‘Doctor Who’ – ‘A Christmas Carol’: Gone fishin’

Senior Television Writer
12.26.10 46 Comments

“Doctor Who” presented its annual Christmas special last night, and it finally occurred to someone in BBC corporate that if America didn’t get to see it on the same day as the UK, then fans on this side of the (Amy) pond might just bootleg the thing. Hopefully, that arrangement will continue for the upcoming season, but in the meantime, I’ve got a relatively timely review coming up just as soon as I get accidentally engaged to marry a Monroe…

There was a point maybe 10 or 15 minutes into “A Christmas Carol” where I began to worry. I trust Steven Moffat pretty implicitly, and Michael Gambon is a great, great actor, but I didn’t particularly need to see Gambon and Matt Smith starring in a Dickens riff in “Doctor Who” drag.

I should’ve gone right on trusting Moffat, because once the Doctor traveled into the past of the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick, things went very much off-book in a fantastic way, resulting in what I think (in the immediacy of watching it, of course) is my favorite of the modern “Who” Christmas specials.

The rewritten life of Sardick is itself a riff on a familiar theme, and one Moffat has used several times previously on the series: an ordinary life being turned into something extraordinary thanks to periodic visits by the Doctor. But if Moffat keeps going to that well (most famously in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and the introduction of Amy Pond), it’s because it always works like gangbusters. It’s because Moffat understands that time travel doesn’t have to be an excuse for technobabble and convoluted plot twists, but can be a wondrous, scary, funny, moving thing, and never is that more clear than when the same person keeps encountering the Doctor while traveling forward in time at the same rate the rest of us do.

Here, we got a “Fireplace”-ish love story in which there were three people experiencing time at different speeds: Sardick like a normal person, the Doctor flitting about like mad as always, and beautiful frozen Abigail emerging once a year as if her previous visit from Kazran had been only moments before. They made for a fine trio, and Moffat took advantage of the extra time allotted for these specials(*) to give us a nice variety of adventures for them – from the appropriately childlike plan to use a flying shark(**) to pull a carriage through the sky, Santa-style, to the visit to Abigail’s family, to the grown-up Rat Pack romance at Frank Sinatra’s house, a suitably melodramatic setting for Abigail to tell Kazran that she was dying.

(*) Given the tight window between the UK and US broadcasts, I’m guessing there aren’t many, if any, people who’ve seen them both, but if there are, I’m curious if anything of note got cut from one version to the other.

(**) One of the things I love about Moffat’s scripts is how they’re bursting with ideas that might be the centerpiece of someone else’s episode but are just one of Moffat’s numerous madcap details. The flying fish were just fantastic in all their uses.

I quite liked how the Doctor’s plan wound up toying with the Dickens framework, as he wound up making Sardick just as bitter and cold, but for different reasons than before. And the idea that the “ghost of Christmas future” would be for boy Sardick rather than old man Sardick was a lovely, moving twist I wasn’t expecting.

I also appreciated Amy’s line about how time can be rewritten. At first, when the Doctor appeared in young Kazran’s bedroom, I wondered if this was violating the franchise’s time travel rules – the Doctor can’t cross his own timeline, or that of the people he’s met – but of course the cracks in the universe changed all that last season. And besides, while rules can be helpful to provide certain limits to the writers – otherwise the Doctor could solve almost every problem by going back earlier and getting a redo on what failed earlier – it’s okay on certain occasions (especially an occasion like Christmas) for the writers to not let the rules get in the way of a terrific story.

Funny, moving, cool ideas, and actually on Christmas for once  – what’s not to like?

Some other thoughts:

• I was disappointed that there was so little of Rory and Amy, but two factors tempered that disappointment: 1)I remembered that other than “The Christmas Invasion” (introduction of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor), none of the modern Christmas specials have had much, or any, time for the current companion. (Yes, Donna Noble was the star of “The Runaway Bride,” but at the time she was just a one-off character.) 2)Every one of her brief scenes featured the running gag about Amy and Rory dressing up in familiar costumes (Amy’s stripper policeman outfit, Rory’s Roman centurion uniform) for a bit of honeymoon fun.

• That said, I know “Doctor Who” is a kids’ show, and that some people complained after “The Eleventh Hour” that Moffat was sexing up the show a bit too much, so I wonder what those people made of the role-play references, and the return of the short-skirted “kiss-o-gram” costume.

• And I continue to be glad that Rory’s sticking around, and that both he and the show have accepted that all of Amy’s romantic love goes to him, no matter how much she cares for the Doctor. I laughed at Rory complaining that the Doctor gets all the credit, then pausing to acknowledge, “which is actually fair if you think about it.”

• The reference to the Doctor hanging with Santa (“Or as I’ve known him… Jeff”) and Albert Einstein at Frank Sinatra’s place in the ’50s was funny enough, but then set up the later trip there in which he somehow hooked up with Marilyn Monroe. Very nice.

• Also, note that in one of the many photos from Sardick’s reinvented past, he and the Doctor are wearing fezes. Fezes are cool.

• I take it Katherine Jenkins, who played Abigail, is a popular singer in the UK. Great pipes, certainly.

Finally, while we’re all on the same page in terms of seeing this episode, I’ll remind you that the No Spoilers policy around these here parts extends to previews for upcoming episodes. So while the sizzle reel for the new season was at least as cool as a fez, we’re not going to discuss any of its content. Okay? Just talk about the special itself.

What did everybody else think?

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