THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE SOME TIME
AFTER THE SARAH
STORY "THE DEATH
OF THE DOCTOR,"
AND PRIOR TO THE
TV STORY "SPACE
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
It's the deepest part of winter, the exact midpoint, Christmas Eve – halfway out of the dark. Amy and Rory are trapped on
a space liner that's plummeting through banks of thick icy fog to the surface of the planet below.
Only one man has the power to save them; only one man HAS a machine CAPABLE OF clearING the fog and letTING them land.
That man is Kazran Sardick, a rich but lonely old miser who rules Sardicktown with a sky-mast of iron.
The Doctor's only chance of rescuing
the ship's passengers is to save Kazran's soul and show him that life is worth living. For this he needs to go back,
way back, to when Kazran was a boy with a life full of promise.
But can the Doctor
put a song in Kazran's heart and love inTO his life, in time for Christmas? Can he bring him out of the dark?
25TH DECEMBER 2010
Over the last half decade we’ve all become accustomed to Doctor Who’s festive thrills and spills. The annual Christmas special seems to have developed its own identity and set of rules separate to those of the series that we watch as spring turns to summer. Cinematic set pieces, celebrity guest stars, even specially-written songs – these are all critical ingredients in a modern Who Christmas. But A Christmas Carol is the first Christ-mas Day episode of Doctor Who in forty-five years not to have been written by Russell T Davies and carried by David Tennant. This year we have a new writer and a new Doctor, and a brand new rulebook to go with them.
After the fireworks of last year’s spectacular specials, a more intimate yuletide yarn would have probably have been on the cards in any event, but particularly given the 2010 series’ fairytale feel, it’s not all that surprising that Steven Moffat’s first Christmas episode is more classical than colossal. An homage to Charles Dickens’ revered novel of the same name, A Christmas Carol isn’t about saving the Earth or even the lives of the four thousand and three passengers on a doomed space liner – it’s about saving a single soul.
“You shouldn’t [despise Christmas]. It’s very you – half way out of the dark.”
Moffat’s premise is inspired. The space liner on which Amy and Rory have been enjoying their honeymoon is about to crash on a fifth-millennium colony world. The Doctor can’t get the TARDIS to materialise on board the ship, and the only man with the power to prevent the crash is Kazran Sardick, a spiteful miser who refuses to assist. However, the Doctor notices something in Kazran’s manner that gives him an idea – a desperate, barmy and suitably Christmassy idea - to save the day. Kazran isn’t an evil man; like Christmas itself, he’s “half way out of the dark.” And so if the Time Lord were to assume the mantle of the Ghost of Christmas Past, he could not only show this Scrooge-like figure the error of his ways, but correct those errors too, making him more likely to value the lives on the liner.
I love how Moffat’s tale examines psychological cause and effect as the Doctor delves into Kazran’s past and seeks to subvert each of the formative experiences that would make him the misanthrope that we’ve just met. What’s even more fascinating though is how the Doctor goes about trying to improve upon these experiences - he introduces Kazran to swashbuckling adventure in the shark-filled clouds, as well as the much more jagged teeth of love. Seeing the effects of these changes catch up with the present, where Kazran is desperately trying to reconcile two conflicting sets of memories in his head, epitomises Doctor Who at its best, keeping the cogs in viewers’ brains furiously whirring whilst also giving their heart-strings an almighty tug. A Christmas Carol is not a ‘happy ever after’ story about love thawing a frosty soul; it’s a tragic tale of lost love and the compassion engendered by it.
“Have you ever seen Mary Poppins? No. Good, ‘cos that comparison would have been rubbish.”
Matt Smith effortlessly carries the entire episode, present in almost every scene and clearly having as much of a ball performing it as Steven Moffat had writing it. Despite the thoughtful subject matter, his Doctor is as much fun as ever he’s been. He comes down the chimney in a cloud of smoke, is on first name terms with Santa, and is uncharacteristically willing to proffer advice about the opposite sex – although having just married Marilyn Monroe, for once he might be speaking with a little authority. Yet beneath it all he’s a swaggering “Time Lord Victorious”, unilaterally rewriting the history of a man life’s for what he deems to be the greater good.
Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are allocated much smaller roles, which is a little ironic given Darvill’s overdue elevation to the opening credits, but they certainly burn brightly. Even after leafing through all her mucky pictures in Shortlist Magazine, Pond’s return to uniform is a welcome one (particularly when one considers why she’d have been wearing it on her honeymoon…), and her turn as the Ghost of Christmas Present is actually quite stirring. Darvill’s Rory, whilst not quite as imposing, is at least gifted a few wry witticisms (“Eyes off the skirt!”) which lend the story an extra little sparkle.
“This is what the Doctor did to me..”
The show’s supporting cast is extraordinary. Harry Potter star Michael Gambon is, as one would expect, absolutely marvellous as the old Kazran. He has all the grouchy gravitas that the Scrooge-like role requires, and what’s more he shares a wonderful rapport with Matt Smith. Perhaps more remarkably though, Laurence Belcher and especially Danny Horn are every bit his equals as the younger versions of the character. Horn’s moody performance is especially effective, particularly in his final scenes with Katherine Jenkins’ Abigail.
Katherine Jenkins, of course, has been the special’s most publicised performer, though in reality she’s its weakest link. To say that this was Jenkins’ first acting role, the Welsh songstress gives an impressive performan-ce, but it doesn’t quite measure up to those of her exceptional co-stars. Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like a Scrooge myself, I didn’t enjoy her crooning into that sonic screwdriver. I normally love an unassuming musical number in the Christmas special, but here Abigail’s Song feels strained and preposterously theatrical; more like a Classic FM music video than prime time drama. Kylie didn’t need to sing.
“As a friend of mine once took a very long time to explain, life isn’t fair.”
Nevertheless, I can’t fault Murray Gold’s soundtrack in itself. As ever, the composer does a sterling job of creating a suitably festive feel, whilst at the same time preserving and even furthering the series’ leitmotif. The seasonal reprise of I Am The Doctor as the snow falls at the end is particularly rousing, successfully whetting the audience’s appetite for adventures to come. The set design is equally inspiring, fusing apposite, Dickensian Victoriana with steampunk sci-fi and then contrasting it all with a gleaming white, Star Trekky space liner. Beautiful.
A Christmas Carol was billed as “Doctor Who meets A Christmas Carol… meets Jaws”, and it certainly lives up to its billing. Indeed, unless it ever tackles the Nativity, I can’t see the series ever producing a more Christmassy offering than this one. However, its fog-dwelling sharks notwithstanding, A Christmas Carol is probably the least dynamic of all the modern specials – at a first glance it might even seem more at home amongst the pages of a short story anthology than it would propping up BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule. It seems that the Christmas Days of robotic Santas, gigantic spiders, Cyber incursions and even Master races might have come to an end. But everything’s got to end some time, otherwise nothing would ever get started...
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Doctor Who has finally become a fairy tale.
Quite where the transformation began, I’m not sure, although it undoubtedly picked up pace earlier this year as the Matt Smith era began. It’s not to say that once the series was hard science fiction; there’s been the occasional episode of a more scientifically realistic bent, but at heart this is a show about a man who flies around in a police box. It’s always leaned more heavily towards fantasy than sci-fi. Still, A Christmas Carol, more so even than The Big Bang, is Doctor Who as fairy tale. No matter how much time we spend on a starship bridge with copious lens flair.
A Christmas Carol - the original, I mean - is a work of absolute genius. These days we can’t help but see it as a slightly twee period piece, but it was, at the time, a severe look at contemporary society. Over the years, the various retellings have lost much of that (although I still hold that the Muppets’ version is the definitive screen adaptation, and I have no shame in keeping to that). Yet the basic concept of a man being shown the error of his ways through glimpses of his own past and future, will always be profoundly affecting. In fact, the story could be stretched further - its themes could hold just as well throughout the year, not only at Christmas.
“I’m showing it to you right now. So what do you think? Is this who you want to become, Kazran?”
So it’s perhaps unsurprising to find Charles Dickens’ classic story forming the basis for this latest festive Doctor Who special. It is, after all, a time-travel story - one of the earliest to have made a popular impact. Dickens himself has already stepped into the Doctor’s world, and, for me, The Unquiet Dead remained the one to beat, even though it wasn’t actually a Christmas special. In spite of the fact that it is mere window dressing, and that the story could be told just as well in the modern day, there’s something indisputably Christmassy about the Victorian era. Yet, because it’s just window dressing, there’s no reason it can’t be shifted to another planet altogether.
Part of the success of this episode is the beautiful, tangible world that it conjures up. With effects that can match the imagination, we are presented with an eerily picturesque mist-shrouded globe, upon which sits the steampunk-styled Sardicktown. While we don’t learn much about the planet - I didn’t even catch a name - that’s not a problem, because for the purposes of this story, the town is all that we need to know. Add to it shoals of floating, MirrorMask-invoking fish, and not even a pseudo-scientific explan-ation about crystalline harmonics can spoil the magic. Even the Doctor is told to shut up when he tries to explain it away. This is a series that’s now unafraid to revel in its own absurdity, and can now happily show us a bizarre twist on a Santa’s sleigh ride, with a tweed-clad Time Lord tugging the reigns of a flying shark to pull his carriage.
None of this would stand up, of course, were it not for strong enough performances to help us suspend our disbelief for an hour. Fortunately, we have some of the greatest perform-ances in the show’s recent history. It almost goes without saying that Michael Gambon is excellent as both Kazran and Elliott Sardick, providing electrifying performances whenever he’s on screen. Yet both younger Kazrans acquit themselves brilliantly too. Danny Horn puts in a beautifully sympathetic turn as a young man dealing with the pain of growing up, while Laurence Belcher is simply gold in his every moment as the youngest Kazran.
Katherine Jenkins, being best known as a singer and not an actor, has inevitably come under a great deal of scrutiny for her performance here, and, although she couldn’t hope to measure up to the legend that is Gambon, I feel that she deals very well indeed with her first screen role, imbuing what could have been a two-dimensional character with some genuine likeability. Yes, she sings, and I see nothing wrong with that. This wasn’t something shoe-horned in to warrant her casting, but an intrinsic part of the story, and if you’re going to have someone sing to the sharks, why not get one of the most beautiful voices in the country to do it?
“Now your past is going to change. That means your memories will change too. Bit scary...”
It’s Matt Smith, though, who dominates proceedings, even stealing scenes from Gambon. Smith owns every scene that he’s in, effortlessly becoming both the most childlike, and yet at the same time most powerful and commanding Doctor that we’ve ever seen. He makes it somehow entirely believable, even palatable, that this young-seeming man is in fact a vastly powerful being who, inspired by an old Christmas novel, takes it upon himself to rewrite an old man’s entire life story. Had he not imbued the role with such geniality and humour, he could have become quite terrifying.
Inevitably, some scenes fall flatter than others. Although it’s necessary to see the lives at risk aboard the ship, in order to develop some immediacy and threat to the proceedings, each time we were taken away from Sardicktown I was desperate to get back. It’s also a shame that, for me, the time-hopping trips to Christmas Eves past never quite lives up to its potential. I had become so enamoured with this spellbinding world that I didn’t want to jet off on side trips, however important they may be to the characters’ ongoing development.
There is one scene that encapsulates this story for me: the Doctor plays a projection of Kazran’s childhood to the astonished old man’s eyes. Failing to provoke the reaction he desires, the Doctor enters his TARDIS, and steps inside the film as it plays, entering the old man’s treasured memories. A stunning bit of writing, direction and acting, this is what Doctor Who can be at its best: magical.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2010
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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