Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who: "A Christmas Carol"

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who: "A Christmas Carol"

Looks like we published this Inventory a little too early. The 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special follows a long line of TV shows to borrow the sturdy structure of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” dropping the cast into the story of one seemingly irredeemable character’s redemption on Christmas Eve. It’s a timeworn approach to making a Christmas episode, but this Stephen Moffatt-scripted installment doesn’t make it seem tired. It both embraces the essence of what “A Christmas Carol” is all about and dodges clichéd ways to adapt it, unless there’s another version out there with time travel, shifting memories, and flying fish I don’t know about.

But let’s back up for a second: I don’t think I realized how much I missed Doctor Who until this episode’s opening moments, which quickly brings us back up to speed. Amy and Rory are on their honeymoon—although still wearing costumes from old episodes as part of a “bit of fun”—meanwhile, the Doctor’s out doing what he does, which in this case means showing up at nearly the last possible instant to save the day. Specifically, he’s charged with saving the 4003 inhabitants of a ship that bears a slight resemblance to the new-look Enterprise from the last Star Trek movie. Standing in his way: an old miser on a planet that looks an awful lot like mid-19th century London, played by special guest star Michael Gambon.

Did anyone else think Gambon was doing a bit of a Patrick Stewart impression in the opening narration? Stewart’s had some luck playing Ebeneezer Scrooge in the past—both in a well-liked TV movie adaptation and a stage version that found him playing also playing all the other parts of the story—so he might have fit right in. But I greatly enjoyed Gambon’s performance as the awful old Sardick, a man too mean to let a beautiful woman he’s keeping as a security deposit out of a freezing chamber long enough for her to enjoy Christmas with her family. But look at his eyes, and you’ll see the vulnerability that will lead to his reform already in place. Like the best interpretations of Scrooge, he plays Sardick as a man driven not so much by money but by hurt. The miserly tendencies are just the symptom of a bigger problem.

So where does the hurt come from? The Doctor makes finding out his job. And if “A Christmas Carol”—the episode, not the Dickens story, though maybe that a bit too—occasionally slips in some too easy touch-feely inner-child business, the honesty of the performances and the brisk cleverness of Moffat’s script makes it easy not too mind. Plus: It has a shark that swims through fog and pulls a sleigh. Who’s going to raise too many objections?

In fact, this I don’t have any trouble calling this the best Doctor Who Christmas episode I’ve seen. (Note to new readers: This is where I confess to having seen every episode of the revived Doctor Who and virtually none of the classic series. Terribly sorry.) I enjoyed 2007’s “Voyage Of The Damned,” the last Christmas special not tied in some way to the endgame of Davies’ run, but found it a bit padded. This gets it all done in an hour—sans commercials—and like Scrooge at the end of Dickens' story, I have to admire its efficiency.

Not that there’s nothing else to admire. While the shape of the story becomes pretty obvious the moment it’s clear Moffat’s “A Christmas Carol” will pay homage to Dickens, the episode keeps providing neat variations on the source. For starters, there’s the Doctor using time travel to provide a vision of Christmas past to the old Sardick while befriending the young Sardick. It’s a clever twist and one with a curious outcome: Though the new childhood experiences end up changing who Sardick is, they don’t really change his fate. He finds adventure and, after a while, love as a child and young man but still ends up alone and miserable. It seems like the Doctor’s travels can bend time but not break it.


But he certainly can bend it pretty far. The Christmas Past section dominates the episode more than it usually does in “Carol” adaptations, but that allows time for the Doctor both to befriend the boy Sardick and play matchmaker to him as he gets a bit older. And if there are two things Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is good at, they're entertaining children and pairing lonely hearts. While Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins is more an ethereal presence with a lovely voice (and shiny, shiny hair) than an actress, both the actors playing the young Sardick are quite good. It’s Gambon, of course, who gets the big moments, however, and both the Christmas Present—a holographic appearance from the souls only he can save—and a twist on the Christmas Future act that only The Doctor could supply.

It’s all quite moving, and if the end’s a bit too much, hey, it’s Christmas. There’s room for a bit of sap. It’s also nice to have Matt Smith back as The Doctor. As much as I loved Tennant, Smith seems like the right actor for Moffat scripted lines both somber (“In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before”) and light (“It’s this or go to a room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes.”) On the page, they look like good writing. Delivered by Smith, they take on the feeling of true wit.


And though neither Amy nor Rory have that much to do, Karen Gillan and Rory Williams make the most of what they’re given. With Smith, they’re a terrific three-way comedy team, fueled by good-natured insults, a bit of mother-henning on Pond’s part, and the faint persistence of sexual attraction between Smith and Gillan. (Maybe Moffat tried to turn that off with the wedding, but it hasn’t quite gone away.) Great to have the show back at Christmas. Can’t wait for it to return for a longer stay in spring.

Stray observations:

  • What exactly did the Doctor do to make Marilyn Monroe think they were engaged?
  • And while we’re on the subject of The Doctor’s love life—and I don’t think I dwell on it more than Moffat does—the regret in that screwdriver line feels pretty genuine.
  • Would the body of a dying woman be that valuable a deposit for a loan?
  • Which line better sums up what this Doctor is all about: “Fish that can swim in fog. I love new planets” or “How did boredom even get invented?” Wait. Why choose?