Leave it to Steven Moffat to take the annual “Doctor Who” Christmas special tradition and finally get it right. Given how adept the man is at penning this series at this point, this should probably come as no surprise, and yet, for me at least, it did. I’d learned over the years to set my expectations very low for these holiday outings due to Russell T. Davies’ mind-numbingly action-oriented yearly offerings. I do love Davies, but his Christmas stories always ranked pretty low for me, or rather I cut him and his holiday specials an immense amount of slack, as in interviews he was always going on about how most of the audience is drunk anyway, and are basically looking for mindless fare on Christmas night. So that was his approach and it worked well as far as the U.K. viewing figures were concerned it seems.
To be fair, they got better as they went along, with only the bloated disaster yarn, “Voyage of the Damned,” bucking that trend, although last year’s episode was barely even a Christmas tale, being the first half of “The End of Time” and all. More than anything else, though, what was most disappointing about Davies’ Christmas outings is how none of them ever became holiday traditions for me as a “Doctor Who” fan, which is pretty amazing since there were four to choose from. Indeed, the best Christmas tale the series had unveiled prior to this past Saturday night was Season One’s “The Unquiet Dead,” penned by Mark Gatiss, which of course wasn’t even a holiday special. As you’ll no doubt remember, “The Unquiet Dead” detailed the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) meeting Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) right before Christmas in 1869 Cardiff, and here we are, well over five years later, returning to Dickens once again, and once again we discover that Dickens and “Doctor Who” make for a potent combination.
At its start, “A Christmas Carol” alarmingly resembles a Davies-era holiday adventure, with a giant spaceship plummeting through the atmosphere towards the ground below. Honestly, I was scared at this point – not over the potential fate of Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), but that I was being set up for “Voyage of the Damned II.” But the story quickly shifts gears into far more character driven territory, as we move onto the surface below and meet the cantankerous Kazran Sardick, played by the great Michael Gambon. Most people equate Gambon with Dumbledore these days, and with good reason, because it’s the role he’s been seen in more than any other. Myself? I first became acquainted with the man 20 years ago via Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” in which he played the thoroughly despicable Albert Spica alongside Helen Mirren. His performance in that film is so perfect, playing such an awful man, that to this day it’s the role I still associate him with the most, and it was cool to see him return to that shouting, obnoxious type of character. It’s interesting to note the decision to give neither Gambon nor the other high profile guest star, Katherine Jenkins, billing in the opening credits, while Gillan and Darvill – neither of whom have an enormous amount of screen time during the hour – are credited at the top.
By the time the Doctor (Matt Smith) made his entrance via a chimney, my interest was gaining, and the moment in which he realized exactly the route he needed to take to whip Sardick into shape and save the day (“A Christmas Carol!”), I was sold. And who better than the time travelling Doctor to take up the mantle of the Ghost of Christmas Past? So he plunders Sardick’s abusive childhood (in which Gambon plays Kazran’s father as well) and befriends the boy version (Laurence Belcher) of the man and together the two begin to explore the planet’s peculiar relationship to its fish. I’m not even going to get into the finer points of this, except to say that the whole fish thing (and then later, sharks) is a delightfully batty idea, which somehow brought an immense amount of magical holiday whimsy to the table.
Soon enough, the radiant opera singer Jenkins is released from her icy tomb, and Sardick’s life begins to be rewritten in a whole new way, as he and the Doctor spend one Christmas Eve after the next with the girl, never quite realizing what seems apparent to the viewer from early on – that the numeric countdown makes the case more of a casket than an icebox. By the time Sardick, and then later the Doctor, learn the truth, it’s too late – the Sardick in the future has been rewritten in an entirely different fashion. It seems that maybe the Doctor went too far with his plan. If only he’d just rewritten the childhood itself, perhaps the resolve wouldn’t have been so complicated, but therein lies much of the beauty of the story – just when you thought you’d figured it out, it took a left turn into even darker territory, and the situation became all the more complicated.
In the end, it took a sacrifice on Sardick’s behalf to fix the problem of the plummeting ship, and in turn a Christmas carol was needed to save the day, which gave the story its title. What I loved about “A Christmas Carol” was just how damn Christmassy it really was. Moffat had promised that it would be, and so did Matt Smith, but the proof needed to be on the screen, and it very much was. This is a “Doctor Who” Christmas special I can actually foresee myself pulling out every year and imbibing in. It was so good, and so full of holiday spirit, that the mind boggles as to what Moffat will whip up next Christmas. How can he possibly top this? But praise should not be heaped upon Moffat alone. Director Toby Haynes has quickly established himself as the ideal helmer for this series. With only three episodes under his belt (the others being the Season Five two-part finale), this guy has proven that he knows exactly the right tone to set for the material, his camera movement is positively cinematic, and the lighting of his episodes, which he must surely have some say in, is the bomb diggity. Over the past five years, few – if any – directors have made their mark on the series. Euros Lyn probably came the closest with several of his outings, but Haynes is the one to beat. It’s a shame he can’t direct every episode at this point.
BBC America also deserves some major kudos for not only seeing to it that here in the States we got the special mere hours after the Brits, but also for promoting the hell out of it, running a massive marathon that kicked off the midnight before the special, as well as making time for the “Doctor Who at the Proms” special on Christmas afternoon. BBC America is even currently running a competition exclusive to American viewers, in which you must build your own TARDIS. The winner will have a “Who” screening in their hometown that they can invite 50 people to, as well as a copy of every single “Doctor Who” story currently available on DVD. Find out more at WherestheTARDIS.com. These folks are treating “Doctor Who” with some major respect, and it appears to be paying off for them. One wonders how much bigger “Doctor Who” might currently be here in the States if Syfy had done the same throughout the Eccleston and Tennant years.
On a personal note, I’d also like to use this space to bitch about the fact that DIRECTV doesn’t offer BBC America in HD, as we recently bumped up the service to HD in our house, only to discover this sad fact. When I called to complain, the woman I talked to at DIRECTV asked me – and I’m not making this up – “What’s BBC?” Get with the times, folks at DIRECTV, and get me some BBC America in HD by this spring, or else…Oh yes, the sixth season of “Doctor Who” will be kicking off sometime this spring on BBC America, and there are rumblings at the moment which suggest that, like “A Christmas Carol,” we may just get the episodes on the same night they air in the U.K.