Not content with assuming a God-like role in the season five finale The Big Bang by recreating the creation of the universe, the Doctor is back again for the festive season – and this time he’s assuming a classic Dickensian role in this year’s rollicking Christmas special, A Christmas Carol.
This time last year, we were viewing the final adventure of David Tennant‘s angst-ridden Tenth Doctor in the Christmas/New Year special The End of Time. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a downer – a patchy, over-the-top tale involving John Simm‘s Master and the return of the Time Lords which resulted in the Doctor sacrificing himself to save Donna‘s grandfather Wilf, and an extended coda where the dying Time Lord said goodbye to all his companions and friends that was, to say the least, somewhat indulgent.
Since then, of course, we have seen the regeneration of Matt Smith‘s Eleventh Doctor, and his adventures with new companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her new husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), culminating in the Doctor using the TARDIS to create a second Big Bang to reboot the collapsing universe.
It was, to put it mildly, quite a big act to follow, and my concerns about the Christmas special were only partially dispelled with the casting of Michael Gambon (good) and the operatic singer Katherine Jenkins (dubious), and the realisation that Amy and Rory would spend the majority of this story out of the picture.
I should have known better. In the expert hands of show-runner Steven Moffat, A Christmas Carol is, as Moffat himself described it, a coming together of Who, Dickens and Jaws. This somewhat incongruous combination produces a thoroughly uplifting seasonal tale which is, quite simply, brilliant.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
A malfunctioning space liner carrying 4,003 passengers is careering out of control towards the surface of an unnamed planet, the skies of which are controlled by the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick (Gambon). Inspired by a nearby choir singing a christmas carol, the Doctor goes back into Sardick’s childhood as the Ghost of Christmas Past. By rewriting his past before his very eyes using “quantum enfolding and a paperclip”, he aims to melt his hardened heart and convince the present-day Sardick to use his sky-controlling machine to enable the ship to land safely.
All three of our regulars get to make a spectacular entrance. Amy and Rory, in their policewoman’s and centurion’s costumes respectively – they’re in the honeymoon suite, let’s leave it at that – tumble onto the stricken ship’s bridge. The Doctor goes one better, coming down Sardick’s chimney and tumbling out of his fireplace in a cloud of soot:
Christmas Eve on a rooftop. Saw a chimney. My whole brain just went “What the hell?” Don’t worry, the fat fella will be doing the rounds later. I’m just scoping out the general chimney-ness.
In addition to controlling the skies – using a machine invented by his ogre of a father – Sardick also give out loans to the townspeople, in exchange for which he cryogenically freezes a family member as security. The Doctor visits the twelve-year old Kazran, posing as a babysitter, but his psychic paper for once lets him down:
I think you’ll find I’m universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult … Yeah, it’s shorted out. Finally, a lie too big.
Having already discovered fish able to swim in the atmosphere, the Doctor and Kazran are attacked by a shark, who swallows half the sonic screwdriver. To return the injured animal to the atmosphere, the pair borrow the cryogenic chamber of Abigail Pettigrew (Jenkins). When the shark attacks again, Abigail calms it by singing.
A smitten Kazran promises Abigail the Doctor and he will visit her every Christmas Eve, neither realising she has only eight days to live – although the Doctor comes mightily close to ekeing the answer out of her before he is distracted by something as mundane as a clock alarm. They greet her in Santa hats and take her for a shark-drawn carriage flight. In fezes - fezes are cool, remember? – they take her to the pyramids of Egypt. They visit Abigail’s family and have Christmas dinner together, where the Doctor demonstrates comical ineptitude at card tricks and it becomes apparent that Kazran and Abigail are falling in love. The Doctor’s advice:
Well, try and be all nervous and rubbish and a bit shaky. You’re going to be like that anyway – might as well make it part of the plan. It’s this or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes. Now go!
The Doctor’s plan appears to be working, as in the present day the elderly Kazran looks back with affection on photos of their travels together. But on their next Christmas Eve in California in 1952, while the Doctor is accidentally getting engaged to Marilyn Monroe, Abigail tells Kazran the truth that she has just one day of life remaining. His heart hardening before our eyes, Kazran breaks off his relationship with the Doctor, accepting his gift of the damaged sonic but otherwise dismissing him callously.
We return to the present, and Kazran is the same old miser he was at the beginning. The Doctor has rewritten his history, but without changing the end result.
The Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future
Amy appears to Kazran in holographic form, posing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. She shows him the liner’s passengers singing Silent Night in a vain attempt to replicate Abigail’s harmonising effect on the skies. Kazran is unmoved, but he does reveal Abigail’s secret, which gives the Doctor one last chance to turn the old man around.
The Doctor tells him it is time to show him who he will become:
You’ve seen the past, the present and now you need to see the future.
Kazran mocks him, saying it will make no difference because he simply doesn’t care, and challenges the Doctor to show him the future. But he already is: he is showing the twelve-year old Kazran the man he will become. The elder Sardick, angered by the look of horror on his younger self’s face, cannot bring himself to strike him the way his father once struck him, and in that moment his shell cracks and he finally relents.
But the Doctor’s meddling with Kazran’s past means that his machine no longer recognises him, leaving only one remaining option: to revive Abigail for her final day of life to send her voice as a signal into the skies. She unlocks the cloud layer, allowing the ship to land safely and releasing the customary seasonal episode Christmas Day snowfall. Kazran and Abigail take another flight in a shark-drawn carriage, determined to make their final day together a joyous one.
Although the Doctor tries to conceal it, it’s clear afterwards that he is not entirely happy with the resolution, having effectively forced Kazran to spend the last day of Abigail’s life on his behalf. He tells Amy, not entirely convincingly:
Everything’s got to end some time – otherwise nothing would ever get started.
It is a line dripping in portent which brings to mind the Tenth Doctor warning Rose Tyler that “a storm is coming” in Fear Her, foreshadowing the events of the season two Dalek/Cyberman finale. We will have to wait until next year to find out exactly what this means.
Post-credits, we are left with a trailer for season six, which appears to include Nazis, the Ood, a heavily bearded Doctor held prisoner (you can just make out the lettering on the wall behind him which tells you we are in ‘Area 51′ (a military base in Nevada at the heart of various UFO/alien conspiracy theories), a possibly related trip to Monument Valley involving River Song, and Amy urgently telling the Doctor:
You have to do this and you can’t ask why.
On a lighter note, we also see the Doctor sat in the White House Oval Office, declaring:
I’m going to need a SWAT team ready to mobilise, street-level maps covering all of Florida, a pot of coffee, 12 Jammie Dodgers [a reference to last season's Victory of the Daleks] and a fez.
But of course.
All Christmas episodes should be like this
As far as Doctor Who Christmas specials are concerned, this was a welcome return to form after three lacklustre efforts in a row (Voyage of the Damned, The Next Doctor and The End of Time). Moffat engineers the improbable fusion of A Christmas Carol and Jaws (with a soupçon of The Poseidon Adventure) – and the even more unlikely stunt casting of Katherine Jenkins – with his customary assurance. He just about manages to shoe-horn in Jenkins’ voice as a key plot element with just the slightest dusting of technobabble and an admirable sleight of hand which constantly invites the viewer to look the other way with plenty of laughs and “wow!” moments.
Whereas his predecessor Russell T Davies, particularly towards the end of his time, had a tendency towards writing the Doctor into impossible corners requiring a deus ex machina-style solution, Moffat seems better equipped to keep himself just the right side of a total suspension of disbelief. This is a cracking, slightly tongue-in-cheek story which sweeps the viewer along on the strength of its narrative without the need for an excess of action setpieces. And the far from simple technique used by Moffat to tell his tale – the Doctor rewriting Kazran’s memories right in front of him in an effort to change his mind – is handled so clearly and with such aplomb that the viewer is barely aware of the use of such a high-concept structure.
The Dickens homage is deftly handled – with a smart reversal of the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future at the end – and A Christmas Carol is an altogether more Christmassy episode than its predecessors, with little sly moments to keep adults chuckling (Amy and Rory’s costumes), and more of an emphasis on comedy over horror than is usual in Moffat-penned episodes. There is a delightful lightness of comedic touch – Davies could do humour brilliantly at times, but sometimes erred towards excessive campness – tinged with just a hint of sadness and tragedy to elevate it above the usual seasonal schmaltz.
The moment near the end where Kazran asks the Doctor “Could you do it? Could you do this? One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?” is simply heart-breaking. And – just a punt in the dark here – given Moffat’s liking for layering in subtle foreshadowing well in advance of seismic events occurring, will these words have some kind of tragic resonance for Amy and Rory somewhere down the line?
Anyhow, all that is in the future. For now, I’m happy to rejoice in an excellent Christmas episode which will hopefully lay down a template for seasonal specials to come.
Rating: 6.0 A Christmas Carol – 8/10