This is the first Doctor Who Christmas Special. OK, I’m twisting things a bit there, but to explain what I mean by that let’s look at the plotlines of previous ones:
- The Feast of Steven: the Doctor and his companions get involved in some comedy shenanigans with the police and then on a film set.
- The Christmas Invasion: the newly regenerated Doctor has to deal with his first Earth invasion.
- The Runaway Bride: the Doctor has to save the world from a giant spider creature with the help of a bride who has gone missing on her wedding day.
- Voyage of the Damned: the Doctor has to foil a plot and save people on a crashing spaceship.
- The Next Doctor: the Doctor meets a man who says he is the Doctor, and has to deal with a Cyberman plot.
- The End of Time: Master, Time Lords, regeneration story.
What you might notice about these summaries is that none of them include the word “Christmas”. Yes, there are elements of Christmas in them all, but not once has it ever been intrinsic to the plot, only as bonus elements. Every one of those stories could be made as non-Christmas episodes, with minimal rewrites. A Christmas Carol is the first special that uses Christmas as an essential plot element. To achieve that it is the first of two specials in a row that remake a work of fiction within the world of Doctor Who, and the obvious place to start with that is with the most popular Christmas story of them all.
An approach to a Christmas special that is basically “Doctor Who does A Christmas Carol” is a bigger risk than you might imagine. Let’s look at some versions of the story, but limit that to ones that have been made within established television shows, or television shows that have transitioned to films:
- The Muppets
- Mickey Mouse
- The Flintstones
- Mr Magoo
- Bugs Bunny
- Sesame Street
- The Smurfs
- The Jetsons
I admit that I have been a bit selective there! But the point I am making with that is if you aren’t actually adapting the book but instead are doing a take on it within an existing television format, then previous attempts have been overwhelmingly child-oriented and frivolous. So it is difficult to be taken seriously when you attempt to do this. The solution to that problem: hire Michael Gambon.
How can you relate to the idea of somebody agonising over how to choose which day will be the last one you will spend with the person you love? We don’t get to choose that kind of thing. Without Gambon that would have probably fallen flat but he finds a way to sell it and make us care. The script overwhelmingly relies on the ability of the actor playing Kazran, but that’s not a fault if you can actually get an actor who was born to play Scrooge and has never done so before, and just happens to be one of the most talented actors in the country.
In the original story, Scrooge’s miserliness is a symptom of his problems rather than the cause – at least that is the best interpretation that is not completely superficial. The root cause is loneliness. He is damaged by a lost love and a life spent alone, and his obsession over money is an escape route from his problems. This episode goes firmly down the route of that interpretation of Scrooge, and the moment of genius is of course the reinterpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Notably, the other two ghosts are completely reinterpreted as well. Instead of seeing the error of his ways by being reminded of his past like Scrooge, Kazran’s past is actually changed to turn him into a different person. In many ways this is a troubling distortion of the original story. A Christmas Carol (Dickens) was enriched with the Christmas message that a sinner can change, and be saved. A Christmas Carol (Moffat) is diminished by the message that a sinner cannot be saved unless his past is rewritten. The latter is by far the bleaker story.
The whole episode works towards getting Kazran to a place where he will be willing to activate the controls that only he can activate, only to make that whole thing a red herring. There is no getting away from the fact that this undermines what we have been watching, but the solution to the problem still flows naturally from the narrative.
As Doctor Who Christmas specials go this is a really good one, as anything that borrows from Dickens was destined to be. But where it deviates from the message of the original is where it unravels. As the Doctor almost said: “you can’t rewrite Dickens, not one line.” RP
The view from across the pond:
“Big flashy lighty things have got me written all over them. Not actually. Give me time and a crayon…” – the Doctor.
Christmas, already the best of the holidays on so many levels, was improved upon in 2005 when Doctor Who started doing the Christmas Specials. The only quibble was that most of the early ones weren’t very Christmas-y. There were many of the Christmas trappings, like robot Santas, spinning Christmas trees and deadly baubles but beyond the time of year that they took place, they were little more than fun Doctor Who stories as a bonus Christmas Gift. And I’m not complaining! But it wasn’t until Christmas of 2010 that Matt Smith’s episode A Christmas Carol really brought home the holiday spirit. And Stephen Moffat’s take on that classic Christmas tale, adding a heavy dose of Time Lord, was the perfect combination for success.
A Christmas Carol is what happens when the Doctor meets a Scrooge-like character and he has an idea about how to teach the man a lesson. If we are willing to forgive Moffat for “jumping the shark” by literally flying the shark, and take it as Moffat’s signature fairy tale imagery, the entire story is delightful. But then, how could it fail? It’s a retelling of the Dickens classic; a known success. What makes this stand out as somewhat different from Dickens’s work is Smith’s infectious enthusiasm, Gambon’s wounded cruelty and Jenkins’s utterly fantastic voice. Wrapped in a love story that utterly ignores all the laws of time and allows every one of them to be rewritten (sorry, Barbara), it’s a heartwarming story that is such fun to watch.
The subplot about Amy and Rory being on a crashing spaceship is nonsense, but it doesn’t interfere with the story. It just gives us an excuse not to have the Doctor traveling with his typical companions. (Look, they needed some excuse. At least we got a laugh out of it even if there’s some subtext that the kids probably won’t understand and perhaps we didn’t need at Christmas time.)
The rest of the episode follows exactly as one would expect of the story. Kazran is cruel and has to be shown the error of his ways. That follows the format. What doesn’t is the incredibly beautiful song that Katherine Jenkins sings as Abigail. It’s breathtaking and I have the very happy memory of letting my dad hear this piece; he had a taste for beautiful music so I knew he’d like it and I was not wrong.
This was the first Christmas episode that truly felt like Christmas! And it still managed to have Doctor Who written all over it.
… in crayon, of course! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Impossible Astronaut