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Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A Christmas Carol originally aired in 2010.

If you’re my babysitter, why are you climbing in the window?

Because if I was climbing out of the window, I’d be going in the wrong direction. Pay attention.

– Kazran and the Doctor get things straight

A Christmas Carol might just be the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever produced, if only because it’s such a brilliantly obvious idea, executed with the show’s traditional wit and charm. Russell T. Davies tended to write the Christmas Special in the style of a gigantic blockbuster episode of Doctor Who, but Moffat adopts a slightly different approach to what has quickly become the annual tradition of the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Davies traditionally had the Doctor collide with genres of Christmas television viewing. The Christmas Invasion was American blockbuster sci-fi, The Runaway Bride was fun odd-couple comedy action film, Voyage of the Damned was a disaster flick in space and The Next Doctor was a celebration of quaint Victoriana. In contrast, Moffat has Doctor Who collide with beloved children’s stories in his first two Christmas Specials. His second two are burdened with dealing with left-over plot threads.

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most effective distillation of “Doctor Who as a story” that the show has ever managed, on top of being a wonderfully moving piece of Christmas television and hitting on the major themes of the Moffat era as a whole.

Turning back the clock...

Turning back the clock…

On the surface, the idea of doing “Doctor Who meets A Christmas Carol” is something blindingly obvious. It’s hard to believe that it took the show this long to actually get around to it, particularly when we’ve already had five different Christmas Specials. Roping in Michael Gambon as the episode’s central guest star is a bit of coup, and A Christmas Carol comes together quite elegantly.

Whereas Davies treated Christmas viewing as something that is intended to be loud and bombastic and over-the-top, easy to follow for the family at home, Moffat’s fixation is on Christmas nostalgia. While only one of Davies’ Christmas Specials was set in the past, the first three of Moffat’s Christmas Specials of a decidedly classic design. While A Christmas Carol is set on a planet in the distant future, its aesthetic is decidedly Victorian. Kazran carries a cane and wears a three-piece suit, and the episode’s fashion is decidedly eighteenth century. These are classical images associated with childhood Christmas stories.

Pooling his resources...

Pooling his resources…

This makes sense, given the Moffat era’s fixation on childhood. Moffat’s Christmas Specials tend to be about children, and – in a way – his whole era is about childhood. The Eleventh Doctor tends to work quite well with children. Indeed, he even first met Clara as a child, in Moffat’s prequel to The Bells of St. John. The Doctor was introduced as Amy’s imaginary friend and as Clara’s guardian angel – both archetypes markedly different from the handsome mysterious stranger of the Davies era.

After all the big relationship between the Doctor and Amy is akin to the relationship that quite a few fans had with Doctor Who. The show came into their lives when they were young, they fell in love with it, and then it disappeared. It was gone, mostly, with only faint echoes reverberating. And then, suddenly, years later, it returned – dropping out of the sky as this massively iconic piece of British television.

Window of opportunity...

Window of opportunity…

And A Christmas Carol can’t help but feel like a reflection on the relationship between kids and Doctor Who. One of the better sequences of A Christmas Carol features Kazran re-watching old videos of his childhood, watching events unfold that he can’t remember. The old man is immediately taken back to his childhood, watching the Doctor as both a figure in his own life and his childhood simultaneously.

Kazran ends up so invested in the events unfolding that he shouts along at home, like any good Doctor Who viewer. “Run!” he shouts, as if the characters in the footage can hear him. At one point, the Doctor steps out of his memory to receive vital information simultaneously. It’s one of the best sequences in the history of the show, boldly written and beautifully directed. A Christmas Carol isn’t just about past, present and future. It’s about memory and nostalgia and affection.

The gathering storm...

The gathering storm…

The Doctor drops into young Kazran’s life just when the boy needs an escape from mundane reality. The Doctor brings all sorts of magic and mischief with him. And then, inevitably, Kazran outgrows him. “Every Christmas Eve?” the teenage Kazran asks. “It’s getting a bit old, isn’t it?” He later adds, “Christmas is for kids.” The Doctor apologises. “I didn’t realise I was boring you.” Kazran replies, “Times change.” They really do.

Times change, and children’s interests and tastes change. Doctor Who changes as well. Every few years, the show goes through a massive shift and becomes something radically different. Sometimes it’s the change of the lead actor, sometimes it’s the change of the behind-the-scenes personalities, but the show is constantly evolving and radically changing. It is no longer what it used to be. Old fans might have difficulty processing the changes it has undergone, but Moffat’s Doctor Who isn’t a show aimed at the old members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. It’s aimed at every family in Great Britain.

The Doctor steps into Christmas...

The Doctor steps into Christmas…

A Christmas Carol makes a compelling argument for the necessity of change for Doctor Who. It’s no coincidence that it airs on the cusp of the show’s sixth season, where Moffat throws out the classic season structure established by his predecessor and completely revamps Doctor Who. The show is on the cusp of becoming something radically different and strange and bold. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s natural.

And so A Christmas Carol actually serves as a startlingly effective microcosm of the Moffat era, encapsulating a lot of the show’s essential themes and ideas in the same way that The Runaway Bride seems to capture the essence of Russell T. Davies in a nutshell. Moffat’s era of Doctor Who is built around the idea of the Doctor discovering girls, and how to relate and interact with them. Given that Moffat cut his teeth on successful British sit-coms, this seems like a pretty logical model for his Doctor Who.

Keeping a light on...

Keeping a light on…

(Of course, there’s also a host of precedent. His first televised bit of Doctor Who, The Curse of Fatal Death, saw the Doctor settling down to get married with his companion. And it ended with a female and sexually aggressive Doctor. Even outside of that, his first scripts for the revived Doctor Who, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, were about the character’s sexual identity. And all that is to say nothing of The Girl in the Fireplace.)

So the Doctor begins Moffat’s run as a sexually confused individual. He responds to Amy’s advances in Flesh and Stone with outright panic. Here, he has no real advice to offer Kazran on the fairer sex, drawing attention to his own lack of experience. “Kazran, trust me. It’s this or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes.” He’s perplexed by the basics of romantic interaction. Stumbling across Abigail and Kazran, he muses, “How do you keep going like that? Do you breath out your ears?”

A cool customer...

A cool customer…

However, Moffat’s run sees the Doctor working past this, developing his relationship to River Song. He’s well capable of flirting with her in The Impossible Astronaut and even eventually gets married to her in The Wedding of River Song. Indeed, Moffat even playfully teases the idea, as if taking glee in the way that the idea of a romantically active Doctor will upset certain fans. “I’ll just go and get married then, shall I?” the Doctor resignedly asks. “See how you like that.”

Indeed, River Song casts quite a strong shadow over A Christmas Carol, despite the fact that she’s not mentioned by name. (The same is arguably true of The Snowmen, if you consider that to be about the Doctor’s response to River’s death.) Here, Abigail’s conveniently magical day-ticking-down illness is an effective metaphor for the way that Moffat views the relationship between the Doctor and River Song.

Swimming with sharks...

Swimming with sharks…

For love, it seems, time is finite. There are only so many days that can be shared between two people. Every second is precious, even in a universe with limitless possibilities. So when Kazran rages about Abigail’s few remaining days, there’s a sense that the Doctor can understand. After all, we were introduced to River Song in her final story. “She’s used up her time,” Kazran tells us, suggesting that a person’s time is limited and precious.

“Think about it, Doctor,” Kazran muses. “One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?” Apparently, the Doctor would choose the day that he took River to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. It’s beautiful and tragic and sad, but also strangely life affirming. In Silence in the Library, the Doctor argued the “dying gives us size.” Here, there’s another reason to celebrate the time that we get. “Everything has got to end some time,” the Doctor tells us. “Otherwise nothing would ever get started.” A suitable sentiment for a show about to radically change.

Song for Eleven?

Song for Eleven?

Indeed, A Christmas Carol points rather elegantly to the grand themes of Moffat’s second year. In particular, it’s the first time that the Doctor really seems too clever and too manipulative for his own good. The sixth season sees the Doctor at his most shrewd. He manipulates the people around him into witnessing his death, which he decides to fake without informing anybody. It’s a brilliant scheme, but it’s one that relies on the Doctor being the only character in the narrative with any agency. Which he isn’t.

The Wedding of River Song is built on the assumption that the Doctor’s manipulations are cynical and selfish and self-defeating. The Doctor’s unwillingness to let River in on his plan leads to the destruction of reality itself. The Doctor proceeds to get a nice tongue-lashing in The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe about letting his closest friends think that he is dead. It’s quite clear that the Moffat era is not especially fond of the manipulative and scheming Doctor.

"Actually, you're not due on set for another two years..."

“Actually, you’re not due on set for another two years…”

And all of that plays out here, quite efficiently. The Doctor decides to manipulate Kazran to make him more compliant. This repeatedly backfires. In one sequence, Kazran is ready to use the screw driver to call the Doctor, only to relent when he discovers the Doctor has been waiting for him. Later on, we discover that the Doctor’s meddling has made Kazran more bitter. “I would never have known her if the Doctor hadn’t changed the course of my whole life to suit himself,” he tells Amy, with a righteous anger.

On a more practical level, the Doctor’s scheme sabotages itself even when it finally works. The Doctor’s tampering changes Kazran so fundamentally that he ceases to be Kazran – his mind has been so altered that the machinery in his mansion doesn’t even recognise him. “No, your father would never have programmed it for the man you are now.” Indeed, A Christmas Carol is an episode about how ineffective the Doctor’s blatant emotional and psychological manipulation is – how his scheming is too clever by half.

Something fishy is going on...

Something fishy is going on…

In the end, the Doctor saves the day using a throwaway detail from the first twenty minutes of the script, an accidental act of honest compassion that has nothing much to do with how he has essentially re-written the life of Kazran Sardick. This is a very Moffat approach to Doctor Who, suggesting that the Doctor is a character who does quite well in gigantic epic universal struggles, but has a lot more trouble understanding and dealing with people. This is a version of the Doctor who pins his failure to properly conduct a magic trick on the kid at the table with him. (“Stop it! You’re doing it wrong!”)

(Which ties into another of the themes of the Eleventh Doctor’s Christmas Specials. It’s not a good idea to have the Doctor alone. Abigail’s Song might not be a catchy pop standard in the mode of Song for Ten or Love Don’t Roam, but it’s just as thematically appropriate. “When you’re alone, silence is all you’ll know.” Bonus points for working in a key arc word of the Moffat era, an arc word so influential that it bled into Moffat’s final story of the Davies era.)

I think that might be real snow...

I think that might be real snow…

A Christmas Carol also allows Moffat to indulge in an affectionate dig at Star Trek. The Empty Child featured Rose describing the Doctor as “Mister Spock”, and was apparently supposed to build to a line about the Doctor would rather “have Doctor Who than Star Trek.” The characterisation of the Teselecta crew in Let’s Kill Hitler feels like a parody of the traditional Star Trek cast, and the episode’s premise could easily be a dig at the franchise’s fixation on time travel and the Second World War.

(A fascination which is, admittedly, exaggerated – if symmetrical. The first season of the original Star Trek broadcast The City on the Edge of Forever towards the end of the season. The final season of Star Trek Enterprise opened with the two-part Storm Front. Both episodes were based around the premise of time travel messing with the Second World War and so destroying history itself.)

It just isn't Christmas without a tree...

It just isn’t Christmas without a tree…

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most overt example of Moffat taking a shot as Star Trek. Amy and Rory find themselves trapped on board a “Galaxy-class” Starship hurtling towards the planet surface. The black helm officer is wearing a device to assist with his vision, and declares, “I can’t see!” He seems to be a shout out to the blind Geordi LaForge, who served at the helm of the Enterprise during the first season of The Next Generation. There’s even copious amounts of lens flair thrown in, evoking JJ Abrams’ reboot of the franchise.

Interestingly, Russell T. Davies claims to have been considering a crossover with Star Trek: Enterprise before it went off the air, although he has admitted that it would have been unlikely to have happened. A comic book crossover between Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation was released in 2013, featuring the Borg and the Cybermen, drawing on a point of contention between both fan bases. (With the concept and design of Borg in Q Who? arguably influenced by the Cybermen and Neil Gaiman’s reworking of the Cybermen in Nightmare in Silver feeling like it owes a debt to the Borg.)

"Scarves are cool..."

“Scarves are cool…”

Still, that footnote aside, A Christmas Carol is a highlight of the Moffat era, and a rather elegant encapsulation of many of the writer’s core themes and approaches to Doctor Who. It’s probably the strongest Christmas Special the show has ever produced, and is a triumph all round.

Check out our reviews of the sixth season of the revived Doctor Who:

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