“Everything has to end some time. Otherwise, nothing would ever get started.”
Ah, Christmas. The time of year which, for the British at least, is sacrosanct. It has to be absolutely perfect – the tree, the presents, the family gathered together in some mythically perfect pseudo Charles Dickens fantasy of non existent Victoriana. To make Christmas perfect, the British will go through anything – witness the savage consumer competitiveness of Christmas shopping, the weeping and rending of garments as the snow disrupted everyone’s plans for this to be ‘the best Christmas ever’. I sometimes wonder if, put in the position of having to, the British would actually kill to make it the best Christmas ever, as if the holiday was capable of improving its Christmassiness indefinitely, its zenith ultimately unattainable yet tantalisingly in sight. All of which may make me seem a little, perhaps, like that ultimate Christmas monster, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Which brings me neatly to this year’s festive Doctor Who offering, the derivatively titled and plotted A Christmas Carol. Not that the qualifying adverb ‘derivatively’ means it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was as intricately plotted as you’d expect from a Steven Moffat script, making full use of the show’s intrinsic timey-wimeyness to put a fairly novel spin on the Charles Dickens classic.
This meant there were moments when the use of the time travel concept led to some trademark Moffat jaw dropping moments. I absolutely loved the moment when the Doctor popped out of Sardick’s office to suddenly appear in the home movie he shot decades ago. The story also brilliantly subverted your expectations, based on the Dickens original, of how the Ghost of Christmas Future would work. “Are you going to show me that I die alone and unloved?” the elderly Sardick sneers, which is exactly what Dickens’ ghost does to Scrooge. “Everybody does.” And then we see that, for the boy Sardick, the present we’re seeing is a future he’s seeing. Mind warping stuff, for a family Christmas show on at six in the evening.
It was a show full of brilliant concepts, realised with some stunning visuals from the Mill. A planet covered in ice clouds, through which swarm beautiful fish, its climate tamed by the weather machine that was controlled by Scrooge-lite Kazran Sardick. Which also led to the fan-baiting dialogue about the machine’s ‘isomorphic’ controls – a claim the Doctor made for the TARDIS console in 1976’s Pyramids of Mars. “There’s no such thing!” exclaimed the Doctor, fiddling with the machine to comical effect. This probably made the hackles rise for many an earnest, humourless fanboy – and I dread to think how much they frowned when Sardick hugging his younger self failed to yield the expected explosion from ‘shorting out the time differential’ (1983’s Mawdryn Undead, and 2005’s Father’s Day, for that matter).
All of which, besides being a laugh for fans who don’t take the show as seriously as all that, underlined the point that a Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really have the same agenda as a normal episode. It’s a bit of fun, a romp, with a yuletide flavour. Po-faced fanboys shouldn’t expect a serious exploration of the show’s labyrinthine, already inconsistent continuity. Particularly not from the man who coined the scientific phrase, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”
And a fun romp it indubitably was. We had some well-realised set pieces – who’d ever have thought you could have a terrifying shark attack in the safety of your own bedroom? Or a sleigh ride through the clouds with the aforementioned shark in place of the traditional reindeer? It’s a mark of the continuously improving CGI from the Mill that these looked as good as they did, though I think we’re still some way off from when CG on this budget looks indistinguishable from the real.
A fairly small cast also shone, giving Moffat’s sparkling dialogue the delivery it deserved. Matt Smith, in particular, is fast becoming one of my favourite Doctors ever, with his weird physicality and studied eccentricities. He got some terrific dialogue with which to emphasise this, unsurprising from the man who used to write Press Gang and Coupling. “That’s got me written all over it! Well, it will have me written all over it, with a crayon and enough time…” Or “You know what boys say to fear, don’t you? ‘Mummy’.” All of which delivered at breakneck speed, as though Smith’s Doctor is continually thinking of something new before he’s finished vocalising what he’s already thought.
He also got some memorable philosophical sound bites, in keeping with a character who, in 1969, told us “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority,” and countless others. Besides the line quoted at the beginning of this review, he memorably described Christmas, and Sardick, as “Halfway out of the dark…” and best of all, said “in 900 years of travelling through time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important!” Which immediately recalled, for me, Dr Stephen Daker’s plaintive enquiry to a ruthless corporate shark in 1988’s A Very Peculiar Practice – “Isn’t everybody important?” Dr Stephen Daker was, of course, portrayed by Peter Davison.
Michael Gambon was, unsurprisingly, brilliant as Sardick. In keeping with some fairly emotionally complex writing, he made someone who initially appeared to be a one-dimensional monster increasingly layered and full of the contradictions feelings give to people. The character was also well-served by a great performance from his twelve-year-old counterpart, whose name I didn’t catch but who gave a more charming performance than Laurence Belcher as the teenage Sardick. Not that Belcher was bad – and very nice to look at – but the boy got all the best lines and scenes.
Katharine Jenkins was also surprisingly good, considering that, as an opera singer, she’s not exactly experienced at acting. Her character, Abigail, didn’t get that much to do, but great use was made of her voice in a beautiful musical moment as she sang to the storm to calm the clouds. What a great concept! It’ll be another memorable track on Murray Gold’s next soundtrack CD – although the music may generally be better remembered than the dialogue, considering that the dialogue could often barely be heard over the score. Sweeping and cinematic is fine, but that sound mix still isn’t right, and I think it’s probably worse if you’re not watching on a 5.1 surround system.
With Amy and Rory largely sidelined, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill managed to still give us some memorable – though mostly comic – moments. The judicious reuse of two of their more incongruous costumes from the previous series was a hoot, and I couldn’t help but what wonder what kind of kinky role play would result from a scantily clad policewoman meeting a Roman centurion!
With carol singing, a planet that seemed to be modelled from idealised Victoriana, and the conceit of the Doctor not only coming down the chimney but appearing at every Christmas Eve from then on, it certainly matched Steve Moffat’s promise to be ‘”the most Christmassy episode ever”. And, as I alluded to in my introduction, this could well prove to be an insurmountable challenge. If each year’s festive offering has to be “more Christmassy” than the last, where can next year’s go? Where will it end? The logical extrapolation is an hour of television in which the TARDIS constantly circles a giant Christmas tree, chasing a reindeer driven sleigh and dodging friendly giant snowmen. Christmassy, to be sure, but less than thrilling.
I’m carping – a little – because, while the episode was a lot of fun, and had some dramatic and scientific concepts that boggled the mind, it left me, in the end, curiously unmoved. And that, I think, was because it was obviously trying so hard to be moving. There’s a lot of criticism one can level at Russell T Davies’ Christmas episodes – and God knows I have – but he did genuinely know how to make a moment tug at the heart. The emotional moments here seemed so dramatically contrived that I could actually see the strings trying to do that, and when I can see the emotional manipulation at work, it just doesn’t have any effect on me. I realise that, for a lot of others, it worked very well, but maybe I’m too much of a cynic. Maybe I need my own Ghost of Christmas Past to visit…
Still, another good effort from Mr Moffat, with Matt Smith as excellent as ever, and the glimpses of the series to come were tantalising. The ‘Next Year’ trailer did seem to focus very heavily on the Doctor’s much publicised trip to the USA, but it still looks plenty exciting. Sitting at the President’s desk in the Oval Office, meeting X Files style aliens, wearing a stetson – “stetsons are cool” – and growing a beard a la Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Though that last did make me wonder when the Doctor actually finds time to shave, given that he’s always immaculately clean shaven. I think I’d always assumed he just didn’t grow facial hair! There’s the po faced fanboy inside me coming out…
Before I end this – as usual – lengthy piece, mention should be made of this year’s other great science fantasy festive special. Hastily commissioned but steeped in the show’s usual impudent quality, the Christmas episode of Misfits was a thing of wonder. It’s at the other end of the family friendly scale from Doctor Who, but how can you not love a Christmas special which includes the lines “Fuck me, Santa!” and “I’m going to kill Jesus.”? The second series of Misfits has built beautifully on the first, enlarging a concept that seems initially VERY silly – young offenders gain superpowers after a mysterious storm – into a show that incorporates imagination, drama and humour. If you haven’t seen the Christmas episode, I’d urge you to seek it out on 4OD. Just beware – you shouldn’t watch it with granny and the kids like you can with Doctor Who!