Companion Tropes Extra 10
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is such a popular and well-known story that it has become a writing trope in itself. It would be possible to compile a fairly extensive list of television series that have their own episodes based on the story, where somebody takes on the Scrooge role (subtly or otherwise) and learns the error of their ways by reflecting on their past, present and future. It’s an easy three-act story for a writer. In the first year of its revived series, Doctor Who skirted around the edges of the trope with Dickens himself in The Unquiet Dead, at least to the extent that the Ninth Doctor acts as a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come within the narrative and helps Dickens to find a new enthusiasm for life.
A Christmas Carol story included as a storyline within an established television series (which the TV Tropes website refers to as “Yet Another Christmas Carol”) is not uncommon, with plenty of examples in genre series such as Quantum Leap, Smallville and Xena. It has to be handled with great care though. Unless the television series in question is a comedy (e.g. Blackadder), or a children’s show (The Muppets, among dozens of others) it is really such a contrived story idea and so difficult to execute convincingly that it can feel like the series is jumping the shark (the term for a series that does something really silly and makes it appear that the writers have run out of ideas). Not quite jumping the shark, but at least riding on the back of it, we have Doctor Who‘s most obvious attempt at doing A Christmas Carol, ingeniously titled… A Christmas Carol.
The roles of the ghosts are assigned as follows. The Ghost of Christmas Past is the Doctor. We’ll come back to that. The Ghost of Christmas Present is I suppose a role shared by Amy and Rory. Of the three “ghosts” they are the weakest parallel with the original story, and in fact they are also taking on the narrative roles of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, whose lives are in Scrooge’s hands and whose continued existence relies on his beneficence. But in terms of the three ghosts the middle of a three act play always proves itself the weakest, in both original story and imitators. The Ghost of Christmas Present merely reinforces the wrongdoing of the Scrooge character and the effects that has on others, whereas the Past provides vital context for his character and the Future is what finally inspires the change of heart. And that’s where Kazran himself comes in to the picture as a Ghost, because he is ingeniously his own Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, when he almost becomes his own father (figuratively).
As I mentioned when I reviewed the episode originally, there’s a big problem with the Doctor as the Ghost of Christmas Past, because he changes the past in order to change the kind of person Kazran actually is. In doing so, Steven Moffat either destroys or misunderstands the whole point of the original story. Scrooge learns from the past and present, facing up to his past mistakes and how his actions in the present affect others. The future is then a simple matter of showing the consequences of continuing down the path he is taking in life. His miserliness is a symptom not a cause. He made some bad decisions in the past and as a result suffers crushing loneliness and is eaten up with regret. The whole point of the story is how a man can have a past that is full of regrets, but still change and become a good person, reclaiming his life in the present and future. Scrooge can’t change the past, but he can change the future. What Moffat does instead is has the Ghost of Christmas Past change events in Kazran’s past, turning him into a different person. So Kazran doesn’t change because he faces up to his past and learns the error of his ways. His past is rewritten instead. Kazran changes because the Doctor deletes him from existence and replaces him with another Kazran. The Ghost of Christmas Past kills Scrooge and replaces him with Scrooge 2.0.
So the power of the original message is lost, but the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is the aspect of the story that really does work beautifully well and is in narrative terms an improvement on the original. I ended my original review by pointing out the perils of trying to improve on Dickens, in terms of Moffat changing the way the past plays into the redemption, but in terms of the future I have to acknowledge that Moffat really does improve on Dickens. My fingers didn’t want to type a sentence like that, but I have to be fair. What Dickens does in the original is to scare Scrooge with his future, and the source of the fear for him is to basically say “look, here’s your future and you’re dead.” Moffat instead has Kazran recognise that the path he is following leads not just to the grave, but will turn him into his own father. It ties together his past and future in a way that even Dickens couldn’t quite manage, and throws in a flying shark for good measure. Once again Doctor Who proves itself to be the show that can go anywhere and do anything, especially at Christmas. RP
When you cast a big name star like Michael Gambon in a Dr. Who Christmas special, as with a big name star like Christopher Plummer, Malcolm McDowell or F. Murray Abraham for the villain of the next Star Trek film, you might naturally expect a rewarding story. For a Dr. Who Christmas special that quite openly paralleled Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as The Brain Of Morbius did Frankenstein, I’m sorry to say that I was somewhat disappointed to not have something more profoundly original.
The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride, Voyage Of The Damned and The Next Doctor were all proof enough of how creatively significant Dr. Who Christmas specials were to begin with. The End Of Time and Resolution for New Year’s Specials, given how dynamically they worked their stories around Tennant’s timeless regeneration finale and Jodie’s thrillingly first Dalek encounter, may retain the better impacts in retrospect.
For Matt Smith’s first Dr. Who Christmas special, all intents and purposes speak for themselves and Gambon’s talents are of course rewarding. But as a Whovian and a Trekker, I go more for story impact and atmosphere. On this occasion, it was the first to make the powers of Dr. Who question how far they could go with Dr. Who Christmas specials. When Jodie’s era finally gets one, I would understand if the right timing is meant to benefit the story impact. 🎄
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