From DWM #430, this was written during a bout of ‘flu. A fuzzy head, and no particularly clear opinion of what I thought of the story made it feel like I was stumbling through a blizzard.
But there was a deadline to be met, and that, thankfully, gave me a little clarity. Or at least something to head towards. Looking back at it now, I realise I use a device (reporting upon the actual press screening) which crops again in another DWM review I submitted recently, as an effort to contextualise my slight ambivalence.
Remember Christmas past? It was 2009 and BBC1 decorated the bits between its programmes by hanging up an array of Doctor Who-themed idents. One of them featured a ho ho ho-ing Tenth Doctor sitting astride his TARDIS as a herd of reindeer whisked him through the skies. Was such frippery canon? Bah! Humbug!
Now the veil parts for Christmas present. Well, okay, Christmas-just-gone, but let’s not break the conceit. Here the Eleventh Doctor and chums tear up the stratosphere in a shark-drawn carriage. Definitely canon.
The unlikely confluence between an airborne great white and a similarly hued winter wonderland is undoubtedly the oddest moment of Steven Moffat’s debut wielding the Yuletide quill. And that’s going some, because A Christmas Carol is the maddest thing Doctor Who’s ever done. Madder, even, than The Twin Dilemma.
Thanks to the magic of publication deadlines, your DWM reviewer saw the adventure in a windowless room at the BBC’s Television Centre back in mid November. In that context, I couldn’t help feel a little disconnected from what was happening on screen. More than any other DW festive number, this one sits best framed by the excess and indulgences of the Big Day. Granted, I was nibbling on a BBC mince pie to help things get a-jingling, but it still felt like gazing at a Christmas future that was a loooong way off.
I did mostly love the adventure though. However I’m still not quite sure what it was about. Yes, the story takes its cue from the Dickens classics, but there are a million other things also going on – where do you rest your eyes? Right from the off it’s in-your-face, with a shiny, campy Star Trek parody you feel sure will pull-back at any moment and reveal itself as a silly TV show set within the fiction. Well, until Amy Pond arrives on deck, with a risqué routine about honeymooners and costumed role play. At which point we find ourselves (and all aboard) lurched literally into a fast-unfolding disaster movie.
From there it’s through the freezing fog and into Sardicktown for the static lantern-lit melodrama the title promises. Michael Gambon is great as the miserly Kazran. Although maybe a little too successful. He invests the character with a brilliantly bitter and believable sense of ennui that utterly transcends panto villain. However, on the festive stage, we perhaps need a blackguard who’s a little more proactive about twirling his moustache and bringing badness to all. It’s hard to know when to boo if you’re baddy’s raison d’être is reticence.
But the cheers? They’re obvious. They start when the Doctor comes rattling down the chimney and Matt Smith gets busy reminding us yet again why he’s the best modern day version of the Time Lord, dancing around Kazran’s reception room, talking and interfering incessantly. Moffat’s script goes to some lengths to highlight the traveller’s ownership of this time of year, from that fireside entrance, to his wooing of the young Kazran (who explains to the defrosted Abigail that the Doctor “comes every Christmas”) and the manic building of snowmen at the end. Coupled to this is further reinforcement of the Doctor’s status as a children’s hero, one who knows of the terrors that lurk under the bed and of “face spiders” in the wardrobe. Some of us may no longer believe in a certain benevolent stranger from Lapland, but we can still have faith in the time traveller from Gallifrey.
Ah, time travel. As ever, there’s a huge amount of fun to be had here, this iteration of the series placing the device front and centre in a way the show has never dared before. Moffat’s treatment is almost akin to farce, the plot’s logic jumping tracks in a fashion that makes you laugh at the audacity of it all.
“I’ll be back,” our hero cautions Kazran. “Way back.” The miser’s sepia movie footage of his childhood feels like an inviolate document of days dead and gone… and then the Doctor steps into it, says “Hello” and everything’s up for grabs. Likewise, popping back to the present day to earwig on Kazran, frustratedly bellowing at the film his combination code for the vault door. You’re a naughty man, Doctor.
How naughty, though? “Time can be rewritten” is a concept the series seems to be taking up as a clarion call. It’s a robust notion, but I worry about where it might take us. Does our hero truly have the right to retro-engineer a new past for Kazran? Even though it’s his only option to ensure another Voyage of the Damned-style last minute save of a space vessel in distress? In many ways his tinkering echoes the kind of unforgiveable transgression his former self made during 2009’s The Waters of Mars. However, on this occasion Eleven isn’t suffering from a God complex. “I’ve never met anyone who’s not important,” he says, contradicting Time Lord Victorious’ horrible assertion that there exists within reality less significant “little people”.
It’s because of his good heartedness that, on this occasion, I guess I ultimately buy the legitimacy of what the Doctor’s doing. It’s further helped along by the fact that – much like The Big Bang’s comedic deus ex machina cliff-hanger resolution – his manoeuvring is played with a huge sense of fun. All that business with the Doctor becoming accidentally engaged to Marilyn Monroe, or Kazran’s servants winning a non-existent lottery, or even just the sight of our man messing around in Tom Baker’s scarf… what’s not to love? Furthermore, one could argue that at the story’s climax, rescuing Amy, Rory and the rest remains, ultimately, Kazran’s choice. And it’s by far the best bit of the whole episode.
A flying shark or Katherine Jenkins singing a space ship safely out of the sky doesn’t test our credulity. Not really. But where A Christmas Carol could have become unstuck is in how the miser’s soul was saved. It’s the pivotal moment of the story, the bit where, if we as viewers lose faith, the whole thing breaks down. True to form, Moffat yet again turns it into a superb feint, with the reversal that Kazran himself is actually the wretched and loveless ghost of Christmas future, one who’s engendering horror into his boyhood former self. Seeing the child we once were shrinking away at the adult we’ve become – that’d make you mend your ways. Absolutely.
A Christmas Carol is bonkers. It’s a little bit all over the place, a fizzing possit of death, nonsense, remorse, shiny sci fi, chilly lost love, impromptu arias and a veritable snow drift of festive goodwill. Plus a flying shark (a flying shark!). To my mind, it’s not the best ever Doctor Who story, not by a long chalk. But it is perhaps the most successful Doctor Who Christmas special so far. In all the business and the busyness, there’s a little bit of magic here.
As I left that screening room at the BBC, and plodded off into drizzily November greyness, with the predatory and unceasing traffic of Wood Lane gnashing its teeth hard, I swear there was a new lightness in my step. A jauntiness even. Roll on December 25th, so I can see it all again, I thought. But until then it was: Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas one and all!