Blightyvision Extra: Doctor Who: “A Christmas Carol”

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes
Starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Michael Gambon

NOTE: As this episode has not aired on American TV at the time of this writing, I have done my best to make my review as spoiler-free as possible.  Read without fear. ~KD

I want to say, first and foremost, that it’s very generous of the Doctor not to put the Earth in danger this Christmas.

This year’s special, “A Christmas Carol,” actually takes the action off our home planet for a change, opting instead for a Dickensian alien world infested with flying fish.  When disaster strikes in the form of an out-of-control spaceship, there is only one man who can save the day … and it isn’t the Doctor.

Rather, it’s Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), a Scrooge analogue who controls the machine that can stop the ship from crashing.  But in the true Scrooge-analogue spirit, he sees no reason to help people he cares nothing for.  Fortunately, a few idle words give the Doctor an idea: using A Christmas Carol as a model and his TARDIS for transportation, he will make Sardick a nice enough man to want to save the day.

When The Moff described the special as a twist on A Christmas Carol (with the episode title pretty well hammering it home), I think all of us as fans dreaded the inevitable rehash that many shows are guilty of.  But this twist is anything but a rehash.  The majority of the story — the “Christmas Past” — is told in a quasi-flashback, heavily reliant on good ol’ wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey logic and actualized with some beautiful visuals.  This is the bulk of the story, with Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come condensed into the final act.

There is something of a side story with the Doctor’s traveling companions doing their bit aboard the doomed spaceship, but if you’re coming in expecting a healthy holiday dose of Amy Pond, you may well be disappointed.  The majority of the story is a two-hander, at least character-wise, with the Doctor and Sardick, the latter at varying ages.  Within the context of the series proper, it would be the now-requisite “companion-lite” episode.  But they are not wholly without heart: Amy spends the entirety of the episode in her policegirl kiss-o-gram costume.

Gambon has one of the toughest jobs in the story, in that he spends a great deal of his screen time alone, and a great deal of that with no dialogue.  Much of his acting is either reaction with limited shouting-back, or is completely internalized.  He and Matt Smith play excellently off each other in the time they actually spend together, but some of the best chemistry in the episode is between Smith and Laurence Belcher, who plays the young Sardick.  Smith especially shines in these scenes, showing his Doctor to be a return to the sort kids can associate with easily.

The other big casting news for this year’s special was opera singer Katherine Jenkins as Abigail, the romantic figure in Sardick’s life.  And yes, her choice was for a good reason: her singing figures into the story itself.  Fortunately, this isn’t a case of her usefulness ending there.  Her acting is sweet and unselfconscious — not anything that would get her a regular role on a TV show, but very enjoyable to watch, especially in conjunction with the other actors.

Oh, right.  The shark.  Yeah, there’s totally a shark in this.  And the shark is actually rather important.  And it’s very, very CG indeed.  There are some beautiful shots of the sort-of-ever-present fish, but the shark itself is … erm … well, it looks like something out of Doctor Who, I suppose.  But it makes up for that by being rather cool in general.

The fandom seems divided when it comes to The Moff’s first outing as head writer this past season, but “A Christmas Carol” is some of his best, with humorous dialogue harkening back to his “Coupling” days.  As with earlier series episodes like “The Doctor Dances,” his writing is unabashedly risque without actually appearing so, giving the adults a few things to laugh at over the kids’ heads.

Really, Christmas is the time of year when Doctor Who does whatever it damn well pleases.  Crash the Titanic again?  Sure.  Alien spiders and Segways?  All right.  The Doctor drives a sleigh pulled by a space-shark?  Yeah, tell him he can’t.  The Christmas specials, on a certain level, don’t care — they get as off-the-wall as they please, and at their best can bring you along for the ride without you stopping to question anything.  This year’s has topped my list, shoving “The Next Doctor” down a notch.  This is Doctor Who at its most fun and over-the-top.  The only down side to this is, it’s hard to imagine how the upcoming season premiere could match up to this.

“A Christmas Carol” airs tonight at 9 PM on BBC America, with reruns at my friends’ houses every night between now and the end of January.

Posted on December 25, 2010 at 18:00 by Kara Dennison · Permalink
In: Columns, Television: British and Canadian · Tagged with: , , , , ,
  • De

    This was a beautiful story. I don’t normally use that descriptor when it comes to Doctor Who episodes, but it fits here.