“A Christmas Carol”
December 25th, 2010
My “first” experience with Doctor Who, at least more than off-handed glimpses of the Eccleston era, was “Waters of Mars.” I received the screener, watched the episode, and sort of decided that I should see more of what the series had to offer. My next step was, not shockingly, “The Next Doctor,” the first of the four Tennant Specials of which “Waters of Mars” was part.
It was my first, and to date “only,” experience with the Doctor Who Christmas Special, an interesting example of television form. They’re a sort of palate cleanser, a way to transfer smoothly from one series to the next: there’s no major plot developments, no huge shifts in character relationships, serving instead as a reminder of how much you like the series and how much you are anticipating its return later in 2011.
And yet, while “The Next Doctor” was definitely a Christmas episode, it was very much affected by the Tenth Doctor’s soul searching, a sort of existential crisis which made that Christmas special a transition into a very particular journey of identity and meaning in the specials which followed. By comparison, “A Christmas Carol” is unconcerned with all of it: writing his first such special, Steven Moffat uses Christmas as a source of whimsy and magic, heartbreak and memory, and a wonderful bit of storytelling from which it seems the season to follow will draw momentum if not necessarily inspiration.
Although I wouldn’t mind if it took some of that too, considering how much I enjoyed this return to Who-Ville.
When I wrote about the Christmas episode of Glee, I noted that the show basically used Christmas as an excuse to overindulge – humans do it with food, and television does it with sappy emotional appeals and treacly speeches. And yet I think we could argue that Moffat was similarly indulgent here, albeit in ways I find much more tolerable, or “cool” if you prefer. “A Christmas Carol” is unapologetically timey-wimey, and perhaps more important it’s also aggressively meta. As much a love letter to series five as a special in its own right, the Doctor/Amy/Rory parts of the special are all about our nostalgia: there’s copious references to the beloved Fez, the Bowtie gets top billing, and the pairing of Matt Smith’s Doctor with a young child on Christmas Eve couldn’t help but return us to that fateful Christmas Eve when the Doctor landed on Amelia Pond’s doorstep to investigate a crack in her wall. Amy and Rory, appearing largely in glorified cameos here, are that similarly referential with their choice of roleplay outfits, cheeky and fun in a way that I really quite like the show to be.
Matt Smith is simply a very funny actor, and that came through in spades here – there was a cleverness to his dialogue which seemed perfect for the Christmas spirit, and even when the story became more serious there was the reminder that Smith is capable of isolating his humor. He’s silly without the situation seeming silly, and the more emotional or exciting moments do not feel diminished by his presence – he knows when to dial down, knows when to turn it up to 11, and is simply incredibly comfortable in this role. This was perhaps the most concentrated bit of pure, unadulterated charm that we’ve gotten since those opening scenes of “The Eleventh Hour,” and it managed to persist throughout the entire episode without losing the growing sense of pathos within Kazran’s changing history. Rewriting time is fun business, both for the Doctor and for the audience, but it never felt as if it was at odds with the growing emotional appeal of the storyline.
Part of this was the fact that the show could simply cut to the always reliable Michael Gambon, who had a lot of fun with the most Scroogiest elements of Kazran while stepping up to the plate with the more emotional moments. His reactions to memories being added could have seemed false, but Gambon sold it like the thespian he is. If the episode has one substantial flaw, it’s that there is very little done in terms of the crashing ship outside of putting Amy and Rory on it – the lack of context for their experience seems particularly bizarre, and while we don’t need a considerable amount of clarification and detail I do think that their plight because largely forgotten the further we went into Kazran’s past. However, I think that was at least partly by design: we were meant to seem as if the Doctor and Karzan both got caught up in their Christmas Eve ritual with Abigail to the point where the real meaning of anything became something that was forgotten. The truth, whether it be the ship about to crash or the life about to expire, only gets in the way of living one’s life, or in this case Moffat delivering a really entertaining, and meaningful, story about lost love.
From a narrative perspective, I love the almost Inception-like notion of planting memories and creating new narratives which could change present events. It captures the essence of the traditional tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and adds a very definitive, unique twist to the proceedings, which is necessary when loosely adapting something that has been adapted this many times. Just as wink-y with the references to the Dickens tale as he was with the references to the Fifth Series, Moffat really did well here: I love how “Christmas Present” ended up being referenced twice (both with Kazran seeing the people singing on the ship via Amy, and Abigail being able to fulfill the more traditional role of witnessing the poor family’s Christmas), and how the “Christmas Future” section played out with that quick camera pan to reveal that the Doctor is once again twisting the story to serve his own methods. The show didn’t just decide to apply its own rules onto the story and run with it: the rules kept shifting, and just when you thought things were settling back into familiar rhythms something new would take over.
It’s a bit of surprise in an episode which doesn’t rely on it: the countdown was about as easy to predict as you might imagine it to be, and it was a pretty safe bet that Amy and Rory were going to be able to land safely. And yet despite some of the details being clear from the very beginning, the episode’s path to that conclusion never felt as if it followed the purely logical – it had twists and turns, shark-driven sleighs and Marilyn Monroe weddings, and yet it still came to the inevitable point we expected just with a very different story to tell. We were meant to feel as if we had come back to where we had started, meant to feel as if we were closing this particular book: while we saw brief glimpses of Kazran’s world, we didn’t see enough to view his story as any more but a personal one. I don’t say this to dismiss the storyline, but rather to identify that this is not a story that needs to linger, nor is it necessarily designed as one. However, because of how strong Moffat’s execution tends to be, I think we are going to remember this story: the best Doctor Who stories, I’m discovering, are often those which resonate for reasons beyond a direct connection to plot or even themes, and “A Christmas Carol” seems as if it will be one of them.
That this kind of episode so often happens to be written by Moffat should tell you something about the show’s really strong run over the past year, but I don’t think that’s the only thing which makes “A Christmas Carol” seem so delightful. In truth, I think it’s the season itself: perhaps it’s just the afterglow of Christmas Day, but there’s something about this episode that just felt “magical.” I don’t think that it’s the best episode of the series, out of those I’ve seen, but it seemed the most finely tuned into my current state of mind – I wanted something light and airy, with elements of whimsy balanced with elements of romance, and I received precisely that with a certain sense of danger to boot. When the show returns for series six, it’s going to be something else entirely, but for this brief moment “A Christmas Carol” is a wonderful Christmas present (or, a great way to cap off a December Saturday, for those not so inclined to celebrate the holiday).
- Sweeping Utah vistas? Copious amounts of River Song? Creepy aliens? Stetsons are cool? Series Six needs to get here as soon as is physically possible.
- Katherine Jenkins, the internet informs me, is a mezzo-soprano of some repute in the U.K., which makes this “stuntcasting” of a sort. I thought she acquitted herself well enough as an actress to pull this off, and it’s not as if the script asked a great deal of her. She sang, she looked pretty, and she sold the emotional beats necessary to move the Kazran story along.
- As noted, really a glorified cameo for Gillan and Darvill here, but I was still pleased to see the latter added to the credit sequence, and there were some fun moments surrounding their callback costumes which made their presence most welcome.