Halfway Out of the Dark
Doctor Who's A Christmas Carol Reviewed

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When the announcement came that Stephen Moffat would be the new showrunner of Doctor Who, there was much rejoicing. Some, though, tried to temper the enthusiasm with some pragmatic warnings: Moffat would be responsible not just for one or two episodes a season, but practically all of them. It was simply unrealistic to believe that Moffat would be able to achieve the highs of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances or The Girl in the Fireplace every week. And while the fifth full season of the revived Doctor Who was excellent overall, the truth was that, in spite of featuring the weeping angels this season, the season never achieved the same heights as Blink.

But the 2010 Christmas special was something different. Moffat had far more time to work on this story and, by all accounts, he threw himself into this tale much the way he threw himself into Sherlock. There are tales of him laughing maniacally over his desk while Christmas carols played at high volume on his CD player (in April). And as a result of his effort and the depth of his attention, Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol provides the standout episode that was missing from the previous season.

Please note that if you have not watched this story yet (it debuts in Canada later today on Space), this review contains spoilers. I try not to give everything away, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, turn away now. Otherwise, the rest of the review continues after the break.

The story opens with a luxury space liner on a collision course with a planet. The crew struggle to save the day, but the clouds of the planet thwart all efforts to control the ship’s descent. The ship has, at best, one hour before all hope is lost.

Enter Amy Pond, dressed in her sexy policewoman’s outfit. She’s made a distress call (from the ship’s honeymoon suite), and she’s come to the bridge to tell the crew that help is on the way. Rory follows soon after, wearing his legionaries outfit, telling us more about Rory and Amy’s sex life than we possibly really wanted to know (one wonders if Amy or Rory has tried or will try stealing the Doctor’s coat and bowtie at some point). The crew barely have time to shout “who are you and why are you here?!” and certainly no time to say, “Security! Get them off the bridge!” before the navigator reports a small ship coming up on side, and the Doctor’s TARDIS coming into view. The crew, for whatever reason, come to believe that help has arrived, and let Amy and Rory stay on the bridge.

But there are complications. The TARDIS can’t lock onto the ship because of the clouds, and investigating the clouds brings the Doctor to the world down below. There, he finds a pseudo-Victorian colony under the control of Karzan Sardick, a nasty combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and Henry F. Potter if there ever was one. Someone named “The President” has already remonstrated with the man (interrupting Sardick’s Christmas tradition of taking in a poor family and berating them for being poor) to manipulate the clouds and allow the cruise ship to land safely. Sardick is inhumanly callous at the thought of lifting a finger to save the lives of the 4003 people on board and tells the President to shove it.

A couple of points here: note how the Doctor adds himself to the number of people on the ship? The ship is initially reported to be carrying 4000 passengers; it’s the Doctor who ups the number to the exact 4003. The only three extra people that I can see is Amy, Rory and the Doctor — except that the Doctor is not aboard the ship, he’s on the planet trying to convince Sardick to do the right thing. I wonder if this has implications that the Doctor intends to save the ship, or die trying.

The second question I’d like to raise is just how powerful Sardick actually is. If Sardick has the ability to save the lives of 4000 people and refuses to do so, doesn’t that make him criminally culpable for their deaths? Still, if he’s able to turn the “President” down flat, it does suggest that he has total control over the planet he owns — enough to not have to worry about a punitive expedition from whatever planet the President currently governs. But does Sardick have total control? He claims to hate Christmas, and yet Christmas festivities are going on in the streets as he speaks. The housing conditions, while Victorian, do not appear squalid. There are Christmas carols being played on the colony’s loudspeakers. If indeed Sardick is the colony’s dictator, he appears to be a rather distant one — although that might make sense given his circumstances.

Whatever the case, it isn’t long before the Doctor confronts Sardick, also demanding that the man do the right thing. Sardick refuses, essentially saying “don’t you know who I am?”, but clearly he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. You do not tell the Doctor ‘no’.

I get the distinct impression that the Doctor was quite prepared to walk right over Sardick at that moment. The “4004” comment makes it pretty clear the lengths the Doctor would go to to save the 4003 on board the ship. And why wouldn’t he walk over Sardick, stomping all the way? If an army of Daleks isn’t going to stop the Doctor; why would one man?

But then a critical thing happens. The youngest son of the family who was just turned down flat for a little kindness from Sardick loses his cool and throws something at the old man. Sardick reacts angrily but stops just short of slapping the boy across the face. The moment shakes him, but it also changes the Doctor’s mind. The Doctor realizes that Karzan Sardick is very much the product of his father, Elliot, but that there is some glimmer of decency still inside him. In that moment, the Doctor realizes that Karzan Sardick isn’t the villain of this story. Rather, he is the 4004th person that he has to save this night.

If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and Stephen Moffat knows where to find the best. Moffat ably mines the high notes of the original Christmas Carol, and has added in bits of his own classic material. If I recall correctly, his first published Doctor Who story involved the Doctor desperately needing a book from a library in order to carry out his plan. Unfortunately, he finds himself stymied by a recalcitrant librarian, which forces the Doctor to set about rewriting the librarian’s life in order to try and make her more willing to lend that particular book. The Doctor’s plan for Sardick probably violates all sorts of laws of time from here to Sunday, but you can’t deny that it’s elegant and a joy to watch. I think the audience can’t help but feel a little jealous of young Sardick, to find himself the sole focus of the Doctor’s ministrations.

And it is elegantly presented as well, right from the moment when, while showing Sardick an old home video of his childhood, the Doctor walks out of Sardick’s room, into his TARDIS, and straight into the video. Erin saw it coming, but it was still beautiful. What follows is a fun reinterpretation of the Ghost of Christmases Past, as the Doctor takes the young Karzan under his wing, indulges the boy’s search for the mysterious fish that swim in the clouds (this initially looks like it’s a mistake, but it turns out to be a happy accident), and then introduces him to Abigail.

Abigail (played by Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins in her first major acting role) is a young woman taken by Elliot Karzan and put into cryogenic sleep as collateral for a loan made by the poor family we saw earlier in the story. Elliot has done this dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and you can see the Doctor seething over this. But the Doctor keeps his cool and nudges Karzan along by entertaining the newly awakened young woman on Christmas Eve. When Abigail expresses an interest in doing this again, Karzan, realizing that the Doctor has a TARDIS, readily agrees, and what follows is a series of vignettes as the Doctor, Abigail and Karzan celebrate Christmas Eve over and over again, as Karzan gets progressively older, and the mysterious numbers in the front of Abigail’s sleeping chamber tick ominously down.

Soon, the crisis point is reached where we see (or, rather, get a new explanation of, since the Doctor has already significantly rewritten Karzan’s life) why Karzan turned away from the kind and optimistic Ebeneezer into the Scrooge he now is. Amy plays the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the story turns a little serious. It’s all well played as director Toby Haynes manages to capture the desperation of Amy, Rory, the ship’s crew and its 4000 passengers in just a few lines of dialogue and a haunting rendition of Silent Night.

But it is when the Doctor returns to play the Ghost of Christmas Future (I have to confess I was a little disappointed not to see how Rory could have pulled the role off) that the story achieves its keystone moment. Up to this point, actor Michael Gambon had been surprisingly sidelined through this production. Other than playing Karzan’s father Elliot, most of his work has been to sit back and witness as the Doctor takes first Laurence Belcher and then Danny Horn (Karzan’s youthful stand-ins) through Karzan’s childhood and teenage years. But when the neat little twist of the Ghost of Christmas Future presents itself, Gambon rises to the occasion, producing a fit of emotion that either makes or breaks this story but, fortunately, makes it. Catharsis is reached, and the Doctor has won the bigger battle in this tale. Now all we have to do is find some way to save the over 4000 people on the crashing ship.

As I said, Michael Gambon anchors this production, even though he doesn’t have to do much through most of it (which is, actually, a task in itself, since he has to emote with no one to emote to). The actor brings considerable gravitas to his role, and he and Matt Smith strike sparks off each other in their scenes together. This is to be expected given his pedigree. At the other end of the spectrum, Katherine Jenkins in her first major acting role as Abigail puts on a sparkling performance. Her chemistry with both the young and teenage Karzan as well as the Doctor is real. The only false notes, strangely enough, come when the character has to sing. I find this especially ironic because, although the scenes with her singing feel as though they were dubbed, there is no question that it is her voice singing the songs (and she has a beautiful voice). Why else would you hire such a virtuoso for the role if not to sing?

The story ends on a perfect bittersweet note. The Doctor can’t save everyone, it seems, but even with that, he still brought joy on Christmas. How beautiful is it that he not only saves the lives of 4000 people on a crashing ship, he is able to save a man’s soul? How is it that joy feels stronger when it is mixed with a few tears?

Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol is the best story of the Matt Smith series so far, and the best Christmas special the program has ever produced. It is a standout moment that reminds us what Stephen Moffat is capable of, and it has me eagerly looking forward to what awaits us in 2011. Viewers and fans alike could not ask for a better gift on this day.

Random Notes

  • You notice how the Doctor’s lightning assessment of Karzan Sardick and his family history resembles when Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock goes off on his clue rants? From such moments are a thousand crossover fanfics born. I wonder if Matt Smith’s Doctor and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock were to meet, if they could go on clue rants like duelling banjos?
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