Doctor Who 2010 Christmas special: A Christmas Carol review

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.

Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins join Matt Smith in this year's Christmas special (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

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.

Who'd have thought that all you needed to save a doomed space liner was a cracking mezzo-soprano voice? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

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.

Coming soon

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

Moffat somehow manages to make Jenkins' singing a plausible part of the plot (well, just about) (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

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

Links: My season 5 review, Official BBC Doctor Who website, IMDb, Wikipedia, TV.com

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20 thoughts on “Doctor Who 2010 Christmas special: A Christmas Carol review

  1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    Also, I’m already starting to cry just thinking of how Moffat might manage to tear Rory and Amy apart. I DON’T WANT HIM TO DIE, DAMMIT.

    In other news, I’m curious as to how the Doctor’s next Screwdriver will look. Will it just be like this one, or a new design? I’d say they stick with this one and the TARDIS pops out a new one, with a slightly reproachful hum of the console, telling him to take it easier this time.
    “Of course, darling,” he’ll say, and dash off to accidentally get divorced from Marilyn.

    • You know it’s going to happen, though. I keep wondering whether this will be the mid-season cliffhanger, or whether it will wait until the finale and be the one thing that ultimately rips the Doctor and Amy apart.

      As for the new sonic, no doubt the Doctor will now retreat to his bedroom and design a new version … ;-)

      • Hmm, I don’t know. Mid-season cliffhanger has one advantage–that way, we’d see Amy consciously mourning while travelling with the Doctor. Last time, she didn’t remember, so we didn’t get any friction there. I know that mirroring Series 5 like that would be a bit redundant, but I think that that might be more interesting to see than having them sad at the end of the finale, and maybe talk it through or, which I think is more likely, fight until Amy just leaves him–’cause that’s how things usually go to pot in Who. But, knowing Moffat and his writing genius, I’m fine either way.

        • Indeed. Whatever happens, you just know Moffat will have plotted out the details with the same intricacy with which he pieced together season five’s arc. Some of the individual stories may have been a bit dodgy, but the way it call came together was magnificent.

        • naaa, Moffat never repeat, like Paganini. “Could you do it?
          Could you do this? One last day with your beloved. Which day would
          you choose?” is all about River, IMO: the Doctor
          knows already that he will have to let River go to the Library with
          a new screwdriver…

  2. Oh, you missed the best line of the night!

    Doctor: We’re boys! And you know what boys say in the face of danger?
    Karzan: What?
    Doctor: Mummy.

    As for Rory and Amy, I don’t see anything super tragic happening there. This is Moffat, not Davies. I’m thrilled to have a male companion, myself. In fact, to avoid having a mopey companion, Moffat erased memories of Rory from Amy completely. Having bickering newlyweds is going to be far more entertaining. So unless it’s the last Amy adventure, I don’t believe Rory is going to be killed off.

    • True. So many good lines, it was hard to try to capture them all. :-)

      It’s purely a theory, but I suspect Rory’s “real” death may be the trigger that causes Amy to ultimately leave the Doctor. There was plenty of potential foreshadowing here – “Everything’s got to end some time” and “One more day with your beloved” – which could refer to Amy/Rory, Doctor/River or even both (although I realise the latter could easily have just been an echo of Doctor/Rose). We shall have to see, but one way or another I trust Moffat to come up with the goods.

      • Hm. I wouldn’t read that much into it just yet. The Christmas special is usually a one-off, seldom with ties to the rest of the big season story. But who knows? The “Everything has to end for something to begin” bit calls back to Vincent (the bad doesn’t make the good less worthwhile) as well, and is a larger theme of Doctor Who, rather than just one storyline.

        Meanwhile, this episode taught us it doesn’t matter which day you pick to be your last, the fact that it will be the last and be spent with your beloved is what will make it THAT day. The one you make the most of, whenever it happens.

    • Agree on both counts. Jenkins was surprisingly not awful for someone so inexperienced as an actor. Okay, she didn’t have much to do, but what she did she did fine.

      It’s been interesting to see the hard-core fans’ reaction to this story. Some have loved it, others hated it (saying it was too whimsical and broke with Who’s accepted continuity and rules). Some have even said it was poorly written, which I really don’t get at all. By all means dislike the direction of the story, but seriously: bad writing?!?

  3. Great review and expertly summarized. For the past three years it has seemed that the Doctor Who Christmas Specials were released out of routine. This one was tailor made for the holiday and wonderfully written in such a way that it even made the most ridiculous and absurd acceptable. Moffatt and Smith are a delightful pair, I look forward to many more adventures from them.

    • I can forgive the previous two Xmas insofar that they were really part of a five-part 2009/10 series of specials rather than true Xmas specials as such. Having said that, The Next Doctor was ruined by the giant steam-punk Cyberman and the less said about The End of Time the better as far as I’m concerned.

      If it had been a regular series episode, I probably wouldn’t have rated it so highly, but then the point is that Moffat wrote this to be purposely Christmassy and to appeal to a Christmas Day audience who are not all regular viewers. In this respect I think he pretty much hit the bullseye.

      I’m liking Matt Smith more and more. He is very different to Tennant’s Doctor – and it’s always been very important for any new Doctor to be his own man, distinct from the characterisation which has gone before him. I wasn’t that keen on Tennant at first but grew to like him enormously; I already like Smith a lot.

  4. Oh, and I think the Grand Moff put a little SPOOOILEER in
    the abigail’s last song: “When you’re alone, silence is all you
    see, When you’re alone, SILENCE is all YOU’ll be.” SILENCE WILL
    FALL

  5. Two things: 1. To consider the writing of this episode
    “high concept structure” is hyperbole. It was the easiest of all
    possible solutions: the Doctor time travels in his box and
    interferes in the antagonist’s timeline in order for the Doctor to
    get what he wants. That’s not high concept structure; that’s lazy.
    Every single episode of Doctor Who could be written this way. It’s
    a cop out. It’s deus ex machina both at its most fundamental level
    and quite literally. 2. Who is this Doctor that appeases a cruel
    dictator? Who is this Doctor who comes to a planet ruled by a
    fascist, a fascist who has frozen hundreds, possibly thousands or
    millions, of people as financial collateral and instead of freeing
    these prisoners, he goes on annual Christmas play-dates with this
    futuristic Il Duce that holds them in icy prison coffins? Who is
    this Doctor that would not do everything in his power to free these
    prisoners from this disgusting despot? Who is this Doctor? This
    episode was pretty disturbing in its portrayal of lots and lots of
    people frozen in a creepy guy’s basement. At no point was this
    explored. Instead the makers glossed right over that bit. I cannot
    see how this writing is acceptable to Who fans from any
    era.

    • Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right insofar that the story is not high concept in terms of serious sci-fi. But then Who – particularly in its modern incarnation – has rarely been a serious sci-fi programme. As I understand it, the original concept was conceived as much as a means of educating children about history as it was about proper sci-fi.

      In the broader context of this episode – a Christmas Day special intended as viewing not only for the whole family but for a mainstream audience which encompasses both dedicated Who fans and those who only watch the show at Xmas (more than one-third of the total audience when you look at the ratings), it certainly was high-concept simply because it was not an exercise in linear story-telling.

      Without wanting to get into an argument about semantics, the Doctor’s solution here was not deus ex machina – the solution is declared up front and involves a known quantity (the TARDIS), even though that means bending some of the accepted “rules” of previous stories. As such it is neither a contrived nor an unexpected intervention – it’s surely not pulling a rabbit out of a hat if the magician tells you exactly what he’s going to do first?

      I had considered the questionable ethics displayed by the Doctor here. To my eye, his primary mission is about saving 4,003 people by causing the minimum amount of change in the timeline. Yes, he could have done something about Sardick’s reprehensible past, but that would have qualified as unnecessary meddling (however you judge that to be!) This, after all, is an incarnation of the same Doctor who had the option of eradicating the Dalek race but chose not to do so.(Okay, that’s genocide versus punishing one man, but it’s an extension of the same moral code.)

      For me, this was great Christmas Day entertainment for a broad audience. And on Christmas Day, even though this episode is canon, it’s permissible to play a bit loose with the rules for the sake of telling a story based on a Christmas classic. That’s just a personal view, and I’m aware a lot of Whovians disagree with that, but there you go.

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