Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

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.

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Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

And so we come to yet another season finale of the greatest science fiction series ever created. This is the recap I’ve been both anticipating and dreading writing in equal parts since first seeing “The Big Bang” some weeks ago; anticipating because of how much I adored this finale, and dreading because there’s no way I can do it justice in a mere recap. It’s not even an issue of space or time (or is it?), it’s a matter of the story, as well as the 12 episodes prior to it, being too dense to dissect thoroughly. You’ll have to forgive that this doesn’t resemble a recap proper, and I instead ramble on about other issues.

I didn’t go into “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” expecting a whole lot, conditioned as I am on Russell T Davies’s extravagant-yet-ultimately-lightweight season finales. Don’t get me wrong, they were most always a great deal of fun, but they most always left me somewhat wanting – excepting Season Three’s Master trilogy, although I’m not sure that’s in line with popular opinion. Oh, and “The Parting of the Ways.” Wait a minute…I loved most of his finales! But I often felt as if they didn’t go as far as they could. Part of the way through the current season the Pandoricrack, as I’ve come to call it, started to annoy me, and I began not so much resenting the thread, but rather simply dismissing it – assuming that whatever it was about wouldn’t be terribly thrilling. It turned out to be not only thrilling, but strange and deep and stimulating. This was Steven Moffat’s trademark “Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey” taken up to 11. (Maybe next year will go to 12?) This two-part finale forces viewers to go back and reexamine most of the season, and that isn’t something that can really be said for the Davies finales, which isn’t to imply they’re inferior. More on that later…

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TV of the 2000s: The Top 10 “Doctor Who” Stories of the Decade

There has been no better decade to be a fan of “Doctor Who” than the ‘00s. The show, once considered a punchline for jokes made by Trekkies, has risen from the ashes of the ‘80s and been reborn as a serious sci-fi/fantasy force with which to be reckoned. It’s managed to generate two spinoffs in the form of “Torchwood” and “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” as well as open up the entire 26 previous seasons to a whole new generation of fans. Yeah, it’s a good time to be a “Doctor Who” fan, because more than ever, people are less than likely to look at you “that” way when you tell them it’s your favorite series. With that in mind, here’s an entirely subjective list of its crowning achievements since the new series started in 2005; it’s just a shame I’ve not yet seen David Tennant’s two-part finale, “The End of Time,” so it could warrant possible inclusion. In any case, here’s to, at the very least, another full decade of time and space travels inside the TARDIS.

10. “School Reunion” – There are other stories that from a plot standpoint are much better written than this one, and thus more deserving of being in this Top 10, but I’ve an enormous fondness for this outing simply because it not only brought Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith back into my life, but it did it in such a way that left me a sobbing mess. If, like me, you grew up watching Doctor #4 (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane battle the evil Morbius on Karn, defeat the diabolical Sutekh on Mars, and kill the giant Krynoid at the estate of Harrison Chase, then seeing her character – as well as her relationship with the Doctor – hit a poignant and dramatic high note of finality was most definitely a strong cup of tea. It’s a bit of a shame Sarah Jane has her own series now, because everything about her that’s come since has somewhat eroded what was beautiful about this story in the first place.

9. “The Waters of Mars” – It’s entirely possible I’m riding a “Who” high at the moment, and that in time “Mars” won’t seem quite as perfect as it does at present. Further, since it won’t play on BBC America until Dec. 19th, it would be wrong to discuss it in any great detail. Nevertheless, it’s got an intricate premise from Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford, deft direction from Graeme Harper, creepy monsters, outstanding set design, and one helluva complex performance from David Tennant, that’s clearly aimed at setting up “The End of Time.” The last 20 minutes are frenzied and game-changing; this is Davies pulling the rug out from under the Time Lord and redefining everything we thought we learned about him over the past four seasons. It’s fucking glorious, and even if the big finish doesn’t quite live up to the buildup, I’ll know they made a damn good go of it.

8. “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” – Here’s another story that might leave a reader or two scratching their heads, but it’s a tale that holds an immense amount of nostalgia for me. See, my kid was 13 at the time it premiered, as were his friends. For the second season of new “Who,” the fates conspired so that he and his buds gathered at the house nearly every weekend to watch the latest episode with me, and the otherworldly goings-on at Sanctuary Base in particular had all of us riveted. “Don’t Turn Around!” became the catchphrase for a good long while around my casa, and further, this was the story where Tennant “became” the Doctor for me. The scene where he was being lowered into the Satan Pit, talking of how the specifics of the creature didn’t fit his “rules” was the defining moment. If I’d had even a vague vibe that he might not be precisely the right actor for the role before this, any such thoughts were dashed immediately after viewing that scene. Beside, the Doctor meets Satan? Hot diggity damn! This two-parter also unleashed the Ood, who have clearly become one of the defining alien races of the new series; they returned for the aptly named “Planet of the Ood” in Season Four, and will be returning again for Tennant’s finale.

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