctor and Young Kazran began time traveling each Christmas Eve with Abigail. Why her over the other frozen people creepily taking up Sardick basement real estate? Was it simply because Old Kazran had referred to her as unimportant? Or did the Doctor hope for the outcome that would break the heart of Horny Kazran (as I refer to the kiss-happy middle incarnation)? Their love is also a little questionable. Although it seems nice on the surface, remember, to her he was 12 like three days ago. He certainly was handsome, but, come on, that’s a little much.
Furthermore, Amy and especially Rory were criminally underused. This hopefully won’t be a running problem through the series, but sometimes Rory gets rather shut out, and I’m desperate for more Rory time. Perhaps they could even do one from Rory’s point of view, where he feels a little left out and then has his own little side adventure or something. I know, I know, “Buffy” has done it before, but frankly “Doctor Who” could do it even better.
I could go on and on, but in the Christmas spirit I’ve decided to let my point lie. I had some problems with the episode’s format, that’s clear enough, and its incoherence interfered with enjoying the episode. But it’s Christmastime, and I shall forgive “Doctor Who” its problems and plot holes. With the new year coming up, I’d rather focus on the fabulous looking sixth series. Here’s to 2011!