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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Doctor Who: The End of Time Part Two

Last week, when writing about the first part of the Tennant/Davies swansong, I talked about not making any predictions, as well as the possibility of expectations not being met. On the predictions front, I’m glad I didn’t bother (although one of the few that I did make may actually be true – more on that in a bit), because there’s really no way I could have predicted the bizarre manner in which this tale concluded. The narrative meat of this episode – the stuff involving the Time Lords, Gallifrey and the Master – was quite frankly difficult to wade through on the first viewing; a second viewing alleviated some of that, and yet I’m still not convinced it all makes perfect sense. Perhaps I’m looking at it too deeply, and wanting more than there is?

I’d also be lying if I said I went into this episode without any expectations – I mean, how can you not? Many, if not most of them weren’t met, although there were plenty of other treats on display that made up for that. Indeed, this episode was hell bent on subverting expectations. “The End of Time” as a whole, which is how it should be judged, is a landmark slice of “Doctor Who,” even though the writing isn’t as tight as the intricate standard set by “The Waters of Mars.” Oh well – based on previous finales, I didn’t really expect it to be, and on that level it can’t be called a letdown. It’s so steeped in the mythology of Davies’ vision of “Who,” that it’s difficult to imagine it could possibly work as a piece of standalone drama for anyone unfamiliar with the past five years of the series. But that also can’t be a criticism, since what it really is is a jagged love letter to everyone who’s been paying attention during that time. Davies really backed himself into a corner with this one, because “Journey’s End” very much felt like the end of the era, only it wasn’t. So this proper ending, which feels more like a coda or an afterward, had to be a horse of a different color, and it most certainly was.

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Doctor Who: The End of Time Part One

Before moving on to the actual write-up, let’s take a moment to offer some high praise to BBC America for showing this episode a day after it first screened in the U.K. A day! For the first time on American TV, we aren’t seeing the premiere of a “Doctor Who” Christmas special when it’s warm outside, and the Christmas-themed portions of the story don’t seem hopelessly out of place. Back when I wrote up “Journey’s End,” I pleaded with Syfy to show the various David Tennant specials in a timely manner, so that audiences wouldn’t be forced to go elsewhere to get their “Who” fix or, even worse, get bored and forget about the show altogether. Good thing Syfy no longer has first-run rights here in the States, because I highly doubt they would’ve made the same programming move that BBC America made. Further, BBC America is committed (at least for the time being) to showing the episodes uncut, which is just as if not more important. Keep it up BBCA, and you’ll keep building a devoted audience. Heck, even a week or two after the U.K. premieres would be more than acceptable in my book.

It’s always difficult to write about the first half of a two-part finale, and never more so than in this case. This episode is all over the place in tone, and yet hangs together quite nicely, although it took me two viewings to realize the latter. Yet whatever one might think about “The End of Time Part One,” there’s no denying that the bigger picture has yet to be seen, and what Russell T. Davies unveiled in this hour is only a setup for the real finale. About the first 15 minutes of this thing just zoom by, setting up one aspect of the story after another. In fact, there are so many elements that are set up throughout the hour that one wonders how they can all be addressed in the finale proper.

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