At long last, BBC America has bowed to the reality of the internet and broadcast the Doctor Who Christmas special within hours of its UK premiere. It's particularly fortunate that as many viewers as possible got to see this episode at the correct time of year, rather than weeks or months later, as "A Christmas Carol" is definitely the most Christmassy of all the Christmas specials so far. Previous specials have seen various trappings of Christmas given a Doctor Who twist (killer Christmas trees, robot Santas, and so on), but this is the first time the Christmas episode draws inspiration from one of the classic works of Christmas literature. Despite the title, though, this is not simply an adaptation of the famous original; such a thing would make no sense, since we already know that Charles Dickens exists in the Doctor's universe ("The Unquiet Dead"). Instead, writer Steven Moffat neatly engineers a situation where the Doctor deliberately chooses to act in a way that follows the basic structure of A Christmas Carol—just with time-travel, rather than ghosts.
The teaser dumps us straight into the action: a spaceship is in trouble, its engines failing, plummeting into the atmosphere of a planet covered with dense white clouds. On board are four thousand people, including our honeymooning companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). They manage to send a distress signal which brings the TARDIS flying to the rescue, but it can't simply lock on and tow the ship to safety—and the clouds make any sort of controlled landing impossible. With admirable efficiency, the main threat driving the plot has been set up in under two minutes, with several gags along the way referencing everything from Star Trek (the design of the ship's bridge, especially the viewscreen, and the navigator with an artificial-eyesight device on his face) to Red Dwarf ("The light's stopped flashing… Does this mean he's on his way, or do I have to change the bulb?"). Amy and Rory are wearing their policewoman/kissogram and Roman outfits from previous stories, which I'm sure was done not only to hint that they were engaging in a bit of roleplaying in the honeymoon suite, but to mislead fans who saw the publicity photos into thinking that Moffat, with his penchant for time-twisting plotting, might be revisiting the events of the last year (as if they weren't tangled enough already). Surprisingly, it turns out that there is plenty of 'timey-wimey' trickery to come, but Amy and Rory are barely involved in the story—they'll remain trapped on board the USS MacGuffin for the duration.
Below the cloud layer, we find a different world altogether. One of the things that struck me forcefully about this episode is simply how good it looked. New production designer Michael Pickwoad presents a positively cinematic setting that initially looks like a picture-postcard Victorian Christmas. But a closer look reveals electric lighting, loudspeakers on the lamp-posts, and costumes that incorporate helmets and goggles reminiscent of early aircraft pilots. It's the sort of thing which was being attempted in "The Beast Below"—to create a setting based firmly on British iconography, with a surreal twist—but this episode is on a bigger scale, and much more successful. This Victorian-ish human colony is more or less superimposed onto a sort of bizarre undersea world—the clouds and fog are actually home to flying fish of all sizes up to and including man-sized sharks. There are some vague attempts at providing justifications for all this, with the Doctor mumbling about "crystalline fog" and so on, but they're unlikely to satisfy those who prefer their Doctor Who to be more science fiction than fantasy, and it's probably best to view this environment as simply continuing the style of storytelling which informed much of the last season. Besides, the image of schools of small fish swimming through the air, circling around street lamps, is wonderfully beguiling.
The ruler of this town, Kazran Sardick, is a thoroughly unpleasant person who seems to derive his pleasures from being as petty and mean as possible to anyone and everyone. A Scrooge-like moneylender who takes family members as collateral for loans and stores them in cryogenic stasis caskets, we see him refusing a poor family's request for their frozen relative—a beautiful young woman—to be let out for just one day; to let them have Christmas Day together. He sneers at the family to go home and "pray for a miracle," when suddenly there's a disturbance at the chimney. In a shower of soot and sparks, the Doctor (Matt Smith) makes a spectacular entrance ("Christmas Eve on a rooftop, saw a chimney, my whole brain just went, What the hell!"). He's here because Kazran is the owner of a device which can control the clouds of this planet, and is the only hope for the crippled spaceship to land safely. When he tries to operate the controls himself he finds they are "isomorphic," and will respond only to Kazran (for long-time fans, an in-joke referring to the Tom Baker story "Pyramids of Mars," in which the Doctor used a bluff about the TARDIS controls being isomorphic).
The producers scored a considerable coup by getting Michael Gambon for the part of Kazran. He will be most familiar to a lot of the audience (particularly the children) as Dumbledore, but for me he is indelibly linked not to Harry but to Dennis Potter. His unforgettable central performance in The Singing Detective (the 1986 version, that is, not the inferior 2003 remake) is a large part of why that production is one of the greatest dramatic works ever created for television. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him in this episode, and he didn't disappoint. As we find out over the course of the story, Kazran is a man whose emotional makeup was greatly influenced by his brutal, domineering father Elliot Sardick—whose brief appearances in flashback scenes are also portrayed by Gambon. His own childhood interests were crushed, as he grew up to follow his father in the "family business"—the atmospheric control system which now gives him power and influence over the whole planet. Something I particularly enjoyed about Gambon's performance here is the way, whenever Kazran is being especially unpleasant, his voice takes on some of the characteristics of the coarser, more thuggish voice Gambon provides for Elliot. It's as if he can't help himself becoming the embodiment of his own father.
Meanwhile, Matt Smith continues to show all the brilliance which I've come to expect after the last series. The only things I didn't care for in the portrayal of the Doctor in this episode (and the writing is perhaps more to blame than the performance here) were a couple of particularly hyperactive moments that would have fit perfectly into the little pantomime skit Moffat wrote for Smith's live performance at the Doctor Who Prom concert (which was shown on BBC America a few hours before this episode). "Big flashy lighty thing. Big flashy lighty things have got me written all over them. Well, not actually… give me time. And a crayon." At least Kazran does get to mock him about it ("Was that a sort of threat-y thing?"), but I find this sort of superficial wackiness tends to detract from the Doctor's presence without adding anything interesting in return.
Apart from those little glitches, though, Smith and Gambon work excellently together. Their first, long confrontation scene is a treat. When the Doctor asks who the frozen woman is and Kazran says she is "nobody important," his quiet reply—"D'you know, in nine hundred years of time and space I've never met anyone who wasn't important before"—manages to slip in a disconcerting amount of menace underneath the last few words. Even after he discovers that only Kazran can operate the controls, he still can't stop himself trading barbs ("I'm Kazran Sardick. How could you possibly not know who I am?" "Well… just easily bored, I suppose"). He tries cajoling, then veiled threats; nothing works against Kazran's determined intransigence. But when he sees Kazran raise his hand against the little boy from the poor family—but be unable to make himself complete the action of hitting him—the Doctor begins to realize that there might be a way to change Kazran's mind after all.
The Doctor: "That ship needs to land. But it can't land unless a very bad man suddenly decides to turn nice just in time for Christmas Day."
As I said earlier, this is not a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather an independent story incorporating some of its motifs. The social commentary from the original is not used here (although Kazran does make a couple of snide remarks about "surplus population"), and there is no allegorical reveal of two children named Ignorance and Want. Instead, Moffat makes use of an idea that formed the basis of his first-ever piece of Doctor Who fiction, a highly regarded short story published in 1996 called "Continuity Errors"—the Doctor reforms Scrooge/Kazran in the present by changing his past.
Kazran is sleeping in his chair when he is jolted awake by the ghost of Christmas Past—a video image projected onto his wall by the Doctor. It's a recording he made as a boy, showing his twelve-year-old self wanting to make a film about the fish that fascinate him, but being berated by his father who slaps him—something the grown-up Kazran was unable to do to the boy earlier.
Kazran: "I cried all night, and I learned life's most invaluable lesson."
The Doctor: "Which is?"
Kazran: "Nobody comes."
He tells the Doctor to get out; in response, the Doctor simply tells him he'll be back… way back. The moment where the sound of the TARDIS leaving becomes the sound of the TARDIS arriving, and in the recording the boy Kazran looks up and sees the Doctor at his window, is a simply magical transition. Director Toby Haynes, having successfully coped with Moffat's time-jumping plotting in last season's finale, is equally adept here at finding ways to ensure that the viewer is kept up to speed with Kazran's shifting timeline. As the Doctor interacts with the boy Kazran, the adult version finds himself with memories of those events—but in addition to, not instead of, his previous memories, in much the same way as Amy and Rory found themselves with memories of multiple timelines at the end of the last series.
I do wonder whether Steven Moffat is to some extent playing with fire here. Something Doctor Who has always shied away from is using the TARDIS as a means of solving story problems, especially by going back in time. The chief narrative function of the TARDIS has always been to deposit the Doctor and his companions at the start of an adventure and take them away at the end. In the classic series, of course, its navigation was generally too unreliable to do anything else. And even when the Doctor did later manage to gain more control over his journeys, there was always technobabble available to "explain" why established events could not be interfered with. Even in recent stories which have featured manipulation of timelines, the TARDIS has generally not been involved. By using the TARDIS in this fashion here, Moffat's fascination with the possibilities of time-travel (and his undoubted ability to exploit those possibilities) may have opened up a can of worms and created a situation where it's hard to avoid asking why the Doctor can't fix every problem he encounters by just going back in time.
Anyway, be that as it may, the Doctor now spends some time getting to know Kazran as a boy. Matt Smith has already shown several times how well he can work with child actors, and this episode provides another example. Laurence Belcher gives a very natural and believable performance, establishing a real rapport with Smith just as the intelligent, likeable young Kazran does with the Doctor. This section also contains my favorite joke of the episode:
Young Kazran: "Are you really a babysitter?"
The Doctor: (presents his psychic paper) "I think you'll find I'm universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult."
Young Kazran: "It's just a lot of wavy lines."
The Doctor: (examines it) "Shorted out. Finally, a lie too big."
The Doctor sets up his sonic screwdriver to attract one of the fish; unfortunately it ends up attracting one rather bigger than he was expecting, and young Kazran finds himself facing a full-sized shark floating in his bedroom. (Amusingly, in the accompanying Confidential episode, Moffat reveals that the shark-in-the-bedroom image comes straight from his own childhood nightmares.) The shark bites the Doctor's sonic screwdriver in half, but leaving the cloud layer means it's dying. The boy asks the Doctor to take the shark back to the clouds, but that will require borrowing one of the cryogenic caskets. He picks the one containing the young woman we saw earlier, who he knows shares his fascination with the fish, which leads to the introduction of the episode's other guest star.
The role of Abigail was the first acting role for Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, and she made a great job of it. Not only is she visually stunning, but as the episode progresses she has to carry more and more emotional weight, and proves more than capable of it. Her singing voice is also put to good use; here she sings "In the Bleak Midwinter" to calm the shark—in typical Moffat fashion, combining an arresting image with the laying in of plot points for later, as the Doctor talks about how the sound of her voice resonates with the ice crystals making up the clouds.
The release of the shark back into the clouds, with Abigail and young Kazran standing in the TARDIS doorway and looking on delightedly, kicks off a section lasting nearly fifteen minutes where the Doctor and Kazran spend a multitude of Christmas Eves with Abigail. The Doctor of course journeys straight from one Christmas Eve to the next, and Abigail is frozen in her casket for the rest of the year, so only Kazran ages, changing from a boy into a young adult (Danny Horn). As they journey to famous places on Earth, enjoy a ride through the clouds on a rickshaw pulled by their now-tame shark, or drop in on Abigail's family for a happy Christmas dinner (a scene drawing directly on the merrymaking at the Cratchits' house in the original Christmas Carol), Kazran and Abigail gradually fall in love. Periodically, we cut back to the old Kazran, sitting on the floor of his study, looking at the photographs of what are simultaneously both old memories and new experiences for him. And the portrait now watching over him is no longer his father—it's been replaced by a picture of Abigail. Despite my reservations above about the possible misuse of the TARDIS, the sheer joy of this sequence is hard to resist. Apart from anything else, there are some more great comedy lines from Moffat:
Kazran: "I've never kissed anyone before. What do I do?"
The Doctor: "Well, try and be all nervous and rubbish and a bit shaky."
The Doctor: "Because you're going to be like that anyway. Might as well make it part of the plan, then it'll feel on purpose. Off you go, then."
Kazran: "Now? I kiss her now?"
The Doctor: "Kazran, trust me. It's either this, or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes. Now, go!"
However, tragedy strikes when Abigail lets Kazran in on a big secret she's been keeping to herself. Unfortunately, the story requires the Doctor to be kept in the dark at this point, and Moffat resorts to a serious case of idiot plotting to accomplish this. Earlier the Doctor had pointed out a numerical readout on the front of Abigail's casket, and Abigail had confirmed that it pertained to her, and mentioned something about doctors ("Are you one of mine?"). But the story contrived to distract the Doctor before he could probe further. Then, each time Abigail is released for Christmas Eve, the direction makes a point of showing us the number on the front of her casket counting down. It's very obvious that something bad is going to happen when the count reaches zero, but we're supposed to believe the Doctor never notices the decreasing number right in front of him—even though earlier he gave an impressive demonstration of his observational skills with his deductions about Kazran's father (presented in the rapid-fire style of Moffat's other hit show of 2010, Sherlock).
Abigail finally tells Kazran at a party on Earth where the Doctor accidentally gets engaged to Marilyn Monroe. In a very funny scene, the Doctor wants to make a quick getaway, while the two lovers ignore him, their kissing hiding their tear-streaked faces. The way Matt Smith says, "Fine, I'll just go and get married then. See how you like that," and stalks away with an irritated snap of his jacket and a yell of "Marilyn, get your coat!" is just hilarious. Back in the vault, a clearly bitter Kazran seals Abigail away before telling the Doctor he won't be going on any more Christmas Eve trips—in fact, he won't be needing the Doctor any more at all. The Doctor is left puzzled, responding to Kazran's "Times change" with "Not as much as I'd hoped." It's nice to have the audience ahead of the Doctor just for once, but it goes on way too long, and the way it's presented makes the Doctor look absurdly slow-witted.
Back in the 'present day,' the old Kazran is once again being watched over by the portrait of his father. Having originally become a misanthrope through loneliness and lack of love, he is now embittered by the pain of having loved and lost, and still refuses to help the ship land safely ("As a very old friend of mine once took a very long time to explain, life isn't fair!"). Even when Amy gets into the action, appearing to Kazran in a holographic projection as "the ghost of Christmas Present," she is no more successful than the Doctor was earlier. Finally Kazran reveals the secret that everyone in the audience had already guessed—Abigail is dying, and has only one day left to live. "So tell me, ghost of Christmas Present. How do I choose which day?"
Gambon and Smith shine again in the final confrontation between the Doctor and Kazran. Having criticized Moffat's plotting earlier, it's only fair that I give him due credit for the climax of the Doctor's manipulation of Kazran—the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
Kazran: "Why are you here?"
The Doctor: "Because I'm not finished with you yet. You've seen the past, the present… and now you need to see the future."
Kazran: "Fine. Do it. Show me. I'll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will; we all do. What difference does showing me make?" (beat) "Do you know why I'm going to let those people die? Not a plan; I don't get anything from it. It's just that I don't care. I'm not like you; I don't even want to be like you. I don't and never ever will care!"
The Doctor: "And I don't believe you."
Kazran: "Then show me the future."
And now the twist occurs, which I never saw coming. The Doctor simply replies, "I am showing it to you; I'm showing it to you right now." Standing behind Kazran is his twelve-year-old self, who looks at him, appalled. Eventually, he says simply: "Dad?" That one word finally penetrates the hard carapace Kazran has built up around himself. His Christmas Carol therapy is completed as he rejects his father's harshness and ends up quite literally embracing his inner child.
Now at last Kazran is willing to save the ship, but Moffat manages to fit in one more clever twist. The Doctor has now changed Kazran to such an extent that the isomorphic controls no longer recognize him. Instead, the Doctor has to cobble together a solution using Abigail's voice transmitted through the two halves of his sonic screwdriver—one retained by Kazran over the years, the other still in that shark flying through the clouds. This of course means that Abigail must be released from her casket—for the last time. It's a beautifully written scene as she gently chides Kazran for "hoarding my days like an old miser," before concluding: "We've had so many Christmas Eves, Kazran. I think it's time for Christmas Day."
Once again, Katherine Jenkins' marvelous voice is showcased as Abigail sings a new Murray Gold number. The melody had actually been heard earlier, forming the basis of the joyful accompaniment to the rickshaw sequence. Here, though, it is presented in a pure, unadorned version that provides a suitably moving climax as the clouds are finally "unlocked," snow falls on the town, and the ship at last lands safely.
Amy: "It'll be their last day together, won't it?"
The Doctor: "Everything's got to end some time. Otherwise nothing would ever get started."
The trailer for the next season, released after this episode, is a reminder that "A Christmas Carol" is actually an interlude within a larger story. The threads left hanging at the end of last season—River Song, and the mysterious "Silence"—will be taken up again soon. But for now, we end with the sight of Kazran and Abigail dashing through the clouds in a one-shark open sleigh (well, rickshaw), making the most of their last day together. See you next year.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.