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Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Being honest, this Christmas special had me from the moment that Michael Gambon was announced. I might have been a little uncertain when it was stated that Stephen Moffat’s first Christmas episode would be essentially a re-telling of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it a great deal. That isn’t to pretend that it’s a perfect episode of Doctor Who or that there aren’t significant flaws with the hour of television, but it’s fairly entertaining, features fantastic performances and has a few clever concepts playing about – making it great for seasonal viewing.

The Ghost of Christmas past, present and future...

I remarked in my review of the fifth season of the show that Moffat has a different writing style to his predecessor. Russell T. Davies wrote stories that were strong on supporting characters and full of bombast, but didn’t really hold together too well when you examined them closely. Moffat, on the other hand, intellectualised the series and its concept – introducing the phrase “timey wimey” and doing all manner of clever things with the show’s big ideas, while perhaps seeming a bit cold when it came to the emotional moments. He understands his lead character almost perfectly, but his supporting characters never seem quite as fully formed as his predecessors. This is just an observation of both – it’s not a criticism of either.

In many ways, this Christmas special feels like Stephen Moffat is channelling Russell T. Davies, attempting to write the clever concept that he’s come up with in the warm and engaging style of Davies. Of course, there are plenty of references to Davies’ Christmas stories thrown in as well. The little fish that the Doctor sees by the lamp (the first of the episode) reminded me of the “pilot fish” from The Christmas Invasion. Much like David Tennant’s iteration of the character, here both Amy and the Doctor spend a significant amount of time apologising for what they have to do. “I’m sorry,” Amy says to the episode’s primary guest star, “I’m very, very sorry.” Moffat even retains the running joke about “snow that isn’t really snow at Christmas” (which Davies himself tied up with real snow in The Next Doctor).

Although Moffat did well to consciously keep the scale of the threat smaller (what with the last few Christmas specials promising enslavement of mankind, extinction or the end of time itself), there was a sense that you really shouldn’t think too hard about the plot mechanics at work. While Moffat delighted in playing with the time-travel element of the show, it did create a few gnawing questions. I’m not a stickler for continuity, so I don’t care why Kazran touching his younger self didn’t cause the end of the universe (like Rose inadvertently did in Father’s Day).

Saving four thousand people? Snow problem at all...

However, I do wonder why – for example – when the Doctor deliver’s the episode’s undeniable “wham!” moment (showing the younger Kazran the man he will become), it will only change the current version of Kazran. Surely when the Doctor returns his younger self back to where he came from, won’t the younger version of Kazran grow up to be a better person? If the Doctor was able to change the current version of Kazran by going back in time and introducing him to Abigail, surely showing his younger self his older self will rewrite his current self, rather than simply acting as an epiphany?

And, if his younger self changes, surely his father will programme the device so that the younger self can use it (rather than the current version changing so much that he can’t use it)? Furthermore, since the younger Kazran comes from before the young adult Kazran pushes the Doctor out of his life, surely that whole experience should change as well – it should be completely gone, right? So the entire middle of the episode is wiped or ridiculously changed by virtue of the fact that Kazran should now know everything from the outset, rather than getting so upset at the reveal?

Oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

All joking aside, I accept that it simply works the way that it does because it has to in order for Moffat to tell the story he wants to tell. And the story that he wants to tell is (mostly) a strong enough one that I am not overly distracted by the elements that don’t fit. still, Moffat’s reliance on time travel as a plot device was refreshing at first, but it runs the risk of becoming gimmick-y if he continues to rely on it so heavily. I loved his timey wimey season finale, The Big Bang, and the nature of the time travel he’s using her is engaging enough to entertain, but I do fear it could become a crutch for the series. After all, as the Doctor says of summoning a shark with his sonic screwdriver, “No chance. Completely impossible…. Except at Christmas.” Maybe I should just get into the spirit of things.

A towering accomplishment?

Ignoring the time travel dynamics inside the story, it actually worked best as a continuation of Moffat’s key themes. After all, since he’s spent his entire first year moving towards Davies’ portrayal of the Doctor as almost (but not quite) human towards a style of modern fairytale – so A Christmas Carol seems perfect fodder for his first Christmas special (although I am surprised at how far the script went out of its way to secularise Christmas – it’s pretty much made interchangeable with “winter solstice” and described as “half way out of the dark”, which seems to ignore the religious undertones of the holiday as well as being completely incorrect).

Here, again, the Doctor emerges as a magical figure to a small child – pretty much their imaginary friend. He’s the person who shows up whenever a small child begins to learn the lesson that “no one comes” – or at least he’s the person that we wish would show up.

The most powerful moments of the episode saw Kazran, the young child who grew up with annual visits from the Doctor, reject his childhood friend. “Christmas is for kids,” the boy, now a young adult, explains. The annual visits from his childhood friend are “getting a bit old” for the young man who has much to learn from his father. As far back as The Eleventh Hour, Moffat suggested that the Doctor represents that little spark of boundless imagination that all had as children, but somehow outgrew – here, he gets to capture the moment perfectly. Kazran has learnt to put away childish things, like the sonic screwdriver tossed and forgotten in the bottom of a drawer.

"Santa hats are cool..."

The best moment of the episode has the young man consider calling his old friend for aid, only to find his standing in the window – smiling and ready to help. However, in a cruel echo of an earlier moment, Kazran pulls the curtain closed, locking his old friend out. “I won’t need you,” he assured his old friend earlier. “It’s not your fault,” he assured the Doctor, “times change.” Moffat would argue that there’s something worth holding onto in the character of the Doctor and the show as a whole, no matter how much we may grow up.

I’m going to be honest. I thought the fish were the weakest part of the episode. They just seemed rather… banal for a strange and alien sight. I don’t know what it is, but the sight of the Doctor and his companions riding hin a sleigh pulled by a shark almost seemed too ridiculous. For a show which takes the ridiculous and runs with it for thirteen weeks every years, that’s quite an accomplishment. Of course, I can’t objectively argue that a sleigh pulled by a shark is any more ridiculous than any other crazy moment the show has pulled (especially given the Cyberking, for example), but it just feels odd – as if it is trying too hard to be something magical. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a bit of a cynic.

Where the script works best is with the Doctor himself and with the miser character of Kazran. Matt Smith is a wonderful iteration of the character, and he has as much fun playing the role as Stephen Moffat has writing it. Consider, for example, the explanation the Doctor gives here for describing various fashion choices as “cool”. “I wear it and I don’t care,” he remarks of the bow tie. “That’s why it’s cool.” I think that moment pretty much sums up the character – and it’s one that comes back to haunt him.

I don't see any mistletoe...

“It’s not a plan,” Kazran later remarks of the pending deaths of four thousand innocent people, preparing to throw the Doctor’s words back in his face. “I don’t get anything from it. I just don’t care.” However, as much as one may attempt to ascribe various political and philosophical positions to the character – anarchist, libertarian, etc – his most enduring characteristic is that he refuses to be bound by what the majority conclude to be right, if it conflicts with his own finely-tuned moral compass. It isn’t apathy or indifference, but a refusal to embrace social values purely because they are social values. Human beings, on the other hand, he has the utmost compassion for. “You know, in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important,” he remarks near the start of the episode.

The episode’s heart is in the time that the Doctor spends with a young Kazran. We’re introduced to the concept in a sequence where the old Kazran watches the Doctor and his younger self interact together, creating new memories. It’s a wonderful storytelling device, as Michael Gambon’s version of the character sits in his armchair and watches the adventures, like any number of fans at home. He even screams at the telly quite a bit. “No!” he screams as the screen fades to black, a sentiment that any of us who have been frustrated by a last-minute cliffhanger can empathise with.

Structurally, this section of the story has a remarkable resemblance to a Christmas story that writer Paul Cornell wrote a few years ago for the Telegraph, The Hopes and Fears of All the Years. In it, the Doctor checks in on a family once a year at Christmas. For him, the visits are only a few minutes apart, but for those he’s visiting he’s away for a year at a time. The middle section of this episode feels more than a little bit like that, and it contains some wonderful low-key moments which are miles away from the traditional killer santas or exploding trees from Christmas specials of past years. Being entirely honest, I could have spent more time on these little moments, like the Doctor’s duet with “Frank” or marriage to “the Marilyn”.

Christmas Time Travel...

Matt Smith is a great leading actor, but he’s found his match in Michael Gambon. Let’s be honest, every actor in the British Isles over a certain age has likely played Scrooge at one point or another. Even Bill Murray’s done it. I can’t really rank Gambon’s performance against theirs, but I can observe that – much like Moffat’s script – he was a wry awareness about what he’s doing. Kazran is a carbon copy of the Dickens character, and Gambon has great fun playing with that. The Doctor knows that’s he’s emulating a classic, and Kazran is equally aware of how he’s being manipulated.

The script isn’t shy about the moral ambiguity of the Doctor is doing. Re-writing someone’s history brings back memories of “the Time Lord victorious” from The Waters of Mars and it’s easy to see when Kazran would become so embittered. After all, from Kazran’s perspective, the Doctor “changed the course of my whole life to suit himself.” It’s a hard observation to refute, and it’s to Moffat’s credit that he acknowledges just how risky and manipulative a gambit it is – after all, it blows up right the Doctor’s face, as Kazran’s broken heart leaves the billionaire perhaps even more embittered than he was before.

Confronted with his past and present, Kazran demonstrates just how familiar he is with the pattern of such things. The character goads the Doctor to bring on the ghost of Christmas Future in its traditionally form – to show him how he ends up, dying cold and alone. “Everyone dies cold and alone,” he insists, daring the Doctor to show him something he isn’t expecting. “Show me what I become…”

Looks like Kazran is truly scrooge-ed...

And it’s that single twist on Christmas Future which won me over to the episode, to be honest. I might have my misgivings about the use of time travel or the somewhat trite flying fish, but that one moment – the Doctor’s final ace-in-the-hole, his weapon of last resort – is a powerful one. Kazran as he is now is the Ghost of Christmas Future. After all, even if we die alone it’s possible to argue we lived a decent life – it’s perhaps a cliché moment, and one I imagine a thick-skinned character could shrug off. However, showing us the sad and lonely old man who we will have to live as… that’s cold. “Is this who you want to become, Kazran?” the Doctor asks the young child he’s taken into the future.

One of the more interesting questions that Moffat raises here – and one I’m almost certain we’ll see addressed in the upcoming season – is about time. Specifically how it must feel to control time and to be able to choose particular moments. Kazran has his beloved locked up in a freezer, with one day of life left in here. He explicitly asks Amy and the Doctor how he should decide which day should be her last – he also asks what gives him the right to decide that this isn’t the day that four thousand people die. Given that the Doctor is a time traveller, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moffat play with these ideas in the coming year. Davies used to pepper arc words through his seasons, but Moffat’s first season was filled with structural and thematic hints, so it’ll be interesting to see how – if at all – this factor comes into play.

By the way, it’s fun to see Stephen Moffat have the Doctor spend Christmas saving a “Galaxy-class ship.” References to Star Trek: The Next Generation abound, from the design of the bridge (which also has a marked similarity to the design of the bridge in the new Star Trek film) through to the Captain ordering “On screen!” The ship even has a stand-in for Geordi LaForge, who shouts “I can’t see!” while using one half of some kind of optical enhancement.

A Christmas Carol isn’t perfect. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. To be honest, it works better as a collection of themes and moments and ideas and scenes than it does as one big story. Still, it’s not bad television, and you could do a lot worse. I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed with the trailer for the new season, especially given they have so much to work with – Neil Gaiman! Roswell! Two Doctors! Mark Sheppard! Oval Office! “Stinson are cool!” Creepy doll-faced aliens! Perhaps it’s because the series is being split in two (one half airing in Spring, the other in Autumn), but it was just okay… which is a little disappointing.

5 Responses

  1. I thought the Xmas special was in many ways wonderful
    (though not perfect) – it was funny and whimsical with a tragic
    love story underpinning rather than overwhelming it. Moffat has a
    talent for telling incredibly complex stories in such a simple way.
    The whole notion of the Doctor going back in time to rewrite
    Kazran’s memories could have gotten the casual viewer – of which
    there are many at Xmas – all tied up in knots, but Moffat makes it
    work so easily that you almost don’t notice it. As for Matt Smith,
    he does both spoken and physical comedy brilliantly. His “go and
    kiss her” pep talk to Kazran was brilliant, as well as weaving a
    little footnote about the sonic screwdriver into the Doctor’s own
    history. I know some have been complaining that the Xmas special
    was light, fluffy and relatively meaningless – but I think they
    miss the point. Xmas episodes are supposed to be light, fluffy and
    meaningless – we can leave the serious stuff for season six proper.
    As for the season six trailer – ooh! Stetsons are cool. The Doctor
    asks for Jammie Dodgers (what is he going to do – bluff the Daleks
    again?) And in the shot of him as a bearded prisoner we get a brief
    glimpse of the lettering spelling out ‘Area 51’ on a wall behind
    him. Alien conspiracy theory! I can’t wait …

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  3. I liked it and a couple of scenes made me jump more than the kids! (I’m not a fish fan)

    The time travelling seemed to me to contradict the Christopher Eccleston Fathers Day episode but I think if we look too closely at any time travel in any sci-fi show our heads will explode. It was well used in the story and gave it some impact.

    Some great lines and whilst I will eternally miss David Tennant this new young chap, Matt Smith has defined his own take on the doctor and it is hugely entertaining. Well done all round (and an excellent review)



    • Thanks.

      I do like Matt Smith, but I think I’m one of the twelve people out there whose favourite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston.

  4. It proved to be very beneficial to me and i’m inescapable to all of the commenters here! it’s all the time good when you can not solely be informed, but additionally entertained! i’m definite you had enjoyable penning this content about A Christmas Carol

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